Eleven Daysby Lea Carpenter
Powerful and lean, Eleven Days is an astonishing first novel full of suspense that addresses our most basic questions about war as it tells of the love between a mother and her son. When the story opens on May 11, 2011, Sara’s son, Jason, has been missing for nine days from a Special Operations Forces mission on the same night as the Bin/i>
Powerful and lean, Eleven Days is an astonishing first novel full of suspense that addresses our most basic questions about war as it tells of the love between a mother and her son. When the story opens on May 11, 2011, Sara’s son, Jason, has been missing for nine days from a Special Operations Forces mission on the same night as the Bin Laden raid. Smart, young, and bohemian, Sara had dreams of an Ivy League university for Jason that were not out of reach, followed by a job on the Hill where there were connections through his father. The events of 9/11 changed Jason’s mind and Sara accepted that, steeping herself in all things military to better understand her son’s days, while she works as a freelance editor for Washington policy makers and wonks.
Now she knows nothing more about Jason’s fate than the crowds of well-wishers and media camped out in the driveway in front of her small farmhouse in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, waiting to hear news. In a series of flashbacks we learn about Jason’s dashing absentee father, a man who said he was a writer but whose career seemed to involve being in faraway places. And through letters Jason writes home from his training and early missions, we get a picture of a strong, compassionate leader who is wise beyond his years and modest about his abilities. Those exceptional abilities will give Jason the chance to participate in a wholly different level of assignment, the most important and dangerous of his career. At the end Sara will find herself on an unexpected journey full of surprise.
This is a haunting narrative about a mother’s bond with her son; about life choices; about the military, war, and service to one’s country. Lea Carpenter, a dazzling new talent with the kind of strong and distinctive voice that comes along all too rarely, has given us a thrilling and unforgettable story.
This eBook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.
“A novel of stillness and reflection…Carpenter’s greatest accomplishment here may be her success at creating an Olympian warrior who seems entirely human, modest and decent…Carpenter’s intelligence and sincerity find powerful expression in the novel’s sophisticated structure…this story reminds us that each of these warriors, no matter how brave and tough and deadly, is still some woman’s beloved son.”
–Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Lea Carpenter’s debut novel, Eleven Days, tells a story that is at once timeless and also grounded in the very real vicissitudes brought about by current events…The level of realism here is superb, and Carpenter does a masterful job…She has written a tremendous novel that serves as a valuable contribution to our nation’s literature about warfare.”
–Andrew Ervin, San Francisco Chronicle
“A deeply affecting story about a mother and a son that attests to the debut of an extraordinarily gifted writer…Ms. Carpenter has written a novel that maps—much the way that Jayne Anne Phillips’s classic Machine Dreams and Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country did—the fallout that war has not just on soldiers, who put their lives on the line, but also on their families, who wait anxiously back home.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Graceful and assured."
—The New Yorker
“Carpenter provides a convincing portrait of an exclusive and exclusively male military subculture.”
–Elizabeth Samet, The New York Times Book Review
“Assured debut…affecting portrayal of maternal love at a time of war.”
—Megan O’Grady, Vogue.com
“Filled with characters who exist on the edge of emotion…poignant prose and an impeccably structured narrative.”
"Carpenter's incisive, graceful novel is certain to vault to the top of any list of high quality literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
—Matt Gallagher, The Daily Beast
“Eleven Days lingers on the cold inevitabilities of conflict, which makes it a highly moral anti-war novel without noisily announcing itself as such…This well-turned story packs plenty of emotion…with equal measures of intellect and heartbreak…Among the smartest of the batch of recent American war novels.”
“Eleven Days is a powerful, moving read: Jason and his Argonauts reborn as Navy Seals. But it is far more than just a compelling story; it’s a window onto the new world of 21st century warfare. I would assign it in any high school or college class on international politics or national security.”
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Keeping Faith with our Values in a Dangerous World
“A compelling story made memorable by the strength of its elegant prose.”
—Toni Morrison, author of Home
“What Denis Johnson did for the Vietnam War in Tree of Smoke, Lea Carpenter does for Iraq and Afghanistan in her superb Eleven Days. She drills deeply into the culture and lore of special operations warfare, and just as deeply into the minds of the people—the military-intellectual complex, if you will—who ultimately determine the American way of making war. But at the core of this extraordinary novel is the love of a mother for her child. That's the story of us all, and that's the story that may well break your heart.”
—Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
“Eleven Days is an extraordinary accomplishment. Written with an elegant precision, this book is at its core a story about love: between a mother and a son, a son and a father, and a special group of men for each other and the imperfect country they choose to serve. I highly recommend it.”
—Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds
“Every soldier was, once, someone’s child. With this ineluctable truth at her story’s core, Lea Carpenter has crafted a beautiful, and original, work of art. Eleven Days manages to be both a meditation on courage and a gripping read. Scholarly and stylish, displaying a capacious mind and even greater heart. A magnificent debut.”
—Alexandra Styron, author of Reading My Father
“Not only a dramatic, affecting and wholly original story about war from a woman’s point of view but an incisive look at the experience of special operations.”
—Doug Stanton, author of In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers
“Powerful, moving and beautifully written, this story of a mother and her son shows us how 9/11 has changed our lives forever.”
—Bob Kerrey, author of When I Was a Young Man
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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- Random House
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Read an Excerpt
The United States Navy SEALs came out of the Teams that served in Vietnam; they in turn came out of the Navy Seabees, the Scouts and Raiders, and the Underwater Demolition Teams used during World War II. The UDTs evolved out of something else: loss of lives. Their unit was born in the wake of the Battle of Tarawa. At Tarawa, for the ﬁrst time, the Japanese mounted a sophisticated defense against an enemy amphibious landing. In one day, six thousand Americans died or were injured. It was 1943.
Most lives were lost before the Marines reached the beach that day. They drowned. They didn’t know how deep the water was; they didn’t know where the reefs lay. The moon had skewed the tides. Men stepped from their boats into chest-high waters, and when their gear sank, it took them with it. The coral was sharp, and so close to the surface in places that you could see it catch the sun.
A new force was required where men were as comfortable in water as on land, and the navy’s underwater demolition trainees possessed part of the necessary skill set. These were combat swimmers, reconnaissance experts, with a kit of suits, knives, life preservers, and a facemask. On D-day they secured the French beaches. In 1962 President Kennedy announced a new defense initiative: a focus on “Special Forces,” men who would ﬁght in unorthodox conditions against an unorthodox enemy. These were not kids trained for trenches. These were warriors ready for the military equivalent of grand master chess games—only ones where you pushed pawn to queen in the dark. They were one spoke on the Special Operations Forces wheel, but the Teams soon proved unique. Their ability to make critical decisions quickly, in complex situations, marked them apart. A SEAL’s best weapon, like a scholar’s, is his mind.
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, May 11, 2011
In the bedroom, Sara ﬁnds her running shoes. She has not worn them in a while; there never seemed to be time, although she is no longer sure what she ﬁlls her days with, aside from waiting. The neighbors bring their new soups, and she pretends to have new tastes for them, but when they leave, she empties them down the shiny, stainless drains.
She pulls on an old Academy shirt and starts out the front door. Where they live now, the driveway is long, almost half a mile, and she knows a good route for today. If she crosses the neighboring farm’s yard, she can catch a path at the lower end of their garden. With that path she can come to their pond, the one she once ﬁshed in, and gain access to the main road. The main road leads to a wood, and out the other side of the wood is the highway. This is where she can turn back. Yard, to path below pond, to main road, to highway. If she hits the highway out of breath, she is sure she can hitch a ride. She is a celebrity of sorts now. Everyone wants to help.
She long ago adopted the habit of wearing a hat when she runs. When she puts the hat on, she looks down at laces her son left for her when he was last home. They’re bright red. “Running is fun, Mommy,” he’d said. “Don’t take it so seriously.” He still calls her Mommy even though he is a man now. He is twenty- seven. He has been missing for nine days.
As a child he’d played with spoons, not guns, even though they had some of those around the house, too. His father had bought him a Boss sixteen- gauge, one made between the wars, as a baby present. “He has to learn not to be afraid to hold one,” his father had said. But the spoons had him. He liked to line them up on the ﬂ oor. For his third birthday, a godparent gave him a large tin box of multicolored plastic spoons, and soon the phrase “box of spoons” became a proxy for all delights, as in (while watching football) “that last pass was better than a box of spoons”; or (on Christmas morning) “twinkly lights are my favorite thing ever, except for a box of spoons.” On his ﬁfth birthday his father sent him a small silver spoon. It was engraved with the date and this phrase: you were not born with this.
He grew up quickly. He was so creative. Leaving spoons aside at last, and reluctantly, for paintbrushes, he was easily the ﬁrst choice for class pet of every art teacher. Art and writing: these were his early passions. And that pleased her; it somehow rein-forced her sense of herself. It reinforced that she had not ever been owned by anyone—not a government, not a military, not a man. It also reinforced her dreams for what she wanted her son to be. She wanted him to be not only different from his father but also free from the demons that had come with what his father did, or at least from what she knew of what he did. She didn’t want a son who grew up to be familiar with words like Kalashnikov, katusha, or jezail—unless he learned them from a Kipling poem.
But anyone who met him today would say, Soldier. Fighter. They would want him on their team. As a mother she was willing to engage in pride over fear and to admit the possibility that his sacriﬁce was hers, too. His sacriﬁce was something she had been able to give her country.
Sara felt she had failed in so many other areas of her life, including a chance at an elite education, but she could always say her son is a member of a very special group. If his father had been alive, he would have smiled at the irony. He had claimed to dis-trust the military, despite his obsession with its history. He was a famously great shot but kept to birds and maintained he’d never trained at a range. He mocked things he did not understand, and the military seemed to have been one of those things. He knew more than enough about it to be clear on his views, but still not quite enough. He didn’t understand the difference between the power of an idea and the power to put an idea into action, but his son did. Even from a very young age, their son had a sense of respect for action over talk, and a sense of respect for the things he did not know. His father had opinions; he had questions. And the father’s guns remained in the house, but they were no longer of interest to the boy as he grew. Since Jason had signed up, Sara never went dove shooting anymore. An old arsenal sat at rest, except the pistol she kept by her bed.
She has not run more than a quarter mile before her knee begins to ache. Sometimes when she runs, she will reach the point where she feels she cannot go on, but then she thinks about her son, the runs he’s endured. Multimile runs, on the beach, at night, wet. “Transportation” runs of two miles to a meal, carrying once or twice his body weight in gear. She approaches the path at the base of the yard and she stops for minute. She notices the sky has darkened; it’s about to pour.
She had met his father when she was still trying to be an artist at Georgetown. A summer job listing at Langley looked interesting, and she was broke, and the art jobs didn’t pay the bills. She was asked in her interview if she knew how to work a coffee pot, and she said yes. She was asked to name the secretaries of defense and state and by some miracle, she knew those. She was asked if she scared easily, and she said no. She got the job. She made coffee, sometimes up to twelve pots a day, and carried it to the “boys on the ﬂoor.” She learned a lot by osmosis but mainly she kept track of her hours and left as early as she could.
One day for whatever reason she earned an invitation to a conference in Charlottesville, at the University of Virginia. (“We’ll need coffee there, too,” said her boss, with a wink, as way of explanation.) She would have to work overtime, but she would be meeting interesting people. So she went. And at the other end of the conference room there was a man. She was just standing there, by her coffee pot. He looked at her tag— SARA— and sang the ﬁrst line from the Fleetwood Mac song by the same name: Wait a minute baby/Stay with me awhile. She didn’t know the song well but he told her it was very good and suggested she buy the album. Then he clariﬁed the connection by pointing up the song’s spelling of “Sara, no ‘h,’ just like yours.” And he said, “Sara without the ‘h’ is much less biblical.” He was thirty years older. She would only ﬁnd that fact appalling much later, when she was old enough to know people thirty years her junior. But by that time she was resolved not to think too deeply about things. When she asked what he did for a living he said, “Writer,” then smiled. There were a lot of “writers” in the intelligence industry, at least according to her nonscientiﬁc survey. “Writer” seemed to be the then- contemporary analog to America’s Vietnam- era “military advisers.” As far as she could tell, the government was madly sending writers all over the place at that time, with varying levels of success. But this one actually looked like a writer. And he talked like one, too. It was 1983. His name was David.
She might have known he was lying when he told her what he did, or what he felt about her, but the lies, which would deepen in complexity along with their relationship, were part of his great game. They were part of what she had chosen to accept when she elected to keep their baby. She was sure that the genes she was incubating had potential to be more—more than a college drop-out carrying coffee for smart chauvinists. And more, too, than a midlevel CIA analyst posing as a journalist. Maybe this child could even be something heroic. Heroic to her at that time meant someone who helped people or created things. A surgeon. Or a scientist. She would even accept an architect, too.
Part of the blissful ignorance of not yet having had a ﬁrst child is the belief that you might just be able to inﬂuence the course of their lives. Inﬂuence them to greatness. And away from danger. Jason came in May, a little Taurus. May 1984. He was small, but he was perfect.
Meet the Author
Lea Carpenter lives in New York with her husband and two sons. This is her first novel.
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