After years of drifting around the country, seventeen year-old Penelope and her single mother Linda ("'Flotsam and jetsam,' she always said."), have returned to her mother's hometown of Killdeer, Oklahoma. Having inherited a house and bar and grill from her broken, alcoholic father, Linda struggles to deal with the betrayal of a mother who left when she was just a child.
But for Penelope--Penna to her friends--the move to Killdeer brought her to her soul mate, a fellow artist named David. But now, in the summer between her junior and senior year, David is shipping off to Iraq--and Penna is about to become an Army girlfriend.
"While he was away," by Karen Schreck (Sourcebooks Fire, 2012) is Penna's story, but it is much more than a chronicle of young sweethearts separated by war.
Sure that their love will last, Penna is determined to do all the things that Army girlfriends are encouraged to do: write constantly, always have have your phone nearby, send care packages, keep busy, stay positive.
Penna does everything she's supposed to do, but it's not always easy. For one thing, her mother is making her work at the Red Earth, the family bar and grill--and she's a hopeless waitress. Fortunately, she makes friends with Caitlin, another waitress at Red Earth; Jules, another Army girlfriend; and Ravi, David's troubled boyhood friend. ("...when they were young, they were just about the only brown-skinned kids in school. On bad days, David got called 'Spic' and 'Beaner.' Ravi got called 'A-rab' and 'Towelhead. ... They were loyal to each other.")
Penna also vows to find out more about the mysterious grandmother, Justine, who left Linda when she was only a toddler. Justine's first husband--and true love--was a soldier she married at the age of eighteen before he left to fight in World War II. He never returned--a fact that deeply resonates with Penna. Justine remarried and had Linda, but, as Linda bitterly recalls, "she left us for a ghost."
Even as the war changes David in ways that Penna only gradually comes to understand, Penna, her friends and family are transformed by events at home. This story about cross-generational love, loyalty, and forgiveness is a reminder that the fingers of war reach past the battleground and into the hearts and lives of everyone involved.
This review was originally published in the July 29, 2012 issue of the News-Gazette. To learn more about Karen Halvorsen Schreck and her writing, visit http://www.karenschreck.com/.