What I’m Consuming: Home Fires Burning by Karen Houppert

Book cover: Home Fires Burning It seems fitting to finish Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military–for Better or Worse on Memorial Day.  And that’s what I did. Considering my last What I’m Consuming post* was a while ago, I’m also due for another one. So here it goes.   What it is and why it’s here This is a book of nonfiction by a writer I respect, who spends years researching her books.** She is also the daughter of a U.S. Air Force pilot. Home Fires Burning weaves together portraits of, as Houppert puts it, “women who straddle the military world–one foot on post, one foot in the civilian sector.” Most of the interviews took place on an army base in New York. But each personal story reifies a larger narrative–about war widows, domestic violence, the economics of military jobs, political dissent. Though Houppert is a seasoned journalist, the picture she paints is far from neutral. The book takes a critical angle on military practices, especially when it comes to spouses and children of the enlisted. The stories highlight hypocrisy on the bases and in the military in general. As a twist–and perhaps a throwback to her life as a self-declared “military brat”– she worked with officials and communications staff more than was necessary for access to her subjects. Some of that give and take with the public affairs officers became part of the story. At the end, Houppert marvels at how the PAOs “simply trusted that their family-friendly programs were good ones and that the wives they referred me to would have nothing but good things to say about the army.”  I found that aspect of cooperation with authority both engaging and instructive.   How I came upon it Decades after her father went to the Vietnam War and her mother joined a waiting wives club, and five years after the book came out, Houppert happened to be my graduate thesis adviser. It was through my program at Johns Hopkins that I started reading her work. As my adviser, Karen urged me to chop away at an over-ambitious list of stories I had laid out for my thesis. She helped me to expand and polish the ones left, loading them with color, character, and laser-fine reporting. In my copy of Home Fires Burning, she invited me to flip the scenario. “You can send me your critique!” she wrote in the front cover.   The upshot Houppert holds her students to stringent standards (plus she garners attention for the teaching itself). Yet I suspect she’s harder on herself than on anyone else. It is this, combined with her storytelling, that makes me wholeheartedly recommend this book. The stringency shows in how Houppert identifies every source, and caps off the book with extensive notes. I came to trust her even more, though I admit I’m already critical of U.S. military policies and funding, and have little personal experience with it (my own father talked only vaguely of his three-year stint in the army, which happened long before I was born). As for the storytelling, no one could resist the descriptions of the people she interviews. Houppert has a special way of noting how her subjects push aside an errant lock of hair or feed their kids as they talk. Each time, the action reveals more of the story than dialogue or statistics ever could. Those descriptions carry lessons on the concept of “telling details” that we discussed in grad school. I’m still developing my knack for noticing and including such nuggets. This is an important, nuanced book. That’s why I’m including it in a series of posts that feature works I would recommend to others. And now, years after I bought Home Fires Burning at a Hopkins faculty reading, I can finally send that critique. ______ *Click here for all of the What I’m Consuming posts. **Also by Karen Houppert: The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation. I thought it was excellent (n that case, I have more than enough experience to hold up against her reporting) and Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice.

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