Book Excerpt: 'American Nightingale'

Frances Slanger hesitated, as if surprised she was being spoken to. "Lots to say after that air raid this morning," she said. "Bit more exciting than Fort Bragg, huh?"

Sallylou noticed how Frances's Boston accent had turned fort into fawt. "Anything's more exciting than Bragg," said Sallylou. "Wisconsin is more exciting than Bragg."

Frances laughed a little uneasily. Sallylou seldom talked to Frances. She found the Boston nurse to be a quiet girl, a mysterious girl, though friendly enough when engaged in conversation —and the first Jew the Wisconsin nurse had ever met. Like most of the nurses in the Forty-fifth, Frances was from the Northeast, specifically from Boston's South End.

Sallylou Cummings was everything Frances Slanger was not. During training at Camp Ellis, Illinois, Cummings had been selected by an army photographer to pose for the Chicago Tribune. In a picture of her saluting the American flag, the count-me-in look on her face is so warm, earnest, and patriotic that it could have melted ice cream on Mom's apple pie. Meanwhile, Frances had, by accident, appeared in a Boston Traveler photograph that heralded the opening of a new cafeteria at Boston City Hospital. She is wearing thick glasses. Her self-conscious expression suggests a certain acceptance of her role in life as an "also-pictured" person.

And yet something about Frances Slanger intrigued people, among them Isadore "Tiny" Schwartz, a Jewish doctor who'd grown up in Quincy, Massachusetts, just south of Boston and was fast becoming Frances's closest friend. Even if some enlisted men considered Frances as cold as cod on ice and one captain called her "The Kike" behind her back, her uncommonness drew people to her.

Maybe it was the way she saw beyond herself, a woman whose good-naturedness inspired the inevitable clichés. "Pounding away at her typewriter with a heart of gold," Florence Sayer of Haverhill, Massachusetts, had written in Frances's "buddy book" after the two had shared a stint at Fort Devens near Boston. "She'd give you the shirt off her back."

Maybe it was the way she was so serious. She had a sense of humor, but she used humor like a lifeguard uses a life ring: with great effectiveness, but only in emergencies. Instead, she carried with her a certain world-on-her-shoulders heaviness, the kind of heaviness one might inherit from growing up in the squalid streets of World War I-torn Poland, which she did. And a heaviness one might absorb by clipping and pasting articles about how the Nazis despised the Jews, which she also did. Maybe, as Forty-fifth Field Hospital Dr. John Bonzer realized, it was the way she saw more deeply than the rest, and took time to chronicle what she saw in words. Sometimes those words were hers and sometimes they were the words of philosophers and writers whose quotes she carefully cut out of magazines and pasted into a scrapbook-sized "chapbook" back home in Boston, but they spoke of the need to live an intentional life in pursuit of noble things. "Life is not to live merely, but to live well," reasoned the Roman philosopher Seneca in a quote Frances had saved. "There are some 'who lived without any design at all, and only pass in the world like straws on a river: they do not go; they are carried.' "

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