For some sections of our country, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have existed mostly as background noise, turning to signal only when something goes horribly wrong or spectacularly right for American military personnel. But I have taught mostly Native American and Latino students in New Mexico, and then mostly small-town white students in Iowa, both populations heavily represented in our nation’s military. Among these communities the noise is louder, the thrum is constant, but it still rarely forms a signal. Another hometown hero, another flag at half-mast. Another son or daughter returned in pieces, literally and figuratively. Another soldier and another military family trying to return to something like normal. History may not repeat itself, but it echoes, and our most recent wars echo through the fractured minds of too many young men and women in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For all of these soldiers, and for all those who love them, for all of my former students who have been forever changed, positively and negatively, by their military experiences, I wish I could put a copy of Trish Doller’s Something Like Normal in your hands.
Travis Stephenson returns home to Florida from Afghanistan to put some pieces back together. Pieces of his wounded mind, haunted by the death of his buddy Charlie. Pieces of his family life, as his mother and father drift further apart and he drifts from his younger brother Ryan. Pieces of his former identity as the perennially underachieving son of a former professional football player. Pieces of his future, as he realizes, despite his nightmares and flashbacks, that his time as a soldier was the most meaningful time of his life. Pieces of his relationships, with his former girlfriend Paige and just maybe with Harper, who despite their tumultuous history, may just be the one who helps put Travis back together again.
Harper and Travis, like the characters in Sherman Alexie’s works (another writer who excels at showing us broken characters trying to find “normal”), “keep each other’s secrets.” The tentative, halting building of their relationship drives Doller’s young adult novel, as Travis realizes he cannot find his future until he comes to peace with what he left behind. What he left behind in Florida when he rather cavalierly joined the Marines, and what he left behind in Afghanistan when he returned home on leave. And when Travis is asked by Charlie’s mother to speak at a memorial service, he realizes he cannot put the pieces back together until he is truthful to himself and the others in his life (especially Harper) about how broken he is. As with Hemingway’s "heroes," we realize that Travis can be stronger in his broken places than he ever was when he was whole. (Something Like Normal would make an excellent ladder to Hemingway's war novels.)
The kissing couple on the cover probably does no favors drawing in “guy” readers, but Doller is to be commended for crafting a young adult novel that should appeal equally to both male and female readers. Something Like Normal takes what could have been merely a useful but normal “issue” novel about PTSD and becomes, with the deeply affecting relationship between Harper and Travis, something like brilliant.