Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mrs. Lieutenant by Phyllis Zimbler Miller

Mrs. Lieutenant: A Sharon Gold Novel follows four women who spend nine weeks in Fort Knox, Kentucky, as their husbands complete Armor Officers Basic (AOB) training. The book takes place in early 1970, just after the Ohio National Guard kills several Kent State University students during the volatile times of the Vietnam War.

The women are as different as night and day: Sharon, a Jewish anti-war protester from Chicago; Kim, a white Southern Baptist from North Carolina whose rough childhood causes her to cling to her jealous husband; Donna, a Puerto Rican coping with the shift from being the daughter of an enlisted man to the wife of an officer; and Wendy, a black woman from South Carolina who confronts the harsh realities of racial discrimination for the first time.

As a former Mrs. Lieutenant herself, Phyllis Zimbler Miller writes from experience, and that experience shines through in a moving novel that showcases the struggles of officers' wives during the Vietnam War. Zimbler Miller does a great job showing the fears of these women as they contend with the fact that their husbands likely will go to war. I could feel their fears myself, and had my own husband not left the National Guard several years before we married, they might be fears I'd know first hand right now.

I've always been interested in reading books that take place during the Vietnam War. My father was an MP in the Air Force and served in Vietnam long before he married my mom and had children, and he'd tell me some stories about his experiences. I'm even more interested in reading them now that my father's been dead for nearly 9 years, and he never got the chance to tell me the stories he kept locked inside. I heard stories from my mother about how she woke up in the middle of the night with my father's hands around her neck, obviously having nightmares. And I remember walking with my husband and friends through Washington, D.C., when I was seven months pregnant, determined to visit the Vietnam Wall on behalf of my dad and say prayers for the men he served with whose names are listed.

I've read novels about serving in the war and the psychological impact of the war on returning soldiers, but until Mrs. Lieutenant, I never read a book about the wives of those men who served. Zimbler Miller's novel is important because it preserves a part of our history, a part that often is overlooked. She also does a marvelous job detailing the anti-war sentiment, racial and religious discrimination, and social divisions within military ranks. Not only did I enjoy reading each woman's story, but I also learned a lot about the military and the expectations of officers' wives.

Zimbler Miller begins each chapter with a snippet of news from the time period, as well as a quote from Mary Preston Gross' Mrs. Lieutenant, a sort of etiquette book for officers' wives. The women are expected to learn how to properly write and respond to invitations, as well as how to serve tea, among other things. Such things are important, given that the quote on the first page of the novel states that the government gains both the officer and his wife. In addition to dealing with fears of their husbands' deployment, the women must contend with secrets from the past and how their actions could help or hinder their husbands' military careers. They are thrust together to plan the entertainment portion of the AOB officers' wives' graduation luncheon, and they quickly form a strong bond because, no matter the differences of race or religion, they understand one another.

In Mrs. Lieutenant, Zimbler Miller has created a cast of strong female characters. In the face of a decision that could mean life or death for their husbands, they do not crumble. Their fear might cause them to waiver or break down, but they rise up again. They have no other choice. Sharon says it best on page 453: 'There's such a thing as quiet heroism. The kind that doesn't bring attention to itself. The kind that just does a good job.'

Phyllis Zimbler Miller has been kind enough to let me interview her. The interview will be featured here tomorrow, along with information on how you can win a copy of Mrs. Lieutenant for yourselves!

Disclosure:  I won Mrs. Lieutenant in a blog contest.


Serena said...

This sounds like a fantastic book. I cannot wait to read it...Now where is that copy of yours...LOL

Jeannie said...

It does sound like a good book. It sounds like it gives a rare look into the effects of war from the point of view from the loved ones left at home.

Thanks for the review. :D

pamwax said...

Great review. It sounds like a good read, and there is nothing better then a good read. I do enjoy your blog.

Unknown said...

Serena, Jeannie and Pamwax --

I read your comments about this review of my book, and I just wanted to say that I'm so excited about this review because Anna really "got" the book.

And, Jeannie -- that's exactly what I wanted to do: for once give the point of view of the ones left at home.

Dawn said...

Great Review Anna, you really pulled me in on this one. My FIL served in the Vietnam War, and my husband and his Mom both have served in the Air Force as well. Hubby and I both have a lot of military people in our families so I can't wait to read this one.

Anna said...

Phyllis, thanks so much for the kind words about the review. They really mean a lot to me, since this book is something you've been working on for a long time.

Serena, Jeannie, Pam, Dawn: I can't tell you enough how much I enjoyed this book. It's definitely a must-read!

Serena said...

I really can't wait to read and review this book on my blog next. :)

After we took that Vietnam and Literature class in College, I have been fascinated with Vietnam War stories, poems, and novels....That was one of the better courses.

geographygeek said...

Wonderful review! You really made me want to read the book...if I ever get to read something not school related ever again :)

Anna said...

Serena, that honors seminar about literature from the Vietnam War was one of my favorite college classes. We certainly learned a lot. It was special to me because I'd go home nearly every weekend and share things with my dad. Those were good times, talking with my dad so openly.

Unknown said...

Anna and Serena,
Do you still have your reading list for that Vietnam and literature course? I'd love to see which books are on it.

Seradee said...

Hi Anna~ Wonderful interview and review! I had no idea that there was a society of its own among officers and their wives and that what a wife does could have an adverse affect on her officer husband. Very interesting! I wonder if the role is ever reversed (woman being an officer and husband being a civilian) and, if so, what expectations are put on the husband? I'm sure it's not the same. I am very anxious to get my hands on this book!

I also have to make a confession..... I do often look at your blog but feel as though I am SO out of my element -- you being a knitter and I a crocheter and biggest of all, you are very book / word savvy and I am well, not! :)

Lots of love,

Anna said...

Those are some interesting questions, Sarah! I wish I knew the answers...

Anonymous said...

I just caught up on this one. I'm definitely going to read this one as soon as I can find a copy.

My step-brother is a major in the army and is newly engaged. Maybe I should pass the book on to his fiance, too.

Great review!

Anna said...

Thanks! I'm sure they'd enjoy the book!

bethany (dreadlock girl) said...

great review for sure!!! I enjoyed this book as well, and am glad to see that there are other bloggers who were lucky enough to get their hands on it. I also highly recommend this one!!

Thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

Anna, thanks for visiting my blog, and for the review link (I have to start doing that with reviews on my site; it's so nice to read a few different perspectives!)

I'd love to see that list of suggested reads from the Vietnamese lit class ... did it get posted somewhere?