I’m no general’s wife. But the First Lady of the Marine Corps Recommended Reading List is being discontinued, so I hereby volunteer to step into the breach with my own military spouse reading list recommendations.
Unlike more official lists, mine won’t stock the shelves at exchanges and base libraries around the world. There are no “how-to” titles, though each of these books taught me how to live my life as a military spouse a little more gracefully and generously.
Instead of focusing on what these books can teach, I’ve chosen them for how they can comfort military spouses desperate to know that someone else has survived the tears, fears, hopelessness, and helplessness – then thoughtfully reflected on the whole messy package before tucking it into the collection of experiences that make us all human.
Most of these books are by military wives, but not all. One offers the perspective of a child. Others are by authors who have engaged deeply with the military community. All these reads share one element in common: they put into words thoughts and feelings that I couldn’t express – that I thought could never be expressed, because I had no idea they were shared by anyone else.
Many times throughout my husband’s career, I convinced myself that no other military spouse in history had endured the same chaos. It left me feeling very alone. Reading some of these authors’ sentences brought me so much relief that I decided to write about my own experience in the memoir Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War -- to assure other military spouses that someone, somewhere, understands.
So, without further ado, my totally subjective and 100 percent personal military spouse book group guide:
I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battlesby Lily Burana
Sitting alone in a dark room, too sad to cry? Yeah, I’ve been there. But not like Burana, an Army wife who suffered a ravaging case of PTSD after her husband’s return from war. As one of the first memoirs to talk about how combat stress can be contagious, the author bravely mined her own experience to bring attention to how war affects both members of a military couple. Leavened with humor, spiked with sass, and refreshingly unpredictable throughout.
Army Wives: The Unwritten Code of Military Marriageby Tanya Biank
The book that launched a thousand episodes. But seriously, skip the series and read this instead, because you learn, through the intimate introduction to the lives profiled here, that no military marriage is what it appears to be from an outsider’s perspective. The probing, sympathetic look at other military families makes you feel like you’re in the room with them. That privileged perspective allows readers to understand why some military couples make decisions that are right for them but seem irrational to anyone else.
The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into his Father’s Lifeby Stephen Rodrick
I always wondered what my young son was really thinking when my husband was on deployment, and how a boy can grow up without his dad around to show him what being a man means. This memoir is by a journalist whose father, a squadron commander and Navy pilot, died during a deployment when his plane crashed in the Indian Ocean.
In an effort to learn about his father and overcome an overpowering sense of loss, Rodrick embedded with the current-day incarnation of the Navy squadron that his father skippered. He alternates the saga of officers in the squadron today with memories of his own adolescence, spent alone and unmoored.
Ultimately, this exploration allows him to answer lingering questions about his father, forgive family members he felt had failed him, and clarify his own future – which includes a son born on the day of his father’s death.
When my husband’s squadron was at sea, I sent care packages to a few female officers, always wondering what it was like to be a woman deployed among so many men. Reading Plenty of Time When We Get home, by a former soldier who married a soldier with PTSD, helped me understand the nuances of being a woman in the military, why it’s different from men’s experiences, and why that matters.
Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and their Wivesby Carol K. Bleser and Lesley J. Gordon, eds.
You think it’s tough when email shuts down? You think your husband’s commanding officer is a careerist buffoon who plays favorites? Take a look at these profiles of military couples from the Civil War era, who tolerated far greater hardship and distance than most of us will ever know.
They didn’t always manage gracefully, and the stories don’t all have a happy ending, but it’s important to know who paved the way for today’s military families and where we fit into a continually evolving American history.
Waiting Wives: The Story of Schilling Manor, Home Front to the Vietnam Warby Donna Moreau
“Community” means something slightly different to each of us. But for the military wives of Schilling Manor, with nowhere to go and no one to look out for them after their husbands left for Vietnam, community meant the same thing: loyalty to each other. If you’ve ever complained that your service wasn’t taking good care of you and your children, this account will give you perspective.
If it’s ever bothered you that only one percent of Americans serve in the military, or if your family and friends questioned your spouse’s decision to join the service, then you’ve noticed our country’s civil-military divide – the gulf in understanding that leads to low levels of volunteerism among the civilian population.
Here’s the book that launched America’s conversation about why we can no longer tolerate that civil-military divide. Written in 2006 by a military spouse who later founded Blue Star Families, and the father of a Marine, this is a must-read for understanding the military’s place in American society.
I avoided fiction for a long time because the drama of my own life was more than enough to handle; I didn’t need any made-up characters’ needs demanding my attention. These short stories by an Army wife changed my mind.
Fallon has observed the same things many observant military spouses do – a foreign-born wife who never quite adjusts to life on post; a soldier just back from deployment who can’t get his bearings; a couple that’s talking about everything except what’s really on their minds – and she transforms these observations into truths. Some of these truths aren’t easy to face, but they grant insights that we could never gain on our own.
“How does she know that about me?” I wanted to ask, over and over, reading this collection of poems by a military wife who heads a college creative writing program. In lines that are simultaneously lush and sparse, Dubrow reveals the many ways marriage is changed by war, how the waiting wife contemplates and counters periods of blankness, and why Penelope, wife of Odysseus, is the mother of us all.
Homefront Club: The Hardheaded Woman's Guide to Raising a Military Familyby Jacey Eckhart
In the same way people recount where they were and what they were doing during historic events, I remember exactly the moment I picked up Homefront Club. A memoir in the form of a manual, it was the first book I read after marrying into the military, when I still thought officers’ wives were Stepford clones and that our children would turn out to be sociopathic loners lacking any sense of home.
The author, a Navy wife and the current editor of SpouseBuzz, straightened me out with hilarious and touching stories of her own missteps and course corrections. If she can do it, so can I, I thought.
These books are the ones that mattered to me. If you were creating a book group for the military spouses in your community, what book would you add to the list? Please write your favorites and why you love them in the comment section below.
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War and a contributor to Stories Around the Table: Laughter Wisdom and Strength in Military Life. Her articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Slate.com, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications.