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The War at Home Reader’s Guide

By Rachel Starnes

The War at Home by Rachel Starnes


An Introduction to The War at Home, by Rachel Starnes
The public image of Navy fighter pilots is built on danger, courage, and Top Gun bravado; they are known as elite airmen who perform risky high-altitude acrobatics and put their lives on the line for their country. But behind these heroics, there is another, quieter battle being faced at home—one in which children go months or even years without seeing their fathers, and wives worry with every deployment that their husbands might not come home alive. Rachel Starnes knows this first-hand, and in her memoir, The War at Home, she sheds light on the unsung sacrifices military families must make, and on the toll that those sacrifices can take.

When Starnes’s husband Ross decides to become a Navy pilot, she’s surprised, skeptical, and reluctantly supportive. Starnes is an aspiring writer whose unconventional attitude doesn’t mesh with the cliquish, conservative world of the Navy wives clubs, and she struggles to maintain her own identity as she follows her husband across the country. The constant upheaval of moving from one base to another—losing friendships, leaving jobs, starting over—and the lengthy time spent apart from her husband begin to dredge up painful issues from Starnes’s childhood. Her father, an oil rig worker, was away for large portions of her youth and at one point uprooted her family from Texas to Saudi Arabia, only to send Starnes off to boarding school. As a child, she watched her mother suffer through years of anger and loneliness; as a teenager, she expressed her own unhappiness through drug use and self-harm. Now faced again with a life of painful uncertainty, Starnes realizes that she and Ross could be repeating the pattern of absence and resentment that nearly destroyed her own family.

The War at Home is bluntly honest and tender, marked by heartache as well as sharp wit. Starnes avoids laying blame or delving into self-pity, even in the face of enormous challenges; her experience with a crippling episode of postpartum depression is harrowing and deftly wrought. With vivid language, she observes the details of life on a military base, and is able to capture the beauty of a late-night swim in the desert and the horror of a fiery jet crash with equal skill. But she also gives voice to Ross’s dedication to the Navy and the passion that inspired his career, as well as the enormous joy that she finds with him and their sons. Over the course of The War at Home, Starnes works to build a life for their family on a shifting foundation of love, sacrifice, worry, and commitment, eventually understanding that this is a battle that begins anew each day. 

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What drew you to The War at Home? What was the most surprising moment in the book? The most challenging? The most touching?

2. If you have been a member of a military family, does Starnes’s depiction of life on a Navy base match your own experience? If you haven’t, is there anything in your own life that could help you relate to the experience of being a military spouse?

3. What appeals to Ross about joining the Navy? How does he describe the experience of flying a jet? Are there any ways in which Ross adjusts his own expectations or ambitions to accommodate Starnes’s? 

4. The military is rigidly hierarchical, and the Navy wives clubs follow a similar structure. Why? How does Starnes respond to this? 

5. Both Starnes and her mother sacrifice a great deal for their husbands’ careers. Is it fair for one spouse to dictate the family’s life and priorities? 

6. Do Starnes and her husband have unrealistic expectations about their post-deployment reunions? Why? 

7. Why is Starnes reluctant to move onto the base? 

8. After the arrival of her first son, Starnes offers a searing description of the self-loathing that depression can bring (p. 168). Have you, or has someone you loved, struggled with depression or related psychological challenges? 

9. What roles do women play in The War at Home

10. “Either way,” Starnes writes, “the delicate balance of power within our marriage is bound to keep shifting back and forth in the years ahead” (p. 241). What does Starnes mean by that?

11. If you were to write a memoir, would you be comfortable sharing so many of your intimate moments? Why would someone choose to publish these things? What do others gain from the author’s honesty?

About this Author

Rachel Starnes received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from California State University, Fresno. Her essays have appeared in the Colorado Review and Front Porch Journal. She has lived in Scotland, Texas, Saudi Arabia, Florida, California, and Nevada. This is her first book.
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