All this week I am writing about a theme close to my heart – books featuring children of American military personnel. Some of the books I’m reviewing are up to date, talking about children with parents in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I am starting with an older book, with an even older setting.
Durable Goods is primarily a moving and beautiful coming of age story, written with a present tense immediacy. Katie is twelve and her friend Cherylanne is fourteen. They live next door to each other in a row of six connected houses on an army base in Texas around the 1960s. Katie’s mother recently died of cancer and most of Katie’s time and attention is taken up with navigating the changes of adolescence without her mother. Katie’s life is teasing Cherylanne’s older brother, worrying about shaving her legs, wanting her breasts to grow, and waiting for her first kiss.
Katie’s father’s military position holds a dominant position in their lives, and her Colonel father is inflexible, demanding and violent. He is similar to, although not as colorful as, “Bull” Meecham in The Great Santini. When I told a colleague at the library who grew up in a military family about my plans for my blog posts this week, she said she doesn’t like this sort of book because she is sick of military men being portrayed as thugs, as her father was stern but never violent. Author Elizabeth Berg said that Katie’s father is based on her own father, but she adds that things have changed and violence is not acceptable in military families now.
Katie’s father clashes the most with Katie’s eighteen-year-old sister, Diane. “It’s not right, Katie. He’s not supposed to hit us like that. I’m going to tell someone, I swear. I’m going to get him into trouble.” Diane runs away and is brought back, but at eighteen she can leave, but will she?
Some of the details of military life are odd to civilians, “Our fathers’ names and ranks are posted outside our doors, above our mailboxes. We have look-alike bushes in the front and back.” Other details are well known, such as moving to a new base frequently, “‘We are not allowed to cry when we drive away–or any other time, either–about any place we leave behind. Sometimes it aches so hard, the thought of all you can’t have anymore, your desk the third in the third row, the place where you buy licorice, the familiarity of the freckles on your friends’ faces, the smell of your own good bedroom. You will be the new girl again, the one one always having to learn things.”
If you like the character-driven women’s fiction of Ann Hood or Anna Quindlen, try Durable Goods for its poignant coming of age story. I also recommend it for military children, either grown or older teenagers and current or retired military personnel. If you are interested in a longer list of books about military children check out my (now sadly dated looking but with updated content) website that I started for a class assignment in 2003. Things have changed a lot in ten years, not least the two wars that have lead to a resurgence of books about military children. I will review a sampling of four more of these books over the week ahead.
Check the WRL catalog for Durable Goods.