David French picked up the newspaper in the comfort of his penthouse in Philadelphia, and read about a soldier – father of two – who was wounded in Iraq. Immediately, he was stricken with a question: Why him and not me?
This is the hook at the heart of Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War by David and Nancy French. David (“a 37-year-old father of two, a Harvard Law graduate and president of a free speech organization”) didn’t just think about it or write about it he did something about it. He went to Iraq and served his country on the front lines or as close as he could get.
The book tells the story of the impact of this decision, and all its ramifications, on him and his family. Nancy tells the home front side and David the enlisted side. Together they allow the reader to get a glimpse into life if someone in your family was called up and sent to war for a year.
David explains his motivation, and the thought process leading up to his enlistment and getting called up, while Nancy offers her response and experience while he was gone.
We see what it is like to live and work in a war zone; the bonds built and the tragedies that unfold – events that permanently change a person. We also see the difficulties and emotional strains of being a single parent while your spouse is overseas in a war zone. How you interact with friends and family; the social interaction in the larger community that can become difficult; the ways you change and your relationships change.
And for this alone I think it is a valuable book. Both David and Nancy offer honest and emotional insight into how they experienced this challenge and how it changed their lives. And this offers readers the ability to put themselves into that experience.
Two potential drawbacks: politics and style. Politically and culturally the Frenches are conservative Republicans and Southern evangelicals. If you do not share this perspective there are points that might get under your skin. David is clearly engaged in push-back against critics of the war in Iraq and in particular seeks to defend the soldiers and their conduct.
Understandable? Sure, and honestly and well articulated. But it might rub some the wrong way. And politics plays a large role in Nancy’s life as well – her relationship with the Mitt Romney presidential campaign (v. 2008) in particular.
And this ties into the style issue. David and Nancy are in important senses both professional writers and the book is well written, often thought provoking and frequently entertaining. But they have two very different styles and the alternating chapters don’t always blend together well.
David has a straightforward logical style. There are often powerful emotions involved but he mostly just tells it like it is – here is how I see it, felt it, understand it, etc. Nancy has a more sarcastic, self-effacing Southern humor style. Going back and forth between these two styles can be jarring and it undercuts the narrative energy at times.
Nancy’s sections in particular feel like a series of vignettes rather than a coherent story or timeline. Her trip to Utah and interaction with the Romney’s was rather bizarre and out of place (I understand it was an important aspect of her life but is felt odd to me). At the end I felt like I knew David better than Nancy and understood what his life was like better than hers.
But as I said, overall it is an interesting story that offers a unique and valuable perspective for our times. Your tastes, perspective and attitudes (and perhaps gender) will obviously have an impact on your enjoyment of various aspects but it is an honest and entertaining look at something many of of us probably don’t think all that much about: what it means to send a spouse to a war zone for a year.
And if it can get us to think about the Americans who are going through this every day a little more, then it is worth it.