Matt Foster has been struggling since his brother T.J. was killed in Iraq. He’s getting into fights, failing classes, and arguing more than usual with his dad. Matt just wants to get his hands on T.J.’s personal effects; he hopes that having his brother’s things will help him make sense of the crushing loss. But T.J.’s personal effects only bring more questions and Matt is determined to find the answers—at any cost.
E.M. Kokie writes about the very private issue of military families dealing with death of a soldier in her debut novel, Personal Effects. She has been nice enough to share her experiences researching the novel, as well as a writing challenge tied to the book.
I didn’t set out to write about a military family. When I realized that Matt’s father and brother served in the military, and the impact that would have on his story, I was nervous about getting the details of his life right.
I started my research thinking about the children and teens who are the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of service members. I wanted to better understand their experiences. As I researched, I realized that Matt’s grief and anger were exacerbated by his isolation, by the fact that he wasn’t a part of a larger community of military families. But even with a supportive community, military families feel the stress and loss of war more keenly and directly.
Through my research, I gained a great admiration and respect for the members of military families—for their sacrifices, for the stress military life can put on every member of the family and on their relationships, for how often military families are forced to adjust under difficult circumstances. I was struck by how every life decision, every aspect of their lives, is affected by the very real presence of war. Sometimes it’s easy for those of us who don’t live with its repercussions every day to forget. But since 2001, war has been an ever-present reality for military families in the United States.
It was important to me to make every effort to get the details right in Personal Effects. In many ways, Matt’s experience isn’t typical because of how he and his father react to offers of help. But I hoped that anyone who has lost a loved one serving overseas would feel like I at least got the essence of the experience right and treated it with respect. To do that, I researched the processes and procedures for notifying families of the death of a loved one, and for the handling and delivery of their personal effects. I came to appreciate the men and women who work to extend support and assistance to the surviving families. The process is very impressive.
I also wanted to better understand the experiences of the families of deceased service members, especially the experience of receiving a loved one’s personal effects. But I was unwilling to violate any family’s privacy by contacting them directly, and all of my research efforts were coming up empty. It wasn’t until I realized that anyone writing about the experience of receiving a loved one’s personal effects wouldn’t call them a “soldier” or “service member.” For them, the experience would be excruciatingly personal. They would use words like daughter, sister, mother, father, brother and son. When I finally searched for “son’s personal effects” I was able to connect with someone who very graciously and generously shared their experiences. Those experiences enriched Personal Effects in important ways.
Writing Challenge: E.M. Kokie gives readers a unique look into the lives of military families in her novel Personal Effects. Her story of the Fosters—a family steeped in military tradition—and their struggles with grief and identity, offers a different perspective of what it means to “serve your country.”
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