Book Review – While He Was Away

Hello readers! Sorry I haven’t posted in a week – I just finished my summer class (today was my final) and I was finishing a book I think you may be interested in reading! My post today will be a review of that book!

“While He Was Away” was written by author Karen Schreck. The book opens with Penna, an 18 year old girl who just started her summer vacation before her freshman year of college. Her boyfriend, David, is also 18 and finished high school a semester early, and enlisted in the US Army as an infantryman. The book opens on the last day of David’s 10 days of leave – before he deploys to Iraq. The book insinuates the year is around 2005-2007, and the setting is in a town called Killdeer Oklahoma. The couple is driving around the countryside on David’s motorcycle, and they both are silently coping with the eminent dread of deployment. Penna and David were together already 11 months, including the 18 weeks he was away for OSUT (One Station Unit Training). It is written in the first person from Penna’s perspective, and as deployment approaches you gain insight into her thoughts, doubts, and fears of what deployment means for her and David.

Penna lives with her mother Linda in Linda’s mothers’ old house. Penna has been estranged from her grandmother because Linda feels as though her mother abandoned her when she was Penna’s age (18 years old). Linda’s stepfather, Ernest, was barely involved in Linda’s life, thus she never knew him. Penna never knew him, either. Linda’s mother, Justine, owned a restaurant in town called Red Earth, and when Justine fled town she left the house and the restaurant in Linda’s name.

After David deploys, Linda employs Penna at Red Earth to help get her mind off David’s absence. At work, Penna meets Caitlin who she befriends, and Caitlin introduces her to her friend Jules, whose boyfriend is also in the Army. Another side character we get introduced to is Ravi – a Middle-Eastern American boy who was David’s good childhood friend, but dropped out of high school due to bullying. Ravi was bullied frequently after the events of 9/11 due to his skin color and his ethnic. Ravi finds out through Penna of David’s deployment, and they both become friends and give each other updates on how David is doing. Penna also visits David’s adoptive parents Beau and Bonnie, and occasionally helps them clean their infinitely-messy house.

David can’t communicate much to Penna. First, he stops in Kuwait for three days before taking a flight from Kuwait to Iraq. While in Iraq, there is rarely a time when the phone connections are clear enough for them to hear each other, let alone call each other at all. They are allowed only one Skype conversation throughout the whole novel, and towards the end of the book, David only leaves her voicemails or brief emails.

David and Penna are both art students, and a year ago in the novel Penna meets David at an art mural competition at a local viaduct that is no longer in operation. Penna drew the winning mural on the viaduct, and is allowed to expand her mural as a prize for winning. Before David leaves, they draw each other on the mural, and throughout the rest of the novel, the viaduct becomes a symbolic place for Penna and her character development. While David is away, he emails Penna manga-style pictures of himself doing jobs he is actually doing while he is in Iraq. He also emails her pictures of the children his unit works with at a local Iraqi orphanage.

One day, after David is gone, Penna finds an old photograph of her grandmother (Justine) in the attic, and a letter to Justine from her first husband, Owen. Owen served in the U.S. Army during WWII, and as Penna discovers through the letter, he died in combat. While David is away, Penna seeks out her estranged grandmother in order to connect with her and learn about her experience with Owen while he served. Penna also hopes reunite her mother and grandmother before Justine passes away.

This book was very touching. I read it in about three days, and I didn’t want to have to put it down because I wanted to get to know more about Penna and her relationship with all of the people in her life. I connected with Penna because she is an introvert and doesn’t easily let new people into her life. I also connected with her because I know how she feels with her boyfriend being away. I felt the rush with her, when she would get phone calls and emails from him. For the first third of the book, all she can really focus on is David, and her emotions are running high. However, she ends up making a bunch of new friends, ie: Caitlin, Jules, Ravi, Tom (the bartender at Red Earth), and her grandmother. She finds distractions and real friendships with these characters that helps her hold onto her relationship with David.

The book was well-researched. Military jargon was used and explained in a fluid way; it was integrated into the story without the story becoming disrupted or awkward.  The descriptions of the static-ridden phone calls and video chats was realistic and believable, especially for the time period (2005-2007) when Skype and smartphones were not commonplace. The language used wasn’t dense, and it made the book easy to read. I especially appreciated the real ending. It wasn’t expected and it wasn’t what I wanted to happen, and I appreciate Schreck’s ability to not give the reader what they want, but to also leave the reader satisfied. Additionally, the author provides tips for Army-girlfriends along with online links at the end of the novel for military-relationship support groups for readers to utilize if they need to, which I thought was a nice finishing touch. The only criticism of the novel I have is that I wish the dialogue between David and Penna at the climax of the story was more descriptive. The big moment that occurs in the story between David and Penna was a bit unsatisfactory, and I think the author should have explained certain parts of this more thoroughly – especially since this is one of the most important moments in the story.

“While He Was Away” was a great summer read, and I see it being a book I will re-read a few times when I need someone (in this case, Penna) to relate to. Not only was this story relatable, but any girlfriend in a military-relationship will be able to see herself in Penna’s position in more than one circumstance. Also, at $8.99, it is a perfectly-priced paperback for any girl who needs something quick and fun to read. It is very insightful as well, and would provide any girl who isn’t in a military relationship a better understanding of what it is like. With its many twists and intertwined plot lines of the main and sub-characters, this book will leave you satisfied, but also wanting more from Schreck on this topic.

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Happy reading everyone!