Published by Amy Einhorn Books ISBN 0399157204
Review reprinted from the Citizen
Short stories have fallen out of favor, but there has been a resurgence in the last few years, particularly with linked short stories. Linked short stories feature characters who have a major role in one story, only to appear in a supporting role in a later story.
Elizabeth Stout’s “Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories” told the story of a middle-aged, cranky schoolteacher. Some stories featured her prominently, some peripherally. The book was on many best-of lists and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009.
Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel was Jennifer Egan’s “Tales From the Goon Squad” which told several characters’ stories, revolving around the music industry.
Siobhan Fallon’s linked short story collection “You Know When the Men Are Gone” is worthy successor to those books, and has also earned much well deserved praise. This is her first book, and she writes about what she knows.
It is set at Fort Hood, Texas and tell the stories of women left behind in military housing to carry on at home while their spouses serve overseas. Fallon herself lived at Fort Hood, and today lives in the Middle East, where her husband is currently stationed.
Writing short stories is difficult; you have a much shorter time to tell the story and develop characters whom the reader will care about. Fallon succeeds on so many levels; she creates memorable characters and crystallizes a moment in time for them, one that is emotional and wrenching.
There are seven stories in the book, each one more honest and heartbreaking than the last. The title of the book comes from the first story, and that first page captures the reader immediately. “You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for early morning formation… Babies still cry, telephones ring. Sunday morning cartoons screech, but without the men there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.”
In this story we learn about the support system for the spouses left behind. They have luncheons, teas, play groups, and participate in the Family Readiness Group, which helps the women by providing information and support.
Fallon draws the reader into the world of the military spouse- the loneliness, the worrying, the every day of a woman who has to get on with life while waiting for her husband to return home safely.
Another story, “Remission” deals with Ellen Roddy a military wife who has breast cancer, a young son, and rebellious teenage daughter. Because of her disease, Ellen’s husband has been allowed to serve at Fort Hood while his unit is overseas.
Her husband is conflicted over this; he wants to be there to support his wife, but feels he is letting his unit down. Some women feel sorry for Ellen’s illness, but also jealousy that her husband is home while their husbands are in danger. The irony is that Ellen is dealing with danger at home, instead of worrying about dangers abroad.
Women serving in the military are dealt with in a unique way in “Inside the Break”. When Kailani’s husband’s unit is getting on the buses to head for deployment overseas, the last supply bus contains the support team that will be serving with the unit.
As the wives watch the buses leave they see “that supply bus held a threat that had never occurred to any of them when they thought of faraway insurgents and bombs and helicopters crashing. That supply bus with its fifteen women.”
Women aren’t the only ones who face feelings of jealousy. In “Leave”, Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash doesn’t tell his wife that he has gotten leave and is coming home. Instead, he sneaks home and hides in the basement of his own home, staying there until he can discover if his wife has been unfaithful to him. Fallon ratchets up the tension as we wait to see if Nick will go completely over the edge. The end of the story is surprising and sad.
We go overseas in one story, “Camp Liberty”, where we see Moge, a soldier who feels like he is two people- Sgt. Moge in Iraq, responsible for the lives of the men in unit, and David Mogeson, a young man with a loving family and sweet girlfriend back home. Can he reconcile the two into one man or will he have to choose one life over the other?
Kit Murphy, a severely wounded soldier, is dealing with his physical and emotional pain in “The Last Stand”, as he looks forward to returning to his young wife. Kit pops up again in “Gold Star”, when he visits the widow of his sergeant, the man who died in the humvee explosion that injured him. That explosion reverberates throughout most of the stories in this book.
“You Know When the Men Are Gone” is brilliantly written, taking the reader into a lifestyle most of do not know. Fallon’s book is a realistic portrayal of life on a military base, featuring ordinary people who are asked to do extraordinary things to serve our country. You will finish this book not only appreciating the sacrifice of these people, but also the skill of the author. I can’t wait to read a full-length novel from her.
Rating 5 of 5