Zenatti, Valerie. When I Was a Soldier. Trans. Adriana Hunter. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. 235 pages.
In Israel, everyone must join the army when they turn 18 and serve for two years, including the girls. When Valerie leaves her friends and family behind and goes off for military training, she is apprehensive, but excited since being in the army is a rite of passage and part of growing up. She soon finds herself in the monotony of routine and drifting away from her friends while trying to patch things up with her ex-boyfriend. When Zenatti receives her job as an intelligence officer, interpreting Jordanian air transmissions, she feels a surge of importance and throws herself into her job, all the while counting down the days until she is released from the army when she turns 20.
Readers will have to remind themselves that When I Was a Soldier is a memoir and not a work of fiction; Zenatti’s account of her life during her army service reads like a novel, even when she includes entries from her personal diary. She is a lyrical writer and her descriptive writing is fantastic.
When I Was a Soldier is a coming of age story in the truest sense. Through her experiences with the Israeli army, Zenatti learns much about herself, her abilities to cope, her friends both new and old, and what it is to be free. Even though Zenatti never experience combat (girls never do), she still had to endure the rigors of military life and never glorifies her experiences; however, she does not complain or whine too much either.
The cover of the book is a photograph of a half a bust of a young woman wearing an army uniform. Her eyes are closed, which makes the cover that more compelling and intriguing. The cover also makes great use of fonts: the word “soldier” is in a blocky stencil font that is reminiscent of what is used for army vehicles and structures.