Recent Reads: ‘Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist’ by Sunil Yapa

by Andria Williams

In recent months, I’ve read dozens of books, and now is the time of reckoning: time to put a few thoughts about each one on this blog, to share my enthusiasm or lack thereof.

Because it just came out in paperback this week, I’ll start with Sunil Yapa’s ‘Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.’ I read this book in hardcover back in February, when Yapa and I did a reading on the same day at Book Passages in Corte Madera, CA. My dad and I read the book at the same time and were both impressed by Yapa’s writing — his characterization, his momentum, his sense of urgency.

The novel follows an ensemble cast of characters through a single day in 1999, at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. This was an event I remembered from my own youth, but had not participated in, and Yapa’s treatment made me sit up straight and take the event seriously. At Book Passages, he spoke of listening to hours and hours of protestors’ testimonies and police tape. He described listening in a basement room as the police officer’s voices grew more and more frantic, their responses more emotional and dangerous. From this well of plot and emotion, his novel grew.yapa2

At the heart of the novel is young Victor, an earnest, hurting, mixed-race teenager who’s recently lost his mother. The event — and his police-chief father’s anguished, unfair response to it– has sent Victor on a three-year international tour, seeking some kind of justice and solace in the world. His intro in the novel is moving, memorable, full of the kind of momentum Yapa seems to channel effortlessly:

Victor–curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor with his hair natural in two thick braids, a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor — with his dark eyes and his thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, wearing a pair of classic Air Jordans, the leather so white it glowed– imagine him how you will because he hardly knew how to see himself.

Victor might be more desperate for belief than anybody in the novel, but he’s also painfully self-aware, and at each point where he tries desperately to connect, something in him also pulls away:

But it was embarrassing to chant. It was embarrassing to believe.

Meanwhile his father, Chief Bishop, has stayed put in Seattle, waiting for any word from his wayward son. He doesn’t know that this protest has the opportunity to bring them together, with results that could be fulfilling or may very well be disastrous.

The tragedy of Chief Bishop and Victor is that they love each other but have reached an impasse: they absolutely cannot understand one another. Chief Bishop simply cannot grasp why his son, a smart young man filled with life and potential, has cast his lot among the ne’er-do-wells of the world.

Son, in this life there are winners and losers. Your choice is which side will you be on? Don’t back the losers, son. They’ll never let you go.

Throughout every chapter in this book, no matter who’s narrating, is the simmering knowledge that Chief Bishop and Victor are headed towards one another.

But there are other players and other plot points as well. There’s a young revolutionary woman named King — in his talk at Book Passages, Yapa said she was probably his favorite– who’s committed to her ideals, somewhat in love with her team’s leader, John Henry, and guarding a dark secret of her own. In short: she must not get arrested on this day, and the reader will gradually learn why.

My favorite character, however, has got to be Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a Sri Lankan delegate whose sole motivating principle is the hope of meeting President Clinton at the WTO talks. Charles is a great counterbalance to the privileged, overly-earnest American protestors — he has spent a decade in jail; he is practical but not entirely jaded; he is a wise, sensitive eye on the proceedings, and he may have more at stake than anybody. I found his character utterly moving and fascinating.

Ten years he had been jailed, and despite his warm manner, a certain solitude still clung to him.

…He knew it was only human nature to believe it best to ignore suffering, to focus on your own good fortune. The human survival mechanism: say your prayers, thank your gods, and hold your breath when you pass the slums. The poison of privilege, wasn’t it?


author Sunil Yapa

What is change, exactly, and do we really want it? What does it mean to be privileged, and how  many shades of privilege and pain exist?

‘Your Heart’ stakes a clear claim to the actual privilege in the world–weekend protestors waving “gym-toned” arms, their Native American-inspired feather earrings swaying–  while simultaneously acknowledging that hurt is human, hurt is everywhere. The book makes humanity an equalizer without watering down its message, which is that, yes, Virginia, privilege exists, and let’s face facts: you are a beneficiary of it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as fundamentally earnest as ‘Your Heart is a Muscle.’ This is a book that believes in the Struggle, believes in equality, champions the underdog without reservation. Its liberal pedigree is out front, no shame. And that was oddly refreshing, for this former UC-Berkeley grad–what seems like a lifetime ago– the idea that what the kids believe in is actually right, that heart trumps experience; that experience, over an educated and compassionate lifetime, will simply validate the large-souled zealotry of youth.

Within this framework, characters move. Their paths intersect gradually, and satisfyingly, as the novel proceeds. Some of the characters will find what they are looking for, and others will have their dreams deferred. No matter your political leanings, their desires–met and unmet–will move you. The humanity that binds us runs, rich and pure as it has ever run, through this unique and remarkable book.

Yapa, Sunil. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. Lee Boudreaux Books, Little, Brown, and Company, 2016.


Here’s yours truly, meeting the gracious Sunil after his reading at Book Passages, Corte Madera, CA, Feb. 2016. (photo by my dad, Bob Williams)

Code Switching

by Lisa Stice

(poet, Marine Corps wife)

My husband’s difficulty in code switching between military-speak and you’re-talking-to your-spouse-speak simultaneously irritates and amuses me. I understand that some things, like how he measures time – 2200 instead of 10:00 pm – is so ingrained that I really should expect it to last the rest of his life. Plus, that’s no big deal to get used to, subtracting 12 is easy, and a lot of other countries use the same standard for referring to time of day.

When my husband says things like “roger” at the dinner table, then he sounds like a caricature from Gomer Pile or the character Mike Watt from the BBC series Spaced, and it makes me giggle. For those of you who haven’t seen Spaced, here’s a clip to give you an idea of what my husband sounds like when he comes home from work:

We meet Mike about three minutes in.

It cracks me up when I send a text or email saying, “On your way home, can you pick up_______,” and he replies, “wilco.” Still, those aren’t too crazy. I know what they mean, so I get that message that he understands and will comply. I’m sure there’s civilians who use the same terms or refer to dinner as chow or do some damage assessment after a storm, but few civilians would say, “I’m going to the head” or “Let’s deconflict this situation.” Is deconflict even a word? It’s not in my dictionary, and those stupid acronyms that my husband likes to throw around certainly aren’t either.

The acronyms are the worst. How am I supposed to know the foreign language of military acronyms? If we’re talking in person, I can stop my husband and say, “Talk like a normal person. BLT? What the heck is that? All I know it as is a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” Or in back and forth emailing about buying a big ticket item, he writes, “You’re the CINCHOUSE.” I can write back, “I’m what?” and get the answer, “You know, Commander in Charge of the House.”

And because these things are just a part of his normal vocabulary, it doesn’t cross his mind that he should probably share the ones that pertain to me, like PCS. Not too long after we were together, I stopped by our bank (it serves military) to give them the paperwork they needed for my change of name. The employee asked, “Are you going to be PCSing soon?” That was the first time I’d heard that one, and I was too embarrassed to ask the meaning because she gave the impression that I should know the meaning of that letter combination. I just said, “I don’t know.” She gave me a folder just in case I would be PCSing soon, and then as I thumbed through the papers and packing labels in the privacy of my car, I put two and two together that PCS had something to do with moving.

My favorite, though, is when he emailed me a cryptic message that just said, “FYSA” followed with an attachment. Of course, he sent it in a brief moment at his office computer before he left for some daily training or meeting or something, so I got no response to my “What?” I was like, “OK, I’ll just do an Internet search.” My search came up with lots of things related to youth soccer: Fairbanks Youth Soccer Association, Florida Youth Soccer Association, Fluvanna Youth Soccer Association. The search came up with other things, too, that didn’t seem to fit the context: Funny You Should Ask and First Year Spring Admission.

So then, I refined my search to “What does the military acronym FYSA mean?” For Your Situational Awareness. To your wife? How about a nice, casual, personal “So you can plan ahead…” or something more along those lines.

Some years have passed since that email, and For Your Situational Awareness now is the first result for a “What does FYSA mean?” search. Maybe it’s because were living in a texting/Twitter world where people clamor for acronyms to pack in as much info into as few characters as possible – and the military has a lot to offer – or maybe it’s because military related answers are the most popular from cryptic emails and texts regularly sending thousands of mil-spouses to the search engines.

stice_profile Lisa Stice is a Marine Corps wife. It’s difficult to say where “home” is, but she currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She is the author of a poetry collection, Uniform(Aldrich Press, 2016). You can find out more about her and her publications at and

My Life on the Homefront


by Amy Bermudez (Army)

I was laying on the couch in crusty pajamas with greasy hair while Netflix played nonstop. My guilty pleasure consumed me: Army Wives. Could I be more cliché?! My hand made an endless loop from a bag of tortilla chips to my mouth while I watched the drama of the fictional females unspool before me. Denise saves a man from a sucking chest wound with her shoelace and a chem light. Roxy owns her own business, has two young children, and never has a hair out of place. Pamela fearlessly navigates rude wives and solves mysteries. Colonel Burton’s husband is a full time psychiatrist and he is still able to meet up with the ladies for lunch. Claudia Joy unpacks her whole house in less than two days.

Weeks in to my new duty station, and I still hadn’t found a reason to unpack more than a few plates and my hair straightener. Everything has found a place now, but the boxes stayed around for far too long, the cardboard embodiment of my apathy. As fake and silly as it is, I am jealous of the TV version of Army Wives. The pilot episode is titled “A Tribe is born.” But where is my tribe? I had one once.

Julie is in Kansas now but not for long. Jennifer lives in Indianapolis, and I think she really loves it. Melissa is still in Texas, along with Santi, Roger, and G. Oh sure, we’re still friends, but we can’t go to Starbucks together or catch up during weekly runs like we used to.

Someone new works in my old classroom. It’s funny that I still think of it as mine. Belly laughs shared during lunch breaks fade into memory. Now I eat lunch alone in my new classroom, a white cinderblock monstrosity with green chalk boards and an air conditioning unit that doesn’t work.

PCSing has so much promise, so much possibility. I can imagine a new me in each new location. Fort Drum Amy is suddenly stylish in scarves and Wellies. Perhaps Fort Hood Amy visits home more often, being as it’s so close. Perhaps Fort Sill Amy wears plaid shirts and soft jeans with country radio turned up loud. Perhaps Fort Lewis Amy would finally become laid back and easy going. She’d take trips to the farmer’s market and buy fresh flowers. Perhaps Fort Bragg Amy would be boisterous with more friends than she can count. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Everyone told me about the grass, how green it is. Grass is one thing that Tennessee has in spades. Along with trees, humidity, summer storms, sweet ice tea, and sweeter southern accents. After three years living in the desert, who wouldn’t want a little grass? Answer: me.

I miss Fort Bliss. Give me back the dust and wind and the searing summer heat. Give me back Mountain Time and Mexican restaurants and people who call me “Mija.” Give me back my friends and coworkers and people who know me.

Nostalgia is a two-faced mistress. When I think back on memories, the picture-perfect moments float to the top and my mind banishes the hard times. Life at Bliss wasn’t perfect. I spent a year underemployed and over-frustrated. The puppy we fostered for a few months destroyed the guest bathroom in our rental house. Goodbye, deposit. The heat was oppressive April through August. Prickly stickers poked through the sidewalk and stabbed my running shoes and my dogs’ feet.

Why do I long so deeply for Fort Bliss Amy?

I see their faces, my tribe. They didn’t like me because I was someone else. They liked Real Life Amy with no mask. It wasn’t my cowboy boots or twangy accent. They liked the girl who didn’t have to try so desperately, the one who made dirty jokes and giggled uncontrollably after a Coca-Cola induced sugar high and figured it out as she went along.

I’ve heard my husband lament that deployments can feel like Groundhog Day. Maybe PCSing is like that, too. My life has been reset and I’m starting over, off in search of new friends and new beginnings. Same Old Me.

I don’t know how I’ll find my way, but I hope Fort Campbell Amy is brave enough to be herself.

Amy is a writer, middle-school teacher, and Army wife currently living in Tennessee. She loves running, reading, and ice cream (but maybe not in that order) and writes a popular blog, Army Amy.  Some of her published articles include “Our Military Family, Our Reality” on The Huffington Post and“Moving is Not Following” on Spouse Buzz. She has a two adorable dogs named Geronimo and Crockett.

A Temporary Home

This post is the second installation of the “Homefront Journal” series here on the Mil Spouse Book Review.

We often write about the deployments and homecomings, the flashy stuff, but what makes up the bulk of life as a military wife — particularly one who is also a writer? Guest author Lisa Stice — poet, teacher, Marine Corps wife (‘Uniform’) — shares her thoughts.

by Lisa Stice

Military life means frequent moves, which means a spouse needs to get creative about a career. I used to teach high school. For eight years, I taught at the same school and expected to teach at that school for many more years. But then I fell in love with a Marine.

That first move worked out all right. I knew well in advance where I was going and got my interviews in, my Nevada educator’s license easily transferred to a Virginia license, and the move was between school years. Easy. So easy it had me fooled that I could switch from state to state, school to school as the government moved my husband from coast to coast. California was not so easy. We knew we’d be leaving Virginia, but we got the where two weeks before the big move. Plus, it was after the start of a new school year. Plus, it would not be an easy switch to a California educator’s license. I was already a year into my MFA program, low-residency since I needed a program that would move with me, so I thought, “Maybe it’s meant to be. I can put all my time into my writing.”

Especially after my daughter was born, I became more accepting that teaching high school might be an impractical job for the wife of someone who spends not even a full three years at one duty station. And now we were moving again, and I wouldn’t have to even concern myself with searching for a job in a new place. I’m a writer now. I can work anywhere, right?

Well, it’s not that easy. Yes, I can write anywhere, but there’s more to being a writer than the solo act of putting pen to paper and sending manuscripts off to publishers. Writing also requires marketing, which includes (among other things) readings and author appearances. After trekking to colleges, libraries, bookstores, coffee shops, and the like through four counties, I have learned venues are looking for two types of readers: 1. well-known (with a first book freshly published, that is certainly not me) 2. local (with no roots in the community, that is not me either).

My writer network is in my computer network. I have lots of faraway friends who help promote me on their Facebook pages and websites. I search the web for people willing to interview and review unknown writers.


Most of all, I keep writing. Microsoft Word is a really good shoulder to lean on, and I write to her daily. I think that’s most important; I keep writing. Who cares that the little library down the street doesn’t want me to be the opening act for another writer in town. If I keep writing, maybe they’ll notice me. Maybe they won’t. I’m a poet. I obviously don’t write because I want to be a bestseller or a rock star guest writer.

Best of all is when someone unexpectedly reaches out to me. It’s so fulfilling to receive an email from an undergrad student in Boston who read one of my poems in an online journal and chose me for her reach-out-to-a-writer assignment for her class. I may not be known locally, but there’s a few people in Ireland and in India who follow my writing, and now I follow theirs. It’s the connecting that matters, not where the connections happen.


stice_profile Lisa Stice is a Marine Corps wife. It’s difficult to say where “home” is, but she currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She is the author of a poetry collection, Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016). You can find out more about her and her publications at and

Homefront Journal: Our Own Foreign Country

Many military spouses have shared thoughts on the deployment experience,  which is notable for its moments of extreme highs and lows, heartbreaking departures, fraught communications and, ideally, a loving reunion. But what about all the moments and years in between that make up the life of a military family? Here, in an occasional series (“Homefront Journal”) chronicling the many seasons of a tour of duty, poet Lisa Stice (Uniform,2016) shares her thoughts on arriving at a new station, and what that means as a mom, wife, and writer. – Editor

by Lisa Stice (poet, Marine Corps wife)

“And even though we are in our own country, we feel like we have come to live in a foreign place”

Since my husband and I have been together, we haven’t lived as much as three years at each duty station. The pick-up-and-move lifestyle is a difficult one. Right when friendships are deepening, right when we’ve nearly unpacked the last box, right after we’ve nailed a new picture to the wall, the PCS order comes. When kids and pets enter into the mix of it all, it especially gets tough.


Our last duty station was at Camp Pendleton, and we lived in south Carlsbad. Our little dog made the move there from Virginia when he was 12 weeks old, so he still considers himself more of a California dog. Lover of cool, rain-free days. Friend of every dog and person we met on our walks, and we went on so many walks. We’d take different routes, walk to different places because we had sidewalks everywhere.

Our daughter was born in California. Going out in the stroller all around the neighborhoods a few times a day was just part of life. She was patron of the Zoo and Safari Park, the trails of Balboa park, the beaches and lagoons. She took swimming lessons, even outdoors in February. She went on outings with her friend, Max. Grandma and Grandpa, just five hours away, spent many weekends with their only grandchild. She was spoiled with easy access to good weather, things to do and lots of people. We were all spoiled, which made the transition of this most recent PCS all the more difficult.


Beyond adjusting to high temperatures and humidity, we’ve gone through (are still going through) a lifestyle adjustment and culture shock. With every move, I expect to learn how to adapt to our new station. In northern Virginia, I learned driving at certain times of day to certain areas might mean something that should take 30 minutes on the road would take three times as much, and I learned how not to get lost while changing Metro trains, and that parking always costs a lot of money. In California, I learned how to manage a dog and an infant in a three-story townhouse and how to get the trash to the dumpster with a dog leash on one wrist and a stroller handle in the other hand. I knew this move to the deep South would bring challenges, but I didn’t anticipate how difficult those challenges would be.

First came the thunderstorms that sound like the earth is being ripped apart; my dog’s calming treats, snuggle vest and prescription antianxiety drugs will never fully stop stice3his pacing and panting during those days he’s convinced the world is coming to an end. Then, it was the mother’s broken heart when my daughter realized her days would be spent mostly at the house, and she’d pull her swimsuits from the drawer and cry, lamenting the loss of swimming lessons and splash parks. My daughter has adapted the most. The discount and grocery stores excite her, now that she’s forgotten the zoo and museums. We’ve come to accept the lack of sidewalks and the weather that keeps us indoors most of the time.


Still, there are some things a person just can’t get used to. Because my husband works in an area of base that was just ranges a few years ago, we live quite a way from the other Marines. We’re in an area newly inhabited by a small number of Marine Corps families, in a town with not even a small motel to welcome people passing through. It’s the knowing we are unwelcome that is most difficult. I will never adapt to people staring at me like I’m insane or people responding with “Why are you telling me that?” when I chat in line at the grocery store. My husband and I will always be taken aback when someone in our neighborhood tells us how much he/she hates the military “moving in and taking over.” Like we’re occupiers of a foreign country. And even though we are in our own country, we feel like we have come to live in a foreign place with the rebel flags, no friends, family thousands of miles away. I want to say, “I didn’t choose to come here,” but I don’t say anything.

I don’t say anything, but I do write.

    *     *     *

stice_uniform_coverAbout the author

Lisa Stice is a Marine Corps wife. It’s difficult to say where “home” is, but she currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She is the author of a poetry collection, Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016). You can find out more about her and her publications at and



Get There Soon: Settling Down After a Nomadic Life

Reviewed by Terri Barnes (Author, Air Force wife)

Before I heard about Sarah Smiley’s latest book, I used the words of her title in a conversation about my new hometown, where my husband and I moved when he retired from active duty last year.

“We’re not from here,” I said, “but we got here as soon as we could.”

The next day I was introduced to Sarah’s new book, Got Here As Soon As I Could: Discovering the Way Life Should Be. It was not the first time Sarah’s words about her military life encapsulated my own. In her columns and books, she’s been doing it for years.


Sarah’s family and mine are separated by a few hundred miles and more than a decade. She found her forever home in Maine. Mine is in South Carolina. Her children are growing, and mine are grown.

Yet, we have much in common. We’ve both moved around a bit. We’re homefront veterans of multiple deployments. We’re military brats turned military wives and writers of the military experience.

Part of this experience is finding a home, choosing a place after a lifetime of having our place in the world chosen for us. Sarah and her husband, Dustin, live in Bangor, Maine, and plan to remain there after Dustin’s upcoming retirement. Some of the columns in Sarah’s new book pay homage to their adopted home state and the reasons they adopted it, but the book is more about the qualities of home than the location.

Like Sarah’s previous three memoirs, this one is told in excerpts from her syndicated column, drawn from her own life and the lives of her husband and three sons. Her other books are mostly about marriage, deployment, and parenting, all with a military flavor. She makes readers cry by baring her soul and her own insecurities. She makes them laugh out loud without resorting to punchlines or hyperbole. Sarah’s seamless writing and compelling stories are all here, but her focus has shifted. Her family has reached a turning point common to all military families, the transition into civilian life, but her book isn’t a “how to.” No tips here on choosing a forever home and putting down roots in five easy steps.

It’s a “hope to” for a nomadic culture seeking a sense of place. Sarah’s story of falling in love with Maine gives military families assurance that home is out there, waiting to welcome us after a lifetime of wandering.

She expresses the dilemma of those who have lived everywhere, yet are from nowhere: “Ironically, the one place that has ever really felt like home for me is the one place I can never actually call ‘home.’ I’ll never be a Mainer, always ‘from away.’”

Here, in my new corner of the world, the term is, “from off.” No matter how long we live here or how much we love it, we’ll always be from somewhere else. In spite of this poignant truth, Sarah’s stories indicated that the Smiley family can be at home in Maine, even if they’re not Mainers.

While reading Got Here as Soon as I Could — and you should read it — you may feel the attraction of Maine, because honestly Sarah makes it sound like a little slice of heaven. But her words hold more important attractions: love and marriage, a boy and his dog, neighborhood and family, a man and his coffee cup. This book is a celebration of the qualities and affinities with which a family can transform a strange town into a home, no matter where it is.

Get there soon.

Buy Got Here as Soon as I Could


About the Author:

Navy wife Sarah Smiley is the author of a syndicated newspaper column and of four memoirs: GOT HERE AS SOON AS I COULDDINNER WITH THE SMILEYS, I’M JUST SAYING, and GOING OVERBOARD.


In 2014, Sarah was awarded the American Legion Auxiliary’s prestigious national Public Spirit Award.

Sarah has been featured in Parade Magazine (Mother’s Day cover feature), The New York Times Magazine (“Confessions of a Military Wife“), O Magazine, GoodHousekeeping, Military Spouse Magazine (cover feature) and Newsweek.


About the Reviewer:

Terri Barnes is the author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life and is the special projects editor at Elva Resa Publishing.


A well-respected columnist, Terri is the writer and creator of the weekly Stars and Stripes column Spouse Calls, which first appeared in 2007. Now published in print editions worldwide and online, Spouse Calls serves as a voice for military spouses and families, through personal stories, incisive interviews, news analysis, and interaction with readers. Terri has been a member of the Washington, DC, press corps and has contributed to several other books about military life. Her work has appeared in Air Force/Army/Navy TimesThe Huffington Post, and Books Make a Difference, as well as newspapers, magazines, and base publications in many of her adopted hometowns around the world.

Terri’s expertise in military life comes from long experience. Her father was a Vietnam veteran and career military man. She married her Air Force husband, Mark, in 1985. They have three (redheaded!!) children, Will, Jessie, and Wesley, born in military hospitals in Texas, Guam, and Arizona, respectively.

Terri  is a cum laude graduate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she studied journalism. She and her military family have lived in eleven states, two foreign countries, and one U.S. territory.

Living in the Great Moments: A Review of Victoria Kelly’s ‘Mrs. Houdini’

by Caroline LeBlanc (poet, Army veteran-and-wife)

Mrs. Houdini is an engaging addition to the tradition of books that seek to put flesh onto historical, but often obscure, women attached to famous men.  After a quick introduction to Bess Rahner, the German Catholic vaudeville singer, and Harry Houdini, the Hungarian Jewish vaudeville magician, the book tells quickly of their whirlwind engagement and marriage.  Thus begins the story of the Houdinis’  journey—told in chapters that hopscotch between the 1890s to 1944—from poverty and obscurity on the entertainment road in America and Europe, to celebrity, high living, and debt in their New York and Hollywood homes.  Additionally, in later life, the Houdinis were contemporaries and acquaintances of a number of celebrities who make appearances in the book, including Jack and Charmain London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lady Jean Doyle.

mrs. houdini

Even beyond their different religious backgrounds, the couple’s families could not have been more dissimilar.  Bess’s rigid Roman Catholic mother rejected them outright. Harry’s warm Jewish mother embraced Bess as a daughter. Harry’s family figures large in their story, mostly because of his extremely close relationship with his mother, the widow of a poor rabbi.  Both Harry’s and Bess’s sisters were important figures in their lives, and particularly in Bess’s life after Harry’s death.

From the beginning of their life together, Bess was subsumed into the passions of Harry’s life. Harry had driving ambitions, but he was shy off stage. Bess was his confidant, social ambassador, and ardent supporter.

In 1926 Houdini died at the age of 52, from a ruptured appendix after a vicious punch to the abdomen by a mysterious visitor. It is not clear if this visitor was a simple blowhard or an agent of spiritualist revenge. On his death bed, Harry tells Bess, “We have to look for each other, Bess. Don’t give up.”

victoria kelly2

author Victoria Kelly

After Harry’s death, Bess had several obsessions, including recovering from the debt he left behind, supporting other magicians, particularly in her New York City Tearoom, and above all, making contact with Harry after his death.  To this last end, she held many séances until 1936 when she staged the last public séance in order to put public interest to rest.

Bess smoothed her white skirt and looked at the men. “Harry was too grand a magician to come back only to shake little bells or write his name on a piece of slate,” she told a reporter named Charles Radley. “He lived in the great moments, and now he is gone.”

“Do you think, if he can see us, he is laughing at the attempt?”

Bess shrugged. “I suppose I’ll ask him when I see him.”

While Harry was obsessed with escaping both physical and spiritual bonds, he was also as an adamant opponent of the Spiritualist pre-occupations before and after the First World War. Still, the spiritualist interest in contact between the dead and the living is the cornerstone of the Houdinis’ story, as told in Mrs. Houdini.

Little is made of Bess’s Roman Catholic background, but it is an important undercurrent through the book, from the discussion of miracles in Chapter 1, to her concern that their childlessness was punishment for their stage séances early in their careers.  Despite this, Bess turned to séances to connect with Harry after his death. Finally she has enough of personal uncertainty and public curiosity, and takes the strongest stand on her own behalf in the entire book.

My whole life, I have believed. Believe in the sacraments, my mother said, and I did.  I believed. Believe we’ll be famous, Harry told me, and I did. Believe people will come see the shows. Believe Holly wood will embrace us. Believe I will come back.” Her whole body ached; she could feel herself growing older, the slight papering of her skin, the slow laboring of her heart. “But I’m tired of believing. I just want to know.

Because of his profession, Harry had many secrets, most of which were known to Bess, who saw what others did not. According to Kelley’s telling of the story, the last public séance was designed to divert public scrutiny from Bess’s most satisfying private discovery of Harry’s most closely held secret—a secret which more than assured Bess that Harry had contacted her.  But this secret constitutes the most interesting turn in the book, so I’ll let the reader discover it between the book’s covers.

About the Author

victoria kellyVictoria Kelly graduated from Harvard University, Trinity College Dublin and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review and Alaska Quarterly Review, among others.

She is married to a Navy fighter pilot and has written two books of poetry, When the Men Go Off to War and Prayers of an American Wife, which won the 2012 Coal Hill Chapbook Contest.

Learn more at


About the Reviewer

Caroline_LeBlanc_3A frequent contributor to the Military Spouse Book Review, Caroline LeBlanc is a former Army nurse turned Army wife-and-mother. She co-produced & wrote the script for Telling, Albuquerque (part of the national Telling Project), a 9/11/2104 testimonial theatrical event where military veterans and family members perform their own stories.

Since relocating to Albuquerque in 2013, she has hosted a writing salon for women military veterans and family members. In 2011 Spalding University awarded her an MFA in Creative Writing. Her poems have been published in her 2010 chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle, as well as online and in a number of print journals. Her art work has also been included in a number of Apronistas Women’s Art Group shows in the Albuquerque area.

For the Mil Spouse Book Review, LeBlanc has also written about the nonfiction compilation Baby, It’s You and two poetry collections, Local News from Someplace Else and The History of Bearing Children. She also took part in an interview here.