The FYI Book Club gathered at the National World War I Museum recently to discuss the novel and its unusual structure.
First, Lora Vogt, the museum’s curator of education, led participants on a special tour of exhibits featuring women’s lives during wartime. She drew comparisons between women’s experiences during World War I and the current conflicts in Iraq.
The book opens with Lt. Emma Fowler on a disastrous recovery mission with her troops. In reverse chronological order the reader carefully learns how all the characters came to be in this terrible situation in a hostile Iraq war zone and how significantly their personalities have changed.
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For many readers, following this unusual method of storytelling was challenging. For others, it was rewarding and riveting to watch the characters disintegrate and evolve at the same time.
“I struggled with the backward storyline. I finally gave in and went with it. Just go with the ebb and stop referring back to the beginning,” said Amica Gomersall of Kansas City.
“It was mentally confusing,” agreed Hanna Cusick of Kansas City, “but by the time I reached the final third of the book I connected with Emma and empathized with her. I had a better grasp of what she was trying to do as a woman leader of a company made up of men.”
Leigh Blackman of Prairie Village liked the challenge of the plot device. “Reading the story as it unfolded in reverse made me think about how I wander in other books. It made the book a page-turner. I wanted to know who all the characters were and how they became these people in this particular place and time.”
Gomersall added, “The tragedy was increased as the story moves backward, especially for Emma and Pulowski.” (Lt. Dixon Pulowski and Emma had been secret lovers since they met at Fort Riley in Kansas.) “You know what they’ve gone through and what lies in wait for these young men and women.”
Ginny Battaglia of Kansas City said, “I didn’t know this story moved backwards at first. But it made sense as I kept reading. When you tell your life story, sometimes you go backwards.”
The confusing acronyms and anxious situations contributed to the chaos of war, said Margaret Turner of Kansas City. “I started taking each chapter on its own and became less confused, but also less connected. It really is chaotic in places.”
“If the story feels disjointed it is because war is disjointed,” said Linda Trout of Overland Park. “This was the author’s way of helping the reader understand a soldier’s experience.”
Peggy Martinez of Kansas City said, “The military terms and acronyms showed me this is a team that works well together, and they are in their own world. One we can’t truly understand.”
Readers enjoyed exploring the complicated characters of Emma and Pulowski and their platoon. Blackman noted she didn’t care for Pulowski at first and preferred Emma.
“Then the author flipped it. Emma was too much for me by end of the book, and I had an entirely different view of Pulowski. He helped Emma figure out her platoon and how to be a leader, even though he became less strong as the war went on.”
Denise Fletcher of Kansas City asked the group, “Does it matter that the ‘good lieutenant’ of the title is a woman? I don’t think so. The author makes it plain women can do this job.”
Cusick reminded the group that Pulowski didn’t want to be the leader. “It was Emma’s challenge to create a bond with her men. Did she follow the same rules of law that a man would? Or did she forge her own path?”
Gomersall mused, “Pulowski might not have been a good lieutenant, but he was Emma’s mentor; he made her a good lieutenant.”
“A man might have struggled with the same challenges,” Blackman said. “This is a book about a woman lieutenant trying to be a ‘good’ lieutenant. The scene that moved me the most is the one where Emma touches all the men to make sure they are where they need to be and doing what they need to do. It’s her reassurance as well as theirs.”
Blackman summarized the discussion well: “Terrell is a challenging writer. He put the reader in a difficult and foreign place to good purpose. I was struck by how naïve Emma is at the end of the book. It’s so painful to read about Emma jabbering on to that jerky major, and he’s totally playing her.”
Fletcher nodded. “Terrell didn’t really tell us everything, and that’s good. We should be allowed to discover for ourselves what is going on. Good or bad, foresight or hindsight.”
Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Look in FYI on July 16 for the introduction to the next selection, “Your Song Changed My Life” by Bob Boilen.