In the belly of the Beast
Before even glancing at chapter one of Battle Dress, Amy Efaw’s sharply observed novel about the six weeks of New Cadet Basic Training at West Point (a ritual also known as “the Beast”), turn directly to the back of the book. There you’ll find a glossary of military terms and cadet slang that will be your life raft once the story gets under way.
For Andrea “Andi” Davis, the Beast is a ticket away from her miserable home life and a shot at something better, not just in terms of education but self-worth. Her crazy family is shown in the briefest of scenes, and it’s a relief when they leave the campus, for us as well as Andi. She immediately takes to the intense discipline and focus required of new cadets, and exceeds expectations as a scholar, athlete and potential soldier. But the transformation doesn’t take place overnight.
The first few days on campus are similar to those in other books and movies set among new recruits to the military: lots of being awakened in the middle of the night, punishments for seemingly ridiculous infractions and wildly theatrical insults screamed in ALL CAPS, all in an attempt to drive someone to quit or break down. Coming from a highly dysfunctional household, Andi takes to this regimen faster than most; when a cadet punishes her to the point of tears, then asks tauntingly, “Homesick?” her response is telling: “I shook my head from side to side. ‘No . . . sir . . . It’s . . . too much . . . like home.’ ”
Author Efaw attended West Point herself; as a Beast survivor, she captures the intensity of basic training in artful strokes, and keeps front and center the fact that this training is intense, meticulous and repetitive for a reason: The ultimate purpose of a soldier is to kill. Mistakes equal death. Precision, and personal accountability, are paramount in building trust on the battlefield, and that’s where Andi finds her biggest challenge. A star performer on her own, she needs to prove her leadership skills in a group where she’s one of only two girls. When her plan fails in a training exercise, harming a colleague, she’ll need to summon the ego needed to give orders and see them carried out. It brings a smart novel to a gripping conclusion. Battle Dress is a hoo-ah read from start to finish (look it up!).