Then You Stay: A Review of Artis Henderson’s “Unremarried Widow”

reviewed by Simone Gorrindo (Army)

When Andria first asked me to review Artis Henderson’s debut memoir, Unremarried Widow, I was hesitant.

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I’d been wanting to read the book for some time, but the cliché is true: that knock on my front door really is my worst nightmare. There’s a dark corner of my mind where that nightmare lives, a place I try my best to avoid, and I knew that to read Henderson’s grief would be to go to that place and stay there for a while. And parts of Henderson’s book were painful to read – I wept when the casualty officers informed her, in standard cold military language, of her husband’s death; when she discovered a video of him among his things that he’d intended to send her before he died; when she took off her wedding ring for the first time. But, mostly, I felt awe that she’d managed to take her grief and create, with such candor and care, a powerful memoir from it. Even more surprising, I found comfort in Henderson’s story, an unexpected friend.

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Nine months before Artis Henderson’s husband, Miles, leaves for his first deployment to Iraq in 2005, he dreams of his own death. In his dream, he and his co-pilot – the man he does ultimately crash with – float above the helicopter while it burns to the ground. “I took it as a warning, an admonition to care for Miles well,” Henderson writes in the preface. “If I loved him enough, I reasoned, he would come home.”

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This haunting preface casts a pall over the rest of a book, a feeling of foreboding that permeates, as Henderson says, even the “sweetest days.” And there are many sweet days, from the first afternoons of their courtship in Florida to the nights they spend in a ramshackle house outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina, holding hands as they go to sleep each night. All stories of loss are, at heart, love stories, and Henderson brings this one to life with an exquisite attention to detail, a poet’s memory for smell and sensation. “I stepped closer to Miles to breathe in his sun-warmed smell, like hay in summer,” she writes of an afternoon they spend together in limestone caverns early on in their relationship. “Even in the cold and damp he radiated heat. I still had to catch my breath with him sometimes, the way he made me feel.” These are the kinds of sensory details that love’s beginnings imprint on us, and she seems to have stored them away in perfect, untouched condition.

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Henderson is just 26 and four months into marriage when she becomes a widow. It’s not a fate she would have ever seen coming – Army wifehood or widowhood. When she meets Miles, she is a liberal, vehemently against the war, with spiritual leanings that are more “New Age light than biblical.” Miles is a conservative Christian from Texas who felt a call to duty when the wars started. But Henderson is attracted to his fundamental goodness that “emanates from him like heat,” and their love – which seems to often be unspoken, communicated through unseen currents that pass between them – feels right to Henderson from the beginning.

But their story has its tensions and struggles. When Miles shows her the Apache gunship he’s training to fly in Iraq, she finds herself unsettled, struggling to make sense of how this man – “a man who almost never curses, who went to church every Sunday, who pressed his nose to the back of [her] neck as [they] slept – would kill other men.” It’s an unanswerable question, one I’ve circled around myself when thinking about my own husband, an Army Ranger (who curses like a sailor and does not go to church, but who has taught me more about love, kindness, and self-sacrifice than anyone I know). How to reconcile the dual impulses and identities in the men we love?

Henderson avoids spending much time on the question, though – perhaps because she senses its magnitude, or perhaps for the reason most military wives don’t dwell on it for very long: It doesn’t live in the realm of our day-to-day lives. Instead, Henderson continually revisits a more mundane question: how will she navigate this Army life without losing herself, her dreams, her ambitions? It’s at the heart of her everyday as a new military wife, a question deeply familiar to me that I haven’t stopped asking.

What if you love someone with your whole heart but you’re afraid that being with him means giving up the life you imagined for yourself?, Henderson writes on a folded up piece of paper during an icebreaker game with a few women she’s getting to know. She asks this question – of herself, of her mother, of her friends – continually, and yet it seems to me that she knows the answer from the beginning. After moving with Miles to dusty, hot Fort Hood, Texas, she finds herself isolated and bored, her days and sense of self slipping away. She calls her mother to ask her whether she should leave. Her mother lost her own love of her life, Henderson’s father, when a small plane he was piloting crashed with 5-year-old Henderson aboard. She never remarried. Do you love him? she asks Henderson.

“I love him more than anything,” I said.
Perhaps my mother considered her own life then. The Mountains of north Georgia, the red earth and the daffodils in spring, my father on his tractor at the house.
“Then you stay,” she said.

And she does. But it’s a life she almost refuses to allow herself to settle into completely. When Miles leaves for deployment, she decides not to stay at Fort Bragg where they’re stationed but to go back home to her mother’s in Florida instead. She loathes the idea of getting ensnared in FRG (Family Readiness Group) drama. “It never occurred to me these women might be a source of support while Miles was gone, that they might comfort me if the worst happened,” she writes. This part of the book – her struggles with tedium and isolation – may be the least memorable for the average reader, but, as an Army wife who chose to leave a career in New York for a sometimes lonely life in Georgia, I drank up the words with thirst. I felt as though she were a friend reaching out an orienting hand in a world that often seems impossible to navigate without getting lost.

Henderson tells her story mostly through meticulously rendered vignettes, finely drawn moments that make up her life with, and – and then, devastatingly, without – Miles. This approach can give the book a fragmented quality at times, but it also gives the memoir its vitality, a feeling not of rawness – it is too well-crafted for that – but of trueness. Reading Unremarried Widow, I sometimes felt as though I was being given access not to a narrative, molded and processed, but to Henderson’s memories: the memory of the taste of salt on Miles’s lips; of the evening she eats greasy barbecue to fill a profound hunger; of the night she sleeps with a man for the first time after Miles’s death, and realizes that kissing this new, strange mouth is what it feels like to betray someone you love. She gives it to us straight and fresh, an approach that is particularly powerful throughout the middle portion of the book: the notification of Miles’s death, and the dense forest of grief she makes her way through in its aftermath. There is a beautifully sculpted fragility to this whole section, hard to the touch but delicate, like a glass vase that could easily shatter if it were tipped off a ledge. And I suppose this is what grief does to us – both hardens us and makes us more fragile.

The vignettes in the book are punctuated by moments of plain-spoken truth Henderson knocks into, the hurt sudden and sharp. Perhaps the most heartbreaking line of the book comes towards the end when Henderson attends a conference for people who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of the “survivors,” as the conference dubs its attendees, wear badges with images of their loved ones on them. When one woman approaches her asking her whom she lost – a moment that initially shocks Henderson for its casualness – Henderson hands her the badge: “As I passed the photo to her I realized how young the man in the image was. It occurred to me that someday I will be an old woman carrying a photo of the boy I love.”

The clearing in Henderson’s tangled forest of grief arrives via a bin of Miles’s things from Iraq. Among his uniforms and civilian clothes, she finds a beautiful “if you’re reading this” letter. The whole book turns on this letter, in a way: A year after Miles’s death, she returns to its closing words – which encourage her to live her life with decency, dreams, and ambition — as she tries to figure out what’s next for her. This section — in which she tries to forge a life after her grief — feels in some ways like the least-complete in the book, but this is in part due to the fact that it’s a period of fumbling that she’s still making her way through as she writes the memoir. It’s inspiring to see her move forward. It’s also powerful to see how she comes to understand her mother in a new way: Miles’s death gives her access to a woman who loved her husband deeply but almost never speaks of him.

The most powerful aspect of this last section, though – the part that gives me the feeling that Henderson has not just survived something, but has become someone different in the process – is the bond she discovers with other military widows. At the conference she attends, she ends up meeting a group of wonderful young women, laughing with them as she hasn’t since Miles died. “Where had they been when I was trying to make a life alongside the military?” she writes. “The answer, of course, is that they had been there all along.” Henderson’s memoir – a message in a bottle on the shores of this sometimes isolating military life – has taught me quite the same lesson.

Henderson, Artis. Unremarried Widow: A Memoir. Simon & Schuster, 2014.

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Purchase Unremarried Widow

Artis Henderson’s web site

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About the reviewer:

Simone-in-Oklahoma-300x224Simone Gorrindo is an American writer and journalist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Tablet, and The Huffington Post, among other publications. She is a Senior Editor of the online women’s literary magazine Vela. Her husband serves with a Ranger Regiment. You can follow her on Twitter @SimoneGorrindo and read some of her pieces about life as an Army wife (and more) here: “There Are No Goodbyes in the Army,” “A True War Story” (on listening to Tim O’Brien read in Columbus, Georgia), “A Return to Limantour,” “The Hidden Writing Life.”

For Better or Worse, Wrapped in the Flag: Rachel Lynch’s Novel ‘The Dependants’

reviewed by Andria Williams (Navy)

In Rachel Lynch’s first novel The Dependants, a trio of British Army officers’ wives living in military housing endure their husbands’ deployments to Afghanistan.

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Here in the U.S., we use the word “dependent” as both an adjective and a noun: someone who is dependent on another person can also be a dependent. In British English, dependant is a noun only, and refers specifically to the spouse and children of a military member. The three dependants featured in Lynch’s novel are Maggie, Jane, and Chrissy.

Let’s start with Maggie, because the novel does. Maggie is a young mother of two who is, quite simply, at her wit’s end. She’s struggling with parenting a difficult three-year-old daughter and toddler son; she feels she’s given everything up for the Army, including any career hopes she’d ever had; and she’s consumed with resentment over the fact that her husband volunteered for this dangerous tour of duty.

Next there’s generous, likable Jane, mother of four, whose marriage is rock-solid. Jane’s not happy about her husband’s absence and fears for him daily, but her attitude toward her own predicament remains alternately bittersweet and dryly comical. She tumbles into bed in his PJs, drinks a little too much, cheerfully encourages other women to buy vibrators (and she’s got the brand to recommend). She’s mostly patient with her kids and goes along to the gym gamely with Maggie even though she finishes off most workouts with a nice, big slice of cake. When she witnesses what she fears is the beginning of Maggie’s infidelity, then, we have grown close enough to her viewpoint to feel her shock and dismay at the same time as she is relieved to finally see her friend in some way happy.

The oldest and most experienced of the three wives is Chrissy, whose husband Jeremy is the Commanding Officer. As devoted to the Army families back home as her husband is to his men in the field, Chrissy makes the unusual decision to live alone in The Patch, the regular Army family quarters, rather than take a fancy Colonel’s house elsewhere while her husband is gone. Some of the wives find this off-putting and strange, but as Chrissy attends one funeral after another and assumes a heavy psychological burden in doing her husband’s work at home, the other women gradually come to respect her.

Over their husbands’ seven-month deployments, the three women will weather a variety of challenges and temptations, from Maggie’s infidelity to Chrissy’s emotional exhaustion. They don’t know from one minute to the next whether or not their husbands will make it home, and the reader doesn’t either, so this tension runs constantly beneath the entire novel.  We know from page one, though — which opens with the radio reporting three more soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan — that the decisions these women make and the fates that befall their husbands will have repercussions far beyond just the time these families live together in The Patch.

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Author Rachel Lynch (www.austinmacauley.com)

Rachel Lynch, the author, is a former Army wife herself; the book’s jacket mentions that her family moved ten times in their twelve years with the Army. Throughout the novel, you can feel the tension that many military wives feel in their love-hate relationship with the institution that dictates much of their families’ lives. For young Maggie, this struggle is hardest. In fact, her anger toward Mark, and the Army in general, is sometimes  startling:

It made her stomach churn and she remembered the moment when he had delivered the news like an excited puppy that he had volunteered to command troops in Afghanistan. Volunteered? What was wrong with her? What was so ugly and undesirable that he would want to leave his wife and children to kill strangers and satisfy politicians and generals in Whitehall? Something had died in her that day.

I was worried at first that Maggie might be too bitter for me to hang in there with for long. Her daily life, with all its struggles, was so realistically wrought that I could feel myself starting to grow a little bleak along with her. But Maggie soon starts to pull herself out of her dark hole through a new prescription for anti-depressants, a nightly bottle of wine, and a revitalized interest in both exercise and younger men.

Maggie’s humanness is believable, and where she had scared me off a little at the start, I soon found myself invested in what would become of her and her family. The scenes where her husband Mark returns for a two-week R & R in the midst of his dangerous deployment were heartbreaking and very well-done. Everything is touch-and-go. At first, Maggie finds herself nearly fearful of being with him, and their first attempt at intimacy is a bust. The second try goes much better, with a good bit of steamy sex thrown in. But a family day trip proves most harrowing of all, as Mark finds himself unequipped to handle his preschool-aged daughter Bethany’s strong emotions. When Bethany acts up in the car, he spanks her on the leg, hard. It’s something Maggie has fantasized about at darker points in the deployment — having him on hand to swoop in with some kind of decisive corporal punishment that Maggie lacks the energy or resolve for herself — but when he does do it, the effect is mildly sickening for all of them. From that point on his stay at home never regains the sweetness of their early intimacy, and part of Maggie is relieved when he returns to Afghanistan. It’s sad, bittersweet, and well-done, and I have to commend Lynch for having the insight and fortitude to pull it off.

Overall, The Dependants is a heartfelt look into the lives of Army wives, from someone who’s been there. I cared about these characters and I wanted to see them reunited with their husbands in the way we get to enjoy in You Tube videos and the nightly news. Rachel Lynch knows better, and we’re not treated to that kind of ending. But what she gives us is, in its clear-sightedness and compassion, worth much more.

Lynch, Rachel. The Dependants. Austin Macauley Publishers, 2014.

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Buy The Dependants

Read more about The Dependants here

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About the author:

Rachel Lynch was a history teacher for over a decade and after having her family decided to become a personal trainer. Her husband’s job as an Army officer has moved her family ten times in twelve years. Rachel has been writing since she was a teenager but this is her first novel. She is now settled with her family near London after finally saying goodbye to army life. — Austin Macauley Publishers author page

Famous Detectives Revisited: Terri Barnes on New Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes Mysteries

by Terri Barnes (Air Force)

On a wintry afternoon, few companions can beat a hot cup of tea and good mystery. I’m a fan of many of the purveyors of period mysteries, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Ellis Peters, to G.K. Chesterton and Ngaio Marsh. I’ve exhausted the canons of many of my favorite authors, and I’m always looking for new sources of a good old-fashioned whodunit.

My mother introduced me to Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd when I was 13. Since then, I’ve read every mystery by the Queen of Crime, some of them twice. So when I heard that British author Sophie Hannah had also been an avid Christie reader since childhood, I couldn’t wait to read her book, The Monogram Murders. Hannah, a British writer known for psychological thrillers, was commissioned by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new mystery featuring Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famously eccentric Belgian detective. I love re-reading Christie mysteries, but I have many of the plots memorized, so I put The Monogram Murders on my Christmas wish-list and looked forward to indulging in a new Poirot after the holiday rush.

I was sadly disappointed by a poorly constructed portrayal of a Poirot I barely recognized. The period settings and characters are inauthentic. The plot’s complications far outweigh its cleverness. By the end of the book, I barely cared who died or whodunit. Hannah’s own creation is Edward Catchpool, a new sidekick for Poirot. He is overly credulous and apparently afraid of dead bodies, a poor combination for the Scotland Yard homicide detective he’s supposed to be. Hannah doesn’t succeed in making his quirks—or their origins—interesting or pertinent to the convoluted story. Unlike Capt. Arthur Hastings, Poirot’s original foil, Catchpool is a cold, unfriendly character and has no affinity for Poirot.

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Hannah’s version of Poirot is disconcerting. He occasionally speaks like Poirot, but doesn’t behave like him, and the result is a flat impostor. In The Monogram Murders, Poirot—that comfort-loving gastronome—rides a bus “to clear his head” and lives in a second-rate London boarding house to escape his own celebrity status. Poirot devotees know he would do none of those things. Agatha Christie’s Poirot hires expensive cars, stays in fine hotels, and enjoys gourmet meals. He often takes trains—first class carriages only—and sometimes planes. Never buses. He lives in a stylish Mayfair apartment, served by impeccable personal attendants.

Not known for his modesty, Poirot is unlikely to seek respite from his fame. If he did, however, he would simply have his faithful manservant Georges, or perfect secretary Miss Lemon to firmly turn visitors away. He might go away to the seaside. He would never hide out in an establishment run by a garrulous landlady who provides lamentable food and no daily tisane. At the outset of The Monogram Murders, I expected his inexplicable behavior to eventually play a part in the plot. By the end of the tortuous, disconnected journey, I was not surprised that it did not.

The most famous element of the best Christie mysteries, an intricate plot that unfolds logically and satisfyingly is completely absent here. I’ll spare you the details of the outlandish story and the mystery that was inexplicably solved with little reliance on clues, either obvious or elusive.

It’s true that later in her life, Dame Agatha did slip into some ridiculous plotting. With more than a hundred books published in her lifetime, she can be forgiven a few clinkers: The Postern Of Fate springs to mind. But Christie fans had every reason to expect that a highly touted new Poirot, commissioned by the Christie estate should aim solidly for Dame Agatha’s best work, not poorly parody her worst.

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Recoiling from this detective debacle and seeking balm for my mystery-loving soul, I stumbled upon a gem in Laurie R. King’s series featuring Sherlock Holmes.

King created the series and the unexpected and well crafted character of Mary Russell as a partner for Holmes in the mid-1990’s. King has written more than a dozen Holmes and Russell books. The most recent, Dreaming Spies, came out in February.

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I first discovered and read the ninth book in the series, The Language of Bees. As soon as I finished it, I began looking for more, found the genesis of the series and began reading the Holmes/Russell saga from the beginning.

The premise sounds unlikely: In his fifties Sherlock Holmes has left London, pressed into a safe retirement in the Sussex countryside by those who fear for his life, namely his brother Mycroft and Dr. John Watson. In his long career, apparently Holmes has made enough criminals angry to make the city too dangerous for him to remain.

Accompanied in his new location by long-time housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, Holmes has taken up beekeeping. Cloistered with his bees but deprived of his vocation, Holmes finds his life blank and purposeless. He is considering suicide when he meets a fifteen-year-old orphaned prodigy named Mary Russell. In Mary’s life and losses Holmes discovers a mystery to detect, and in her intellect, he finds a mind to challenge his own. Preternaturally observant, well read and determined to overcome the tragedy of her past, Mary becomes Holmes’ protégé and soon his partner in solving crime. As the series progresses and Mary becomes an adult, she becomes Holmes’ wife—as I said, an unlikely premise. Yet it works, mostly a credit to the skill of the author and the depth of her research. It’s also true that many young women married older men after WWI, because so many young European men were killed in the war.

King crafts her characters with devotion. She has an affinity for them, and encourages that affinity in her readers. She demonstrates a close familiarity with Britain of the ‘teens and early twenties, when the series is set, as well as with the Holmes canon. Holmes purists my find fault with her patronizing, though affectionate take on Dr. Watson, or with her Holmes’ complete disdain for Conan Doyle. In King’s series, Conan Doyle plays an offstage part as an erstwhile Holmes biographer. King uses these literary devices deftly enough to make her Holmes saga seem somehow more real than the original.

King creates a mature Holmes who is true to the best of his past incarnations without being defined by them. By the time he meets Mary he has put his drug use behind him. His partnership with her is strictly Holmesian, not the sentimental attraction of an older man for a lovely younger woman, but the affinity born of well-matched intellect and shared experience. Their working partnership is paramount, and anyone looking for a romantic—let alone steamy—Sherlock should look elsewhere.

The mysteries are complex, but mostly logical and compelling. The relationship of Russell and Holmes, as they call each other, is by turns companionable and challenging, as iron sometimes sharpens iron. King relieves the intensity of their investigative and scholarly abilities, which are considerable, with sly and witty banter. Holmes, seen through Mary’s wise but devoted eyes, is far more than the “elementary” caricature one often sees of this icon in detective fiction.

Having read six of the dozen or so books in the series, I found that King does sometimes delve deeply into various side issues. In A Letter of Mary it’s theology. In A Monstrous Regiment of Women, it’s mystical religion and women’s rights of the era. In The Language of Bees, it’s the intricacies of beekeeping, a recurrent theme in the series, reminiscent of an illumination in the margins of several of the books. I have no problem with long description that either advances the plot or fleshes out the setting, though some readers might find them distracting. These are mystery stories and characters very much of the time in which they are portrayed, and for the most part King’s literary departures help create that world.
While it may seem unfair to compare Hannah’s first attempt at Poirot with King’s long-running series, The Monogram Murders doesn’t measure up to King’s skill even in her first Holmes book, The Beekeepers Apprentice, for mastering the character and method of an iconic detective and portraying him accurately in his time and place. Having captured Holmes accurately from the beginning, King has earned the right to set him free on her own trajectory, with her own creation as his partner, and she does so most satisfactorily.

Hannah, Sophie. The Monogram Murders. William Morrow, 2014.

King, Laurie R. Dreaming Spies. Bantam, 2014.

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Buy The Monogram Murders and Dreaming Spies

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Terri-Barnes-210x292About 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 Times, The Huffington Post, and Books Make a Difference, as well as newspapers, magazines, and base publications in many of her adopted hometowns around the world (of which she estimates there have been seventeen, so far, since the start of her family’s military journey). Currently, she’s stationed in the (snowy!) St. Louis area.