In this collection of short stories, Siobhan Fallon — herself a military wife — provides poignant vignettes of life as both a service member on the frontlines of the war in Iraq and the families waiting for their safe return.
At Fort Hood, Texas, women of different ages and backgrounds are sewn together with a common thread: they are all married to Army men either presently deployed or just home from Iraq. By turns life-affirming, poignant and heartbreaking, You Know When The Men Are Gone is a series of stories that had me tentatively turning each page, a little afraid of what I would find written there.
Military life isn’t foreign to me. Both my grandfathers served in Korea and Vietnam, and my ex-boyfriend was deployed to Iraq early on in the war. Many of the details here felt familiar to me. My grandmother has often shared letters between her father — my great-grandfather — and his wife back home in Pennsylvania. He was stationed in the Pacific during World War II and often wrote long, eloquent letters to the family eagerly waiting for news of his safety. When you went off to war, you went off to war. My grandmother was just a child — a girl unsure of where her father was, or why.
Technology has changed enough to allow more frequent communication from abroad. Fallon’s characters communicate with their loved ones through email and Skype, Facebook and traditional mail, but the women at home are often left to interpret the veiled communication from their husbands half a world away. When one waits too long for word from Iraq, she logs into his email account to see if he’s safe. Searching for signs that he’s logged on recently, the wife discovers provocative emails between he and a female service member. Without any way of verifying if he’s actually having an affair, she’s left to stew in her own juices.
Here’s the thing about You Know When The Men Are Gone: it doesn’t sugar-coat anything. These stories are not cheery. Military wives’ lives can be fraught with uncertainty, waiting, disappointment, waiting, anxiety, waiting and . . . waiting. Fallon neither raises these women onto pedestals or belittles their experiences; she does an admirable job of showing both the positives and negatives of loving a man who is serving his country. Through her vignettes, constantly shifting narrators and settings, Fallon also demonstrates what a microcosm a military base can be. Fort Hood has everything a military family could need, she writes; why go anywhere else?
But there’s a world out there. A big world. And some of the women are tired of waiting — and all too eager to get away.
If you’re not one to gravitate to short stories, I would still give You Know When The Men Are Gone a chance. These characters are in impossible positions in unforgiving circumstances, and not every story is easy to read. I didn’t finish the book with a bubble of happiness in my chest, that’s for sure, but I’m still glad I spent time getting to know Fallon’s characters.
If nothing else, it’s a welcome reminder to thank our veterans and appreciate the sacrifices Americans make every day for our country — and not just the enlisted ones.
3.5 out of 5!