Emotional truth infuses Beneath Wandering Stars, the young adult debut novel by Ashlee Cowles. Gabriella Santiago, who is from a military family, faces the typical challenges of being a teenager girl–clashing with her parents and trying to find a way to belong without jumping through social hoops. She also confronts rarely experienced trials–her brother is in a coma and to honor his wishes she must walk the Camino de Santiago with his best friend, someone she’s never gotten along with.
Ms. Cowles brings her sensitively considered experiences as a military brat, and her accurate remembrance of the thoughts and emotions in a teenage girl’s mind to tell her story in a way that takes the reader on this journey with Gabi. She seems like a real girl, albeit a thoughtful, intelligent one, who persistently explores the content of her mind in an effort to understand herself and those around her. The story is well written and full of rich imagery that describes the world of the Camino, of grief, and ultimately, of hope.
BCB is excited to talk to the author about her debut novel.
Amy M. Hawes: Although he remains in a coma, Lucas is able to communicate with Gabi and Seth through the dog-eared copies of the Odyssey and the Iliad he’s given them, respectively. What is your relationship with reading Homer and what made you decide to include Lucas’s silent philosophical comments in Beneath Wandering Stars?
Ashlee Cowles: This is a great question because Homer’s 3,000 year-old epics really helped me develop the narrative structure of the story. I became interested in the Iliad and Odyssey after learning about the work of Dr. Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychiatrist who specializes in PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, who wrote a book called Achilles in Vietnam. Dr. Shay has made some interesting connections between the experiences of war depicted in the Iliad and Odyssey, and the experiences of modern veterans. His observations intrigued me because I was teaching philosophy at a local college in a city with a large military population. I usually had a few active-duty soldiers and veterans in my classes, and I noticed that many of them became more vocal and engaged when we discussed the philosophies of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Shortly thereafter I began teaching classical literature at the high school level, and we read the Odyssey and the Iliad in my class of freshman—slowly, just 10-15 pages a night, which we then discussed in depth during class. I was struck by how much the kids loved these epics and could talk about them with such insight (which I always remember whenever anyone tries to suggest that certain ideas don’t belong in young adult literature because they are “too deep” for contemporary teens). But I was also struck by the permanent relevance of Homer’s themes and his portrayal of the warrior’s experience. The Iliad is about the warrior’s emotions of rage, grief, and the desire for glory, and the Odyssey is about “homecoming”—what a struggle it can be for a warrior to return home after war. I wanted Seth Russo, the young soldier in Beneath Wandering Stars, to experience the rage of Achilles as well as Odysseus’s longing for home, and Lucas’s mysterious gift seemed like the most natural way to incorporate these timeless texts into the story.
AH: Gabi has a complicated relationship with her father. Yet, you make it clear that he does love her despite his sometimes harsh judgment. Do you think the difficulty he has in relating to his daughter has more to do with his authoritarian nature or the fact that she is female and he is not? Or are there other factors you would point to in order to explain the challenges in their interaction?
AC: I think the difficulty Sergeant Santiago has in relating to Gabi has more to do with the fact that she’s a teenager, and then maybe that she’s a girl. Gabi’s dad fiercely loves his children and I always viewed him as a good, if strict, father, but he also lives in a world where subordinates are expected to respect and obey their superiors. Period. As a result, the experience of having a teenage daughter who is suddenly pushing back on his authority and breaking household rules—a code that has kept the family unit strong despite frequent moves and deployments—is unchartered territory for him, and he doesn’t quite know what to do with it. I also suspect that no matter how close fathers are to their daughters when they are children, there’s a certain period of awkwardness that occurs when that daughter starts to become a young woman. So I suppose Gabi does feel somewhat “foreign” to Sergeant Santiago at the beginning of the book, and he doesn’t know how to connect with her like he once did. Also, it really is the case that kids who grow up in the military are often keenly aware that rebellious teen behaviors that might be shrugged off in the civilian world as “no big deal” could potentially have a negative impact of their soldier parent’s career. I wanted to highlight this unique pressure and sense of responsibility, as it is one many military brats have experienced.
AH: Both Lucas and Seth have tried to find ways to reconcile the compassionate side of themselves with the actions they took as soldiers. As a daughter of a military family have you born witness to this internal struggle in other military men and women?
AC: I haven’t witnessed this struggle directly, in part because I grew up in the military during the relative peace time of the late 80s and 90s and my father never had to go to war (though his bags were packed and ready to go during the First Gulf War). I graduated from high school the spring following 9/11, so I didn’t personally experience how over a decade of war impacts soldiers, though I do have close friends and family members who lived through this. Yet as a kid, I distinctly remember the feeling of being surrounded by good, caring people. Soldiers weren’t these wounded, hardened robots—they were my friends’ dads and moms, they were volunteers at our school and church, they were the guys who’d play soccer with all the kids in the neighborhood during the weekend block-party.
It’s hard to describe the sense of safety and community I experienced as an Army brat—I’ve never encountered anything like it in the civilian world. Yet I also know there are many men and women who struggle with what they had to do or see during war, especially when it’s time to return to a “peaceful” society. This is a struggle that’s as old as Homer’s Odyssey, but unlike earlier eras, we don’t have nearly as many cultural rituals that help warriors make the transition. That’s why Seth struggles with what’s often referred to as a “moral injury,” rather than with PTSD as it’s typically understood. If a person has a conscience and an ethical code, it’s normal and healthy for him or her to wrestle with aspects of the wartime experience. I just wish there were more spaces in our society for service members to process these emotions.
AH: Hope and healing are central themes in Beneath Wandering Stars. Lucas, Gabi, Seth, Gabi’s father and many of the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago take an individual path towards healing–sometimes emotional, sometimes physical. Did writing your novel help you explore your own thoughts about being a child of military parents? Was it a journey you took along with your characters?
AC: This story is the most personal thing I’ve ever written, and writing it definitely helped me explore my own upbringing as a military brat, but I wouldn’t call it a healing experience because I have nothing but positive memories of my military childhood. Now, at least. Yet I did try to recall how I felt as a teenager growing up in this context, because I knew the story wouldn’t ring as true to younger readers currently living this life if Gabi and Seth’s feelings about it were entirely those of an adult with a “bigger picture” looking back. Like Gabi, I had to move my senior year of high school and leave behind a group of close friends (a few of whom are still my closest friends today). Now that I’m an adult it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but at seventeen, it really did feel like my world was ending. I tried to return to this mindset when I developed Gabi’s character, although she does grow and mature in her views thanks to her journey on the Camino.
AH: Gabi is challenged to find a reason to walk the Camino beyond fulfilling her brother’s request but she has a hard time pinpointing one. Why is it difficult for her to answer this question?
AC: It’s difficult for Gabi to answer this question because she truly is making the journey for someone else—her brother. In the Middle Ages, when the concept of pilgrimage really developed in the West, it was completely normal for someone to make such a journey “by proxy” on behalf of someone else. But because we live in a more individualistic society, this idea probably feels pretty foreign to most us, which is why the other pilgrims Gabi meets keep questioning her motives. However, as Gabi insists in the story, she isn’t walking the Camino in an effort to “find herself” (which seems to be a more recent motivation for travel). Yet the wonderful paradox is that by focusing the intention of her pilgrimage on someone else, she does end up coming to a greater understanding of herself in the end.
AH: Seth makes an observation, which was a surprise to me–someone who knows very little about serving in the military. He says, “[W]ar can be beautiful . . . every second is now. Visceral. The buddy beside you could be gone in an instant. The past and the future don’t matter. That’s what makes war beautiful–even addictive.” Are Seth’s words based on something you heard a soldier say? If not, how did you find a way to imagine this feeling?
AC: This isn’t an idea I’ve heard a soldier express explicitly, but it is a sentiment I’ve come across a lot in my research—again, going back as far as Homer, but also in more recent accounts of soldiers returning home from war. In all wars, there have been soldiers who want to go back to battle. And I don’t think it’s because they enjoy killing or being shot at. I think it’s partly because of the “band of brothers” comradery soldiers experience during wartime—the kinds of intense friendships and bonds that are hard to recreate in civilian society today, perhaps most especially for males.
But I also wonder if there are aspects of war that are similar to what takes place during international travel. People often speak of catching the “travel bug,” but what exactly do they mean? As someone who has traveled quite a bit, I find that it’s almost an altered state of reality where I feel more “alive” than I do in everyday life—which can definitely be addictive. I’m a pretty driven and future-oriented person, but traveling always makes me slow down and live in the present moment. It makes me engage fully with what I’m experiencing right then. Maybe this is partly why so many people go through a kind of depressed “funk” when they return home from an adventure abroad—a window of time when they weren’t quite as tied down to a to-do list, or the media, or all the other draining forces that can be part of life in a consumeristic society. I wonder if returning home from war is similar in some ways, especially now when soldiers are coming back to a civilian society that doesn’t have a strong sense of even being “at war.” The gap between an all-volunteer military and the civilian world appears to be greater now than it has been in most previous wars, and I suspect this is one of several reasons why many of our soldiers have major obstacles to overcome as they adjust to post-war life.
AH: Gabi and Seth meet a variety of characters along the Camino de Santiago. Which one is your favorite and why?
AC: Wow, that’s a tough one! Rodrigo and Pilar are probably my favorite Camino characters because they really embody the spirit of hospitality I encountered when I walked part of the Camino de Santiago a few years ago. But I also love the German sibling duo, Katja and Jens, mainly because they felt so real to me.
AH: At one point, Gabi ticks off items on her list, “Things I Hate Most About Life as a Military Brat.” Is this list your own, point by point? Over the years did you vacillate between resentment and appreciation over your circumstances?
AC: This list was actually the first thing I wrote for this story! It was meant to be humorous in an “inside joke” kind of way, as the list touches on a lot of the common experiences military brats share (e.g. having difficulty identifying where we are from). Yet it does touch on some of the resentments many military brats feel at some point, especially as teenagers when we start to want more control over our own lives and question why we must be subjected to the demands of a lifestyle we never chose. Now I look back on those little resentments and laugh, as my appreciation for my military childhood far outweighs any of the drawbacks. There were certainly challenges—and even more challenges for kids like Gabi who grew up during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—but there were also many benefits.
Being a military brat made me adaptable and independent, while also teaching me what it meant to be part of a community devoted to something greater than myself. Being a military brat allowed me to form friendships with people of different races, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds—this subculture has to be the most organic example of diversity and integration I’ve ever witnessed in the United States. It also gave me a deep appreciation for the world’s many cultures, while instilling in me a strong identity as an American, an ever-present sense of our nation’s history, and a deeper understanding of what both mean. Being a military brat made me curious, open-minded, and adventurous, while at the same time teaching me the value of sacrifice, duty, and honor. So while the “Things I Hate Most…” list hopefully captures some of Gabi’s teenage angst in a funny and realistic way, by the end of her journey when the list reappears, her perspective has shifted quite a bit.
AH: “The road out there is long and full of trials. It can’t hurt to call on friends who have already walked the way,” a priest explains to Gabi in answer to her question about why people pray to saints. I found myself wondering if you worked with nonprofits that support teens in military families because you’ve “walked the way?” Can you tell us more about that work?
AC: Yes, I think I’ve remained actively connected to the military community as an adult in part because I “walked” that road in my youth and feel passionate about advocating for this special group of kids. That has involved briefly working as a grant writer for a military youth ministry called Club Beyond, an organization that partners with chaplaincies on military installations all around the world in order to provide teens with emotional and spiritual support, as well as a close community where lifelong friendships are formed.
I currently teach for an innovative online middle and high school called Williamsburg Academy, where I’m part of a team focused on reaching out to military families to let them know about our school. My family moved eight times by the time I graduated from high school, meaning I was constantly the “new kid,” which was tough because I was more introverted and usually started feeling plugged-in right about the time we had to move again. So it excites me that online education is an option for military brats today, since the students at our school often develop real friendships across state lines, and have the opportunity to meet in person at the summer camps the school hosts each year. Thanks to recent technology, kids in military families can benefit from the stability that comes from attending one school for grades 6-12, and that really excites me because this possibility really does meet a common need. I’m always eager to highlight the strengths of military brats and other “third culture kids” (rather than focusing solely on the challenges), and I suspect a part of me will always stay connected to this community. The military brat identity is a strong one that lasts a lifetime, and I’m grateful to be part of this unique tribe.
AH: Thank you, Ashlee Cowles, for sharing your experience and knowledge with BCB!
Ashlee Cowles holds graduate degrees from Duke University and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and teaches literature and philosophy. As a college student, Ashlee studied abroad in Spain and walked part of the Camino de Santiago. She blogs at http://www.ashleecowles.com. She grew up a wandering Army brat and has worked with a nonprofit that supports teens in military