Life Dust (She Writes Press, 312 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.49, Kindle) is a novel telling the story of a young couple separated for a year due to the war in Vietnam. Author Pam Webber is a nurse practitioner who is married to a Vietnam War veteran. This is her third novel.
It’s the spring of 1971 and the book’s protagonist, Nettie, a nursing intern, unfortunately stumbles across two high-level hospital employees engaged in sex. Though she stays silent about it, they decide to make her life hell.
Nettie is engaged to Andy, a freshly minted U.S. Army lieutenant on his way to Vietnam. Andy hopes he is prepared “to lead men I’ve never met, in a country I’ve never seen, in a war no one seems sure about.” He carries a small New Testament with Nettie’s picture tucked inside.
Andy begins to build a good reputation during his first days in-country when he’s told, “You notice a lot for a new lieutenant. You have good instincts.” Some of the guys he serves with have names like Doc and The Philosopher, and I’m not sure why the character whose real name is John Wayne would even need a nickname, but at least it’s Cowboy.
The book’s title derives from a reference to the unit’s translator, a French/Vietnamese man who Vietnamese people refer to as “life dust,” signifying someone left behind and frequently abandoned.
Back home Nettie worries about Andy. As an intern, she is a part-time student and part-time hospital employee. She bonds with a patient, an older man dealing with congestive heart failure. She also begins doing volunteer work for an organization working to bring attention to the plight of Vietnam War MIAs and POWs.
Andy’s men spend long stretches in the bush. Once after returning to their base after months deep in the jungle they are berated by an officer for their “filthy” appearance. Meanwhile Nettie is at home fighting false charges brought against her as she tries to keep her job at the hospital.
Toward the end of the story Webber unfortunately includes a passage that enforces the myth of returning troops being spat at by demonstrators—and on the East Coast at that.
Overall, though, Webber’s novel is a good one. She has a very smooth writing style and has put in a significant amount of Vietnam War research. Her knowledge of military equipment and information is truly impressive.
Though the story doesn’t break any new ground, many readers will find it to be a captivating one.
Pam Webber’s website is pamwebber.com/books/life-dust