by DANNY JACOBS
No, This Story Would be Mine
KELLY S. THOMPSON’S
Girls Need Not Apply: Field Notes from the Forces
[McClelland & Stewart, 2019]
After 60-odd pages of ostracization, verbal abuse, indignities, failures, and physical hardship, an eighteen-year-old Kelly Thompson experiences her first triumph while fieldstripping her weapon during her Initial Assessment Period (IAP) of Basic Training. Here’s Thompson in her memoir, Girls Need Not Apply: Field Notes from the Forces (M&S, August 2019):
When we were tested on our ability to strip our weapon down to the bolt, tidily laying out all its pieces in order of inspection, I had the best time in the platoon, even when the course staff turned out the lights and made us do it by feel alone.
That Thompson excelled at such a practice—an exercise that requires meticulousness, memory, a sense of order—comes as no surprise, based on the craft of this memoir. After all, language is a collection of moving parts that need to be handled with precision and caution. Take the opening sentence of the book: “The route to basic training, from Barrie, Ontario, to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, wound coincidentally through Ormstown, where my Grandpa Thompson was buried.” I like how the sentence is weedy with commas, and approaches awkwardness, but to great effect: it winds around those stops and starts, enacting the route its describing. There’s a lot going on here—the alliterative ‘o’s of route, Ontario, wound, Ormstown; the mix of hard Anglo-Saxon (route, wound) with Latinate (coincidentally); the way that lumbering coincidentally divides the sentence and gives us pause, becomes the crux, introduces the unexpected pathos of the buried Grandpa. The point is that Thompson has chops, and shows the same care and skill with her prose that she does with her service weapon.
Thompson’s memoir details an almost decade-long career as a woman in the Canadian Armed Forces, and the reason it’s so compelling, so readable, so deeply-felt, is her facility with particulars. Thompson is a details writer, perhaps reflective of her military career, where attention to minutiae is everything. From the beginning, apt images stack up on every page, short lines that do narrative heavy-lifting. Most importantly, they richen Thompson’s story of life in such a male-dominated profession. For instance, when Thompson first arrives for IAP, a soldier goes through her bags; once complete, he “had to pry off a pair of [her] underwear that had caught on the strap of his Ironman watch.” A few lines later, when Thompson’s father—a stoic career military man—has to say goodbye, she encompasses his distance and paternal discomfort in a single line: “He pulled me in for the style of hug he’d adopted since I’d grown breasts, his body forming a C-shape over mine as he patted my back uncomfortably.” The details above underline and foreshadow Thompson’s further difficulties as a woman in the military; both moments, with their attendant discomfort, would not have happened to a man, or at least not like that. Not only do her descriptions create intimacy, they move the reader beyond our generalized, pop culture-infused, impressions of military life.
Even when Thompson and her fellow soldiers are just standing around awaiting orders, Thompson focuses the reader with “the rustle of nylon on cotton as we adjusted our packs.” Later, an obstacle course “warbled like a mirage.” Perhaps this is typo for “wobbled” but I hope not: I like its synesthetic ring. When we read these lines, we are there with her, we feel the hypersensitivity brought on by exhaustion and stress.
One more. While serving as an administration officer in HR, Thompson has an affair with a married colleague. After the affair gets out to her workplace, she ends up in her superior’s office. Again, Thompson ratchets up the tension with well-placed detail: “Murphy sat on her chair as if it were a throne, hands folded neatly in her lap, the multi-coloured wheel of her screensaver performing its digital dance.” It’s that screensaver bit I love. Because we would remember that, wouldn’t we? It’s perfect. In the midst of a highly awkward and emotionally fraught exchange, this is just the type of thing I’d recall. As Thompson piles up these details with a seemingly eidetic memory, her pain and anxiety become that much more acute.
The downside to detail, though, is overuse. Details make this story, adding poignancy to her scenes, but Thompson has a tic of over-situating us with transitionary sentences that could be cut. Stuff like “A press of the button lifted the gate and I drove into the parking lot while simultaneously rifling through my purse for a mint” or “I scribbled my information and handed the clipboard back before stumbling to the exam table” is unnecessary. There isn’t really anything wrong with the writing here, per se, as sentences; but these lines plod in the face of the dense particulars above, they don’t add anything substantive to the larger narrative.
Thompson is also skilled at widening the frame, describing military culture— and her place in it—within a few lines. After a series of physical failures in basic training, Thompson nails her feelings of ambiguity in two sentences:
Bring physically weak felt so different to me than frailty on a grander scale, but the more time I spent in training, the more my interpretation of strength was mutating into the military’s definition—not the feminist ideal I thought I’d espoused in high school simply for enrolling in the first place. The effect was the slow disintegration of my self-worth.
Later, she underscores her frustration and the impossibility of her situation with the realization “that being an assertive woman trying to do her job made me a bitch, which is why I had always skated too close to the other extreme of overt friendliness, which others labelled as flirty.” These pull-backs— close asides with the reader— are so honest and so self-aware, and they ground us between more descriptive scenes.
Girls Need Not Apply ends with a kayaking trip on the west coast. Thompson’s military career is over due to a knee injury. She is doing what she loves (writing), and she’s now married to Joe, the man she has loved since Basic. Joe is caring and thoughtful, an outlier in this book, an antidote to the retrograde and abusive men Thompson encounters throughout her career. In the final pages, Thompson and her husband see whales. The actual meeting with the whales, though, is never described. Or rather, described only conditionally: “They could have been under us that very moment, rising from below to swallow us up, black blubber glistening like ink blobs… I would capture it all with my keyboard.” Thompson does a neat move here. Her use of modal verbs is intentional and effective: the present, experiential self addressing the future writer. Rather than ending with the actual whale encounter, she frames it as catalyst, the jumping off point for the book itself, and the freedom occasioned by writing: “I would write it, craft it, nurture that story into existence. No one else would tell me otherwise or control the narrative, give me orders around structure and dialogue.” At first, I had reservations with the ending; I read it as sentimental, a little on-the-nose. Why not just end with a strong image of the whales? A lesser writer might’ve. But the tone Thompson strikes serves a purpose towards her entire project. She has just spent 300 pages outlining her experiences in a “culture of silence and victim-blaming,” a culture that tried at every turn to sap her individuality. In one particularly heartbreaking line, Thompson confides that “[d]isillusionment flooded every military memory I cherished.” Yet Thompson knows disillusionment is freeing and transformative. She’s addressing not only herself and the reader in these closing lines, but all the shitty men she had to deal with in silence and capitulation. So the final line of the book is earned, an affirmation: “No, this story would be mine. And it was going to be beautiful.” This debut is important, timely, and indeed beautiful.
Danny Jacobs’ poems, reviews, and essays have been published in a variety of journals across Canada. Danny won PRISM International’s 2015 Creative Nonfiction Contest and The Malahat Review’s 2016 P. K. Page Founders’ Award for poetry. His essay “Rooms” was shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s 2018 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. His first book of poetry, Songs That Remind Us of Factories (Nightwood, 2013), was shortlisted for the 2014 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry. His latest book, Sourcebooks for Our Drawings: Essays and Remnants, is a collection of lyrical essays and creative nonfiction (Gordon Hill Press, September 2019). Danny lives in Riverview, NB, with his wife and daughter. He works as the librarian in the village of Petitcodiac.