Before I get to promoting the Kindle book giveaway you see to the left (happening today because the war that inspired it began on today’s date in 2003), I’d like to respond to something I read in a recent review of that book.
Writers are rightly warned about responding to reviews. Whether someone liked or disliked what they read is something we should care about, but it’s nothing we should argue with, really. Beyond reading it, the review is none of our business.
This response to a review isn’t to the review itself, but to an observation included with the review that points to a preconceived idea of a certain kind of war fiction, which I was introduced to – and that has persisted ever since – with the 2007 release of Pretty Much True… in its early form, Homefront.
That preconceived idea/opinion is this: if the novel is about war from the home front perspective and written by a woman (as Pretty Much True… is), it will, or should, probably have something to do with stoicism and picking up and carrying on and finding strength and/or faith, and so forth.
The review I’m responding to (and it wasn’t a bad one), recently posted on Amazon, concludes with this:
“if you’re hoping for an uplifting tale then this is not for you.”
The reviewer is not the only one to have this expectation.
A few years ago, while having a phone conversation about Pretty Much True… with a film industry professional, I had to hold my breath so I wouldn’t make unpleasant noises when he said the war story from the at-home perspective would be great for the Hallmark channel.
His take on where this kind of war story belongs was more disturbing than the review comment, because this was a professional in “the industry.” If he thought a war novel should be lightened with literary kittens-and-rainbows, how many others thought it? And how could that expectation be trampled?
What he said on the phone inspired me to send him the following email (edited for length & clarity). I wasn’t thinking fast enough, was too dumbfounded, to say it on the phone. I’m sharing it here because I think it will explain why Pretty Much True..., though written by a woman and centered around a female protagonist, is not “uplifting,” as I think many books by women that aren’t mysteries are for some reason expected to be:
You asked if the public was “ready” for another dark at-home war story after “Brothers” – yet, you expressed not more than five minutes before that that you think the public is more than ready for another war movie (but, the soldier’s war).
“Brothers” didn’t deal with what it’s like to wait at home during a war – it was about what it’s like to deal with news of a soldier’s death, and then with someone who has PTSD. (Talk about piling on the drama, the implication being that the only hardship, the only story interesting enough to tell, involves death or PTSD – and that movie took care of both of them and tossed in a love triangle just in case death and PTSD weren’t enough.) Certainly “Brothers” is A war story, but not the ONLY at-home war story. Just as there are multiple troop stories and experiences and perspectives that communicate what war can be like for the warrior, there are multiple waiting stories that convey what some of the other war experiences are like. It is a unique brand of psychological hell to be anxious every single second of every single day for a year because you’re constantly wondering if that’s the moment the person you love was killed.
It’s difficult to explain in an email what it is to be the one left behind, how the view outside the window changes, how everyday life comes to feel like an absurdist play, how the world tipped on its side induces emotional vertigo. It’s a WAR story, and it’s one that is by no means a fluffy girly movie that belongs on a fluffy girly channel. It’s every bit as gritty and complex and dark as any war story. I’d love to find a way to ruin the unfounded perception that it is anything but that, or that it should be limited in exposure because people want “happy” stories about war. Particularly since it seems to fall to the military families to provide those happy war stories.
The series “Coming Home” is, I agree, a hopeful image that’s worth sharing, but there’s a lot more to the homecoming than “Oh boy!” If people are to have a complete picture of what that homecoming means, a better understanding of all of war’s players, they need a more immersive and honest story. Until that story is no longer marginalized , it will continue to be invisible along with the military families and what they continue to go through – beyond the happy homecomings or the flag-covered caskets – year after year in every single war our country engages in and has engaged in throughout history.
Every other topic is handled by Hollywood with artistic interest and respect – soldier-war, cancer, infertility, love, age, even the death of a pet. This story has for too long, and without good excuse, been largely ignored by serious filmmakers (among others).
In Pretty Much True…, people say things that, in real life, we try not to say out loud. They do things we know people do, but that we’d rather not think about. Happy truth is nice, but the more interesting, even the more useful, truth is the truth we’re usually trying our hardest to hide.
Truth doesn’t require the IED de-limbing of a human being. That kind of thing isn’t even the truth of bullets-and-grenades war stories; it’s just part of it. Truth is found in the reactions to love, change, fear, or a difficult person.
Pretty Much True… is a war story. It doesn’t have to be uplifting. It has to be honest.
I hope you’ll take advantage of today’s “free” day and pick up an e-copy of Pretty Much True… for zero dollars. The promotion marks the anniversary of George W. Bush’s March 19, 2003 invasion of Iraq, the war that serves as the backdrop in Pretty Much True… .
MARCH 19, 2003
Denise and I sit—breathing, waiting—on the phone while we watch the first bow of white light streak across our screens and land somewhere in the center of the city. Beautiful, if there’s no real thinking about it.
“That’s it,” she says. Something goes clink on her end, reminding me to refill my glass. “We just watched the beginning from our living rooms. Hey—what do you think they were doing in their living rooms?”
I stay up long after we get off the phone, until the bottle’s empty, and check the line every now and then for a dial tone.