I have a confession to make. I drink bourbon (and coffee), occasionally to excess. I can out-swear a Marine drill sergeant. I get pig-headed about the dumbest things. Sometimes I make bad decisions, do stupid stuff, or trust the wrong person. I try to do my best, and just hope my successes balance my failures. In other words, I’m human.
Which means I’m also a lot like Ellie Cooper, the protagonist in Hour of the Rat, the latest novel by Lisa Brackmann. I first encountered Ellie in Ms. Brackmann’s debut novel, Rock Paper Tiger. In Hour of the Rat, Ellie once again drags me along on an adventure through sprawling, bewildering, beautiful and treacherous China as she tries to help an old war buddy locate his missing brother, while being chased, used, and abused by shadowy government agencies, and stumbles into a truly terrifying real-world plot line having to do with GMOs (genetically modified organisms—if you want to get the willies every time you eat, look them up).
I’m going to say right up front that I loved this book. The synopsis is at the end, so I won’t repeat it here. What I want to talk about today is Ellie Cooper, and the way too many people may view a protagonist like her.
Let me tell you about Ellie. She was a medic in Iraq, a soldier who got caught in a terrible Abu Ghraib-like situation, and got torn between duty and horror. Her husband left her for a younger model. She got blown up and lost a chunk of muscle in her leg. It causes her deep physical pain and always will. She’s tough as old leather, but feminine enough to be embarrassed about the scars on her leg. She has PTSD. Between the pain and the nightmares, she doesn't always sleep well. She can’t function in the morning without coffee, her beverage choice the rest of the day is often beer, and though she tries to endure the constant physical and emotional pain, she sometimes resorts to popping Percocet for relief. She has a wry, dry, self deprecating sense of humor that comes out sometimes at the worst possible moment. She loves her uber-Christian mother, who drives her crazy, and is trying to heal past rifts with her. She’s an expat living in China, she’s trying to be a good friend to folks who may not deserve it, she’s trying to get her act together, and she’s trying to find some meaning in a world that exploded and spun out of control on her.
I haven’t read the reviews on Hour of the Rat yet, but I read them for Rock Paper Tiger (because I like to see what other people think of a book I adored). I was seriously appalled by folks who took issue with Ellie’s drinking and swearing and flawed decisions. As if they expected her, as a soldier, to say “gosh darn” and return home after the war to bake cookies and join the PTA. This weekend Americans celebrate our freedom, and the men who fought and died for it. Now that women are actively being allowed in combat positions (as if they already weren't de facto in those positions), are we ready for our books to have protagonists like Ellie Cooper?
My question is this: If Ellie Cooper had been Elliot Cooper, a male protagonist, would readers feel the same? Would you, as a reader, be more tolerant of a male character who’d been a soldier, been hit by an IED, who suffered the hell of PTSD, who swore, who coped with too much beer and painkillers, ran into dangerous situations, and was ambivalent about his mother?
Is there a subconscious prejudice toward the realistic portrayal of flawed female protagonists?
Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe has a pretty good life in Beijing, representing the work of controversial dissident Chinese artist Zhang Jianli. Even though Zhang's mysterious disappearance of over a year ago has attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities. Even though her Born-Again mother has come for a visit and shows no signs of leaving.
But things really get complicated when Ellie's search for an Army buddy's missing brother entangles her in a conspiracy that may or may not involve a sinister biotech company, eco-terrorists, and art-obsessed Chinese billionaire, and lots of cats—a conspiracy that will take her on a wild chase through some of China's most beautiful and most surreal places.
Guest host Kat Sheridan is an aspiring romance author, fond of bourbon and shiny things. Creator of BlurbCopy.com, writing blurbs/back cover copy for indie authors. Bon vivant and diva. Her debut Victorian gothic romance novel, Echoes in Stone, will be published in the fall of 2013.