"One year -- he'll be going for one year and then we'll be together again and everything will be back to the way it should be."Penelope (Penna) Weaver and David O'Dell are sweethearts living in Killdeer, Oklahoma. The two met last year, when David was a senior and Penna a junior and new to the local high school. Now David is off to Iraq while Penna finishes high school. While He Was Away tells the story of how Penna copes with her boyfriend going off to war for a year.
Layered throughout this main storyline is the story of Penna struggling to unearth her family's hidden past. Penna and her mother Linda moved back to Killdeer, where her mother took over The Red Earth, the family restaurant left to her by her estranged father when he died. She also inherited the family home.
When Penna and her mother go into the attic to rescue a stray killdeer, they find an envelope containing a black and white photograph and a letter. The photograph is of her grandmother, Justine Blue, when she was eighteen years old. The letter is from Justine's husband, Owen Delmore, who was serving overseas in 1945. He never returned from World War II.
The photograph elicits strong emotions from Penna's mother, but her anger and stonewalling only make Penna more determined to find out about this mysterious woman from her family's past and why her mother hates her so much.
Gradually, we learn along with Penna, the story of Justine's life and why her daughter, Linda wants nothing to do with her and will not forgive her. We also discover that Linda's life has been hard because of the choices her parents have made and the choices she's made too.
Despite Linda's pain, Penna becomes determined to find her grandmother and through a series of quirky coincidences soon learns that she has returned to Killdeer. Her grandmother, now elderly, is frail and suffering from Alzheimer's. Penna meets Justine, against her mother's wishes, in order to learn more about her family's roots. She feels a bond with her grandmother because like her grandmother at age eighteen, they both had to wait for a man they love to come home from war. From this meeting Penna decides that she needs to get Justine and Linda together, in an attempt to heal the rift between them before it's too late.
Meanwhile for Penna and David things are changing. Neither of them is the same person they were when David went to war just a few short months ago. Penna is becoming more mature and responsible by working at the restaurant, saving for college and learning to deal with David's absence.
David changes too, but not in a positive way. Penna sees that he has lost weight and that he is deeply affected by the plight of the children in the orphanage in Iraq. He is also upset at how the war is affecting those connected to the soldiers. He becomes fearful of loving as he sees how the war destroys relationships of other soldiers in his unit. While Penna hoped he could hold on, the realities of war push them apart and David is no longer able to cope with the ever present possibility of losing someone you care deeply for.He acts to protect himself, doing the very thing he is afraid of.
For Penna this loss is similar to the loss Justine experienced almost 60 years ago. Life must go on and she must learn to cope until David comes back, if he comes back. To that end her friends and her newly connected family help her.
Schreck combines the intergenerational story of Justine and Penna, both of whom had similar experiences when they were eighteen. Like Justine, Penna loves her soldier very much, but sometimes circumstances are beyond our control; often war comes between two people in one way or another. My only complaint was that at times, it was difficult to piece together Penna's family history because it is told in parts throughout the novel and because there are many minor storylines too. But Schreck eventually weaves together the narrative in a satisfying manner.
Schreck effectively shows that couples separated by war today experience the same difficulties as those in previous wars. Penna struggles to rebuild her life after David, just as Justine struggled to cope and rebuild her life after losing her first love.
Justine and Owen's story mirrors that of the author's mother whose first husband, Orville, went to war in 1944-45 and who died a hero. Her mother was so heartbroken, she spent months writing letters to him after his death and playing Chopin. Eventually her mother left to study music in Chicago where she met the author's father and eventually remarried. Seventeen years passed between her first husband's death and the birth of the author, Karen.
But while Schreck's mother was able to use her loss as a catalyst for living again, Penna's grandmother was unable to. She was unable to accept the loss of her first love, and eventually abandoned her second marriage and her young daughter, a decision she deeply regrets.
While He Was Away will probably pleasantly surprise most readers who expect just a love story, but this novel is much more. It is a nuanced recounting of love, loyalty, loss, forgiveness and healing across three generations. It is a poignant reminder of the far reaching effects of war, on those who serve and those who love them - effects which often even time can't heal. The author has included a section on tips on how to be an army girlfriend.
I hope that Karen Schreck will consider writing a sequel to this novel, letting us know what happens to Penna and David when he returns from the war in Iraq. I will be rooting for Penna and David.
While He Was Away by Karen Schreck
Naperville, Ill. : Sourcebooks Fire 2012