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Something Like Normal
When Travis returns home from a stint in Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother’s stolen his girlfriend and his car, and he’s haunted by nightmares of his best friend’s death. It’s not until Travis runs into Harper, a girl he’s had a rocky relationship with since middle school, that life actually starts looking up. And as he and Harper see more of each other, he begins to pick his way through the minefield of family problems and post-traumatic stress to the possibility of a life that might resemble normal again.
After a year of active duty in Afghanistan, in which he lost eight of his fellow soldiers and most recently his best friend Charlie, Travis is back home in Florida for a month of leave. It’s his first return home since boot camp and a year of silence while on active duty.
While he has been gone his young brother, Ryan, has started dating Travis’s ex-girlfriend, Paige. Ryan is also driving his old VW and wrecking the clutch, which surprisingly annoys Travis more than his hook-up with Paige (which might have something to do with the fact that she’s is back to her old games, crawling into his bed the second Travis returns).
Meanwhile Travis’s high-school friends are still stoners and drop-outs, or in one case about to be a teenage father. He doesn’t really have anything in common with them anymore.
Travis’s family has undergone a dramatic change too. His mother has proudly taken on the role of ‘Marine Mum’ and thrown herself into charities and organizations based around being a proud, supportive (if terrified) parent of a marine. Travis’s father, however, has gotten worse over a year. Always an overbearing sonofabitch, his dad still has some wounded pride that Travis threw his football career in for deployment, and he’s resentful of how much time and energy Travis’s mum is devoting to her marine mum cause . . . so resentful, in fact, that he’s having an affair.
But perhaps the biggest change of all is in Travis himself. He’s having nightmares and constantly looking for IED’s (improvised explosive device) wherever he walks. And he’s seeing his dead friend, Charlie, wherever he looks.
After spending his first year of active duty in Afghanistan, Travis has returned to his hometown to find everything exactly as he left it, but nothing feels the same.
And then he bumps into Harper Gray.
Travis and Harper have a history, dating back to when they shared seven minutes in heaven when they were 13. Seven minutes which were followed by rumours of more than kissing and tarnished Harper’s reputation forever. Needless to say, when they bump into each other in a seedy bar, she is less than thrilled to see him. But Travis feels the same way about her now as he did when he was 13; he’s intrigued by her Charley Harper-inspired name, green eyes and bitten-lip smile. And, honestly, hanging out with her is the closest to normal he has felt in a long time . . .
‘Something Like Normal’ is the debut young adult novel from Trish Doller.
The War in Afghanistan began in 2001. The armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia have been involved in operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ for a decade. Likewise, ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ began in 2003 and officially concluded in December 2011 (although violence rages on, with many fatalities still reported). So it’s a little odd that there haven’t been more books, in particular young adult books, about these wars. It’s really only in very recent years that we’ve started seeing the topic explored in fictional YA novels like ‘If I Lie’ by Corrine Jackson (coming August 2012), ‘In Honour’ by Jessi Kirby (May 2012) and ‘The Things a Brother Knows’ by Dana Reinhardt (2010). And now we have ‘Something Like Normal’ by Trish Doller; about a young US marine who still has three years of active duty left, but who is starting to realize the post-traumatic affects inflicted upon him from his single year in Afghanistan.
I can’t really say why there haven’t been more YA novels exploring the subject of the Iraq invasion and war in Afghanistan. I think for a long time it was a taboo subject – particularly in the post-9/11 patriotism. I think it’s nigh impossible to write a book which explores war in a positive way, without looking at the terrible mental and physical affects it has on characters (and ultimately questions and criticizes why we even got to war). Maybe that’s why the world of young adult literature has been ‘hands-off’ with this topic, particularly when “stay the course” was the slogan du-jour of the Iraq war. But it is a little strange, because in 2008 HBO had the incredible TV show ‘Generation Kill’ which followed a group of marines in the first wave of the American-led assault on Baghdad. And this month the documentary ‘Invisible War’ has been released, which investigates the epidemic of rape of female soldiers within the US military. Not to mention the many fictional films that use the Iraq/Afghan wars as backdrop. So I’m saying it’s just odd that when film and TV have been exploring and thinking critically about the wars in a fictional context, why the young adult genre was so far behind? Particularly when many Gen Y-ers are soldiers in the war. This is the war of our generation – yet we’re not really talking about it the way I thought we would be . . . which is why I’m so grateful for Doller’s ‘Something Like Normal’.
What’s really wonderful about this book is that Doller doesn’t touch on the ideologies or reasons behind the war in Afghanistan. Travis is the first to admit that he didn’t join the marines in a burst of patriotism or 9/11-fueled anger. He pretty much just wanted to get out from under his old man’s thumb. Basically, he is the majority of young service men and women who can’t pinpoint a directly patriotic reason for their military service – making Iraq and Afghanistan more akin to the Vietnam War, where reasons were also blurry and justifications dim. Travis sees being a marine as his job – there’s nothing more star-spangled to it than that.
I really loved that Doller took the nationalism out of the book right away, if only because it doesn’t muddy the plot waters and the focus is far more on the human aspect of war. We meet Travis shortly after eight in his company were killed, including his best friend Charlie. When he returns home for a month of leave, he’s surprised and frustrated to learn the extent of his psychological damage . . . it’s not just that his trigger-finger constantly twitches, that he’s forever scanning for IED’s or feels naked without his Kevlar on. It’s that he’s seeing Charlie in crowds and sitting at the end of his bed; and not just seeing him, with throat slashed and dead eyes . . . he’s also talking to him.
I look up and Charlie is sitting beside Harper on the bench, his arms hooked around the back and his body so close to hers, I wonder why she doesn’t feel it, doesn’t see him.
“We fucked up good, didn’t we Solo?” he says.
I just stare at him as he reaches across the table and – just as if we were back at infantry school – snatches a strip of bacon from my plate. It doesn’t levitate in midair, and beside Charlie, Harper crunches a bite of toast, unaware that there are three of us at this table.
“I mean. . . “ Charlie folds the whole strip of bacon into his mouth and chews for a moment. “I’m dead and you’re seeing things that aren’t really there, and we have no one else to blame.”
“We should have told somebody about the kid,” I say, and Harper looks at me.
“What?” she asks.
Taking the patriotic ideology out of her main marine character also gives readers a chance to get to know the real Travis . . . and he’s kind of brilliant. He’s no prince and he’d cringe to be called a hero. Actually, he’s a little bit broken and messed up, to be honest. He has been in an on-off, lustful, anger-driven relationship with his high school sweet-heart, Paige, for so long that they’ve both fallen into destructive patterns. Likewise, Travis and his young brother, Ryan, haven’t evolved past their childish one-upmanship and his relationship with his father has been fractured since he quit football in high school. Travis makes plenty of mistakes, and is far from perfect, which is one of the many reasons why he feels uneasy when perfect strangers shake his hand and slap his back just because he wears a uniform. Regardless of his imperfections (trust me, there are a few) Travis is a delight to read. He’s honest and funny, scared for himself and missing Charlie is slowly eating away at him. He’s a completely compelling character and I kept turning the page because I was so drawn to him . . .
And what really endeared Travis to me was his relationship with the two women in his life – his mum, and Harper Gray.
Travis’s mum became ‘Marine Mum’ when he left for boot camp. She took up as many military-charity organizations as she could and sent him super-sized care packages and letters of love. But her terror-filled enthusiasm for her son’s career has seen her marriage fracture, and when Travis returns home he sees a side of her that he’s completely unfamiliar, and ill-equipped, to deal with. Over the course of the book Travis lends his mum strength, and finally comes to understand the love and worry she has been writing to him for the last year. I loved reading the relationship between Travis and his mum, and I thought it was so wonderful that Doller gave some insight into what the people left behind deal with when their loved ones go to war.
Then there’s Harper Gray. Travis hasn’t really thought much about Harper (named for artist Charley Harper, not Harper Lee) since they were 13 and he embellished their seven minutes in heaven. But when he bumps into her during a particularly bad night of panic attacks, he finds himself intrigued with the green-eyed girl whose life he once ruined . . . Hands down, without a doubt; Harper and Travis are one of my favourite couples of 2012! I just loved these two so much. They have one of the most thoughtful relationships that I've read between YA characters, and I especially loved that Harper Gray was an intelligent, kind and ballsy young woman to catch Travis’s eye.
The book is ultimately about Travis readjusting to life after war, and coming to terms with the fact that he will still have three years of life lived between war and relative peace. If I had any complaints, it was that Travis’s relationship and issues with Ryan and his father felt unresolved and a little one-dimensional . . . but at the same time, it wouldn’t have been realistic for Travis to even want to patch up the big problems he has with those two in his one month of down time. He’s actually just coming to grips with the fact that he’ll probably never have a solid relationship with either of them, and that being away at war has also altered his outlook with regards to them.
There were many great things about Trish Doller’s ‘Something Like Normal’, and perhaps the greatest is simply that this books exists at all . . . she’s one of very few young adult authors (and a debut author, at that!) to start exploring the two big wars that have defined an entire generation. That she does so with infinite patience and care for her fractured protagonist is fantastic. That she’s also exploring the fragile and complex relationships between those who go to war and the ones they leave behind, is even better. I can’t recommend this book enough. Superb.
Travis engaged with me as a reader. He wasn't a romanticised Romeo, or a wise-cracking Stifler (American Pie). He moved through the plot with the whole range of emotions and he felt them in a unique and characterising way. I appreciated his honesty, even when I was put off by it (sleeping with his ex-girlfriend, who is currently his brother's girlfriend, whilst in-like with his first crush).
His relationship with his mother was a highlight for me. It was really honest and one of the few books I've read where the complexity of mother-son relationships was focused on.
Something Like Normal is not a soldier's story or PTSD story, it is the story of Travis, who happens to be a soldier with PTSD My only complaint is that it ended too soon. I liked Travis and was sad to see him go. I was left feeling that momentary loss of friendship and understanding.