Female soldiers have been back in the news lately as the Pentagon reviews its decision regarding women in combat. As US Representative Tulsi Gabbard pointed out, many women are in combat type situations already. This novel examines what it is like for our brave lady warriors to face war– and what it is like for those they leave behind.
Jolene Zarkades loves flying helicopters and is proud to be a member of the National Guard. When she had been an eighteen-year-old orphan with nowhere to go and no one to lean on, the Army had provided her with a place to be and a job that mattered; training that gave her hope and a future and friends that have stuck with her through all the ups and downs of life.
Now Jolene finds herself facing her hardest battles of all and none of them are on a war front with her trusted troop members behind her. Her teenage daughter has almost overnight become a belligerent, antagonistic angry young woman who lives to pick fights with her mother, annoy her younger sister, and fit in with the mean girl clique at school. Her husband has opted out of family life, missing every major event from Jolene’s birthday party to his daughter’s track meet. When Jolene finally confronts him with his negligence he lashes out in the worst way possible.
It seems almost inevitable that Jolene should get the call that she is being deployed in the midst of her marriage falling apart. The following month is a blur as she races around getting ready for her own departure and the mess that she will leave at home. The situation is not helped by the hostility she receives from her husband and teen daughter, nor is it aided by the sorrow of her youngest daughter, preschool-aged and not at all able to understand why mommy is leaving. When Jolene goes, it is like trading one battlefield for another.
Michael Zarkades has felt lost and alone since his father died, and rather than blaming his dad he blames Jolene. If it hadn’t been for Jolene’s insistence that they live in the same town as his parents, he wouldn’t miss the old man every morning as he rode the ferry to work. If it hadn’t been for Jolene, maybe he would have spread his wings and left the family firm. Instead, he is sitting in his dad’s old office, working as a defense attorney, the same as his father had done. Jolene’s insistence on remaining in the military had always offended his liberal principles, and his opposition to the war in Iraq was a bitter reminder of the basic differences in their belief systems. Now he finds himself an instant single father because of Jolene’s stubborn refusal to leave the Guard. And yet perhaps that is precisely what he needed. For as he steps in to take his wife’s role in the family he realizes just how much he had placed upon her shoulders, how little he himself had contributed and how his obsession with the family he had lost has kept him from appreciating the family he has. But is it too late to fix what he broke?
It’s rare that I find myself caught up and thoroughly invested in the story of two people whom I find myself not liking very much, but that is exactly what happened here. At the beginning of the story we have Jolene, whose need to control everything has her leaving menus for her husband to follow and has kept her teen daughter from fully maturing into a responsible young lady. The prologue to the book gives us excellent insight into just why Jolene is like this but that doesn’t make it any easier to enjoy reading about. While it might induce some sympathy, it didn’t make me like her.
In many ways Michael was worse. He’s selfishly hung up on a parent’s death and refusing to be supportive of his wife and family. Yes, Jolene had reduced him to the role of spectator in many of the decisions of their life, but you get the feeling she had done so only because every time she tried to include him he ducked out of his responsibilities. His self-righteous belief that what he does is so important and outweighs the value of the work of everyone around him is grating. He is also a bit of an elitist snob, making it clear that if you don’t see things as he does, you just don’t see things.
So why did I get so invested in the story of two such flawed people to the point I could hardly put the book down? Because their story was so very human. It was a real look into a real marriage. It showed how being successful at one thing didn’t make you a success at another. I loved watching Michael finally grow up a bit and become the parent his kids needed. I loved how his world view was stretched to finally include everyone else on the planet. It was great seeing Jolene realize she needed other people and that they could be there for her if she let them. It was good to see the spoiled teen run into reality and come out better for it.
This is an utterly engrossing look at the effect of military deployments on families. It is an especially poignant look at the roles that women play, both in the military and on the home front. It is an adult look at a controversial topic – war – that says there are no right or wrong sides, there are just people trying to do their best wherever they are at. A bit of sugar coating and heavy handedness toward the end kept it from being a DIK but it sure doesn’t keep me from recommending it.