Eleven Days by Lea CarpenterEleven Days by Lea Carpenter

Eleven Days

byLea Carpenter

Paperback | March 11, 2014

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An NPR Great Read of 2013

This stunning debut novel opens in May 2011, when Sara’s son, Jason, has been missing for nine days following a Special Operations Forces mission that took place the same night as the bin Laden raid. Knowing nothing more about Jason’s fate than the reporters camped out in front of her Pennsylvania farmhouse, Sara—an editor who immersed herself in all things military after her son became a Naval officer—is determined to discover what’s happened. Through letters and flashbacks, this haunting novel reveals the profound bond between a mother and her son, as it raises fundamental questions about life choices, the military, war, and service to one’s country. With dazzling talent and a unique voice, Lea Carpenter tells a thrilling and unforgettable story.
Lea Carpenter lives in New York with her husband and two sons. Eleven Days is her first novel.
Title:Eleven DaysFormat:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 0.6 inPublished:March 11, 2014Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307951030

ISBN - 13:9780307951038

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Read from the Book

Tarawa 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. ONE SPOONSChadds 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.

Bookclub Guide

US1. The themes of young men going off to war, and the overwhelming anxiety this causes their mothers, extends as far back as ancient Greece. In what ways does Eleven Days both participate in and add to this literary tradition? What is new and unique about the novel? What are some of the novel’s most emotionally wrenching moments?2. When Jason asks his mother about the difference between “myths” and “fictions,” she tells him: “A myth is a fiction that matters” [p. 241].She also quotes her favorite writer, Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” [p. 241]. What role do myths, fictions, and stories play in the novel? How are the mythic stories of Thetis and Achilles, and Jason and the Argonauts, especially relevant to Sara and Jason?3. What is the effect of the novel’s cutting back and forth between Sara’s and Jason’s perspectives and between different time periods? Would the novel have been less effective or suspenseful if told in a straight chronological order and from a single point of view?4. What motivates Jason, beyond the attacks of 9/11, to join the military? Why does he keep going back for five tours?5. How have Sara and Jason each been affected by David’s absence? In what ways does David’s absence deepen the bond between mother and son?6. In a letter to his mother, Jason talks about his training and what he’s learning about the Inner Warrior. He writes: “The Inner Warrior is kind of like the Editor inside us. It is the voice you hear that tells you not just what to do but what not to do, too. ... You have to be able to do everything, and then you have to have the ability to refrain from doing anything. That last skill is often the most powerful of all” [p. 76]. Why is this kind of restraint so important in the context of the new forms warfare has now taken? What other aspects of his training, and the specific military ethos of the Teams, affect Jason most strongly?7. Eleven Days offers a rare inside look at the unique training and culture of Navy SEALs. What aspects of this training—and the ethos that it promotes—were most surprising?8. What is the symbolic significance of Jason’s decision to go back for the baby he hears crying in the Kill House—of risking his life to save a child? Why does it seem both unexpected and inevitable that he would make that choice? What are the consequences, for all concerned, of his actions?9. Near the end of the novel, Sara thinks that David “had drifted, at last, to that higher plane he’d long desired to live on, where nothing could hold him to gravity’s laws. He would float above feelings. He always had. But what was her task now?” [p. 252]. Has David’s spiritual life been a form of escape, a kind of spiritual bypassing, a way to avoid difficult feelings? How is Sara different from David in how she handles her emotional life? What is the task that she must now accomplish?10. Sara waits several months before reading the letter [p. 253] Jason left for her, until she feels emotionally ready. Many writers would have taken full advantage of Sara’s response to the letter, which was no doubt profound, but Carpenter chooses to leave that to the reader’s imagination. Why might the author have made this decision? In what ways does Jason’s letter land with greater power because readers don’t get to see Sara’s response?11. At the end of the novel, when Sara visits Arlington National Cemetery, she thinks, This is the first place people should come if they want to understand us [p. 259]. Why does she feel this way? How might Arlington illuminate something essential about the American character?12. The final mission Jason leads occurs on May 2, 2011, the same date that Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs. In what important ways does the novel diverge from the actual events of that night? What is it that can make fiction that grows out of real, historical events so compelling?13. Most novels about war have been written by men. In what ways does Eleven Days offer a uniquely feminine perspective on war?14. What makes the ending of the novel so moving? Is there a hint of hopefulness for Sara in the book’s closing paragraphs?

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Lea Carpenter's Eleven Days“Masterful. . . . 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. . . . She has written a tremendous novel that serves as a valuable contribution to our nation’s literature about warfare.”—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.”—The New York Times “In simple but stirring prose . . . an elegant meditation on the love between a mother and son whose worldviews changed forever after 9/11, in very different ways.”—Entertainment Weekly “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.”—The Washington Post“Carpenter provides a convincing portrait of an exclusive and exclusively male military subculture.”—The New York Times Book Review“Assured debut. . . . [An] affecting portrayal of maternal love at a time of war.” —Vogue“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.”—The Daily Beast“A compelling story made memorable by the strength of its elegant prose.”—Toni Morrison, author of Home“The finest analysis of special operations I have ever read.”—Ambassador Frank G. Wisner“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.”—Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Keeping Faith with our Values in a Dangerous World“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“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.”—Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds“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“Filled with characters who exist on the edge of emotion. . . . Poignant prose and an impeccably structured narrative.”—Publishers Weekly“Assured. . . . A highly moral anti-war novel without noisily announcing itself as such. . . . This well-turned story packs plenty of emotion. . . . Among the smartest of the batch of recent American war novels.”—Kirkus Reviews