Hellgate Press (2011), Paperback original (ISBN 1555716865 / 9781555716868)
Nonfiction (biography/memoir), 200 pages
Reason for reading: Indie Lit Awards Short List (Biography/Memoir), Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge
Opening lines: “This is a book about love and war.
“My grandparents had a love affair of over sixty years. Three generations of my family have served in the military, spanning Pancho Villa’s attack on US soil to Vietnam. In my family, love and war were nearly inseperable.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: I Pray Hardest When I’m Being Shot At is a true story of love and war. It’s the story of three generations and two romances, one of sixty years, the other of just a few months. Pray deals with one generation trying to connect with another and how it affected both of them.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, eighteen-year-old Robert Stuart had a decision to make: keep working at the steel mill in Warren, Ohio, or volunteer to serve his country. Stuart’s father had served in the first World War, and service was in his blood, so he enlisted in the Marines.
Anne Davis had a decision of her own to make. The girls in her high school were going to send letters to alumni who were going off to war. She looked at the list of soldiers and saw a familiar name: Robert Stuart.
The letters Anne sent would mark the beginning of a relationship that would span sixty years, two marriages, two children, and three wars.
Over half a century after those first letters were sent, the Stuarts’ grandson, Kyle, began chronicling their life together. He would discover pieces of a family history that only he dug deep enough to learn. But in the back of his mind, one concern lingered: the story of a person’s life can only have one ending, and his grandfather’s health was deteriorating.
The end result is a mixture of biography, memoir, history, and dissection of the writing process, and is not entirely satisfying in any of those aspects. Garret’s grandfather died when he was still in the early stages of writing, which caused him to lose opportunities for research via correspondence and personal interview with his subject; as a result, we don’t really get much insight into Stuart beyond the basic biographical details. Garret is so acutely aware of this that it overshadows his original intent to highlight his grandfather’s story as part of the “Greatest Generation.” In the end, this is primarily a book about someone writing a book…and I didn’t feel that I got much insight into that, either.
There were moments of …Pray… that absorbed me, and elements that could have been been constructed into a compelling story, but the overall narrative is choppy. I think that a major cause of that choppiness is the book’s pervasive self-consciousness. As a reader, I don’t really need to be told, over and over, about the writer’s intentions and challenges in writing the book I have in my hands. Here, the writing of the story becomes a story of its own, sometimes overwhelming the original story itself–and that is not to the benefit of either of them.
I Pray Hardest When I’m Being Shot At would not have come to my attention at all without the Indie Lit Awards. It’s a great example of the sort of book these awards should recognize: a personal passion project of its author, published by a small press, championed by readers (it received more short-list nominations than several more prominent titles). However, the awards-show cliché “It’s an honor just to be nominated” applies here. It’s a challenge to produce a compelling biography of someone who isn’t already well-known, and not everyone can rise to it like Laura Hillenbrand or Rebecca Skloot–Kyle Garret’s not there yet. Perhaps he’ll revisit his grandfather’s story one day and really make it about his grandfather; if so, he’s got a good first draft already.