Saturday Excerpt: The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman

What better way to relax this weekend than with some historical fiction? The latest from Sara Ackerman features unforgettable characters and a story that will absolutely suck you in. Keep reading to learn more about The Lieutenant’s Nurse.

The Lieutenant's Nurse by Sara Ackerman

November, 1941. She’s never even seen the ocean before, but Eva Cassidy has her reasons for making the crossing to Hawaii, and they run a lot deeper than escaping a harsh Michigan winter. Newly enlisted as an Army Corps nurse, Eva is stunned by the splendor she experiences aboard the steamship SS Lurline; even more so by Lt. Clark Spencer, a man she is drawn to but who clearly has secrets of his own. But Eva’s past—and the future she’s trying to create—means that she’s not free to follow her heart. Clark is a navy intelligence officer, and he warns her that the United States won’t be able to hold off joining the war for long, but nothing can prepare them for the surprise attack that will change the world they know.

In the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Eva and her fellow nurses band together for the immense duty of keeping the American wounded alive. And the danger that finds Eva threatens everything she holds dear. Amid the chaos and heartbreak, Eva will have to decide whom to trust and how far she will go to protect those she loves.

Set in the vibrant tropical surroundings of the Pacific, The Lieutenant’s Nurse is an evocative, emotional WWII story of love, friendship and the resilient spirit of the heroic nurses of Pearl Harbor.

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The sea was dark green and angry, not the lazy blue that her imagination had conjured up. Eva was well versed in lakes, but here in San Francisco, the air was thick with salt and the tang of dead fish. Toward the horizon, storm clouds blacked out the sky. She wrapped her scarf tighter around her neck as wind whipped her hair in every direction. Cold lodged into her bones, as she had little extra padding to keep her warm. Nevertheless, people crammed all along the edges of the ship, throwing serpentine and waving madly at the crowd along the pier.

After the ship had let out two long horn blasts, guests began to file off, stuffed full after the bon voyage festivities. She had meandered around before departure, watching pounds of cheese balls, pigs in a blanket and pâté disappear into people’s mouths, and startling at champagne corks being fired off. As she had stood off to the side gaping at the decadence, one of the stewards proudly told her that it was not unusual to go through five hundred bottles on sailing day.

“Good Lord!” she’d said.

Eva had had champagne all of once in her life—the day she’d graduated from nursing school.

She leaned against the cold steel railing, overcome with the realization that she was leaving the continent for a tiny speck of an island thousands of miles away. She searched the throngs of people for any familiar faces, and was thankful to see none. A tall figure pushing against the debarking guests on the gang-plank caught her eye. Dressed in a blue service uniform, the man stood out not only because of his height, but the look on his face. While everyone else was gay and merry, his jaw was clenched and his expression set in stone. What would he have to worry about? Eva tried to keep abreast of news and knew that tensions were rising around the world, but being stationed on a tiny island in the Pacific would certainly have its perks. Being in a whole separate hemisphere from the Germans and their U-boats, for one. But also isolated by thousands of miles of ocean and protected by much of the Pacific Fleet. Eva tried to look away, but her gaze was fixed on the powerful way he moved. Something about being in uniform, too, gave him an air of gravity. There weren’t too many soldiers in the backwoods of Michigan. The man ducked onto the ship and then he was gone.

Couples and families and an athletic team of boisterous young men grouped around her. Most everybody was attached to someone else, and she wished Ruby could be here with her. This was just the kind of thing her younger sister would have loved, obsessed as she was with fashion and the latest trends. Ruby never met a piece of material she didn’t want to nip and tuck and whip into some unique article of clothing. Her sister was the one meant to be in San Francisco or New York or traveling the globe. You left her, said a gnawing voice inside. But she’d had no choice. As soon as she settled in her room, she would write her a postcard.

In the colorful brochures, Eva had noted how well dressed the passengers were. But nothing could have prepared her for the real thing. These women seemed another breed altogether. Pencil-thin skirts and blazers, with rows of pearls around their necks and corsages made from gardenias and baby’s breath pinned to their lapels. Hair twisted and piled and coiffed into updos. Eva owned exactly two fancy dresses and she was saving those for dinners, and her hair, which she had gone through the effort to pin curl set, was quickly blowing out.

After another fifteen minutes, three long blasts of the horn sounded, the massive anchor pulled up and Matson’s grandest luxury liner, the Lurline, backed away. Four o’clock sharp. The amount of black smoke pouring from the two stacks on board was enough to require a gas mask. No one had mentioned that in the brochure. She moved upwind as best she could. People ran alongside the ship as though not quite ready to say good- bye. Even though she didn’t know anyone, Eva waved a dingy white handkerchief to the crowd below.

She had been imagining this moment for so long, and now that it was finally here, she felt a tightening in her chest. Hawaii was about as far away as you could get from Michigan, which was precisely why she had joined the Army Nurse Corps. But not long after she’d made her decision to go, Ruby had come down with fever, headache, back pain. And then the paralysis. The fear was something she had no defense against. Polio. A word that ruined lives. Ruby had been admitted to the hospital the next day, and Eva departed two weeks later, feeling like she’d been split in two. Ruby had stabilized, but whether she would walk again still remained to be seen.

It was easy to get caught up in the guilt, but Eva ordered herself to enjoy the journey as best she could. Focus on what lay ahead. Warm lagoons and coconut trees. A fresh start, where no one knew who she was. And of course, Billy would meet her at the dock. It had been so long since she’d seen him, half of her felt weak-kneed at the thought, and the other was
worried that he wasn’t the same Billy she had fallen for. His last few letters had been brief and businesslike, not his usual pressed f lowers and professions of love.

If anyone was concerned at all about the storm they would soon be sailing into, it didn’t show. This was not the California she had been promised—sunny skies and smooth water. Instead, fog obscured much of the Golden Gate Bridge as they passed underneath. They weren’t even in the open seas yet and the ship swayed from side to side.

Pretty soon, raindrops began to fall and people took cover on the long side deck. Eva found an empty chair and sat back, watching the city grow smaller and smaller and disappear in the clouds. Goodbye, America.

A steward came around offering warm tea, which she gladly accepted.

“Will the weather be worsening?” she asked, thinking about all the ship skeletons at the bottoms of the Great Lakes.

“Hard to tell, but not to worry. This ship could sail right through a hurricane with barely a wobble.”

“So we won’t have to worry about seasickness?” she asked. He laughed. “I wish I could say that was the case. You never know who will be immune and who won’t. But most people gain their sea legs in a day or two.”

She sipped her tea and watched a toddler in a ruff led dress zigzagging across the deck like a drunk sailor. The mother had a glass of champagne in one hand and a teddy bear in the other. On the chairs next to her, some of the college athletic team were huddled up under blankets. Tall, gangly boys on the cusp of manhood. From their chatter, she found out they were football players from Oregon and California off on a trip to play the University of Hawaii. Eva caught herself staring. She hadn’t been to a football game in ages. Not since summer- time, when life was still moving in a whole different direction.

With no chance for a sunset and night falling early, she made her way back to her stateroom on D deck—“Dog Deck,” as it was called—passing by many folks who looked green in the face. At several points along the way, she commanded her- self to breathe and keep an eye on the horizon. But that be- came difficult once inside the walls and heading downstairs. The stale air didn’t help. When she opened the door to her room, there was a woman curled on the second bed, groaning. “Heavens, are you all right?” Eva asked, rushing to her side. “Do you think they could turn around? I need to get off immediately.”

Eva fought back a laugh. “Not likely, but they say by morn- ing, the sickness usually wears off.” The trash can was pulled up next to the bed. She did her best not to look inside, as though seasickness might be contagious. “I’m Eva. What’s your name?”

A long pause. “Jo.” It came out like ruff, almost like a dog’s bark.

Jo was man-size, with wrists the size of tree branches and a dockworker’s shoulders. To lift her would be impossible, and Eva hoped for a fast recovery. Assessing people based on how hard they’d be to move was a built-in habit, formed after years helping her father set a broken leg or turn over an invalid with bedsores. Being small, she’d made up for it with ingenuity and leverage.

Eva set a glass of water on the bedside table. “I’m going to get set up here, but let me know if you need anything. I’m a nurse,” she said, as if that mattered right now.

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