Margaret From Maine – Joseph Monninger
By – Sheri de Grom
I knew I had to read Margaret From Maine as soon as I read the blurb. The life situation haunting Margaret is as old as caregiving and war itself.
The novel opens as Thomas, Margaret’s husband, is doing what his natural instincts compel him to do. He’s taking bullets for one of his men in Afghanistan. He’s already sustained severe injuries. Why not move forward and protect those soldiers behind him? Thomas joined the Maine National Guardsmen because his dairy farm had debt and the military had seemed a viable solution. Joining would bring in needed income to pay toward the farm upkeep. Getting shot and returning home to a veterans’ hospital in a vegetative state was not part of the original plan.
Margaret and their young son, Gordon, had moved in with Margaret’s father-in-law, Ben, before Thomas had deployed to Afghanistan. It was to be a temporary arrangement but with the unexpected shift in Thomas’s condition, farm chores became everyday life for Margaret.
Margaret is still a young woman but she feels ancient. For the past six years she’s been a widow in every sense of the word, yet she’s not. She’s married, but she’s not. She visits Thomas at the veterans’ hospital frequently but there’s never a change. He’s always the same. She’s also running the family dairy farm nearly single-handedly while her whole life is suspended.
Thomas’ status as a Medal of Honor recipient is attractive to legislators and Margaret’s asked to go to Washington, DC, to attend a bill signing sponsoring improved veterans’ care for coma patients wherein their internal injuries are so severe they are expected to never recover.
Margaret wasn’t going to go to DC and then decided it was one small thing she could do for Thomas and other veterans in a vegetative state.
Charlie King, another veteran and one who lost a leg during the last of the three tours he served, is appointed to escort Margaret to DC for the bill signing.
Joseph Monninger’s ability to write perceptively and accurately in the voice of the opposite gender never ceases to amaze me. His portrayal of a woman’s grief, her severely-conflicting emotions and the complexity in which Margaret conveys her thoughts all shout to his superb storytelling ability while examining such an emotionally heated topic.
Monninger also has that special quality elusive to many of us wherein he can shift point of view often, but the reader is never lost. I knew exactly where I was in any given character’s head and what they were conveying to me at all times.
. . . Pg 38 On the flight from Maine to DC, Charlie smiled at Margaret and she smiled back at him. [For an instant, just an instant, she felt a ridiculous, nearly forgotten flirtatiousness rise up in her. How strange, she thought. How absurd and how ill timed. She would have given a great deal to have her friend Blake beside her, if for nothing except to verify that his gaze actually contained interest. Sexual interest. She felt her face flush and she became aware of her body, of his opposite maleness, of the pleasure of talking to a man. How long had it been? She could not say precisely. She did not even permit herself to think of it, to believe fully that such a thing was happening, but she could not dispute the warmth and attraction of his eyes. She nearly blurted out her feeling because it came as such a surprise she could not take it seriously. She wondered if he felt the same thing. At any moment she imagined they would both burst out laughing, except his eyes remained on hers and in a pulse, maybe two, she understood that his interest was genuine.]
. . . Pg 40 [He did not want Margaret to think he presumed a certain familiarity, that he had forgotten his official function on this trip. But he admitted to himself that he had felt … what? What was it, exactly? He could not name it to his satisfaction. Warmth perhaps. Or interest. Sitting across the aisle from her on the plane, he had felt sensations he had not indulged in for a year or longer.] . . .
Charlie had expected his weekend assignment to Margaret to be just another detail. He had not counted on liking this woman so much.
After Charlie lost his leg, he’d gone through rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in DC. He’s a West Point graduate. After his injury and rehabilitation, he’s recruited into the Foreign Service and has completed his graduate studies and is waiting for assignment.
Neither Margaret nor Charlie anticipate the weekend that ensues. DC is a city where parties are always available and merely knowing the right people will get you invited to whichever one you want to attend. Margaret is to return to Maine on Sunday evening. After much soul searching, she decides to extend her time with Charlie for three more days.
Their trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway with the rhododendron in bloom comes to life with Monninger’s deft ability at writing about landscape and the natural world. It’s rare to find an author who can do the Blue Ridge Parkway justice, but Monninger is one of them. I even found myself longing for some of the places he described in DC and Virginia which I used to frequent and it’s been a long time since I thought about returning to that part of the world.
Margaret stays in telephone contact with her son, Gordon, and her best friend, Blake. She and Blake have been friends since high-school days.
When Margaret doubts herself about being with Charlie, it’s Blake who reminds Margaret that she deserves a night out. Blake tells Margaret, “You’ve got to have a little fun!”
. . . Pg 74 [She felt a momentary shame at the hunger her kiss revealed. What must he think? She wondered, but she was powerless to stop. She had intended, if she had intended anything at all, to kiss him lightly, to show goodwill, to let him know she was not a prude, she did not take offense at this kiss, and then, in the instant before her lips met his she felt herself turn to water. It seemed an entire sea had pushed her harder into his arms, and she kissed him with everything she had, her body pressing into him, and tears came to her eyes.
“I’ll be right back” she said when she released him. She turned and walked away.] . . .
Margaret continues to lean on her best friend, Blake. She has no one else to talk with about what’s going through her mind. She’s confused and she doesn’t want to be having these feelings for another man. She’s in DC to honor her husband and other veterans, not to have an affair with a veteran. What’s wrong with her? She wants to be able to see life in black and white but it hasn’t been that way since Thomas came home on a stretcher.
Joseph Monninger, with a fine hand, sprinkles comments about our decade-plus long war throughout the manuscript of Margaret From Maine and I admire him for doing so and his ability to do it without seeming a commentator.
Monninger also develops Terry, a wealthy DC hostess who volunteers a good deal of her time and also hosts come- and-go brunches on Sundays at her lavish home along the Potomac. Terry became friends with Charlie while he was a patient at Walter Reed and she now includes him as a regular for her Sunday brunches.
Terry takes the opportunity to speak with Margaret about how she feels about the war. . . . Pg 149 [It can’t always be about him, Margaret. I don’t know your situation, so forgive me, but I know many men and women who have found themselves in situations they never dreamed of before these wars. One of the sordid side notes to these wars is the notion that people can simply go along without it affecting their lives. . . . I can’t always speak my mind to folks around here. The point I’m trying to make is that we have people enduring tremendous pain and suffering, all against a backdrop of normalcy for everyone else. So if you have indulged yourself to some degree this weekend, don’t sit in judgment. Your husband was caught up in these terrible wars, but so were you. . . . I knew a woman in your circumstances who divorced her husband and then adopted him. Crazy sounding, I know, but these are crazy times.”] . . .
Indeed, the military wife or any wife or husband that becomes a full-time caregiver knows what is right for them. The soul searching is deep and painful. No one but the caregiver knows what is acceptable in their own circumstances.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have made more military spouses full-time caregivers than any other war in history. The toll on the caregiver is tremendous, both physically and emotionally. The question of ‘What would you do?’ remains close to the surface any time there’s a group of military spouses (both active duty and retired) gathered together.
I could not wait to read this unforgettable novel by Joseph Monninger. Margaret From Maine will stay with me for a very long time. This is a perfect read for a book club and I unconditionally recommend it for all, both men and women.