“How can a bunch of Tennessee National Guardsmen who never expected, or trained for, deployment survive a year on the battlefields of Iraq? “ That’s the problem facing K Troop of the 278th Armored Cavalry in Beth Underwood’s new book, Gravity. The year is 2004. Operation Iraqi Freedom is still new, unexpected, and misunderstood by most Americans. The men are teenagers and grandfathers, a coach and his players, a gung-ho recruiter and an oblivious youngster who joined up simply because his friends were doing so. The challenges they face are both unprecedented and uncompromising.
Underwood has not written this story from the perspective of an outside observer. She knows these men from the inside. She has talked to them and to their families, earning their trust and therefore their honesty. She has been able to get under their skin and into the crevices of their brains. The resulting stories are therefore funny one moment and excruciatingly painful the next. Their emotions are raw and frequently make the reader uncomfortable.
I floundered with the text at first. The time frame seemed disjointed. The military jargon was unusually confusing and sometimes awkward. The landscape was uncharted. Too many events and too many characters left me bewildered. And then I got it. What I was feeling was exactly what these men were feeling as they set out on this unexpected venture. Without warning, Beth Underwood had sent me off to Iraq to learn about this war the same way her characters did –without explanations or guidelines. And learn I did, but not without shedding a few tears of my own.
Why did she call it “Gravity,” I wondered from the beginning. Was there a force holding this group of men together? Certainly. Were they all being pulled toward a center of some sort? Yes, of course. The bravest discovered their fears and the weakest found their strengths. Was the attraction that held them together too strong to be broken, even by death? It seems so.
Or is the gravity of another sort? Is the book so titled because of the importance of the subject matter? That, too, I think. The author never spells out her purpose, because there are no easy answers to the questions she raises. You’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.
Reviewed by Carolyn Schriber
This is the story of a small group of Army National Guardsmen from the Volunteer State of Tennessee - otherwise simple men, who spent a year of their lives in the Triangle of Death, one of Iraq's most hostile areas of operation. But their daily patrols and combat missions weren't featured on the nightly news. Instead, they operated as silent professionals - ordinary men facing extraordinary circumstances, who carried out their jobs to the best of their abilities and prayed they'd stay alive. Continuing the legacy of citizen-soldiers throughout the ages, they stepped forward to protect their families, their neighbors, their countrymen - and their fellow warriors, even in the face of death. Theirs is a story that will live for generations to come.