This is the newest of the books I am reviewing this week, published in 2013. I found it difficult to read, not because of the length of the book or the complexity of the language – because it is a short and quick read, but because it too realistically portrayed details of my husband’s recent deployment to Afghanistan, although he is now safely home.
Jess’s Dad is in Afghanistan and she lives with her mother and toddler sister at invented army base, Fort Spencer, in Florida. She and her friends Meriwether and Sam have set up an unofficial charity to raise money in Florida to donate supplies to a girls’ orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan. Meriwether wants to stop working on the project and spend the rest of her summer sailing and swimming like usual. But Jess constantly looks at the photos and videos of the children they are helping and feels compelled to get more money for them.
A detail this book captures, that books set earlier miss, is the immediacy of electronic communication. Soldiers have always written letters home from war and letters from Civil War and World War I soldiers are now important and poignant historical documents. Will a transcript of a Skype session ever be seen as history? Can a Skype transcript even exist and can streaming video be saved? When you expect instant electronic communication from someone in a war zone at a certain time every day or at an expected frequency, if it doesn’t arrive, its absence carries a burden of worry. In the first few pages Jess says, “His email is there. I check the date and time of his note. As of this morning, Dad was still alive in Afghanistan.”
That turns out to be an ironic statement as they soon discover that a surge is underway and there have been several explosions in Kabul, including at the orphanage. The explosions over 7000 miles away in Kabul turn Jess’s life upside down. There are injuries and deaths and some people in her community blame her for the military being anywhere near the orphanage, endangering themselves and the orphans.
Operation Oleander is an up-to-date book that captures a slice of military child experience. A child with a deployed parent may be interested in the book’s perspective, although they may find it too raw and difficult to read, although it describes no graphic violence. And thankfully, most military children don’t have to deal with so much tragedy. It includes details about the expectations for extra responsibilities when a parent is away, such as Jess’s father teaching her specifically how to add gas to the lawn mower and turn off the water main before he goes away. For every reader Operation Oleander also asks profound questions about blame, accountability, unintended consequences and our obligation to each other as human beings.
Check the WRL catalog for Operation Oleander.