Tag: military spouse


Auld Lang Syne

January 17th, 2020 — 4:43pm

(An earlier and shorter version of this post appeared in the Military Spouse Book Review: Happy New Year! Let’s Read!)

Well, friends, 2019 was the year I became a crazy person (or perhaps a crazier person?). This fiction writer, who spent a lifetime cultivating a cool indifference to military history, suddenly became rabidly obsessed with the life and times of General George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I joined niche Facebook pages (full of lovely, brilliant people) and paid dues to associations, covered the walls of my office with photographs and maps, and have bought, at my last count, more than one hundred and twenty-five books that deal with the particulars and participants of the battle.

And the reason I became so disturbingly hooked?

Because of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, the feisty, charming, smart, and tiny spouse to the above mentioned general. I happened upon the Wikipedia account of her devoted life, went down every conspiracy theory rabbit hole surrounding the hotly contested accounts of what happened at the Little Bighorn, and am currently working on a novel about her life and times. The three books pictured above illustrate why I have become so obsessed, and why I just can’t stop reading Little Bighorn related materials…

Libbie and George Armstrong Custer in 1864

Libbie followed her husband from the outskirts of Civil War battlefields to icy prairies, proud to be one of the only spouses allowed to always travel with the men. From drafty, inhospitable, barren forts, she watched grasshoppers eat every green thing for miles, learned to put gun shot in the hem of her skirts to keep them from whipping around her head, and wrapped herself in fabric, head to toe, to keep out vicious mosquitoes during hot summers. She met Presidents, Russian counts, Native American chiefs, was shot at, and helped save drowning soldiers during an apocalyptic Kansas flood. At a time when the Army gave no allowances for spouses and food was scarce, she found a way to scrape together and create festive dinner parties, plays, musicals, and military balls. 

When her husband died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 (with more than 300 men in his command), Libbie was determined to defend his reputation and did so until her own death, nearly fifty-seven years later (she never remarried). Part of that effort included writing three memoirs (THREE MEMOIRS!!!), the first of which, Boots and Saddles, is my favorite. Self-deprecating, funny and brilliantly insightful, bringing to life a military world that feels closer to Little House on the Prairie than any base I have ever seen, the woman was a natural-born writer.

If you are curious to read the flipside of Libbie’s idyllic memoirs of life with her fun-loving husband, as well as insight into life on the plains long before U.S soldiers built their ‘war houses’ or settlers homesteaded (and often trespassed), I recommend Monasetah: The Life of a Custer Captive by Peter Harrison, edited by Gary Leonard.

In November, 1868, George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Calvary attacked a village of Southern Cheyenne on the banks of the Washita River in Oklahoma. They took fifty-eight women and children captive in an effort to leverage other Cheyenne and Native American tribes to move into the reservations. Harrison and Leonard present a very compelling case that Custer chose one of the captives, Monasetah, the daughter of a chief killed during the Washita Battle, as his lover. Monasetah stayed with the Seventh Cavalry for the duration of the time these Cheyenne were held by the U.S Army (from November 1868 until April 1869), accompanying them for a long winter scout to Texas, and helping negotiate the freedom of two white female hostages from a Cheyenne village. She is mentioned and noted for her beauty in both Custer’s own memoir, My Life on the Plains, as well as in Libbie’s books (though any intimate relationship with Custer is not, of course).  But more than allotting Monasetah a mere footnote in white American history, she is developed as a bold and capable woman, offering insight into the day to day life of the Southern Cheyenne before their roaming ways were taken from them.

Lastly, Custer’s Trials by T.J. Stiles, is the perfect bridge to the books above. The Pulitzer prize winning author’s sweeping biography not only reveals Custer to be heroic, contradictory and deeply flawed, but also illuminates how fraught and at odds the United States of America were during the bloody years between the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Covering our government’s many failures during Reconstruction and our shifting policies and ‘treaties’ with Native Americans, lit through with gorgeous writing and anecdotes that breathe, I felt like I relearned a vital but often overlooked period of my country’s history.

Siobhan Fallon is the author of You Know When the Men Are Gone and The Confusion of Languages. For more on her current Custer craziness, please follow her on Facebook and Instagram, or check out her website at www.siobhanfallon.com

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New Chapters Ahead…

February 23rd, 2019 — 8:02am

 


(This blog originally ran in a slightly different version on the MilSpoFineArtsNetwork blog on Friday, February 22)

1.     We hear that you went to the JAIPUR LITERARY FESTIVAL in India. Was this a work trip? How did you get involved? What was it like? Give us all the details.

Oh, this was pure fun! I have a friend here in the UAE who had been to the Jaipur Lit Fest in the past and kept asking me to go with her. This being my last year in Abu Dhabi and therefore the last time I would be just a quick jaunt from India, I finally said yes. And it was tremendous. I usually attend these sorts of events as part of my job—meaning I am there to be a part of a panel, to do a book reading, or in some way promote my own writing. So it was lovely to attend as a book lover, to be in the audience instead of on stage, to soak it all up without feeling the pressure to perform or be charming. I was amazed by the thousands of attendees– standing room only! Readings were held in a palace! It was incredible to see how revered writing is in India.

I had never been to India before, so that was an entire adventure of its own—seeing tourist sites, eating great food, exploring the textiles and art, soaking up the kindness and generosity of the people.

Christine chatting with a feisty Germane Gree

My traveling companion, Christine, has the heart of a backpacker, so we did everything on a budget. As in we shared a fifteen-dollar-a-night hotel room, slept in the same full-sized bed together, used bottled water to wash our faces and brush our teeth. This made me feel like a college kid with a Euro-rail pass.

*Our great driver & tour guide, Moin (rajasthanexpert.com)

It also made me grateful for all that I have. The young man who worked at our hotel had a small futon mattress he’d roll out each night and sleep on, right there in the freezing, tiny lobby. While America certainly has its issues, a couple of days spent in India reminded me of how much I take for granted every single day.

2.     We hear that you are moving back to the states this summer. How are you preparing for this transition?

Ah, yes, the great big, bad, move. We’ve been in Abu Dhabi for almost six years. Which is the longest we have every been anywhere as a family. Which is crazy. I have two daughters, ages eleven and six. Almost all of their memories involve life in Abu Dhabi. Their tender little American roots are actually Abu Dhabi roots—friends, school, their very idea of ‘home’ is this Arabian Gulf country. Of course, we have family in the states, cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents that my girls adore, but our day to day life is here. My youngest will randomly burst into tears and beg us to stay. So that’s stressing us all out a little.

My daughters at the Louvre, Abu Dhabi. I know they will fearlessly jump into life at our next post. It’s the momma who is having difficulty with the latest leap…

We recently learned we are headed to Tampa, Florida, which is a completely new place for us. And while I’m excited to be back in the USA myself, I’m not looking forward to starting life from scratch. The housing, schools and dentists, the grocery stores and dance studios, the meeting and making of new friends. Finding an art, or, even better, a writing community of some kind. You all know what I’m taking about. Even after all of our military moves, I have a very fixed idea of ‘home:’ for me, it’s Highland Falls, a small town in Upstate New York where I was raised and where most of my immediate family still resides. I have always wanted to get back to that home, or at least get close.

It will be comforting to be in the same time zone as my parents and siblings, but I wish I still didn’t have to board a plane to see them. I know, I know, this is our military life. Frankly, after fifteen years of it, I’m tired. But I have a few more months to start excited. “Selling” a new life to the girls will make me see the opportunities too. And the more I learn about Tampa, the more people who tell me about their own fabulous Tampa experiences, the more excited I get.

3.     Do you have a plan for continuing to write while in transition? What is it?

Ouch. I haven’t thought that far ahead. I’m always trying to find more time to write, even under the best circumstances. And my very busy husband kindly tries to give me few hours each weekend to steal away and get work done. But I’m already seeing my writing schedule deteriorate as I try to figure out the move (actually, as my husband and I try to untangle the paperwork hell of getting our three cats out of the UAE. We’re talking four veterinarian appointments just this week alone).

Abu Dhabi

Writing, fortunately, is something I have been able to take with me and do almost anywhere. So I imagine I’ll be continue jotting down notes from airplanes and gas stations, and during the never-ending vet appointments. During the move, I might not be able to do my best work; I know I’ll be distracted and time will be fragmented, but it is still work. The words will accumulate, and that’s what a writer must do, write. When I am settled and have hours and hours ahead of me, I’ll fine-tune and rewrite and transform those words into something more than ink.

Research on the walls of my office…

I entered 2019 with the optimistic new year’s resolution of “writing every day.”  I’m in the early stage of a new novel, still doing a great deal of research, so even if the day is completely overwhelmed by kid activities or the usual mayhem life loves to throw at us all, if I delve into research, if I rework just a couple of pages of my work-in-progress, that counts as writing, and keeps me connected to the work. Even if it just means carrying one of my research books around with me (like when I attended the mass held by Pope Francis recently in Abu Dhabi. We had to get to the stadium hours in advance and, of course, I had one of my Libbie Custer memoirs in my bag. So when I waited an hour to use the restroom? I was reading. I was working! HA! Win/win, thank you Pope Francis!)

I never go anywhere– kid dance class, to see the Pope, horseback riding– without one these books in my bag.

This habit has helped keep the work alive for me day in and day out, from that particular moment in 1800’s history so different than my own, to the sound of my character’s voices. I recommend all of you out there who are writing to do the same, as best as you can, dip into the work in some way every single day, small or large, and you will see the difference.

4.     What’s next for you?

I’m throwing myself completely into this new novel. My first book, the collection of short stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone, is set in Fort Hood Texas during the deployment of an infantry brigade, circa 2006. I started writing it while living at Fort Hood, in between my husband’s deployments, and I tried to capture the different sort of experiences military families, both deployed soldiers and milspouses at home, were having. My novel, The Confusion of Languages, is set in the U.S embassy community in Amman, Jordan, during the Arab Spring, circa 2011. I started writing Confusion when we lived in Jordan, and finished it while we were living in Abu Dhabi. So again I was inspired by the present day world around me.

But my new novel is something very different. At least for me. It’s historical fiction, set in 1879, and it examines the fall out of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Most of us vaguely remember that General Custer and two hundred of his men met their deaths at the hands of the largest gathering of American Plains Indians ever seen. But what surprised me was the military world of the Seventh Cavalry, stationed at Fort Lincoln, in Indian Territory. The officers had been together for years, yet there were these strange and bitter factions among them. And then there are the wives, from learned and pampered families back east, suddenly thrust into drafty, ill-made housing (hmm, that’s not necessary so different from today ;), who wait for weeks for a newspaper from “the states,” who put lead shot in the hems of their skirts to keep them from flying into their faces on windy days, who don’t see fresh produce for months at a time, who face drought, grasshopper plagues, prairie fires, Native American attacks.

My office desk– Marie Kondo, stay away!

For me, most fascinating of all is Libbie Custer, George Armstrong’s widow. She was this feisty little thing who was determined to justify her husband’s military career and get to the bottom of what really happened at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. She wrote articles and memoirs, collaborated on an autobiography of her husband, even helped instigate a military tribunal with the hopes it would decide that officers under Custer had disobeyed his orders, and it was their cowardice that led to the massacre. She is one heck of a military spouse. She was also a huge supporter of the arts—she had wanted to be an artist/fashioner designer until she met her ‘boy general’ during the Civil War, she wrote both fiction and non-fiction, and spent chunks of each year living in an artist colony in Upstate NY.

In death, as in life, Libbie wanted to be seen only in the shadow of her husband. But I know there is a lot more to her. General & Mrs. Custer’s graves at West Point Cemetery, NY

I had never heard of Libbie, her tenacity and dedication (she remained unmarried until her own death fifty-seven years after Custer’s). I never would have even imagined the likes of this military tribunal, or the intrigue and back-biting of the officers in the Seventh Calvary. This paired with the injustices the United States government was meting out to the Native American populations, and the entire chapter in our nation’s history just blows me away. Not to mention it is pretty amazing material for a novel!

So while I say that this is different material for me to work with, it does match up with themes I tend to write about. I like to explore life in small, insular military communities (like Fort Hood for my first book, embassy life abroad in my second, and life on a military outpost in the 1800s for my latest). The sometimes fraught dynamic between husbands and wives, friends and enemies. So there are familiar reverberations.

5.     Is there anything else that you would like to share with the readers?

Yes! Thank you for reading this! Thank you for every ‘like’ or ‘click’ or ‘share’ on behalf of myself and every other military spouse artist. It’s hard for us to have community since we move so often, and therefore all of this virtual support is so very, very important for us.

You guys are the best!

(* And if you are planning a trip to Jaipur, please contact Moin at rajasthanexpert.com, he is the loveliest, most trust-worthy guide and driver you could possibly find.)

Website at: www.siobhanfallon.com

Facebook at: www.facebook.com/SiobhanFallonAuthor

Twitter at : www.twitter.com/SiobhanMFallon

Insta at: www.instagram.com/siobhanfallonwriter/

The original blog can be found here:

Catching Up with Siobhan Fallon

 

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The Words After War Interview with Siobhan Fallon by Michael Pitre

October 4th, 2015 — 1:31am

(This interview first ran on The Huffington Post Book Blog)

As part of Words After War’s September book club selection, Siobhan answers a few questions from Michael Pitre, author of Fives and Twenty-Fives.

Michael Pitre: You Know When the Men Are Gone was published a few months after I left the Marine Corps. My wife read it immediately, and showed me the scene from “Inside the Break” where Kailani finds a pamphlet of family reunion rules hidden among her husband’s equipment. The rules include, “Your family members are not your men; they don’t have to obey your orders,” and, “Do not engage in intercourse with your wife immediately upon your return.” My wife asked me if I remembered how many of those rules I’d broken when I came home, and we laughed because of course I’d broken all of them. So, having lived the experience, we found humor where others might’ve been dismayed. Do you think the book resonates differently with military families than with the general public? Which potential audience was more important to you when you were writing it?

Siobhan Fallon: Civilians always ask me if those pamphlets mentioned in that story are real! And of course they are, I used the one from my husband’s return from Afghanistan in 2005 as my template for the fictional version. If I remember correctly, it really did recommend, “Take time to be charming.”

There was so much I didn’t understand about the military even after I became a spouse. So yes, I hoped to show a glimpse of day to day military life to those who have never stepped inside our gates, to offer civilians more than the splashy headlines of deployments and homecomings.

As an officer’s wife, and especially as a Company Commander’s wife who led a Family Readiness Group, I was someone who was supposed to be capable and confident and I often found myself being a cheerleader. I was full of “You can do it!” or “Time will fly, before you know it your soldier will be home!” or, my least favorite, “It’s time to put on your big girl panties!” (OK, I never actually said that but I did have a magnet on my fridge that did).

None of those statements reflected the magnitude of shit spouses could go through with their mate halfway around the world when you need new tires for the car, when you, your three year old and your six month old all have strep throat and are awake at three a.m., when a tree falls on your roof during a storm, when you lost your husband’s dog, when you’re depressed and anxious and suddenly a stranger completely disconnected from your life wants to buy you a drink and that drink promises to give you a momentary escape. These are of course things that can happen to anyone, but the stress is heightened when every newspaper mentions dead soldiers in Iraq and you maybe haven’t heard from your soldier in four days, you’re in a new base far from family and friends, and on top of it all you’re thinking that to be a good wife and a patriot, you need to act like this is a breeze.

So more than thinking about ‘audience,’ I was hoping to be more authentic in my fiction than I could be as a living, speaking human being. I wrote the stories in an attempt to say yes, it’s actually OK to feel like this sometimes, the news programs are leaving so much out when they narrow military life into images of parades with heart swelling music, or even flag draped coffins. The fact that military life is so nuanced and weird, so potentially tragic as well as wonderful, is also why it’s fascinating to write about.

I was also writing while we were still there, boots on the ground, FOBs going full steam, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seeing the evidence of that in every house or apartment in Fort Hood that was missing a spouse or parent. It was happening around me, the seemingly unending deployment cycles of deploy a year, home a year, deploy again. I didn’t have any long view or hindsight yet, I had no idea we would withdraw troops out of Iraq in December, 2011. I was busy writing the now, that small window of 2007-2009, for whomever was willing to read it.

MP: There’s a real tension between the husbands and wives in your stories. Deployed soldiers are convinced that their wives are cheating, and don’t know how to relate to their wives when they finally come home. Wives have similar suspicions of infidelity, and grow bitter while stranded in the middle-of-nowhere Texas by their husband’s profession. You walk a tightrope between these two perspectives, and both sides get an equal hearing. How did you retain your neutrality during the writing process?

SF: Well, at times it did feel like a very black and white world, women on one side, men on the other. My husband was a company commander of an infantry unit (all male) and I was the Family Readiness Group leader of all those spouses (all women). More times than I could possible count, while he was either home or deployed to Iraq, we’d have a conversation or email dialogue where each of us had to advocate for the spouse of our own gender. I’d tell him the aggrieved wife’s side of things, and he’d come back at me with the soldier’s side. I’d like to think that some of those balancing acts surfaced in my stories.

MP: Speaking of tension between service members and spouses, I’m sure you’ve seen the bumper sticker around military installations with some version of the phrase, “Soldier’s Wife: Toughest Job in the Army.” I’ve heard young service members with extremely demanding and dangerous jobs express irritation at the sight of that bumper sticker. What would be your response to a young, unattached soldier who doesn’t yet understand the burden placed on military families?

SF: I can understand how that would make a young soldier, or any soldier/airman/Marine bristle. But that’s what slogans or bumper stickers or tweets do–find a glib way to express something has a lot more depth to it than a glance allows.

A spouse appreciates a sentiment like that not because her ‘job’ boils down to being more life threatening or specialized or physically taxing than her soldier’s. But it recognizes that there’s so much more to being a spouse than cashing your soldier’s check every month: being the one who stays and waits and manages to turn whatever quarters you are assigned into a real live home, being the one who picks up that home and takes it to the next place when the military member with the functioning career is stationed somewhere new every couple of years, being the one who usually does not get the certificates and medals and plaques, being the one who is there when the movers come, who is there with the kids every day when the soldier has a two week training exercise in the field. We are called ‘dependents’ in official military speak. There are plenty of successful men and women who would gladly depend on themselves but sometimes they chose to put their military member’s employment first, sometimes the demands of being a military spouse make it very difficult to maintain a stable career of their own.

So, yes, all you EOD techs getting blown up, you guys probably win. But mil spouses like to think that the work they are doing is valid, indispensible even, and that bumper sticker acknowledges that.

MP: “Remission,” is the story of a woman dealing with a rebellious teenage daughter and a possible cancer diagnosis, all while her husband is deployed. A good friend from my time in Iraq was the daughter of a colonel who got hooked on the family business and joined the Marines. She told me a story about how when she was a little girl her father deployed to Somali while her mother was battling cancer. The tone of her story was so casual, so matter of fact. Her childhood, harrowing in retrospect, seemed ordinary to her at the time. Her dad deployed, and there was no use dwelling on it. That was his job. Military reality can be harsh, but I’ve found very little bitterness among military families I’ve known. Why do you think military families are so loyal to the service? And what would you think if one of your children wanted to join the military?

SF: Military life takes a certain type of person, and well, I like that person. Obviously no stereotype is true of all people, but I usually feel comfortable with military spouses or members of the military, we ‘get’ each other on a different level, we have touchstones we can rely on, like comparing the bases/states/countries we’ve lived in or figuring out whose baby learned to talk or walk or read while their daddy/mother was deployed. The military community is made up of hardy folk; they can hold usually their liquor and are pretty proficient at profanity and gallows humor. But most of all there’s a sense of having lived through a very specific sort of fringe lifestyle, especially since September 11, and even if you’ve never met that person before you feel like you have shared something.

Do I want my two girls to join the military? I don’t know. I was there the day my husband graduated Ranger school. He had foot rot, could hardly look me in the eye because he was so socially retarded from being in a pack of filthy men, he was nothing but skin and cheek bones. If a woman can do that, then hell, she’s amazing, I hope she runs for President someday. But do I want my little Maeve or littler Evelyn to lose forty pounds and get recycled if she’s gets caught digging through a trash can for dinner? Not so much. Of course that’s the extreme. And I would probably feel the same way if I had a son. Worried, because that’s what a parent is supposed to feel about everything related to their kids. But I’d also be proud to have instilled a sense of service into a child, the way I’d be if one of my daughters decided to become a police officer or fire fighter, a social worker or a teacher. There are jobs that people do that serve a higher purpose than filling up a bank account, and I’d be pleased to have a child chose a path that puts others first.

MP: What are you working on now?

SF: A novel tentatively titled: The Confusing of Languages. It’s set in Jordan during the Arab Spring, and I turn to the embassy community in much the same way I turned to the military world in You Know When the Men Are Gone. Embassy culture is naturally diplomatic: on the one hand we are expected to embody American ideals, on the other we are meant to embrace the culture we find ourselves in. My novel revolves around two American couples, especially two female Army spouses who become fast friends. One wife embraces Jordanian culture while the one remains very firmly rooted in her idea of America, and the two outlooks and behavior collide. The word collision sums what I am trying to get at, the collision of American and Middle Eastern culture, the collision of very different personalities, the collision of female friendship vs. marital love, all with the Arab Spring unraveling in the background.

*****

Words After War is a nonprofit literary organization with a mission to bring veterans and civilians together to examine war and conflict through the lens of literature.

Follow Words After War on Twitter @WordsAfterWar
Follow Siobhan Fallon on Twitter @SiobhanMF
Michael Pitre doesn’t have Twitter, but for information about him or his terrific novel, Five and Twenty Fives, look here.

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