A Spirit Mission according to the mesmerizing West Point cadet Guru who frames this novel in the past and the present, is “an activity undertaken by cadets that is typically somewhat against regulations yet demonstrates qualities that the academy supposedly seeks to develop: audacity, teamwork, creativity, and mission focus.” A good spirit mission does even more, it not only elevates the morale of the cadets involved in the spirit mission, but of the entire Corps. From my understanding of spirit missions in this military adventure novel, this could never be a true spirit mission.
Sam Avery is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, hoping for promotion to Colonel and serving in Iraq in 2015 when old friends from his years in West Point come to ask him to join them in a desperate, last ditch mission to rescue Guru, that cadet who was so important to their development at West Point. This would be an entirely different kind of spirit mission, not just unauthorized, but completely illegal. Their punishment would likely be court-martial and prison, not hours of marching on the weekends, but it would raise morale.
The story, narrated by Avery, goes back and forth between the current rogue mission in Iraq and Avery’s four years at West Point. Both narratives are interesting and full of action, but it’s the years at West Point that will win readers’ hearts. Here’ author Ted Russ really shines, giving us this wonderful novel of male friendship.
LibraryThing’s algorithm predicted I would not like Spirit Mission. I assume that is because it is clear from the books I read and like that I am a liberal who advocates for social and economic justice. I don’t see the contradiction. While I wish we had less adventurist foreign policy and fewer politicians eager to send troops here, there, and everywhere to fix the unfixable, I think the military itself plays a relatively positive role in our society. Sure, they were dragged kicking and screaming into integrating people of color, women, gays, lesbians and trans soldiers. Once the decisions were made, however, they carried it out with commitment. Compare the advancement to leadership position of black people and women in the military to their advancement in the police or in corporate America. Glass ceilings crack much faster in the military. Moreover, for people without privilege and favor, the military is a way up and out of opportunity deserts. Many people in my family have served in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. I have family in the military now, including a niece who has made the military her career.
I would have enjoyed Spirit Mission more if Ted Russ was just slightly more ambitious in defining his audience. He, too, assumes that most of his readers will be soldiers and former soldiers, but this book is not one of those silly genre novels that is nothing but convoluted plot and rah-rah jingoism. It is a novel that should have a large audience, and that audience would enjoy the contemporary Iraq narrative more with fewer acronyms. I just gave up, relying on context clues rather than trying to look them up. It was just a bit too authentic in terms of acronymania. The military can integrate, but it can’t avoid jargon.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book a lot. The spirit missions, both past and present are exciting. The people are complicated and interesting. One of the characters, Avery’s mentor at West Point explains that the cadets are 98% alike and they will recognize that after they are out of school and in the real military. He notes that it’s the 2% difference that gets on their nerves when they are in school. I think Russ succeeded in making that 2% as interesting and complex as possible.
There is a great book of adventure and friendship. Some of the best books of male friendship are military novels, including one of the best books I have ever read, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. He also wrote Going After Cacciato, which was a spirit mission on the grand scale.
This is Ted Russ’ first novel. I hope it won’t be his last and I hope in his future novels, he imagines being read by all kinds of people, not just military aficionados.
Spirit Mission web site
Spirit Mission will be released on November 1st by Henry Holt and Co of Macmillan. I received an advance reader copy from the publisher through a LibraryThing drawing.