Alice Bliss attempts to tell the story of contemporary warfare from the perspective of those left at home. The eponymous heroine is on the brink of adulthood when her father, Matt, is called off to war in the Middle East. His National Guard unit trains at Ft. Dix (ooo! That’s near me!), and then off he goes. His wife, Angie, is not entirely supportive. She becomes a little unmoored without him, as do his daughters, Alice and Ellie. The three of them eventually adjust to living with his absence, and SPOILER ALERT, just in time, too, as Matt Bliss never returns home again.The three of them learn how to support each other, and their mutual loss serves to bring them even closer together in the end.
All in all, this was mostly a sweet coming-of-age novel that happens to be set during wartime in a family thrust unexpectedly into military life. Alice has to grow up fast with her father gone. (Apparently he was the only person in the family who ever did anything.) She learns to garden, cook, clean, and generally be responsible for herself and her younger sister. She experiences romance for the first time, and, not insignificantly, grief. I thought Harrington’s tender portrayal of budding womanhood was very touching and respectful.
But I have to tell you, I had some issues with this book. I was pretty offended by Angie’s character. I tried to make a joke out of this in a previous post, but mostly, I’m just mad. Angie’s whole deal was that she couldn’t get her act together while Matt was gone because she just loved him so much, and she was just so busy missing him. Here’s a fun fact: there are lots of military wives out there who also love their husbands, and who let them go off to wherever their country sends them, and who actively support their husbands. I resent the implication that if one loves one’s spouse, one won’t let them participate in war. I’m not saying depression isn’t a real issue for spouses left behind, and I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a shock to be pulled into the military when you weren’t in it as your main career. I’m just saying, I don’t love my husband in spite of the service he gives. I love him in part because he is the kind of man who volunteers to do what others won’t. Also, at least for the Air Force, there are plenty of programs in place so that families of deployed service members can get the help they need: childcare, counseling, mental health, legal services, auto care, snow shoveling, you name it. You don’t have to do it alone. in fact, it’s crazy to try. Harrington’s website says that she drew on her family members’ experiences in WWII and Viet Nam, but we’re not fighting those wars or that way any more. Harrington’s done a lot of good research, I think, but I obviously wish she’d talked to a more representative sample. (Though there are plenty of readers who felt like Harrington was practically reading their minds. Here‘s one review with a different perspective.)
In passing, I guess I should admit that part of the reason I hate Angie so much is that she is everything I don’t want to be as a military wife, and the temptation to be her is very real. I think for myself, and for other wives I know, Angie’s behavior is a luxury we can’t indulge in– at least, not publicly. Not where anyone can see. Not so that it impacts your daily life. Even if we’re sad, the mission has to be accomplished. And you know what’s sure to distract a soldier in combat (if anything will)? Knowing that his family is falling apart at home without him there. I can admit that Angie is probably more real than I’d like her to be. I still hate her.
Angie’s character is not actually terribly important to the story, but I found it terribly distracting. Like I said, the actual growing up that Alice does in this novel is sweetly and skillfully rendered. I would still recommend this book to people interested in YA novels. I think Harrington’s attempt to give voice to an experience often overlooked (that would be the experience of having a Dad in the military in a book written since, oh, 1980) is laudable. She certainly brings a fresh perspective to the genre as a whole. There’s a lot to like in this book. If you read it, let me know what you think.
PS Since this is a Book Crossing book, that means I’ll be “releasing” it fairly soon. I’m thinking of leaving it at the gym at McGuire AFB. Any other suggestions?