Rummanah Aasi
  More realistic YA fiction is now focusing on the military. The shift seems to switch between characters in war or about to go to war to those people who are left behind and on the outskirts of war. While He Was Away by Karen Schrek is not the first nor the best book I read that centers on the military.
Description:  One year--he'll be gone for one year and then we'll be together again and everything will be back to the way it should be. The day David left, I felt like my heart was breaking. Sure, any long-distance relationship is tough, but David was going to war--to fight, to protect, to put his life in danger. We can get through this, though. We'll talk, we'll email, we won't let anything come between us. I can be an army girlfriend for one year. But will my sweet, soulful, funny David be the same person when he comes home? Will I? And what if he doesn't come home at all?

Review: I was expecting While He Was Away would be an eye opening and emotional read, but unfortunately it left me unsatisfied. The book's premise holds promise but it's poor execution left the plot and the characters floundering. Towards the end of the book, I found myself skimming a lot of it just so I could finish it.
  The overall plot of While He Was Away is very straightforward. Penna and David are a couple who are now about to be separated due to David's deployment to Iraq. Penna is now left to face the struggles once he was gone. The book could have gone in several directions such as questions about the couple's fidelity, death, and/or the causes of war. Schreck doesn't take any of these roads, but litters the overall story-arc with multiple subplots that briefly touch upon each of these ideas. It was as if the author couldn't decide where she wanted to go with the story so just added a little bit of this and that to increase the page count. Instead of capturing my attention, it left me frustrated and well, bored.
   Though I understood the magnitude of Penna's emotional turmoil, I did not feel any emotional connection towards her. I thought she was too needy and too focused on David. I understand that young love can be consuming, but she basically felt lost and empty when David was gone. Another thing that really annoyed me was her relationship with her mother and David's fallen out best friend Ravi. Out of all the subplots, I thought the relationship between Penna and her mother had the most potential. Issues such as abandonment, forgiveness, and duty were all expressed but unfortunately the subplot was stagnate with Penna constantly blaming her mother everything that's wrong in her life and then it was quickly and unrealistically resolved with an apology. Penna's relationship with David's former best friend Ravi doesn't fair much better. Ravi symbolizes the anger, racism, and the back lash that several Asian communities received during the aftermath of 9/11. Mistaken as an Arab, Ravi is brutally bullied to the extent that he quit school altogether. Instead of delving into these issues, the author chooses instead to use Ravi as a potential love interest with Penna constantly assuring herself multiple times that he is just David's friend whenever they exchanged a few awkward conversations, but nothing happened to make us infer a new romance was on the horizon.
   Although the plot and characters were dull, what truly made me disappointed with this book is a scene which shows how David and Penna go on a website to play this game where the target was an Arabic guy, and the point of the game was to shoot red paint balls a la a gun and bullets so they will splatter all over him (as if he is bleeding). While Penna was hesitant, David told her "Think of 9/11, he totally deserves this". When I read this, I was completely stunned. I even had to reread it again to see if I misread. Not only did I find it completely offensive towards me as a Muslim. I was dumbstruck on how such an unbelievable generalization that all Arabs (or anyone with a brown skin color for that matter) and Muslims are terrorists. I really had hoped that there would be a good explanation of using this website, but there is none that I was satisfied with (an author note says the website is real and the creator made it after one of his family member was randomly shot in Iraq) besides pointing out how people thought about 9/11. I wanted and expected more from While He Was Away.

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There is some brief and candid discussion of sex and war. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt, Back Home by Julia Keller
6 Responses
  1. BookCupid Says:

    That's too bad. What a great title.

  2. I know the meandering plot lines would drive me crazy as well, and I have a feeling I would be disappointed in the resolution if there is one. That is too bad that the author decided to include that offensive scene as well. No need to generate further hate.

  3. It sounds like a good premise, but too bad it doesn't execute with the story. However, I think you are generous. After reading that line I don't know if I would have given it 2 stars. Anything that increases prejudice of any kind is, to me, a bad thing.

  4. Man, I'm glad I ditched this one after a few pages! It's too bad no serious themes were really touched upon and I find it offensive too that the author chose to incorporate that website (real or not) into her book.

  5. Candace Says:

    I remember seeing other negative reviews of this but your description of that website makes me really angry! There should have been a point there. It just sounds so wrong. Sorry this one wasn't so great!

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