“Writing My First Novel Was Like Stumbling in a Dark Room”: An Interview with Author Stephanie Carroll

I invited Stephanie Carroll, author of the historical novel A White Room, to stop by and share some of her story. She has a candid, lighthearted way of talking about her life as a Navy girlfriend-turned-spouse (“the first time he told me about deployments…I thought to myself, Well, I won’t be around long enough for one of those!”) and offers some great insights into the grueling, often-discouraging, but ultimately rewarding process of writing a first novel (reviewed here on the Mil Spouse Book Review). I’m glad she took the time to answer a few questions! – Andria

1. Hi, Stephanie! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself — how you came to be a Navy wife, what your experience has been like so far, where you’ve been stationed?

I was 16 when I met my husband. We both lived in Palmdale, California. He was 18 and had just gotten home after graduating from military school, so he was cutting loose. Not exactly relationship material at the time. Yet, I fell in love instantly, which made for a passionate and messy end to our initial relationship.

So, things were already intense when our paths crossed again three years later when he had become a sailor and I become a college student. We already knew each other and were mature enough for a real commitment. The first time he told me about deployments, though, I thought to myself, Well, I won’t be around long enough for one of those. Haha!

stephanie_carrollAuthor Stephanie Carroll. She tried to hold onto this fence, but the Navy life carried her off anyway.

I was still living in Palmdale and his duty station was in Lemoore, California, a small town only about two hours away, so we did the long-distance thing for about six months. We got married in a courthouse less than a year into the relationship. It was rushed in preparation for our first deployment.

I had a hard time as a 19-year-old Navy girlfriend and eventually Navy wife. I felt alone and like I didn’t have anyone to go to for help. There were resources available to me but for some reason I was afraid or ignorant of them, even after the deployment brief. For a long time, I felt like an outsider.

Further, I had moved to a new place, and we lived off of base. I didn’t make friends easily, so other than the occasional visit from Palmdale, I was literally alone for eight months. That first deployment was one of the hardest things I have ever done. That experience is why I started the blog Unhinged and Empowered. I wanted to use my abilities as a writer to reach out and help others who were going through something similar.

After being stationed in Lemoore for five years, we were finally up for new orders. I was so excited for the opportunity to live somewhere new and exciting. Sooooo . . . we got orders to Fallon, Nevada! It’s a town smaller than Lemoore. This poor town—the Navy folk hate it! There were so many rumors when I got there about how everyone leaves Fallon divorced and wives can’t find jobs, and even stuff about poisoned water. All bogus, BTW!

Stephanie, this made me laugh. We were once offered a tour in Fallon that came up on short notice, and we considered it, but the rumors scared us off. We heard that the water would LITERALLY KILL YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN/ PETS.  Now I feel bad!

Moving to Fallon was difficult for me, not just because it was a small town and kind of ominous with all the rumors, but everything in my world was changing. For the first time I was done with college, we were going on shore duty, we were going to be eight hours from friends and family, and I had my first real writing job as a freelance reporter for the local paper. I was terrified and overwhelmed.

Those emotions, though, lead to the inspiration for A White Room, and as a reporter, I ended up learning everything there is to know about the mysterious little town called Fallon. I can tell you, Fallon is what you make of it. They have so much stuff going on out there, but you have to look for it, otherwise you just end up wallowing on base.

So after three years, we were finally due for another duty station change and once again I was giddy for the prospect of getting to live somewhere new and exciting, soooo . . . we chose Lemoore again! Lol!!! We chose the duty station based on what would benefit my husband’s career. As a writer, I really couldn’t claim the need to be in any one specific place, and he has always supported me as an author and artist, so I supported him and our need to return to Lemoore, where we decided to purchase our first house. I knew I could make the most of it though, because I had learned, when you start to look around, you start to find out how awesome little places can be.

2. Have you always written?

I have always written, but I didn’t know what I could do with it for a long time. I started with short stories, journaling, poetry. I tried to write my first novel at 13-years-old but didn’t get very far. The first elective I chose in high school was a typing course and then I tried for the school paper.

I expressed a love for fiction early on, but my mother had some experience writing romance novels as a hobby, and she tried to warn me that the world of publishing isn’t easy or lucrative. She was trying to make sure I didn’t romanticize the idea of being a novelist, but I took this to the core and told myself, writing fiction could only be a hobby. So I put writing out of my mind and spent my youth searching for my career-worthy talents.

Of course that didn’t go anywhere. I ended up majoring in history, the main skills of which are researching and writing. I rediscovered my passion for writing (in general not fiction) and a new passion for research and history, but alas, there wasn’t much I could do with a history degree unless I wanted to become a professor, so upon graduation, I decided to check out the writing job market before going on to a master or doctorate degree.

I wrote for the newspaper at our duty station in Fallon, Nevada for about three years. That was fun, but what was really illuminating was when I decided to finally pursue that hobby I put aside as a child. I started my first novel for fun, but within a couple of weeks, I had the idea for A White Room, and I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. Screw my “money-making” career — like those really exist!

3. Has being a military spouse informed what you read and write?

No and yes. There are a lot of great books out there that are actually about military spouses, but I haven’t read many. I’ve mostly focused on historical fiction, because I write historical fiction, but I also read fiction that intrigues me, and that can change at any time. For a while there, I never thought I’d read Young Adult (YA), and then I checked out Twilight and The Host and it was all over.

My Navy wife experiences impact what I write but not in a direct way. The emotions I experienced as a Navy wife inspired A White Room and fuel much of my fiction, not to mention my blogging. Because of this, a lot of Navy wives and Navy girlfriends relate to Emeline Dorr, the main character in A White Room, even though she is not a Navy Wife.

I know that I certainly did! There were aspects of her character that felt very familiar to me. You captured that sense of waiting, and being tethered to a place that was utterly unwelcoming to her, very well.

4. What was the process of writing A White Room like — how long did it take, and were there any times you thought you might not finish?

There were plenty of times I feared I might not finish, but a ravenous drive demanded that I did. The process started with the idea I had for a woman trapped in a white room, kind of a metaphor for the way I felt when we moved to Fallon. I teased this initial idea out, and it turned into a story set at the turn of the century.

I sat down to write it, and realized I couldn’t write a word because I didn’t know how Victorians lived day-to-day. Sure I had studied them a little in college, but nothing along the lines of what they wore, ate, said, etc. So I went on a six-month researching spree. As I delved into more and more history, I discovered more and more of the story. I only had some ideas at first, but learning the history gave me options as to where I could take those ideas.

Finally, the writing began. I had written random scenes and chapters during my research stage, so I tried to piece them together. What I produced was a big mess! I started researching how to properly write and edit fiction. I took that research and used it to polish the work, slowly building the rest of the story.

I started all this effort in 2008 and felt I had a finished manuscript by 2010, but really I was nowhere near ready. I started querying agents and getting lots of rejections. All the books said when you get rejected to go back over the manuscript and try to improve it. That’s what I did for two more years. I also wrote a second book in 2010.

(Did she just casually say, “I also wrote a second book in 2010?” – Editor)

In 2011, I battled the closest thing to quitting and not finishing. I had been rejected so much, I figured I should consider the possibility that I wasn’t good enough. Coming out of that was like biking uphill one pedal at a time. Ultimately, it just came down to the fact that I love writing. It’s my life. Once I got myself back, I got my passion back too. I’ll admit, in 2010, the book really wasn’t ready, but by 2012, it was pretty darn good. That’s when I finally started getting excited responses from readers and even some professionals in the publishing industry. By 2013, A White Room was on the digital shelves.

white_room_2Beautiful!

Writing my first novel was kind of like finding my way in a dark room. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was learning by trial and error. Now, I know so much, so the process has changed a bit. It’s a lot easier, and there’s less stumbling!

5. What has it been like transitioning from the Navy back into civilian life [am I right that your husband got out a couple of years ago — and has he really started a winery?!].

When we got married, my husband already knew he wanted to go career. I accepted this as a well-worth-it sacrifice for the love of my life. Ten years later, my husband was on the fast track, having made Chief in eight years and being up for Officer—but he was miserable, absolutely miserable.

Every day he came home and said he had a terrible day. Every single day. When his reenlistment came up, I asked if he really wanted to keep doing this because he didn’t seem happy. He had committed to the military so whole-heartedly that the idea of getting out was unthinkable, not to mention he had reached the ten-year mark. No one gets out at ten years! They push through and get the retirement . . . but was it worth his happiness?

Just wrapping his brain around the possibility of getting out was one of the hardest things he has ever done, and it was really hard to watch him go through it too. I think the crucial deciding moment came when one day he posed the question, “What will I do if I get out?” I asked him what he wanted to do, and he couldn’t come up with anything, so I asked what he would do if he retired tomorrow, and he said he would open a winery. My response, “Why wait?”

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So he got out at eleven years. We couldn’t actually open a winery the next day, but we could figure out a path for that to actually happen sooner rather than later. So my husband is currently finishing his degree with the intention of adding a viticulture and enology certifications to the end. Lemoore happens to be next to Madera, which is actually a big wine area, and Lemoore is a big grape area, so until we have our very own, we get the pleasure of living next to two beautiful vineyards.

Meanwhile, my husband used the amazing skills and work ethic the Navy provided to land a managerial position at a tomato factory, which is giving him all kinds of knowledge about how to handle produce and turn it into a product. He comes home with a smile almost every day. Recently, he excitedly compared the experience of running the factory to being the Captain of the Enterprise. He’s happy. That’s for sure!

kissy_vignette_sepia_standingthe author and her now-happy Navy man

So far the transition has been kind of weird, but not that difficult for me because we have never lived on base. For him, though, it’s an ongoing process because the Navy engrains itself into the Sailor. It’s not just a job. There’s a mental mindset and psychology to it. You can’t just shrug that off. It takes time.

My blog has been the biggest thing I need to transition with. Even though it’s only been a year, I feel the separation from the Navy causing a distance from myself and the perspective I can provide. Because of this, I’ve been recruiting Navy Wives and Girlfriends to write on the blog with me, and so far I have several amazing women from the US, the UK, and Canada writing for U&E. It’s creating a really strong community and hopefully it means that even when I can no longer write for the blog, the help provided there will continue on.

Thank you so much for stopping by, Stephanie! I really enjoyed A White Room — it was tense, lushly historical, and dark, and unexpected. It’s great to hear more about how the novel came to be.

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About Stephanie Carroll

As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. She holds degrees in history and social science and graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.
Her dark and magical historical fiction novel A White Room is inspired by the classic authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights). She also writes science fiction and nonfiction, including the blog Unhinged & Empowered.
Stephanie lives in California, where her husband was originally stationed with the U.S. Navy. Sign up for her newsletter to be notified of new books and free goodies at www.stephaniecarroll.net. Or find her @CarrollBooks on your favorite social media site.
A White Room is her debut novel.

how the Johansons got their groove back

After struggling a bit last week, the Dancin’ Johansons were back at the top of their game this week — or, at least, functioning within normal range.

I felt a sudden abundance of patience and long-range-vision. The things I love about my kids seemed even more pronounced than usual — the way Nora can flop in the blue armchair and read for four hours straight while her brother’s football whizzes past her head; the way she spotted a bar called “Phileas Fogg’s” and cried out, “Mom! That’s named for Phileas Fogg from Jules Vernes’s Around the World in Eighty Days!” (which she read in about two days last year).

The way Soren focuses when he plays baseball — told by his coach to take right field, he grabs  his hat and glove from his gear bag and runs to his position, all the way mouthing “Right field, right field” silently to himself.

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The way Susanna insists upon pushing a stroller with a stuffed lion in it all the way to school and back to drop off the big kids, pausing to “feed” leaves to Lion and chat with him. “It’s a beautiful day, Lion. Do you see the dog? DON’T YOU TOUCH DAT DOG!,” etc.

This week was special because it was Nora’s 9th birthday. We celebrated at a local bounce house with some of her friends. When I asked her what kind of cake she wanted, she requested “alien cupcakes.” This was an unusual request; I was energized by the challenge. Nora cracked me up; in her typical funny way she said, “Mom, there are the most successful cupcakes I’ve ever seen.”

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My mom was in town, which went a long way towards improving our daily condition. She watched Susanna so I could get out and write in the morning; she did dishes like a maniac even though I kept telling her to stop.

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Dave was able to participate a little, from afar.

Happy Birthday Nora 003  Happy Birthday Nora 005  Happy Birthday Nora 006

I’ve always loved the way that man writes bubble letters. Pointy bubble letters — so unexpected, such an oxymoron!

He even sang “Happy Birthday” with us and patiently sat there all flatscreen while we ate cake:

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(He’s the glowing light behind the cake, there.)

Nora got to bring the class tortoise home on her birthday. He’s a Russian tortoise named Ivan — clever, eh? And he was quite the celebrity around here.

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So, life went on. And it felt pretty normal and good. Instead of wishing that Dave were here, I tried to think about how much fun all these little, daily things will be for him when he gets back. I’ll be totally jaded, but it’ll be like new again for him to see Soren play baseball, or hear Nora’s geeky little anecdotes from school, or listen to Zanny rattle off an earful of important-sounding nonsense.

It reminded me that, while it may not hold up in a strict cost-benefit analysis, the occasional deployment does serve to call into focus the things that matter. It helps you not take things for granted. Now, if this were a really high op-tempo and Dave were doing back-to-back deployments like some people were forced to do five or six years ago, I would never dare sing this tune (and I still feel like I might be struck by lightning for it).

I’m thinking in particular of his first deployment in 2006. It only worked for us because he had just that one deployment that year and returned unharmed. But it really did make me see him in a new light, and really appreciate him, when he came home.

One morning, not long after Dave had returned home from his six months at sea and was back at work, I went to a meetup of moms with babies roughly one year old. After doing the usual swapping of birth stories (a requisite, female version of the proverbial pissing match), the conversation turned to marital challenges during our babies’ first years. Many of the moms were describing what a difficult time they had with their husbands during that time: the squabbles, the resentment (he doesn’t do as much as I do, he doesn’t handle the baby the way I would, etc.). I listened and while I felt sympathy for the other moms, I had nothing to add to the conversation because, between schools and training and the deployment, I had seen so little of my husband all year (I think we had spent 10 days together between January and July, 2006 — I have it written in my journal).

In some situations that might strain a marriage, but in ours it didn’t. It felt like magic to have him around again. I could not believe my good fortune. Nora and I had gone from being alone together all the time, to suddenly having this handsome man around who would come home from work and help out with stuff. He would take the baby out for a little stroll around the apartment complex while I made dinner. And then, when she went to bed, he liked spending time with me! It was a freakin’ miracle! I felt like I had hit the jackpot. He’d arrived in Virginia ten days before we got there, and single-handedly moved all of our stuff out of storage and into the new apartment he’d found for us. I love this image of him, so determined after having to be away from us for so long, moving all these boxes like some superhero, teeth gritted: “I AM GOING…TO REUNITE…MY FAMILY! Raaaarr!” Is that not sexy as hell?

So, while I wouldn’t recommend deployment for the casual reader as any sort of marriage rejuvenator (way too risky!), I do want to focus on that feeling of gratitude that I get whenever my husband comes home. I want to milk that good drug for all it’s worth. Because all those signs and letters, all those words you write when someone is away,

we heart daddyfrom 2009

they are all true.

The History of the Struggles of Men: An Interview with USMC Major Jane Blair

Jane_blair_3I was thrilled and honored this past Saturday to have the opportunity to chat with US Marine Corps Major Jane Blair, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and author of the memoir Hesitation Kills. I’d read her memoir several months ago and found it fascinating. Blair served on the front lines during OIF — she was on board the first wave of ground forces moving from Kuwait into Iraq. Very few people are part of something like that, and the account is harrowing. Add to that the fact that Blair was one of only twelve females in her unit of about 170 people, and her story gets even more interesting.

Maj. Blair was generous with her time and chatted with me at length about her writing, her wartime service, her dedication to women in the military and her love for the people and culture of the Middle East. As a Major, she has every right to ignore the likes of me, an earnest Navy wife with a blog, and I would have thought nothing less of her — but instead she made time in her schedule for us to chat and was very kind and just tremendously cool. Please enjoy this recap of her memoir and pick up your own copy of Hesitation Kills – you won’t regret it!  — Andria

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In September of 2001, USMC Major Jane Blair was attending The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, the Marine Corps’ extensive, 26-week training program for newly minted officers. She and some fellow Lieutenants heard that an accident had taken place at the World Trade Center, and they wandered into a lounge to see what was going on. When the second plane hit, they thought they were watching a replay, until the same horror dawned upon them that was slowly dawning upon every American glued to a television set across the country: we were under attack. There was one significant difference — at that moment, Blair and her fellow Marines realized that their voluntary service was heading in a very specific direction. “We thought, ‘Oh my God, this is no longer peacetime,'” Blair recalled. Their war was unfolding right before their eyes.

The events of September 11th were very personal for Blair, who had grown up partly in New York City, and perhaps even more so for her husband Peter, a fellow Marine who lost no fewer than twelve friends and family in the Towers’ collapse. She and Peter would become part of the first class of Marine Lieutenants trained up in the shadow of 9/11. Married for only a month, they deployed within weeks of each other from Twentynine Palms, CA, to Kuwait, where they were part of the initial push of Coalition forces moving  into Iraq. Though they were only about ten miles apart much of that time, they were able to have only one furtive, romantic reunion — much of which they were forced to spend, absurdly, sitting in a tent wearing gas masks (“How very Dada,” remarked Peter, which says a lot about his endearingly scholarly personality) before they could escape to an empty Humvee.

Prior to that, Blair had slipped away to her husband’s camp hoping to see him, but his unit was out and she had only been able to leave him a note, an apple, and a bag of Tootsie rolls she’d saved for his Marines. “I missed him by minutes,” she writes. “With the shape of this battle, I didn’t know if I would ever see him again. As I got into the Humvee, I held my emotions in check so the Marines who were with us would not know my disappointment.”

——

 

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Blair’s story is a riveting, eventful one — remarkable not only for how surreal and unique a time in history she and her fellow Marines occupied, but also for the intelligence and insight with which she tells it. She’s not your average Marine, and not just because she’s a woman. Raised in NYC by artistic, free-thinking parents, she was always a daredevil, “a bit of a tomboy,” and a risk-taker. (“I was a little crazy,” she admitted to me by phone this past weekend, with a smile in her voice. “I still am. And it’s just gotten worse.”) At age ten, she sneaked out for a fifty-mile bike ride and returned without telling her parents. At eighteen, fresh out of high school, she traveled the Middle East solo for over a year (!), camping and staying with Bedouin families in Negev, Sinai, and Jordan. She was in Jerusalem during the first Palestinian Intifada.

“My parents raised my brothers and I the same way,” she said. “They were very much about letting us take every opportunity we could, taking our own path.” When, in Egypt in the late 90’s, Blair encountered a group of guys climbing the same mountain she was, and learned that they were US Army soldiers (on a weekend break during their deployment), she was floored. “I didn’t even know you could do that in the military,” she said. “I thought, ‘I could do this — travel, see the Middle East — and do something for America at the same time.'”

Her wanderlust, combined with the heartbreaking loss of her father not long after, spurred Blair to join the Marines. She describes this in her book with the quiet poignancy typical of her writing style:

My father’s death made me realize safety was just an illusion. No one was going to protect me any more.

…I recognized that I was weak and that my life to date had consisted of nothing more than an effort to make myself as comfortable and safe as possible. I wanted to become unsafe, and I wanted to be uncomfortable….. So I joined the Corps and burned away the layer of cotton gauze that I wrapped around myself as I walked through this life, that cushion of comfort and complacency that buffered me from the world. By doing so, I brought myself closer to reality, and I saw the things that were not beautiful about the world but that needed to change.

——

During her deployment Blair kept a journal, writing every morning when she could, and by the end of her time in Iraq realized she’d written over 300 pages. It took her nearly two months to transcribe those pages and cut out about 150, but even as she worked she wasn’t sure what she was going to do with all this writing. “I was a little shy about it,” she said (which seems, to me, incredible). “I’d written a couple of articles [previously], and a short story….I didn’t think I had done anything exceptional [in Iraq]. I thought, ‘I’m just a Marine.'”

This strain of humility is common among military members, and is, I think, admirable, but it turned out that Blair’s story is pretty exceptional. She was one of only two female officers in her unit and twelve females total. While women were not technically allowed in combat, her unit (which flew UAVs, light unmanned aircraft which fly ahead of the infantry to provide photographic intel) was at the front lines as Coalition forces made the initial push from Kuwait into Iraq in 2003, the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was a dangerous, very uncomfortable, day-to-day existence. Blair and her Marines survived on about one M.R.E. a day, a near-starvation diet. She had to go a month without showering and lost so much weight that her pack was nearly as heavy as she was. She and her Marines stayed awake for days on end awaiting up-to-the-minute information, knowing that the intel they were gathering had a direct relation to the safety of men on the ground.

 

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Some of her challenges were practical in nature, such as the eternal struggle to find a place to pee. (One one occasion, the only female in a Humvee full of men on the initial push into Iraq, she’s forced to cut the top off a water bottle with her knife, wrap herself in a tarp, and relieve herself while sitting adjacent to her fellow Marines.)

Others were more philosophical. Blair tackles the thoughts that came up in her journals, such as the cyclical nature of history and the knowledge that the U.S. could sometimes cause as many problems as it solves. She describes the Iraqis she meets, generous, hospitable people whose circumstances have been dictated by the vagaries of power grabs and politics. She tells about touring Saddam’s opulent palace on the grounds of the gardens of Babylon, receiving her first wedding gift from an Iraqi woman, and meeting children fascinated by the water pumps the Americans use to purify the Euphrates for drinking, when these kids have been swimming in and drinking that murky water all their lives.

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Now a Major in the Marine Reserves, working in Middle Eastern Affairs, Blair is passionate about the full inclusion of women in military life. “I’ve seen what women can do in the military,” she said to me during our phone conversation. “We’re so set on putting women in this box, and I think it’s a slightly embarrassing thing for America. We haven’t even had a female President, and so many other countries have: Germany, Indonesia, Liberia. Now I realize how necessary it is to speak up, to recognize other women. I think it’s necessary for women to vocalize their desires to do these jobs. Women are talking about it. I’ve been happy to see a lot of enlisted women, and officers, being vocal even if it is against women in combat. There has to be an equal debate.”

She’s also concerned with the toll our extended war on terror takes on active-duty families. “I know plenty of Marines with four, five deployments,” she said. “People will miss significant life events. It’s a lot to ask and ultimately makes them ineffective, ultimately takes too much of their lives away from them.” She recommends more forward-deployment options, such as one in Okinawa, where families are stationed within a reasonable distance from their service member rather than halfway around the world. “Being gone for a year is a lot worse than thinking, ‘My spouse is a five-hour flight away and I can go home every two months.'”

Though she has not settled in one place for more than three years since graduating high school, she has enjoyed her time as a marine, particularly her billet as an attaché. “It’s one of the coolest things the military does. As an attaché, you’re the main representative of the U.S. military in your host country. It’s a military-to-military kind of exchange. You help support local military efforts; for example, say, you might be in the Philippines getting Special Forces going, facilitating training. If there were a flood or typhoon, you’d be the chief point of contact with the U.S. military to help get reconstruction started. You’re kind of the on-the-ground point-person.”

By this point, Maj. Blair had kindly shared an hour of her Saturday afternoon with me. But before we hung up, I wanted to know if she had any more writing in the works, and I was delighted to learn that she’s in the process of writing a novel! “I’m about halfway done,” she said. “It’s also related to the military — it’s about a Marine — but it has a very different flavor. I think it’s harder writing a novel [than nonfiction]! You can’t touch the subject when you write nonfiction; with my memoir, I couldn’t say anything that wasn’t true. But with a novel, you’re throwing yourself out there creatively. There are lots of levels of criticism. It’s more personal.”

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In closing, I want to share one of my favorite aspects of Blair’s book: her knowledge of, and appreciation for, Middle Eastern culture. This makes the memoir not just a war narrative but a larger story about the struggles humanity has faced for thousands of years. Like many Marines, Blair puts the phenomenon of war into a lager cultural context — the Peloponnesians, the Spartans, the Mesopotamians — but her love affair with classical culture went back to her youth. As a child, Blair had always wanted to travel to the Middle East and, in particular, to Babylon, partly because she wanted to see its incredible blue Ishtar Gate

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and partly because of her fascination with its founding queen, Semiramis, a sort of “female Alexander the Great.” Semiramis was an orphan (according to legend, raised by birds in the desert) who went on to become ruler of the empire, which included much of Mesopotamia. When her first husband, Onnes,  was paralyzed by fear during a military campaign and unable to lead his army, Semiramis took control of it herself, leading a surprise attack and saving Babylon.

Visiting Babylon after Major Combat Operations were over, Blair marvels at the depth of its history.

As one of the earliest civilizations, Babylon was testament to both the progress and the history of mankind. Most people can trace their history back to this place where law, calendars, languages, science, literature, and civilization were born.

What was the purpose of any war, if the history of the struggles of man were forgotten?

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Buy Hesitation Kills here

Jane Blair’s web site

 

There’s Nothing There That Will Eat You Alive: Deployment Ups and Downs, and more music

IMG_7959Here Nora, let me fix you

The old positive attitude took a slight hit this past week, for no discernible reason. It just happens. I’d been cruising along with an almost demented good cheer and a tweaker’s excessive energy, getting the big kids off to school every morning with their little faces glistening with sunscreen, plugging away through the day with my little non-napping buddy, making dinner and doing dishes and cleaning the house after the kids went to bed. Then, after spying a couple of neighbor ladies out and about with their husbands over a weekend, and having a slightly unsatisfactory phone conversation with my husband from 6,000 miles away in which he detailed his Saturday of mostly sitting outside and reading Russian history while I sat in the middle of a cyclone of noise and squalor and sticky floors and ants marching across the sticky floors and spiders moving into the corners of the house to gorge on the ants and then the ants’ little bloodless corpses dropping in piles in the corners of the house and……. well, I lost my edge a little.

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IMG_8055Can you tell they’re related? Nose-picking: our family legacy

Anyway, I had a good solid day of feeling a little sorry for myself. It is a lot of work to take care of four people (I’m including myself in this count, though I can vouch that I’m a peach and need very little care). You simply cannot ever slack off. They are there at 6 every morning, delighted and ready to start their day, and expecting you to be delighted along with them (which, really, they deserve), and then the day is a long reel of requests and non sequiturs and heart-warming cuteness and repeated questions and things spilling and occasional arguments and then a small person who periodically just poops in her pants.

I’ve done every morning routine, answered every request, given every bath, disciplined every bad behavior, made every meal, cleaned up every meal, cleaned every room, and so forth for nine weeks now, and I still have a hell of a long way to go.

IMG_8083the little Queen Mother waves to her throngs of adoring fans on the walk to school

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So, while I would never want to change places with my husband and be the person who has to be away from these three darling people, I also had a moment (okay, a 24-hour-spell) of jealousy where I thought I might actually, literally punch a stranger in the face if, through some Faustian bargain, it meant I could have a Saturday to myself to just sit and read.


As long as I can keep myself from being like Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan, I’m doing alright   (oh my God, she’s awesome!)

But! Resentment is no fun for anyone, and I have no one to blame for anything, so after about a day I had a little talk with myself. I usually start such talks with, “Williams!” This one went something like, “Williams! Get your ass in gear. This is no time for moping around saying poor little me, and for what? Because you have a great family? Because your husband has a job he believes in? Because your kids go to a nice school and it’s so hard to get them there on time every morning? Perspective, Williams! Enough! ENOUGH!” Then I drove down to the YMCA, left sweet Zanny in the child watch center, and cranked out my fastest 5-mile run on the treadmill that I think I have ever done. My short arms and legs were just hard-chargin’ along.  I could feel the lady at the desk staring at me for running so fast, and I was worried that she was going to try to kick me out and that I was going to have to take her down using some kind of improvised jiu-jitsu move. Luckily, she did not mess with me and, feeling purified for having wrestled my demons, I collected Zanny and have had a pretty good attitude ever since.

One thing I do worry about is growing apart from my husband. Oh, when we were young! We wrote long letters, we talked all the time, we took long walks and discussed all these big thoughts and tried out ideas on each others and he read my writing when it was fresh and horrible off the page. Now, it’s so easy for me to feel like a grim-faced automaton. I just march through the day, checking every box and making sure the kids have everything they need. He’s quieter than I am, so if I don’t keep up the conversation, the whole thing could fall to hell in a handbasket. Music always helps me tap into my kinder, gentler side, and so here’s what I listened to this week:

“Sound of Sense” by Blood Pony. When we were stationed outside St. Louis near Scott Air Force base (TRANSCOM), I got really into local music via St. Louis’s amazing independent radio station, KDHX. I was housebound, thousands of miles from family, and with a toddler and a newborn to care for, while my husband worked shifts on the watch floor all through a gray Illinois winter. The local radio station brought me joy! I would listen to all their shows, like the folk music guy on Sundays, and “beep beep boop boop” on Thursday nights (the electronic music show), and Dangerous Curves with Sherry Danger (oh, this is bringing back memories!). Anyway, one local band I loved was Blood Pony. They have a haunting, quiet sound with lots of trademark violin and xylophone. “Sound of Sense” is a gorgeous song with a slow build. I am not even 100% sure of the words because I have never seen the lyrics written down, so I could be singing them all wrong like some comical game of telephone. Sadly, I couldn’t find a video of them performing this song, but you can hear it online.

why do you think that there is something untenable

on this mountain

there’s nothing there

that will eat you alive

duck your head under the covers and wait til morning, listen to the wind

and know you won’t get hurt

and this noise that’s in your head….  [then something that sounds like “are your children calling a taxi cab” – that can’t be right]

let’s be together, let’s be friends

let’s be together

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“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure. That intro! And the words – so romantic! Everyone knows this song, but have you listened to it lately while missing someone and/or feeling sorry for yourself because you are not sitting outside reading Russian history on a Saturday?

Spinning on that dizzy edge
Kissed her face and kissed her head
Dreamed of all the different ways I had to make her glow  
[what! tell me more — Editor]
“Why are you so far away?,” she said
“Why won’t you ever know that I’m in love with you?
That I’m in love with you?”

You, soft and only, you, lost and lonely
You, strange as angels
Dancing in the deepest oceans
Twisting in the water
You’re just like a dream
You’re just like a dream

Also, with each passing day I look more like Robert Smith when I first wake up in the morning. Gonna give Dave a wee shock when he gets home.

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Last of all, saving the day, my husband sent me two mix CDs. I had to smile at the first song, which I knew he chose consciously — “Stronger Than That” by the Canadian singer Bahamas.

Yeah, yeah. I’m back on the horse. I know we’re stronger than that.

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

by Jenny Fiore (Army, Special Forces)

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Everyone has a little ritual in the way they decide on a new book. Some people read the back cover. Some read the last page. I tend to read the first page, as well as the author bio on the book jacket. Gabrielle Zevin’s seventh novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, didn’t hook me on the first page. And while the list of writing accomplishments on her book-jacket bio is nothing to sneeze at, she posed for the picture like a little coquette. Had I not committed to review her book, she’d probably be back on the shelf. Shame on me: It turns out she can actually write.

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry feels like a bedtime story for grownups. (I’d love to have someone read it aloud to me by a nightlight.) I didn’t really know where it was going, and after a while, I didn’t mind. It had momentum, and I just wanted to watch the characters living their lives, like a voyeur peeking into the upstairs apartment of a little indie bookshop. Actually, the book is a lot like that.

A.J. Fikry is a young widowed owner of a declining independent bookstore on Alice Island, Massachusetts. He’s crotchety beyond his years and immediately unlikeable. The joy is in watching him undergo an almost Scrooge-like transformation. The change starts with a surprise package left in his store — I can’t divulge the contents, but they’re pretty stunning — and progresses almost entirely thanks to unexpected relationships. Essentially, we get to watch Fikry enjoy a second chance at life. Oh, yeah: There’s a twist at the end. Usually reaching a book’s big twist is like reaching the creamy center filling in a pastry, but this book didn’t need a creamy center filling. It was delightful without it. (Nonetheless, it’s a pretty great twist, and I know some readers aren’t satisfied without one.)

Years ago, I read the novel Quite a Year for Plums by Bailey White and kept waiting for the turn, the surprise, the crescendo, the — where the hell was this book going anyway? Instead, it was a collection of scenes, colorful people just going about their days. I simply walked for a while with these characters and wondered afterward if I maybe couldn’t have done something more productive with my free time, like paint my cat’s toenails. While Zevin’s novel gave me a similar sense of scenes-from-a-life, I didn’t feel any resignation in simply watching them. I was enjoying myself too much to worry about story arc, though it definitely surfaced.

Fikry is a connoisseur of books, which I believe is a reflection of the author herself. It’s clear Zevin loves and knows literature, and damn, can she tell a sweet story. Not saccharine but heartwarming and colorful and quirky in all the right ways. Little revelations. Great dialogue. Solid pacing. Plausible yet magical. I kept flipping to her bio picture to remind myself that she wasn’t some 50-something literature instructor with a twinkle of wisdom in her eyes. Nope, she was actually that girl who looked like she was posing inside a Forever 21 dressing room for a Tinder dating profile. Wow.

After this, I’m going to have to abandon my usual modus operandi for picking books. It almost caused me to miss out on a really lovely little tale. I will miss A.J. Fikry and the characters that surrounded him. I also intend to revisit — or read for the first time — pretty much every book Fikry reviews between the chapters. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is one of my favorite reads in recent memory. It rests now on a shelf I reserve only for books I enjoyed enough to share.

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Visit author Gabrielle Zevin’s web site here

Buy The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry  (abebooks.com or IndieBound)

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About the Reviewer:

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Formerly the publications director for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, Jenny Fiore now spends most of her time redirecting used underwear into hampers. A proud stay-at-home mom, she’s slowly returning to her former career in writing and editing. Jenny is a Pushcart Prize special mention honoree for literary nonfiction, and her more noteworthy writing appears in Brain, Child and BRAVA magazines. She loosely blogs at http://themomplex.net/

Jenny is also the author of the humorous essay collection After Birth: Unconventional Writings from the Mommylands (Possibilities Publishing, 2013). Her essay “A Year at the Lake,” about her Green Beret husband’s 15-month deployment when their daughter was a toddler, appears here.

“I felt like I knew him, like he could have been Stephen”: A Conversation with Army Wife Amy Bermudez About Roxana Robinson’s ‘Sparta’

My book-loving pal Amy Bermudez and I recently decided to take a new approach to book reviews. We both read Roxana Robinson’s Sparta and decided to have a little conversation about it, book-club-style (if you had a two-person book club where one person was in San Diego and the other was in El Paso). Heck, this is an age of technology, we’re both kicking it alone* while our husbands are on deployment, and, it seems from our respective blogs, we are both reading a lot and eating a lot of chips and salsa. It’s a match made in book-lover heaven. So I read the book first and passed it on to her.

*alright, I am technically not “alone.” I have three kids here with me. But I am not going to let them read Sparta.

On a more serious level, I knew the book was a heavy one going in; it deals with a young Marine, Conrad Farrell, who returns home from Iraq and suffers from intense PTSD. With Amy’s husband on a combat tour in Afghanistan, I didn’t want her reading the book by herself! (I also didn’t want to be that jerk who keeps sending the Army wives depressing books.)

Luckily, Amy seemed to get a lot out of Sparta, and it even spurred some conversations between she and her husband about whether war is actually more “real” than “real life” (as Conrad, at points in the novel, seems to believe).

head_shot1Andria (yours truly)

  moi Amy

So, yeah, not to brag, but I had an intellectual discussion with another mil spouse about a Serious Book and then I even got a husband-and-wife team discussing it on their own. BAM!

My former-English-teacher self has been pacified for the time being.

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Andria (Mil Spouse Book Review): So, Amy, part of the reason I wanted to chat with you about this book is that you are (in your own words) “passionate about reintegration” for soldiers and their families, and that, in essence, is what ‘Sparta’ is about, although as reintegrations go, Conrad’s is a sort of worst-case scenario.

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For folks who haven’t read ‘Sparta,’ here’s my stab at a plot summary:

Conrad is a scholarly, historically-minded college grad from a classy, professional family. When he joined the Marines fresh out of college it surprised everyone he knew, and now he is home after fulfilling his four-year commitment, having endured tours of duty in some of the toughest battles in Iraq (including what seems like having witnessed the aftermath of a Haditha Massacre-type event). He’s suffering from serious post-traumatic stress — inexplicable anger, racing heart, difficulty connecting with his family and his girlfriend, Claire — and finds it nearly impossible to open up to the people he cares about. The reader follows him on this tense, uncertain journey, rooting for him even as his future seems increasingly difficult.

roxanaRoxana Robinson (washingtonpost.com)

I guess I’d start by asking what you thought of the portrayal of Conrad. How did you feel about his character? Did you find his portrayal believable, and did aspects of his struggles upon returning home (not too many, I hope!) feel familiar to you?

Amy Bermudez: The character of Conrad felt very real to me. Not real in the sense that I saw my husband or any of his fellow-soldiers on the page, but real in the way that he was complicated. If there’s one word to sum up deployment and reintegration and all that comes with, that would be it. Conrad is annoyed that the world has rolled on as if there is no war, but he’s also glad that his loved ones haven’t been touched by war. He wants things to be unchanged in his relationship with his girlfriend, while at the same time he knows things can’t be the same. He seems to want to forget what happened in Iraq, and yet he doesn’t want to forget. He needs to talk about what happened in combat, but he can’t bring himself to do it.

My family’s experience has been very different from Conrad’s. Despite 20 months spent in Afghanistan spread across 2 deployments, my husband (thankfully!) hasn’t been involved in any experiences quite as traumatic as Conrad’s. The frustration that every single character dealt with, however, was very relatable. I felt a kinship to Claire, Conrad’s girlfriend. She tried every avenue to help him (giving him space, treading lightly, spending more time together, being more assertive), but she couldn’t reach him. On the few occasions where my husband has overreacted post-deployment (word to the wise: don’t plan a trip involving a 16-hour flight immediately after deployment!), I was at a loss for how to soothe things. I consider myself someone who spends a lot of time thinking about these issues and I have the support of the FRG and on-post programs; I should know better than anyone, right? And for family members whose day-to-day isn’t impacted by deployment, I’m sure it’s even more confusing.

I like the idea of Conrad’s complexity making him feel real to you — and “annoyed” is the right word. He is very annoyed by people who have not been to war — like when he sees the photo on the wall of Claire’s parents on some kind of vacation together before their marriage, smiling and long-haired.

And yet he has the strong impulse to protect these people from what they don’t know, too. It’s like he’s protecting them from reality — but at the same time I felt like the novel, through what felt like a quietly anti-war stance to me, was also asking if war indeed is “more real” than everyday life. Was Conrad protecting his family from “real life,” or just from this one, brutal aspect of real life that he volunteered to see (pre-9/11, of course, so maybe he didn’t understand exactly what he was getting into)? Were they not living “real” lives while he was at war?

A big source of pain for Conrad is that he feels misunderstood, though he probably wouldn’t put it that way because he’d feel whiny doing so. But not only can every major person from his former life NOT understand what he went through in Iraq, they can’t wrap their heads around why he even went there in the first place.

I’m over here nodding my head! I highlighted the part of the book where Conrad reflects back on telling Claire that he’s joining the Marines. She says to him him, “There are lots of other ways you could serve your country…This is like resigning from the world.”

His response: “‘The opposite,” Conrad said stiffly. “I’d be joining the world. The real world. The larger world.'”

Perhaps Conrad was idealistic and naïve, but aren’t we all when we start our careers? I wonder if the fact that he felt so sure, so optimistic in joining is part of what left him feeling so disillusioned after his combat experience. In that respect, the book feels a little bit like modern day Hemingway. I guess the themes of war literature span the generations.

It’s interesting that the book came across as anti-war to you. That wasn’t something I picked up on while I read, but I agree. I’m not sure that you can have a book about PTSD that isn’t anti-war. At no point did author Roxana Robinson discuss the reasons behind the war (justified or not). That made have made it come across more neutral. But I also wonder if the bigger reasons behind the war are a factor in the lives of everyday soldiers. I know that they are pretty much irrelevant in my family.

That’s fascinating: “But I also wonder if the bigger reasons behind the war are a factor in the lives of everyday soldiers. I know that they are pretty much irrelevant in my family.” I guess we feel the same way, but isn’t that kind of strange?!

So, hey, do you care to talk for a minute about why Stephen decided to go in enlisted even though he had a college degree? That’s really admirable but it involves more sacrifice, and therefore more commitment, on your part. I know that you two were high school sweethearts, like me and Dave. What was the general reaction among your friends and family when Stephen joined up? How did YOU feel? Were people pretty much on-board? Was it especially tricky for Stephen’s parents (stop me, and my apologies, if this is too personal) because of Ben’s illness? [Amy’s beloved brother-in-law, Ben, dealt with Cystic Fibrosis throughout his life and passed away in 2013 at age 25.]

I guess I’m wondering about this because we both came from college backgrounds, as did the fictional Conrad, and at least among mine and Dave’s family and friends, it WAS kind of incomprehensible to people why Dave would join the military post-9/11 (even in a career that was much less strenuous than Stephen’s). So I almost found myself defending Dave’s decision in my head when I read ‘Sparta.’

Andria, this is my some of my favorite stuff to talk about in regards to our military journey! Stephen and I met in high school in 2001.

 

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Dear God, you are young.

Even then, he was military-minded. At the time, his plan was to attend Texas Tech University, which we both did, and eventually go on to Veterinary school. After undergrad, however, we were both schooled-out and opted to join the workforce. I started teaching and he worked a variety of jobs. Eventually the mentions of the Army became more frequent. At 27-years-old and working a job that he wasn’t passionate about, Stephen decided it was now or never. Since it had always been part of the conversation, I wasn’t surprised; I was 100% on board. (A friend once described me as “flawlessly supportive,” which I took as possibly the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.) The portion of the book during which Conrad remembers joining is the point where I got in his corner. When he simply states, “I believe in national service. It’s a patriotic duty,” I felt like I knew him, like he could have been Stephen.

Stephen knew that if was going to join the military, he only wanted to go Army, he only wanted to go Infantry, and he only wanted to go enlisted. He was adamant. I think it’s because his desire to join has always stemmed from a sense of duty, and he felt that doing it this way let him go whole hog. There are some pretty unfortunate stereotypes about enlisted soldiers (that they are young, dumb, baby making machines, and can’t do anything else), but I think Stephen loves proving people wrong.

Okay, that made me laugh. But I do know the stereotype you’re referring to!

Initially, reactions from others were…mixed. There was definitely pressure from some family members for him to opt for the officer route or in some cases to not join at all. One family member took me aside after Stephen had already signed the paperwork to see if I could convince him to change his mind, not realizing that it was far too late for that discussion.

You might think that Stephen’s brother having a terminal illness (Cystic Fibrosis) would have been discussed during the to-join-or-no-to-join discussions, but it never came up. I probably worried about it more than anyone. I remember asking the recruiter how I would contact Stephen if something happened to his brother. It was always in the back of my mind that I might have to give Stephen this horrible news. I took my job of being Stephen’s stand-in during his absences very seriously. I visited Ben regularly in the hospital while Stephen was in Basic and later preparing to deploy. I drove to the hospital in the middle of the night when a set of lungs for transplant finally came through. I became very close to my mother-in-law during these months, which helped me tremendously when Stephen deployed. Ben passed away in 2013. We were living in Germany at the time. The Army flew us both back home to be with Ben in his final days and to attend the funeral.

We are now three and a half years into Stephen’s service, and everyone is fully on board. Skepticism has been replaced with pride. Everyone worries about Stephen, but they also love to brag on him. 🙂 Like the family members in the book, I think they are sometimes unsure of how to approach him. Stephen loves talking about all things military, so there’s no chance of him reacting like Conrad did.

I was really on the fence about Sparta when I first finished reading it. Roxana Robinson takes it to a really dark place, and I worried more than once about how it all would end. You did warn me that it would be a heavy read for me considering Stephen is currently wrapping up a combat deployment and the issues of reintegration are swirling around in my mind. Having given the book some space, I can say that I liked it. Robinson created a character that was complicated and a situation that was a difficult one. I respect the fact that she tackled that and did it so well. There weren’t any easy answers for Conrad just as there aren’t for real service members.

I feel like we can never say too much about war, the fraught side of homecomings, and sharing military members’ stories. As long as men and women are in harm’s way for our country, we should be talking about it, which sadly isn’t always the case.

Thank you, Amy!!

This was so much fun!

Whew. I’m glad!

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Andria Williams runs this here blog from a small table covered with pieces of scrap paper in her living room in San Diego. When she stands up, her feet land on kids’ toys.

Amy Bermudez is a writer, middle-school teacher, and Army wife currently living in Texas. 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 really adorable dog named Geronimo.

Documentary Review: ‘Lady Valor’

Kristin Beck2
Last night, during my exciting deployment-evening-routine of skimming the tube for offerings, I came across the last few seconds of a documentary called Lady Valor. I found myself so immediately invested that I was scrambling for the remote to see if it would be on again. It was, so I sat down and watched as it started over.

Lady Valor profiles a highly accomplished, very decorated (Purple Heart, Bronze Star) Navy SEAL named Christopher Beck who, after a twenty-year military career that was even more intense than most, transitioned into life as a woman: pulling friends and family aside one by one to tell them of his decision, changing his name to Kristin, starting life completely over.
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The story sounds sensational, but its portrait of Kristin Beck, by filmmakers Mark Herzog and Sandrine Orabona, is personal rather than political, quiet rather than flashy. It helps that Kristin Beck is hard not to like. She’s self-deprecating, good-humored, forgiving. She is, if you can imagine this, a woman in exactly the way a woman who had been a man who was a Navy SEAL would be. She’s a little embarrassed at her lack of skill in the feminine arts; forget false lashes and fancy manicures, she just wishes she knew how to put on mascara. She lives more simply than many women would enjoy: with her dog, Bo, in a small, slightly messy RV, with a handmade bookshelf she’s rigged at the back, one small box for her underwear. (Ladies, I repeat: one small box, not much bigger than a shoe box, for all her underwear!) When she’s not dressed up, she really looks somewhere between a man and a woman, maybe a little awkward for either.
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Kristin’s life wasn’t easy when she was Chris, and it isn’t easy now. While her father — who, during her childhood, was a fairly strict man, a football coach, a hunter — has accepted her decision in a quietly puzzled sort of way, and Kristin’s actually strengthened her relationship with her youngest sister, who before only knew Chris as a rough-and-tumble decade-older brother — she has lost contact with her mother, endured a divorce, and, most devastatingly, is estranged from her two sons, who are eleven and thirteen. My heart sank when I heard those ages: those are tough ages, needy and judgmental ages, and it seemed like probably the worst time for those two boys to endure their father’s gender change.

But Kristin explains that, as Chris, she was not a good father, never comfortable in her skin, never able to relax and enjoy her children. That’s partly why she was such a good SEAL: she volunteered for every deployment, choosing to, in the end, double the time she spent away from her sons. Perhaps the most moving part of the film for me was watching the old footage of Kristin when he was Chris, with his sons: on holidays, at birthday parties. I couldn’t help thinking about the woman who was taking the footage, his wife, and where all this left her. There’s one clip where someone else is videotaping the family while one of the young sons prepares to blow out candles on a birthday cake. Chris lights the candles; his wife, a sweet-looking, attractive blonde, flicks her gaze to him for a moment. There’s tension in her face. “When I was home,” Kristin recalls, “no one was having a good time. They were on edge all the time, tiptoeing around me…One year, I was gone 320 days out of 365.”

LADY VALOR: THE KRISTIN BECK STORY Like all good documentaries, this one is simply about people; more specifically, the people to whom Kristin Beck matters. It almost takes your breath away to see any one person refracted through the gaze of the circle closest to them, because it so rarely happens when someone is still alive. So when you see Kristin visiting her dad and siblings, –the way they talk about her, reminiscing fondly about the boy who tangled with his brothers and got straight A’s and excelled at sports, and then they reach around the table and take each other’s hands to say grace, and after the first “amen” they do this goofy, singsongy “A-mennnn” that you know they have probably done for decades — it just reminds you that everything that matters is in the details. The little world of a family is bigger than most any change that can be thrown at it. But family is also in the everyday, and it was the everyday moments with her sons that Kristin, as Chris, was unable to sit through — for any number of reasons, but most obviously because she never felt like herself. (“There was an edge to Chris,” one of her fellow SEALs recalls. Candid videos they shot in downtime often show Chris off by himself, scowling, as if suspicious of the joke.)

“There’s a lot of freedom I’m defending by doing this,” Kristin says, which is about as close as she gets to a mission statement.  “In many ways this is braver than many of the other things I’ve done.”  (She’s still a redneck,  a hunter; she still conducts weapons training for soldiers and law enforcement. She’s not even remotely effete, and has retained some of the roughness of warrior culture: the filmmaker points to one of her souvenirs from Saddam’s palace, wrapped in a red-and-white checkered Ghutrah.  “Where did you get that?” the filmmaker asks, meaning the cloth. “Oh,” Kristin says, a little mischievously, hastily rewrapping, “It’s just from an Iraqi who didn’t need it any more.”)

Kristin is still in the middle of her story, so there’s no easy, triumphant ending, and I’m not sure this little review or even the trailer can do the story much justice. I just know that while watching it, I felt fondly for Chris Beck, the quiet, well-liked, burdened, frighteningly fearless Navy SEAL — and then I felt fondly for Kristin Beck, too, the wandering, worn, thoughtful woman living in an RV and trying to start a plant nursery employed by fellow veterans. There was, is, a lot to admire in both of those people, who just happen to be (once I got my mind around it) the same person.

“There is just so much more to all of us than just one thing,” Kristin says at the close of the film. “All of those things I was — a man, a Navy SEAL — I was those things. They are all a part of me.”