Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mission Accomplished: Stop the Clock

Stop the Clock
by Muriel P. Engelman
(iUniverse / 0-595-48110-8 / 978-0-595-48110-1 / August 2008 / 365 pages / $23.95)
Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM
Muriel P. Engelman is having a wonderful life, and she writes about it with vibrant clarity in her personal memoir Mission Accomplished: Stop the Clock.

Organized into three parts with photographs from Engelman’s personal collection, the majority of the book focuses on pre-war, depression-era memories and post war anecdotes about family life. However, the 45-page section about Engelman’s experiences as a World War II Army nurse serving in England, Belgium and France is the memoir’s highly noteworthy, though far too short, Pièce de résistance.

After Engelman finished nursing school in Boston followed by six months of Army training at Ft. Devens, MA, her general hospital unit was shipped overseas via a convoy of troop ships in December 1943. For security reasons, the nurses weren’t told they were headed for the European Theater until they were underway.

The unit first served at a thousand-bed hospital in North Wales. Then it was transferred to France several weeks after the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

“A former luxury liner, now converted to troop transport was our transportation across the English channel,” writes Engelman. “The staterooms allotted to the nurses were heavily infested with thousands of bloodsucking insects known as bedbugs, so we fled to the upper deck, where we spent the next three nights sleeping on the bare deck.”

Conditions ashore weren’t an improvement. The truck convoy carrying the nurses through bombed-out villages and rough back roads got lost. The drivers unceremoniously left the unit in a dark cow pasture for the night while they left to get better directions. The nurses were left to fend for themselves among the cows until the next morning.

Recently, authors such as Jeff Shaara have focused on World War II battles, strategies and politics, and filmmaker Ken Burns has taken viewers into the heat of conflict. Engelman, though, provides a perspective we see less often, by showing us the dedicated efforts of Army nurses working under near-impossible conditions, sometimes under fire.

While serving in Liège, Belgium in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, Engelman and her roommate opened their gifts early because they thought they might be dead or captured by the Germans before Christmas day.

In a letter home, she wrote that if there was no relief from daily buzz bomb attacks on their hospital a mere ten miles from the front lines, she wouldn’t have to worry about making any postwar plans.

“We’ve been lucky so far,” she told her mother, “having had some narrow squeaks, but it can’t last. It’s the most awful feeling in the world when you hear the motor of the bomb stop almost above you and then wait a few seconds for the explosion.”

Engelman’s mother saved these letters, and the inclusion of excerpts in the book enhances the time-machine-like quality of the wartime accounts. Engelman’s fluid prose, then and now, easily sweeps readers back to the scene 64 years ago for rare look at the war from an Army nurse’s perspective.

In part three of the memoir, Engelman writes of her adjustments to civilian life, her marriage, her husband’s career as a dentist, her children, her causes and her travels, and these accounts will probably bring many readers to say, “I wish Muriel and Mel had lived next door to me.” Her memories of the worst landlady on the planet (“who was not God’s gift to humanity”), of sympathetically dealing with Mel’s mother’s Alzheimer’s, and of life with a housekeeper who worked for the family for 28 years are especially fascinating and dear.

Nonetheless, as a reader interested in World War II history, I am disappointed in the decision—noted in the preface—to expand this volume into a lifelong memoir rather than focusing more time and space, if not the entire book, on Engelman’s nursing experiences in France and Belgium. An opportunity has been lost here to provide greater detail, including profiles of others in her unit, closer-in accounts of caring for the wounded and dying, and more of the flavor of the off-hours life of women working on the doorstep of war.

While I came to know and admire Muriel P. Engelman through her well-written prose, I feel that the book falls short of the expectations I had from the title and cover photograph. I wanted more of the best that the memoir has to offer, the part that begins with, “It was a cold, bleak late-December day when we boarded our ship, the USS E. B. Alexander, in Boston Harbor.”

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