The Lovely, Beautiful Unbroken

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11...
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This is the first in what will be an ongoing collection of book reviews on newish literary non-fiction books by nurses, books about nursing, or about health care or marginalized populations. I’ve been immersed in reading the classics, and have purposefully been avoiding reading any books remotely similar to the one I am writing. But now that I am nearing completion of my book, I don’t fear derivative contamination.

Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life by Mary Jane Nealon (Greywolf Press, 2011). A woman in my writing group recommended this book to me. Since our Shipping Group writer’s support group meets at Elliott Bay Book Company—a funky fun local independent bookstore—I promptly bought the book. When I looked at the cover—a photograph of a woman floating in water and the banner “Winner of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize”—I wanted to hate it. Out of pure jealousy. I was wait-listed for this year’s Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, which was being held the week I bought Nealon’s book. I didn’t get in, and Mary Jane not only got to go to the conference for free, she’d gotten her book published as well.

Being out of my teenage years, I swallowed my whining and jealous pride and read the book. Twice. I loved it. The book is a memoir, written in chronological order beginning from her childhood in Jersey City as a quirky Irish-Catholic girl who wanted to be either a saint or a nurse. From the book blurb on the back cover:

Beautiful Unbroken details Nealon’s life of caregiving, from her years as a flying nurse, untethered and free to follow friends and jobs from the Southwest to Savannah, to more somber years in New York City, treating men in a homeless shelter on the Bowery and working in the city’s first AIDs wards. In this compelling and revealing memoir, Nealon brings a poet’s sensitivity to bear on the hard truths of disease and recovery, life and death.

My paperback copy is dog-eared throughout. But the vast majority of turned down pages occur in Part Three of the book, when Nealon moves back to New Jersey to work in New York City with patients with cancer—then with AIDs. The first two parts of the book are somewhat necessary background, but I didn’t find them as interesting or compelling as the last part, when it also moves into her writing life. “I lived in medicine and poetry, and they were not enemies at all. They celebrated the synchronicity of discovery and hope, of desire and knowledge. I knew there were people all over the world who lived without poetry, but I didn’t know how.” (p. 143)

Nealon’s descriptions of the effects on her of the 9-11 NYC attacks, as well as of the life and death of her police officer father “Red,” are some of the most haunting in her book. Now there is another person to add to my list of favorite nurse writers, or writers who are nurses.

One thought on “The Lovely, Beautiful Unbroken

  1. Josephine, I appreciate the review, AND your sense of humor. I agree with your assessment of the beginning and felt more energy as a writer when I got to the AIDs sections. The pic of Sept 11 on your blog is downtown Jersey City so I had a start when I saw it. I’m reading at Elliot Bay (the ferry location) on October 12th, if you get there I would love to meet you. All best, Mary Jane


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