As a fiction writer and a member of an active-duty Navy family, I am always curious about how the public views us military folk. After a decade of living in a nation at war, how do people imagine what servicemembers and their families do, what they have done, these past ten years?
And when military women (spouses, veterans) choose to write fiction – which doesn’t happen all that often, but it does happen – I’m interested in what such writing looks like, and how an author might use their military experience to make their own brand of art.
It’s not necessarily political awareness I’m looking for so much as life reflected back at me, in all its possibilities. The crucible of wartime provides ample ground for exploring the human condition – what it means to be in love, to be lonely, to be hopeful, to have lost hope, to serve something greater than yourself, to serve a lost cause. You gotta serve somebody, as Bob Dylan sang. Who’s it gonna be?
Here, I’ve chosen five fiction writers whom I feel have done a particularly intelligent job of imagining the lives of women connected with the military. Two of them, Siobhan Fallon and Stephanie Vaughn, are a military spouse and former Army brat, respectively, who’ve used their own experiences as literary starting-points. The other three authors are civilians who’ve chosen to write military characters, an impulse that’s equally interesting to me.
(Giving credit where credit’s due, I’m indebted to Peter Molin’s terrific, comprehensive blog, Time Now, for calling my attention to the writing of Cara Hoffman and Katey Schultz.)
Without further ado, here’s my list:
1. Siobhan Fallon‘s You Know When the Men Are Gone
This 2011 collection of short stories ushered Fallon in as the reigning military-spouse writer of these recent wars. Fallon, an Army wife, wrote much of the book during her husband’s deployment, and it has a hungry, urgent, rareified feel – it’s art created under pressure, and, as with a diamond, the pressure only makes it stronger.
Most of the stories are concerned with military wives stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas – “a world where it is normal for a thousand men to pack their bags, meet on a parade field, and then disappear for an entire year” – waiting for their husbands to return from deployment. A few stories take the opposite tack and focus on these waited-for men themselves, the anxious, hopeful, exhausted beings who’ve either grown larger-than-life in their wives’ estimation, or who have been diminished by challenge, injury, distance, or an unforgivable act. It’s a tense, riveting dynamic, and lends each story a hard-earned tenderness that reverberates far beyond the page.
2. Stephanie Vaughn‘s Sweet Talk
Though this collection of short stories far predates the recent wars (“Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” for instance, first appeared in The New Yorker in 1978), I’ve never read stories that more beautifully capture the bittersweet, tough, transient experience of children growing up in military families. Many of the pieces are informed by Vaughn’s own childhood as an Army brat stationed in places as diverse and unforgiving as Fort Niagara, NY, and Fort Sill, OK. Her father was a brilliant, disciplined man with an imagination that might have been better suited to some other calling than the Army – he was fascinated by the Arctic and by polar exploration; he drilled his family nightly in strenuous games of “20 Questions.” He looms large throughout the book, particularly in the title story, in which the preteen narrator realizes that something irreversibly terrible has just happened to his Army career; she watches him finish his Scotch and start out across the ice chunks in the Niagara River in the dead of night, determined to cross, and she does not know if she will ever see him again.
But my heart might ache most every time I read “Dog Heaven,” which crystallizes different forms of loss – loss of a friend (“I have enjoyed knowing you this year. I hope you have a good life”), a place, a pet, innocence. In the story, the young narrator and her military classmates are called out one by one by an adored middle-school teacher, Miss Bintz, whose political beliefs (in this case, an opposition to nuclear power) take an unfortunately bullying turn.
“Let’s think about where all this devastation and wreckage actually comes from. You tell me,” she said to a large, crouching boy named Donald Anderson. He was hunched over his desk, and his arms lay before him like tree limbs.
“I don’t know,” Donald Anderson said.
“Of course you do,” Miss Bintz said. “Where did all of this come from?”
None of us had realized yet that Miss Bintz’s message was political. I looked beyond Donald Anderson at the drawn window shades. Behind them were plate-glass windows, a view of stiff red-oak leaves, the smell of wood smoke in the air. Across the road from the school was an orchard, beyond that a pasture, another orchard, and then the town of Lewiston, standing on the Niagara River seven miles upstream from the long row of red brick Colonial houses that were the officers’ quarters at Fort Niagara.
Throughout this winter of hard lessons and change, it’s the mythology of the family dog, Duke, that sustains the narrator, almost as a shield against everything she knows is true about the world but wants to hold off just a little longer.
He was the dog who caught the live fish with his mouth, the one who stole a pound of butter off the commissary loading dock and brought it to us in his soft bird dog’s mouth without a tooth mark on the package. He was the dog who broke out of Charlie Battery the morning of an ice storm, travelled fourteen miles across the needled grasses of frozen pastures, through the prickly frozen mud of orchards, across back-yard fences in small towns, and found the lost family.
3. Katey Schultz‘s Flashes of War
This collection of very brief stories (“flash fiction,” as they call it in the biz) is diverse and incantatory. A host of voices come forth, each telling a quick tale before ducking away again. “Today is my 112th day at Walter Reed,” one voice says. “How can I tell you this? My son Anoosah worked in a sweatshop weaving rugs,” says another. A third: “My platoon’s been at Camp Taji, Iraq, for seventeen months.” And one of my favorites:
I packed up all his things. They’re where they need to be. I don’t go smelling pillowcases or lying in bed for days, and I don’t expect pity. There’s a support group that meets at Blue Ridge Hospital, twenty mountain-miles into town. I go once a week even if I’m grumpy. The plastic chairs squeak, and the conference room is always cold, but going there feels more like a Carolina God-throb than anything I ever had in a building with a steeple. What I mean is, it feels all right, so I keep going back.
When short fiction is this good, the power of each story accumulates as you read. I was reminded of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – the sense you get that each small piece is utterly complete unto itself, imparting some wisdom – but I would venture to say that Flashes of War has much more heart. This one has won a couple of awards – IndieFab; Military Writers Society of America pick for 2013 – and for good reason. It’s not one to pass up.
4. Cara Hoffman‘s Be Safe I Love You
The recent wars have seen more women serving in the armed forces and in more varied capacities than ever before. Cara Hoffman’s second novel tells the story of Sgt. Lauren Clay, a sweet, responsible, and talented young woman who joined the Army to support her family, primarily her beloved younger brother, Danny. In Iraq, however, despite Lauren’s good intentions, she was part of a disastrous misunderstanding that turned to tragedy. Reeling from the shock, she returns home to the collection of people who love her, who have no idea that she isn’t even remotely the young woman they saw leave four years prior.
Hoffman seems horrified not only by war, which is certainly understandable, but also by what would drive or compel a smart person into military service in the first place – an eventually irritating preoccupation, I’ll confess, if you are part of an active-duty family yourself, and an underlying agenda to the novel which can sometimes feel heavy-handed. However, her language is poetic, particularly when describing the blue-collar town from which Lauren hails, and Hoffman pays admirable attention to the ways that women are serving and their often invisible struggles upon returning home.
5. Maile Meloy‘s Half in Love
Just as thoughts of her younger brother keep Lauren Clay afloat in Iraq, the young soldier called “Red” (in Maile Meloy’s short story of the same name) dwells fondly upon his kid sister back home on the eve of his deployment from WWII London to France. There’s the sense, in Hoffman and Meloy’s writing, that one goes to war to protect one’s younger siblings – if not physically, then to somehow preserve a kind of innocence that they possess. Or maybe, the bleakness of wartime turns one’s thoughts naturally to those they see as most pure.
On his last night of freedom, Red contemplates sleeping with an icily attractive British woman who neither encourages nor discourages his interest. But her manner unnerves him even as he enjoys her beauty. What would it take, he wonders, for his sweet sister back home to become this reserved? As the evening goes on, it becomes clear that this woman has lost everything to the Blitz, and the horror of what he could be facing in France begins to dawn on him. The story is quiet and understated, so much so that you will hear your own heart pound when the woman tells Red, “It’s going to be worse than you know.”
“Red” is only one story in Meloy’s fabulous, dark collection, Half in Love, most of which does not overtly concern itself with war. But matters of life and death, of leaving those you love for something unknown and terrifying, run subtly through all of Meloy’s writing, and she pays a novelist’s attention to her characters even within the tight confines of short fiction. An older man thinks about the possibility of his impending demise: “I would leave [my] widow that much sooner, and she would marry again and have two lives, with two husbands. She is young enough for that, the way she shines. And then sometimes I think I can outlive them all.”