The Blue Star service flag: A simple flag, displayed in a window to indicate a family with a member serving in the US military during wartime. In Blue Stars, author Emily Gray Tedrowe introduces us to two women whose lives are turned upside down and inside out by their experiences dealing with their loved ones’ service and the aftermath of devastating, life-changing injuries.
The two main characters are Ellen and Lacey, and on the surface, they couldn’t be more different. Ellen is a midwestern college professor specializing in the works of Edith Wharton. Widowed many years earlier, Ellen has two children — a daughter in her late teens who is full of rebellion and sarcasm, and a son in graduate school. Ellen also has a ward, having become legal guardian to Mike, a young man befriended by Ellen’s son as a teen, whom Ellen took in, took under her wing, and made part of the family.
Lacey is a working-class mom in New York, married to army reserves officer Eddie, but not particularly happy in her marriage. Lacey married Eddie after a long string of go-nowhere relationships, needing stability and meaning in her life and a father for her son Otis. Lacey thrives in the tight-knit circle of army wives and their non-stop projects and activities, but she also drinks too much and hides her secret dissatisfaction with a husband whom she married in haste.
As the book opens, it’s 2005, and Mike and Eddie are both preparing for a 15-month deployment to Iraq. Mike has just enlisted in the Marines, much to Ellen’s dismay, and Eddie is being sent overseas as well. All too soon, though, Ellen and Lacey each receive the news they dread: Their loved ones have been injured, and will be brought to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington DC for treatment.
Mike has lost a foot due to a grenade. Eddie has lost an eye, most of the vision in his other eye, and has suffered severe head trauma. Ellen and Lacey uproot their lives and, for months and months, become permanent fixtures at Walter Reed, overseeing their soldiers’ care, dealing with bureaucracy, substandard housing, and the patients’ distressing physical conditions. The horrors of war are driven home by seeing the extent of the damage to these formerly healthy men, as well as by seeing the other patients and their families. And to add one horror upon another, the women and families there are pretty much on their own, fighting for benefits, living on pennies, scrambling to make ends meet, and desperate for any shred of hope.
The relationship between Ellen and Lacey is at the heart of this touching novel. In a “normal” world, these two would never meet, much less become friends. Yet through their shared experiences, each finds in the other something she desperately needs. Ellen represents calm and order to Lacey, instilling the belief in Lacey that she’s worth more than she thinks. And in Lacey, Ellen finds a woman who isn’t afraid to speak out, to confront hard truths, and to bring people together.
I found both women very inspirational, in their own ways. Lacey is a mess in so many ways, and it’s hard to approve of much of her behavior early on, yet she displays a courage and loyalty that are quite remarkable. Ellen, too, has to deal with her own feelings of inadequacy, yet her devotion to Mike never wavers for a moment, despite the often brutal emotional toll taken by dealing with a man traumatized by PTSD and haunted by his war experience.
We all know that war is hell, and there are countless war novels that focus on the front lines. Here, in Blue Stars, it’s the home front that’s the focus, and the book does an outstanding job of showing that the misery and trauma don’t stop just because a soldier’s battle days are over… and that the trauma and pain are felt in myriad ways by the families back home as well. The military families described in Blue Stars aren’t idealized or seen through a rosy filter. They have faults, and we see them, but we also see the dedication, courage, and sheer determination that help them stand by their wounded soldiers.
My only frustration with Blue Stars is that I wished to know more about Mike himself and his experiences, but of course that would have been a different book. We get to know Mike through Ellen’s eyes, and it’s Ellen’s experience of Mike’s war — and by extension, Ellen and her family’s war as well — that’s the essence of this book. Blue Stars is about the ravages of war, on individuals and families, and about what it takes to rebuild a life — the life of the wounded soldier, and the life of the damaged family.
Reading about the badly wounded soldiers, so young and so full of promise, is moving and tragic. I was filled with anger over their pointless suffering, and filled with admiration for the tough parents, spouses, children, girlfriends and boyfriends, who give 110% for the sake of their loved ones’ recovery. Blue Stars is a moving and powerful novel — not always pleasant, but an important and emotionally rich look at the lives of military families, the power of friendship, and the many ways that love and commitment make a difference.
Title: Blue Stars
Author: Emily Gray Tedrowe
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 17, 2015
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley