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In the novel "Seven Wings to Glory," the follow-up to 2015's "Johnnie Come Lately," Kathleen M. Rodgers explores a variety of military family experiences, from deployments to homecomings.
In the novel "Seven Wings to Glory," the follow-up to 2015's "Johnnie Come Lately," Kathleen M. Rodgers explores a variety of military family experiences, from deployments to homecomings. (Courtesy of Tom Rodgers)

Kathleen M. Rodgers knows that deployments, homecomings and transitions are only a few of the threads giving texture to the lives of military families. In her latest book, “Seven Wings to Glory,” published in April, Rodgers draws on her experiences as an Air Force wife and Army mom to create a nuanced portrayal of military connectedness.

Rodgers’ continuing story of Johnnie and Dale Kitchens, their family and friends presents a spectrum of military ties, both in relationship and in experience. The book is a sequel to "Johnnie Come Lately" (2015), in which Johnnie faces old family secrets, hidden grief, and the losses of a bygone war. “Seven Wings to Glory” is about coming to terms with conflict in the present, beginning in Chapter 1, when Johnnie’s son, Cade, leaves for deployment.

The thread of Johnnie’s fear for Cade’s safety is woven throughout the various plot lines in “Seven Wings,” just as concern for a deployed loved one is part of the fabric of daily military life. Rodgers writes convincingly of relationships, foibles and struggles. Johnnie’s worry over her son is particularly tangible, informed by Rodgers’ experiences as the mother of a deployed soldier.

Life on the homefront doesn’t stand still during deployment, in fact or in fiction. Johnnie has a full life. She is working to complete her college degree. She has a part-time job as a newspaper columnist; and an aging mother who is a piece of work. She and Dale have two other children: a teenage daughter, Callie Ann, and their oldest son, DJ.

Having overcome past sins and sorrows, Johnnie and her family face new obstacles. Johnnie’s best friend, Whit, becomes the brunt of a blatantly racist attack. Callie Anne is targeted as well, and collateral damage deals the Kitchens a painful loss. DJ discovers another hidden chapter of his family’s past, which becomes integral to his work as an artist in a way that echoes the book’s themes of reconciliation and redemption. Johnnie navigates her challenges as most of us would — sometimes boldly, sometimes fearfully, sometimes simply by avoiding the conversations that hurt the most.

Readers of the first book about the Kitchens were introduced to their hometown of Portion, Texas. In the sequel, the small town comes alive, contributing more to the story than location and setting. Like many towns, Portion has a flawed history and is populated by imperfect people, who encounter rank bigotry, hidden wounds, hints of the supernatural, and reasons to hope. The folks in Portion are willing to forgive — but not excuse — injuries past and present.

Johnnie and the other residents of Portion exercise the power of forgiveness to transform even those who seem damaged beyond repair: an injured soldier, a mother who abandoned her daughter, even a young boy poisoned by racism. The author uses scars, both visible and invisible, to represent healing rather than bitterness.

The Kitchens and their friends, old and new, represent the family we’d like to have, the friends we’d like to find, and the people we aspire to be. In fact, if Rodgers’ characters have one fault, it’s their positivity. Ultimately, they each try to do what’s right, showing care and consideration for those around them. If only that were true in every life or every small town.

In “Seven Wings to Glory,” the author has created a satisfying story, one that reveals the variety of military family experiences. Sometimes we are spouses waiting for deployment to be over, but we are more than that. We are fathers mourning a lost son. We are friends who bond closely, giving support for a lifetime. We are sons and daughters, wondering how past wars affect the present and future. We are members of a community, working to make it better. Readers who consider themselves separate from military life may discover connections they had not considered after meeting the folks in Portion.

With her stories about Johnnie Kitchen, Kathleen Rodgers shows her readers — both civilian and military — the true colors and varying patterns of military families. reassuring us that someone recognizes our many colors and salutes them.

Terri Barnes is a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of “Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life,” a compilation of her columns for Stars and Stripes.


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