Colorado-based author Ashlee Cowles is using her craft to address an ongoing drift between the civilian and military communities.
Cowles, who wrote Beneath the Wandering Stars in 2016, recently released a new novel after realizing her characters had an untold story. Below Northern Lights, a young adult travel romance, uses the original characters from the first book and incorporates many of her own experiences into the narrative -- including the setting. She says rather than write solely through the lens of a military kid, readers get a glimpse of what today's returning service members face as well.
"The second story is told from the perspective of a 19-year-old disabled veteran," she explained. "It [the topic] happened organically. When I finished the first book so many people asked if there would be another. I feel like Lucas' story had to be told."
Main character Lucas Santiago returns from combat after being injured during a deployment overseas. Currently, there are over four million service-connected disabled veterans, according to a 2017 report by the Census Bureau. Cowles, who teaches classic literature to high school students, uses this story to highlight what life looks like for military personnel transitioning into civilian life after war.
"I wanted readers to have an understanding of what returning soldiers face when they integrate into their new normal," she said. "...bridge that civilian-military divide that I think is still a very real thing."
The author did extensive research to ensure the story was an accurate depiction, which included outreach to the organizations working with veterans of current conflicts. "To start, I watched a lot of YouTube videos with interviews of disabled veterans. I learned a lot about the prosthetics used. Skye [one of the characters] talks about wanting to join an expedition--I based that off a real organization that does that in the US and UK," she said.
In one passage, the book starts with Lucas sharing the most challenging part of reintegration into society:
The worst part is the way people stare. Forget all the things I can't do anymore. I'll find new hobbies. Forget that at first it was hard to open a door without help, let alone take a shower. Those are things I'll either get used to or get over. But the way people stare--like I'm one of those sad-eyed puppies in a Humane Society commercial--that's what will never be normal."
Cowles says in order to get inside Lucas' head for that sort of authentic reaction, she spent time getting to know people who live that on a daily basis.
"I reached out to a young adult blogger who gave me a lot of feedback on her experience being in a wheelchair. That helps with Lucas' reaction to things," she added.
She also studied Walking with the Wounded, a British organization helping injured former British Armed Forces veterans during their career transition, and Pets for Vets, a program connecting American veterans with shelter pets that serve as companion animals.
Below Northern Lights targets older teenagers and adults, with a love story that accompanies road trip elements. Even though the book is fictional, Cowles injects her own voice as she continues to embrace the unique lifestyle she experienced growing up in the military. As an Army kid who moved frequently, she didn't have established roots in any one place so wandering the world became comfortable to her -- and she leans on that when picking settings for her book.
"Because of my graduate school program, I lived there [Scotland] for a year and rented a camper van, like Gabi and Lucas do," she said. "Wherever I travel to, I want to include that in my writing."
Ashlee Cowles' first novel Beneath Wandering Stars was awarded the 2017 Colorado Book Award for young adult literature by Colorado Humanities. Learn more about the author, including her upcoming events, on AshleeCowles.com.
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