Local Renaissance woman Kathryn Atwood has released another book, “Courageous Women of the Vietnam War,” the Forest Park resident’s fifth in a series that explores women’s contributions during wartime.
“When you look at history with an overview type of way, you’re generally going to really come away with the things that men did,” Atwood said, adding: “Women are the other half of humanity. So you get different perspectives, they see things differently, they do things differently and they have different roles. The thing I love about women’s history is that, especially during wartime, is that women are called to do things that no one thought them capable of doing before.”
Published in May by Chicago Review Press, “Courageous Women of the Vietnam War” tells the story of Kate Webb, one of a handful of women reporting on the war who was captured by North Vietnamese troops and assumed dead—until she emerged from the jungle 23 days later. It tells the story of Le Ly Hayslip, who enjoyed a happy childhood in a Vietnamese farming village before fleeing to the U.S., where she founded humanitarian organizations. The book tells the story on Lynda Van Devanter, a young nurse who struggles to stay positive while working in a combat zone hospital. “Courageous Women of the Vietnam War” tells the tales of 14 medics, journalists, survivors and more involved on both sides of the conflict. It is available in hardcover and eBook formats.
“Each one of these books, I had a different experience while writing them. It was enormously inspirational. I would write the stories and I would just feel like I was walking two feet above the air the rest of the day,” Atwood said.
Growing up in southwest suburban Western Springs, Atwood remembers watching “The Hiding Place,” a film about a Dutch war resister’s imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. She remembers watching “World at War” with her father, a 1970s British TV show that chronicled the events of WWII. She was always curious about the Vietnam War, but lessons on it weren’t taught during her school years, since its events were still unfolding.
After graduating from high school Atwood entered college at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she majored in English Literature and History. One day, while sitting in the now-shuttered Erik’s Deli in Oak Park, Atwood was comparing two poems for an English Lit class when she realized, “I just love writing.”
“But that was decades before I actually had the courage to even start to allow myself the time to write,” Atwood said.
She graduated from college, raised a family and started teaching piano at the Steckman Studio of Music, 829 S. Oak Park Ave. In her free time, she also wrote poetry and reviewed books, where she observed what writing styles worked and didn’t. Although her favorite books centered on historical events, she dreamed of writing a fantasy story for children.
“Go where your best prayers lead you,” Atwood said, praying for the courage to become a writer.
Then Lisa Reardon walked through Steckman Studio’s door, asking about teaching her daughter piano. The Oak Parker was an editor at the Chicago Review Press and, a few months later, Atwood had a contract for her first book in her hands: “Women Heroes of World War II.”
From then on, Atwood’s days were split in two. Half was devoted to researching the stories of women special operations executives, looking on Amazon to see who had written wartime memoirs and reading journalistic reports from that time. The other half, she continued to teach piano, starting her own studio in 2003 in her Forest Park home.
“It’s a very nicely balanced life, I’m thankful for it,” Atwood said.
After she turned in corrections for her first book, Reardon suggested a prequel, mentioning that the centennial of WWI was approaching. Atwood wrote “Women Heroes of World War I” and, after turning in corrections, started thinking about what war she wanted to cover next. While researching her first book she remembered the story of Pearl Witherington Cornioley, a woman who led a French resistance effort for the British. Atwood was marveled by the woman’s moxie. She reached out and another book, “Code Name Pauline,” was born in 2013.
“It’s her own story and I did some editing because I was like, ‘Well we’re not going to publish it as is, because it was just a Q-and-A format memoir,'” Atwood said. “But she said, ‘If you can make it a story, if you can write introductory material to each section and make that flow by itself, then we’ll publish it.'”
About three years later, Atwood’s next book was published, “Women Heroes of World War II—the Pacific Theater,” which tells the stories of 16 women active in the Japanese side of WWII, published just in time for the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Atwood knew she wanted to highlight Japanese abuses because, while Nazi cruelties are highly publicized and understood, Japan’s involvement in the war has been silenced by the country, she said. Atwood said she felt heaviness while researching and writing the book, like she was working against something.
“In Japan it’s all sort of covered up, they don’t even learn about the Japanese Holocaust, so there’s this sort of cosmic covering to the whole thing – it’s very strange. In their history museums they blame Americans for the war because of the oil embargo,” Atwood said. “They haven’t really come to terms with it, not as a nation. It’s not in their textbooks, so they’re not teaching their children about it.”
Publication of “Pacific Theater” paved the way for her most current book about the heroines of Vietnam.
Diane Carlson Evans, a woman who served as a nurse during the war and later founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, wrote the forward of the book. New York Times bestselling author Joseph Galloway reviewed it, writing: “Her book is well worth reading for a look at the untold stories of the war.”
In October, Atwood plans to showcase the book at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 Madison St., presenting the stories she found and then performing Vietnam War songs with her husband, as part of their “History Singers” band. The two research music published during certain periods of history, essentially looking for what people were singing, and then perform them live, because historically that’s how many people experienced music.
“In war there’s horrible things happening to people and there’s always heroes in the background trying to stop it. I wanted to bring out the heroines,” Atwood said.