by Rebekah Benoit
First things first, full disclosure: had a movie not been made about this book, I would never have read it. American Sniper is exactly what it claims to be, which is a memoir about an American sniper. Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL whose military career was impressive to say the least. Kyle is revered as the most lethal sniper in US military history, and his memoir tells the story of his life in his own words. While American Sniper is pretty good as memoirs go, the subject matter is pretty far outside my usual realm of interest. I’m not big into guns, war stories or military history, and while I’m a proud Canadian, I think I lack the rabid patriotism that would make this story so appealing to Americans.
That being said, this was not a bad book. It’s not the fault of the author or the story itself that I didn’t find it as enthralling as other reviewers did. To coin a phrase that no one likes to hear, it’s not you…it’s me. I just don’t like war stories.
Chris Kyle served as a US Navy SEAL for more than a decade. A Texan native and a cowboy at heart, Kyle was drawn to military service by an abiding sense of patriotism, a love of guns and a typical young man’s desire to see action on the battlefield. Kyle’s stubborn determination and desire to succeed made him a natural for the Navy SEALS, where he trained as a sniper and served four tours of duty in Iraq. While Kyle was racking up an impressive military record – he recorded the most career sniper kills in US military history – he also struggled to balance his role as an elite solider and essential killing machine against his roles as a husband and father. While in Iraq, he saw friends killed and maimed in close quarters, experiences which profoundly changed him and made it challenging to adapt to life back home, where he didn’t have a gun in his hand and a target in his sights.
What makes Kyle’s story all the more poignant is the fact, just as his career as an author was taking shape and turning Kyle into a true American celebrity (a role he was not entirely comfortable with), his life ended tragically and abruptly when he was killed on a shooting range, allegedly by a deranged veteran he had been trying to help. The trial is still ongoing, which of course makes Kyle’s story all the more compelling – we don’t know exactly how this story will end.
In spite of my initial lack of interest, I soldiered on with this book. Part of it was the fact that the movie was coming out, and I did want to see it. I’m a firm believer that the book is always better, and I generally like to read the book before I watch the movie, although it seems to be a commonly held belief that one should do the opposite to avoid disappointment.
And even though I don’t care much for war stories, I appreciate the incredible sacrifice performed by members of the armed forces. My husband was a member of the Canadian Army for more than a decade, serving tours of duty in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and even though he’s reluctant to discuss his experiences overseas (apparently this is rather common among veterans, or so I’ve heard), I understand something of how profoundly these experiences have affected him, and I appreciate what he and his fellow veterans have done for me, my family and our country.
With that in mind, I decided to give American Sniper a try. As far as memoirs go, it’s a good read. When you’re writing and publishing a memoir, there’s a very fine balance to be found between capturing the voice and the true character of the storyteller, while still maintaining the art and craft of writing which is not necessarily something everyone is good at. Just because you have an amazing story to tell does not mean you’re going to be good at telling it, and too often, I find memoirs which have at their core an amazing story to be fractured, their plots wandering and hard to follow, the writing prosaic and amateurish. It doesn’t make for good reading.
Happily, this is not the case with American Sniper. It’s quite readable, thanks to Kyle’s perfunctory writing style. He tells the story as though he’s sitting down with you over a cup of coffee, and he is able to pick out the important from the mundane, the emotionally touching from the maudlin. Kyle is fairly no-nonsense and I think his story really appeals to male readers primarily. The book also includes short excerpts from his wife, who tells the other side of Kyle’s story: what it was like for his family at home while he was overseas serving his country. This is what made the book more readable for me; it added an important counterpoint to Kyle’s perfunctory, somewhat Spartan style.
I can see why this book appeals widely to an American audience –it touches on so many themes that Americans hold near and dear to their hearts, from patriotism to a love of firearms to the importance of warfare in the pursuit of freedom. If you have an interest in guns, war stories, the military and the Navy SEALs, you’ll probably like this book. I had difficulty getting through it, but that probably has more to do with myself as a reader, rather than the quality of the story itself.