Summer of 1976. I’m eleven years old, and I’ve just finished sixth grade. I’ve read everything that the librarian in charge of the little one-room public library in a small town in West Virginia thinks is suitable for a good little girl my age: Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Anne of Green Gables, all the Little House books, the unabridged version of Little Women, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Harriet the Spy, My Side of the Mountain. I’ve read every one of the Reader’s Digest abridged books on the shelf in my parents’ bedroom, and thanks to a series of diligent Sunday School teachers I’ve read all the best stories in the King James Bible. There is no bookstore within fifty miles. I’m bored: it’s too hot to play outside, my little sister’s being a brat, and there’s nothing in the house to read. Except….that stack of Mom’s “grownup books” piled up on top of the refrigerator, which I’m too short to reach.
This is why God made kitchen step stools and sent my mother to the grocery store. She’ll never miss one book for a few days. Not even this one, with the pretty Caribbean-themed cover: Shanna, by Kathleen Woodiwiss.
I became a romance novel junkie that week in 1976. The steamy, bodice-ripper sex was a real eye-opener (I had only the vaguest idea of procreational mechanics before I opened that cover). But what excited me more was the premise that a grown woman could violate some social norm for her gender (Woodiwiss’s heroine Shanna contrives a marriage of convenience with a prisoner to thwart her father’s plans to marry her “up” in society); that all sorts of fun and havoc would ensue as a result (prison break! secret trysts! false identities! daring escape on a pirate ship! murder! lots of hot jungle sex!); and that, at the end of the adventure, the wayward heroine would be rewarded rather than censured for her transgressive derring-do (the wealth of all the Americas! love and approval from her family and friends! hot jungle sex for the rest of her natural life! cute babies! a faithful and adoring mate!). The narrative of transgression, risk, and reward ratcheted my pre-adolescent dopamine levels up to breathtaking new heights.
True confession time: since 1976, romance novels have been my palate-cleansing literary sorbet. Especially now. I need a periodic happily-ever-after respite from the steady diet of veterans’ narratives and “literary fiction” that I consume during the week.
Last week, I ran across a link on the War, Literature & the Arts Facebook page to Albeit Journal, a scholarly publication that recently produced an issue about women at war. In their contribution “In Sickness and in Heath: Representations of PTSD in post-9/11 Romance Novels,” Stacy Holden and Charity Tabol discuss some contemporary romance novels and their (civilian) authors’ depictions of PTSD. The gist of the article was that romance novelists are getting it wrong – they misrepresent the signs and symptoms, and suggest that PTSD can be “cured” with a generous application of True Love.
I had to wonder if Holden and Tabol ever read romance novels for pleasure, or if they had to close their eyes and think of England to make it through the novels they read for their article. While I can’t speak for everyone, I suspect that most women who enjoy romance novels understand that they’re adult fairy tales. Entertainment. Escape. Readers aren’t actually expecting to ensnare an elegant duke during a quadrille, dash across the Highlands on horseback with a kilted laird, sail the seven seas with a pirate captain who has no body odor and a full set of pearly white teeth, be rescued by a Navy SEAL from a cave guarded by rabid militants deep in the wilds of Trashcanistan, or – God forbid – to “cure” a veteran’s PTSD with True Love’s First Kiss. And even the most well-written of the sex scenes are…fiction. A guy who’s a sufficiently considerate and capable lover to elicit the Big O on a first date with a single finger, who can perform umpteen times in one night and make the fifth time feel as good as the first, and who never farts in bed and fluffs the covers? When he does exist, he’s the guy who will want to wear your nail polish and lingerie the next week. Or he’ll suddenly turn into the knife-wielding Vietnam vet from Looking for Mr. Goodbar – the next book I read from Mom’s forbidden pile on the refrigerator.
Anyway, Holden and Tabol’s more respectful reference to the romance novels of Army officer Jessica Scott got my attention. On Friday evening I downloaded Homefront to my Kindle. On Sunday evening, six novels and a novella later, there was no food left in the house, the weekend chores remained untouched, and I had no idea if the boys had even started their homework.
Scott’s Coming Home and Homefront series defy some of the conventions of the romance genre. Her novels aren’t set in exotic foreign countries or idyllic landscapes; they’re mostly set in garrison at Fort Hood, Texas, where the only attractive views seem to be out at the Belton Dam or on the lakeside deck of a (fictional?) restaurant, Talarico’s. One book takes place in Colorado Springs and another in Maine, both during unpleasantly cold winter conditions. Exciting things happen on the range and in the shoot house at Fort Hood – and on the floor of a latrine somewhere in Iraq, where a sergeant first class lies struggling with alcoholic detox. Oh: and in beds, against doors, on waist-height pieces of furniture, and in offices at the Headquarters building, of course. (I was just a little disappointed that in garrison, there were so many comfortable venues for adult activity that none the characters ever had to resort to rocking the shocks in a Humvee.)
Scott’s heroes and heroines, primarily company-grade officers and sergeants first class (with an occasional field-grade officer or civilian spouse), are assigned to the First Cavalry Division or to support units at Fort Hood. They’re all hot and fit, in accordance with the conventions of the romance genre and Army regulations: nobody’s on the Fat Boy Program. But they’re not wealthy, like the characters in many other romance novels. Everybody’s taking Uncle Sam’s nickel. Nobody’s a trust fund baby slumming in the armed forces. There’s very little attention given to clothing, another digression from the conventions of the romance genre. Nobody looks stylish in gray ACU’s: they’ll never go out of fashion because they’ve never been in fashion in the first place. The First Cavalry Stetson is a tradition with serious history. The Combat Action Badge is a symbol of shared hardship, not a fashion accessory. Scott only delves deep into the world of military clothing in All for You, when Army psychologist Emily Lindberg puts together her Inceptor body armor like the heroine of a Regency romance prepares her train and plumes for her presentation to Queen Charlotte at court.
By the standards of the romance genre, Scott’s protagonists are unusually and pleasingly complex, flawed, and interesting. Depression disables a captain after her deployment. A lieutenant just wants to train his men for the next deployment, but he struggles with fear of cowardice and of becoming like his father. A tough-guy captain is bullied by his widowed mother, an influential Army colonel who can’t keep her fingers out of his career. One sergeant first class is an alcoholic who wanders in and out of recovery. Another blames herself for her husband’s suicide. A widowed lieutenant whose husband was killed in Iraq juggles single motherhood and the demands of a bitchy female major who holds women to higher standards than men, makes inappropriate remarks about other women, and gets away with it because the men she works with write her behavior off as a “female problem.” The major tells LT Anders that single mothers don’t belong:
“Sarah, the Army isn’t meant for officers who are single mothers. You simply cannot give the same as an officer who has no children or who has a wife at home to take care of these things.”
Sarah forced herself to speak. To regain some shred of dignity and not just sit there, mute and powerless.
“Ma’am, I’ve done everything the Army has ever asked of me. Willingly and with everything I am.” Sarah choked out the words. Her throat was tight and her lungs burned from not getting enough air.
She would not cry in front of this woman.
“Then maybe you should readjust your priorities. Clearly if you’ve been devoting everything to the Army, your child is suffering.”
“Your mere presence in the Army offends me. You take time off when others have to work. You leave work early when your peers are here late. You play the female card when it’s convenient for you, and then you insist you just wanted to be treated equally. I don’t play your games, captain. You will be held to the same standard as everyone else. Fairly, without regard to your status as mother.”
This characterization and dialogue may seem over the top, but it isn’t. I heard the same sentiments from both men and women in the Navy, put just that bluntly, many times when I was on active duty.
My favorite heroine in the six novels and one novella that I read was the feisty, no-nonsense Sergeant First Class Holly Washington of Forged in Fire: a realistic (if idealized) first sergeant, she’s rough, tough, doesn’t take any shit off anybody, happily rushes into fistfights, outruns most of the men in her formation one morning, and spends most of her time taking ass-chewings for the team, caring for her soldiers in every possible way, teaching junior officers how to tell their asses from their elbows, and modeling real leadership for them. Scott is at her best in creating dialogue for SFC Washington. Here, Washington tells her future lover, whom she thinks of as “Captain Cranky Pants,” how it’s going to be:
“Look, sir, you can have a problem with me or not; I don’t really give a rat’s ass. But we’ve got to work together for the next year or so unless one of us gets fired, so I’d just as soon you get over whatever moral objection you’ve got to smartass females and I’ll try to get over your crusty ‘anything that isn’t shooting motherfuckers in the face is a waste of time’ attitude. Deal?”
Later, she takes down another first sergeant who has come to her to complain about one of her subordinates:
“Your Sergeant Freeman is apparently stringing along both Pizarro and Baggins,” Delgado said.
Holly braced her hips against her desk, watching the other first sergeant carefully. His tone was…sandpapery at best. “Well isn’t that a lovely little dead bird to drop into the middle of the office like it’s some kind of prize. Did you kill it yourself?”
Delgado shook his head and mirrored her stance, ignoring Captain Reheres completely. “I’m not amused, First Sergeant.”
“Neither am I,” she said. “You come in here like you own the place, scare the piss out of my commander, and then act like we’re supposed to fall all over ourselves at your genius pronouncement. So unless you’ve got proof that our NCO is sleeping with either of your men – and oh by the way, nothing you’ve said is much beyond contrary to good order and discipline – then get the hell out of my office and take your shitty attitude with you.”
Delgado’s mouth actually dropped open. For a moment he looked stunned, then his expression shifted back to full asshole. “So you’re not going to do anything?”
“Nothing much to do at this point, First Sarn’t,” Holly said.
Delgado turned to Captain Reheres. “You need to get your NCOs in line,” he snapped. “They’re distracting my men from preparing for their deployment. I don’t need them fighting over the females.”
Holly tapped her finger to her top lip. “See, here’s the problem with your logic, First Sergeant. You seem to forget that your men should be perfectly capable of restraining themselves. If they’re walking hard-ons, it’s because they choose not to be fucking responsible for their own actions. Don’t blame the females for your men’s inability to control their dicks.”
She was reasonably certain there was smoke coming out of Delgado’s ears. Good. The fucker.
“If your females weren’t cockteases, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
Holly bristled but kept her voice level. Screaming at this mouth breathing Neanderthal wasn’t going to accomplish a damn thing. “You’re right. Your men would be doing this with civilian women who we could ignore, right? But because they’re doing all this chest beating macho bullshit with another soldier, we’ve actually got to deal with it, don’t we?”
“Don’t give me any of that feminist bullshit. Keep your NCOs under control,” Delgado snapped.
“Sure. I’ll just go sign for some burkhas while we’re at it. Do you think they have them at CIF? I can get that along with their body armor?” Any chance of a working relationship with Delgado was about to be burned to the ground and she was too pissed off to care. “Go fuck yourself, First Sergeant. Get the hell out of my ops office.”
Delgado looked like he wanted to snap. “All this feel good female bullshit is going to get my men killed.”
“Keep telling yourself that.”
Scott’s portrayals of civilian spouses and junior enlisted personnel are more stereotypical. Melanie, the ex-wife of SFC Gale Sorren in Homefront, divorced her husband when he repeatedly chose his Army career over the needs of their family. But she has never really fallen out of love with him. The wife of Sergeant Kearney in After the War is an unfaithful, chain-smoking troublemaker who aims to “trade up” her enlisted spouse for an officer, and who educates Lieutenant Sarah Anders on creative alternatives to monogamy during an Article 15 investigation:
Sarah made a note on the paper. “How did you and LT Smith meet?”
“Nate brought him home one night for a soft swap. Him and his wife.”
“Is that for drinks or something?”
Mrs. Kearney looked at her like she’d grown two heads. “We were trading partners for the night. Just trying each other out to see if we’d want to go further.”
Scott’s novels also push the boundaries of the “happily ever after” ending in which the hero and heroine celebrate their love with marriage. The happy couples in All for You and Forged in Fire are fraternizing – in the former he’s a sergeant first class and she’s a captain, and in the latter she’s a sergeant first class and he’s a lieutenant – so while their chains of command are aware of the relationship and decline to initiate UCMJ disciplinary procedures, neither couple makes plans to marry in the novels’ final pages.
What interested me the most in the novels I read were the issues that Scott used to give her characters internal and external conflict. She tackles a range of real and serious issues that would be familiar to many soldiers going back and forth between garrison and multiple deployments: the challenges of single parenting, combat skills training versus administrative and medical readiness, the effect of multiple deployments on children, officer and NCO leadership, marital infidelity, domestic violence, designer drug and painkiller abuse, alcoholism, suicide, PTSD, depression, fraternization, and especially the effects of corruption and favoritism. Her officers and first sergeants, good and bad, often overlook their soldiers’ most serious struggles – addiction, suicidal ideation, PTSD, domestic violence. They do it because the soldiers Scott describes are skilled in combat and will be needed on the next deployment; because their chain of command believes that the Army owes them allegiance in exchange for their prior combat experience and should cut them some slack; because the officers’ and NCOs’ leadership is just weak; or because, as LT Bello tells SFC Washington: “We’re going to war with the Army we have. We’ve got to make the best of it.” The one contemporary issue she doesn’t touch in the novels I read is military sexual trauma. That’s probably for the best: for at least two decades, romance novelists have been writing savvy, modern heroines who exercise sexual agency and are uninhibited lovers. Contemporary romance writers work hard to demonstrate that romantic fiction no longer depicts the “rape fantasies” and the coercive sex found in early bodice-ripper novels. Portrayal of military sexual trauma in a contemporary romance novel, while not impossible, would challenge the happily-ever-after ending and require an extremely deft touch.
Romance novels are written predominantly by women, for an audience of other women. Scott’s choice to use the contemporary romance genre to portray serious military issues in the wake of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan means that no matter how interesting or realistic her characters, no matter how significant the conflicts she chooses for them to wrestle with, few men are going to read her books or consider the themes she’s writing in a serious way as a result of having read them. That’s too bad. Regardless of whether or not she’s attempting to create “art” in the sense understood by aficionados of literary fiction, she’s writing from lived experience of the Army and translating some of her experience of wartime military service and the issues that concern her most onto the page into fiction. There is honesty, candor, and more than a grain of truth in her romance novels.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that some of the most powerful stories about women and military service that I’ve read recently were contemporary romance novels. They address social transgression, risk, and reward – just like military service itself does for women. And women will say things to other women that most of us wouldn’t say to men. We speak more honestly and candidly with each other. Writer Rebecca Solnit has pointed out that when women attempt to tell their stories they often experience three “concentric circles” of being silenced: they must first overcome internal inhibitions of self-doubt, shame, and fear of punishment; then, if they attempt to speak, they may be humiliated, bullied, or subjected to violence; and finally, if they manage to speak, both tale and teller may be discredited. One of the ways for women to break the silence safely is to write our stories as fiction; another is to speak only to a receptive audience – in this case, other women.
In the end, Scott’s novels may be too “military” in both style and content to appeal to some civilian romance readers. Her characters swear frequently and realistically, and they use some military jargon and the occasional acronym. Some of the internal and external conflicts that they face – especially those involving military leadership and training – may seem too esoteric. Judging by my husband’s reaction when he has peeked into my collection of romance novels, the way Scott (or any romance writer) portrays sexual intimacy is going to weird some men out. But military women who enjoy romance are likely to be great fans of Scott’s books. And all readers looking for a glimpse into the experiences and concerns of women in uniform should definitely check these novels out. When I want to read entertaining fiction about men and women who take risks, transgress social boundaries, care about the things I cared about when I was on active duty, and are rewarded for their efforts with love and community, I’ll choose a Jessica Scott romance.