Earlier this month my book club met to discuss the book Blue Stars by Emily Gray Tedrowe.
Let me first explain that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill book club. All of us are married (or almost) to military officers (simply because the group was organized through the school in which our spouses are currently enrolled). Many of us are American, though some of us who aren’t Indian or English or Australian or Norwegian or German or Canadian have lived in Japan or Germany or Oman or Korea or, well, England. And by some divine brilliance we all really enjoy each other and are willing to get a little whacky for the sake of this book club, in the short school-term blaze of glory that is its existence. I love my book club. More about it later.
We actually do talk about the books we read and were intrigued by an opportunity to discuss a novel about military families.
Tedrowe’s novel features two main characters, easily described as “flawed,” with non-traditional ties to the military. One, Ellen, is a widowed Midwestern, liberal, literary scholar and professor (and mother of two) who took guardianship of an “other side of the tracks” teenager not long before he graduated high school and joined the Marines. The other, Lacey, is a New York-tough and self-conscious-in-the-wrong-ways single mother who married an officer in the Reserves. Their paths cross at Walter Reed military medical center, where they develop an unlikely friendship.
As a group of military spouses we wanted to connect to the experiences of the characters. We sought familiarity in their experience with deployment, and didn’t really find it. The truth is, we mostly agreed that the glimpse of life with a wounded soldier was eye-opening. Never had we imagined ourselves in the position of either of these characters, sacrificing the lives we built professionally or as parents to care for a wounded soldier. We hadn’t considered the details of the process, or what it must be like to have our service member returned to us in a completely altered state from when he departed. We were certainly shocked to read the state of squalor in which some wounded soldiers and families lived while at Walter Reed. (Hence the scandal. Remember that?)
We wondered if the book would have had the same impact if the characters were “traditional” military spouses, who aren’t strangers to regular deployments or the inefficiencies of the system. (There was strong agreement that a particular scene involving Ellen in the lobby of Walter Reed was the best, most resonant part of the book. Often it takes an outsider looking in to call out some BS in a bureaucracy.) As active duty families, we’re probably better equipped to withstand the challenges of deployment. The support systems are a bit more integral to our lives, versus the lives of Reservists, who live their day-to-day in the civilian world then give it all up to deploy. Again Tedrowe enlightens us to another perspective we rarely consider.
While some of us were bothered by inconsistencies throughout the book, others were stumped by some of the military lingo. We questioned if it’s simply a difference between branches or if it’s Tedrowe’s short removal from the inner circle of life in the military (as a sibling rather than a spouse of a Marine) that makes the narrative seem a bit…researched. Perhaps this distance is why she chose these characters for the story; our world is complicated enough to navigate from the inside. At best this novel bridges the gap between the 99% of the US population whose lives aren’t directly touched by the military. It’s a peek at what it might be like to be unsuspectingly thrust into its tangled bureaucracy, what it might be like for families who are caring for disabled veterans. Overall consensus was that were glad to have been given the opportunity to consider a world we don’t know. Which, isn’t that the point of reading fiction in the first place?
On behalf of my book club, I’d like to thank St. Martin’s Press for providing us with advance reader copies of the book for this review. Blue Stars is now available on Amazon in hardback, Kindle and audible editions.
For additional reading to understand life in the military, consider Closing the Gap by Yvonne Jones. I also recommend For Love of Country by Howard Schultz for inspiring, real-life stories of veterans and military families who have used their experience to make a difference in the world.