Book Reviews

[review] While He Was Away – Karen Schreck

Release Date: May 1, 2012
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Age Group: Young Adult
Pages: 249
Format: Paperback
Source: ARC received from publisher

One year–he’ll be gone for one year and then we’ll be together again and everything will be back to the way it should be.

The day David left, I felt like my heart was breaking. Sure, any long-distance relationship is tough, but David was going to war–to fight, to protect, to put his life in danger. We can get through this, though. We’ll talk, we’ll email, we won’t let anything come between us.

I can be on army girlfriend for one year. But will my sweet, soulful, funny David be the same person when he comes home? Will I? And what if he doesn’t come home at all…?

Tell Me More: Whirlwind romances, summer flings, desperate Romeo/Juliet situations–they’re the stuff of teenage dreams and wishes. I’d be lying if I said I never wanted any of those things, and most people can attest to the same. There’s something about being a teenager that makes one feel as though anything is possible and everything is open to you. Interestingly enough, the tag line for this novel is in that same optimistic vein: “Love can conquer any distance…right?” But While He Was Away suffers from much more than just distance between the two characters, and doesn’t manage to raise itself from those depths in time for the ending.

I’ve spoken to former soldiers and learned about the military experience from ex-Navy SEALS and their families. I’ve read excellent Harlequins with military characters. So to a point, I can certainly agree that Karen Schreck’s narrative rings true regarding the difficulties of living an army/navy life. I just could not get past the sheer immaturity of the characters. Penna is particularly grating–she is barely developed enough to be more than just David’s girlfriend, and yet the story relies on her narration. Because she is so underdeveloped, there is very little to like about her (try as one might) and worse for the story, there is very little to care about. Penna’s experiences as an Army Girlfriend (emphasis mine) had the potential to be compelling and powerful, and it was disappointing to see them reduced to scenes that had little to no emotional power.

The pacing of the story is extremely off-putting, which isn’t helped by weak prose. Schreck goes from discussing one issue to another in a single paragraph, leaving the structure of the story without anything to hold on to. Other novels are able to transcend this problem with attention-grabbing characters and a strong overarching plot. Given that While He Was Away is such a closed, intimate story, Schreck’s approach does not work for its benefit.

Beyond these problems with the story, I would have still recommended it to beginning YA readers, but there was one scene that bothered me enough to change my initial rating from a 2 to 1 star. Penna and David go on a website where they can “shoot” an Iraqi artist with paintballs. The simulation bothers Penna enough to have her hesitating, but David encourages her.

“Holy crap,” David said. He laughed nervously. He said it was my turn. “Come on,” David said. “Just think about 9/11. Shoot him.”
The artist was bent over, collecting the messy shreds of newspaper when I took my shot. I aimed off to the side, but even when the paintball just burst bloodily against the floor, I practically hyperventilated.
“I don’t like this,” I said.
David stuttered around for a little bit—9/11 this, 9/11 that. Finally he said he didn’t really like this either. Not really. The guy reminded him too much of Ravi. David rolled his eyes then. “Total stereotyping, right? Seen one, you seen ’em all. God. I sound like my worst enemy.” We left that site then and went somewhere else where we shot droids, not humans.”

I understand that this may have been Schreck illustrating the stereotype, but the scene still made me angry enough to stop reading the book for a few days. My best friend is Muslim, and I dislike anything that insinuates, in any way, that people from any race are interchangeable, that they are all to blame for one evil act. I cannot stomach that ignorance, and it makes me angry that Schreck thought this would be the best way to illustrate her point.

The Final Say: While He Was Away is not a novel that offers anything new to the discussion of military life, both off and on the war front.

About Karen

Karen Schreck is the author of the young adult novel WHILE HE WAS AWAY (Sourcebooks Fire, May 2012), as well as the novel DREAM JOURNAL, which was a 2006 Young Adult BookSense Pick, and the award-winning children’s book, LUCY’S FAMILY TREE. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize and an Illinois State Arts Council Grant, Karen received her doctorate in English and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She writes and teaches for a living, and she loves visiting schools and other gatherings of readers and writers to talk about her books the writing process.

Add While He Was Away on Goodreads | Follow Karen on Twitter @KarenSchreck | Visit Karen’s website

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1 reply »

  1. I totally agree with your sentiment behind hating that scene, but wasn’t that the point of the scene? Wasn’t she saying the opposite of that? It was going against the stereotyping and the sarcastic use of “seen one seen them all” was meant to emphasize that. Am I just reading the scene out of context?

    Either way, I’m not into the army books, but I just wanted to know what you’re seeing that I’m not.

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