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Totally dropped the ball with posts! Things got busy at the day job, and then I did a little of actually getting out of the house and living (probably a post on that soon). Also, finally got to see The Dropkick Murphys in concert! But I’m trying to get back on track with posts now. I do have several drafts that just need to be finished and polished a little, and then hopefully, I’ll be back on track and stay there for awhile. Much thanks to my readers who’ve been bugging me to get back to it. 

Johnny Got His GunJohnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a child, I didn’t read a lot of history and/or war novels. They didn’t interest me (I did read a lot of the American Girl series, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, as well as books about horses… cliché?). The first war-related book I really appreciated with Catch-22 in 11th grade American lit, and by my last year of college in a class on British modernism, I realized I really love war poetry. Also, in true English major and would-be writer fashion, I harbor a deep, deep love for Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

I also feel I should mention, I have little [read: none] personal experience with anything military. My father worked for the army and traveled to different bases, but did so as a civilian employee. It was enough for him to teach my sister and I to use the NATO phonetic alphabet and to say acronyms like “ETA” and “SOP,” but that is about the end of my cultural exposure to the military. Well, that and the fact that Top Gun was one of my favorite movies for a long time.

So, Casandra, whose father is former military, and I are writing a novel about two female soldier protagonists in a city with a very visible military presence…

The nerd in me loves when I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.

Challenge accepted! Because what is writing without a little research of different subjects, tropes, language, and styles you might not have a lot of experience with? So, I start poking around for war-related titles in both fiction and nonfiction.

One of the first titles I stumble across is Johnny Got His Gun, which a friend lent me and which I finally sat down to read. The edition I borrowed calls it “the great American novel” on the cover, and for once, I agree with the cover praise. If not THE great American novel, Johnny Got His Gun, published in 1938 after WWI, is certainly the great American war novel. A year after publication, in 1939 (the same year WWII started), Johnny also won an award for Most Original Book.

And with good reason.

The premise is simple. So beautifully, brilliantly simple: a soldier, Joe, wakes up in a hospital after he’s been wounded only to find himself completely incapacitated, except for his mind. That one condition of being in control of one’s mind/one’s self, but not in control of anything else, not even one’s own body, makes the novel about so much more than war; this is King Lear stripped down in the storm asking, “Is man no more than this?”

Trumbo wakes us up in Joe’s head and locks us there. He addresses the war as part of the world, as part of Joe’s past experiences and memories, and while we are never allowed to forget the war, Trumbo introduces us to a new war wherein Joe, stripped of body and voice, is fighting for recognition of his humanity. You could say we’re voyeurs of Joe’s suffering, but like Joe realizes his condition is permanent, we realize the terms of the narrative are permanent. There is no recovery. There are no miracles, though we and Joe alike dare to hope; we dare to hope for the natural progression of stories, but we are locked there watching Joe’s frustration and suffering.

I have never read anything else that’s made me feel so palpably claustrophobic.

There are plenty of laws to protect guys’ money even in war time but there’s nothing on the books says a man’s life’s his own.

I finish reading the book and report my thoughts back to Cas along with a question that began budding in my mind as I was nearing the end of Johnny: Where are the great American war novels written by women?

Go to Google/Goodreads/Amazon right now and type in “war novel.”

Did you get a bunch of mostly awesome books written by men? So did we.

So we started tweaking our search phrases, and while there are some books written about women cross-dressing to fight as male soldiers and books about women serving now in these most recent conflicts, how many of them are written by women?

Search for war lit written by women. You’ll find a few articles and lists about women writing war stories, but they’re all pretty recent (including this cool list of contemporary war lit by women). Did you find any titles by women you would rank with (in chronological order by conflict) Johnny Got His Gun, Catch-22, and The Things They Carried, or did you fall into the trap of women’s literature vs. just literature? (If you did find awesome war lit titles by women, please post in the comments. I’d love to check them out.)

It might be easy to argue that women weren’t allowed to serve until recently. In America, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act wasn’t passed by Congress until 1948, and it wasn’t until 1991 and 1993 that Congress allowed women to fly in combat missions and serve on combat ships, respectively.

But if you haven’t read sci-fi/fantasy author Kameron Hurley’s essay on women and fighting, check it out here. Do it.

Go on. I’ll wait.

(You might also want to check our her Bel Dame Apocrypha series. Nyx, the assassin protagonist, shows her proof bad assery on page 1.)

You’re now wondering why our stories are missing, aren’t you? Because “we have always fought,” right? WE HAVE ALWAYS FOUGHT.

So, again, where are the great American war novels by women about women where women are soldiers and not just nurses? Where is the woman asking, “Is (wo)man no more than this?” and asking it not solely as a woman to other women, but as a fellow member of humanity with a valid voice contributing to the human condition? Not just the woman’s condition, the human condition.

Because remember when I said that as a child, I wasn’t interested in any war and/or history books? I figured out why: the women were missing. I know this is something being thrown around a lot in current conversations about gender equality, but this was one of those moments when the importance of an idea hit me personally. It’s not that I didn’t like history, it’s that I, as a girl, wasn’t in it. There was Cleopatra and then a huge gap until Harriet Tubman and another gap between her and the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

And when we talk about war,
we talk about soldiers and female soldiers.

I got most of my historical engagement first from the American Girl series and then through the brilliance that is the Dear America series, which I highly, highly recommend to anyone with young daughters, nieces, granddaughters, students, as well as any young boys. Because no child should learn a history that just ignores the experiences of half the population.

A positive note: Having finished reading a phenomenal book about what constitutes a self and a human life, I plucked off my bookshelf another strongly recommended book, The Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World by Catalina de Erauso. Starting in 1599, it is the earliest known autobiography of a woman. A fast-paced and quick read, I’ve already already lost track of how many people Catalina’s killed, both on and off the battlefield.

Because we have always fought.

I don’t want to make the claim that Cas and I are holed up somewhere writing the great American war novel featuring female protagonist soldiers; we’re not (not even close, actually, as we’re hanging out somewhere in the camps of… dystopian-speculative fiction…?). But our writing has led us to feel the missing pieces of models to explore, and as both a writer and reader, I’m eager to see quality literature that features and honors women fighting for the same reason we honor men for fighting.


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