By Molly Baker
Since Homer wrote The Odyssey, much has been written about war. Descriptions of battles, heroic deeds, and gritty frontline tragedies show war as an often bloody, violent human saga.
But inspiration for Alison Buckholtz, author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher, 2009), came from a giant hunk of cardboard.
“The idea of finding a proxy father in cardboard seemed like such an outrageous way to keep the parent-child bond alive,” says Buckholtz, a Navy spouse. “And yet I was so desperate for my kids to find comfort during their dad’s deployment that I decided to give it a try.”
And try she did. The life-size printed poster of her naval aviator husband, termed “Flat Daddy,” joined Buckholtz and her two children for a series of misadventures that eventually led her to pen an article about the rather creepy, deflated version of her husband Scott. The morning her article appeared in The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, an agent contacted Buckholtz and asked whether she’d ever thought about writing a book.
Buckholtz and other military spouse writers reveal a side of the military that’s completely foreign to most civilians. While modern and traditional war-related books such as American Sniper (William Morrow, 2012) by Chris Kyle and Generation Kill (Putnam Adult, 2004) by Evan Wright portray authentic accounts of the servicemember’s view, books by military spouses go beyond the camouflage to present a different perspective. Siobhan Fallon, author of the short story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2011), calls this emerging genre of military spouse authors “an incredibly valid point of view. We divulge what life is truly like for today’s military families,” she says.
Tanya Biank, author of the nonfiction Army Wives: The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage (St. Martin’s Press, 2006) and Undaunted: The Real Story of American Servicewomen in Today’s Military (NAL Hardcover, 2013), points to 10-plus years of war as a major catalyst for spouse authors. “It’s only natural for another point of view to arise,” she says. “You can tell the military story from many different perspectives.”
So far, books by military spouses have not earned widespread mainstream recognition. Researchers at Goodreads, an online book recommendation website, reported no significant trends, but the genre is gaining traction. In May, the Penguin Group released a paperback edition of Buckholtz’s book that included an updated afterword and additional resources for military families, a sign the publishing house has faith in sales of what Executive Editor Sara Carder calls “a classic resource for military families.” Buckholtz receives emails from military spouses thanking her for writing a book that helped them feel less alone.
Fallon’s book, which sold 25,000 combined print and e-books, won the 2012 PEN Center Literary Award in Fiction and was listed as a best book of 2011 by Janet Maslin of The New York Times. Fallon still draws robust crowds at book signings and events and says the first draft of her second book, a novel about a military family stationed at an embassy in Amman, Jordan, is complete.
Bonnie Amos, wife of Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos, recently released a recommended reading list that includes several books by military spouses. (To browse the list, go to www.marinesh op.net and select books and FLOTMC Recommended Reading List from the drop-down menu.)
The growing base of military spouse writers means these works have developed beyond stories that focus on family life in the military into narratives that use family life as a unique backdrop to engage a broader audience. “It’s not just difficult for the servicemembers,” says Carder. “Their partners in life make such huge sacrifices, and it’s a story that needs to be told.”
That story — the practical and emotional challenges faced by military families — is being told with more candor today. With the country at war for the longest sustained period in history, modern spouses have shown they’re willing to write critically about their experience with the military, bringing the good and bad to print. That unbiased perspective was not always so prevalent.
“To me that never see any thing of war, the preparations are very terable indeed, but I endever to keep my fears to myself as well as I can,” wrote Martha Washington in a 1755 letter to Elizabeth Ramsay. Washington very well might have been the first military spouse writer. She paved the way for other prominent officers’ wives, such as Elizabeth Bacon Custer, to write about the military-civilian divide. But in the days of George Washington, and later George Custer, personal reflection was clearly a taboo topic.
Today, spouses are writing freely in books and blogs about the war and what it’s done to their families. “They are walking the walk and feel free to say whatever they want,” says Buckholtz.
“I was sure I was going to die in the middle of the night,” recalls Buckholtz candidly. She exposed what she called her “eccentricities,” through poignant tales of keeping cereal on the bottom shelf of the pantry so her kids wouldn’t starve and teaching her toddler how to get his baby sister out of her crib.
Standing By also reveals the dual role many spouses play — that of mother and community pillar. Carder says the support structure military spouses design and sustain during their spouses’ long absences speaks to civilians, too.
Fallon chose fiction to illustrate life at Fort Hood, Texas, and drew heavily from her experience as a family readiness group leader during her husband’s deployment. Readers meet characters like Meg, a childless woman who lives next door to an enigmatic spouse named Natalya whose strange comings and goings spark gossip and debate. There are tales of infidelity, post-deployment drama, and death.
“I wanted people to see everything that happens when the servicemember deploys,” says Fallon. This is a sticking point for some readers, who feel Fallon aired dirty laundry and betrayed an unwritten Rosie the Riveter can-do code. When the war in Iraq began, spouses say, deployments were worn like badges of honor — the more deployments, the tougher the spouse. Now after a decade of sustained war, American military spouses are telling the rest of the story, so to speak, from an unbiased perspective. Today’s readers expect as much.
Many spouse authors have received acclaim for their writing irrespective of their military affiliation, and even casual efforts such as military spouse blogs help build community and document the spouse experience. Buckholtz hopes more spouses will come forward and write not only about what is difficult and frustrating about military life but also about the rewarding and honorable aspects to serving the country.
“Penelope, Homer’s wife, only gets one chapter, but she’s really 50 percent of the story,” says Fallon.