Ask Him Why: A Novel, by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Living in Idaho I and a lot of my friends were aware of the story of Bowe Bergdahl, a quirky kid from central Idaho who wandered off his station in Afghanistan, was captured and later returned. There were accusations of desertion among other things. The impact on his family in Hailey, Idaho, which borders Sun Valley was immediate and hard.

In this book Catherine Ryan Hyde imagines a similar story landing on the family of a soldier who, while stationed in Iraq, refuses to go out on a mission with a platoon. Shorthanded, the platoon loses two men.

The story is told from the perspective of two siblings, Ruth and Aubrey, 15 and 12 respectively when their older half-brother Joseph returns home from Iraq after only three months of active duty. Their parents, Brad and Janet (the joke isn’t missed by the author), are an attorney and his wife living beyond their means in Orange County, California. The parents try to keep Joseph’s story a secret from his siblings. But after staying just a night at the house Joseph disappears from the home replaced by a wave of reporters and television news vans parked at their home. The home is vandalized, online newspaper comment sections are filled with vitriol about Joseph, the father begins to lose clients at his law firm, and Ruth and Aubrey both feel the impact at school.

The story carries through Joseph’s court martial and the effect on the whole family, ultimately leading to their need to change identity and move to a different city. The story particularly follows Aubrey who shifts from idolizing his brother to turning against him. He and his sister try to find out why Joseph did what he did. Part of that search leads them to a wise old man who befriended Joseph at a young age. The story covers a decade of time as Joseph returns after imprisonment to try to explain himself to those he loves.

It’s a well-written story and the characters are sketched out well, acting like real people with sometimes surprising actions. There are some differences between Bowe and Joseph, Afghanistan vs. Iraq, AWOL vs. mutiny, but the family impact is similar. The Bergdahls went from a fairly serene rural life to being surrounded by media attention and withdrawal by long-time friends and neighbors. During a “media spectacle” it’s easy to forget that those in the spotlight, whether guilty or innocent, have families that suffer for them and with them and are often painted with the same brush. In this story, the actions of the son result in the ruination of the family as if, somehow, punishing one person doesn’t satisfy the public.

The book at its end is about forgiveness and reconciliation at an intimate family level with a truly lovely ending.