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'Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope' tells tale of love, determination

The attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January was a shocking act of violence. Fifteen seconds of handgun fire left six people dead and 13 injured; the first to fall and the attacker's main target was Giffords, shot at point-blank range in the forehead.

But Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope does not dwell on that terrible day in a grocery store parking lot near Tucson, Ariz. The book, narrated mostly by Giffords' husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, focuses instead on the couple's lives of extraordinary accomplishment, separately and together, and on Giffords' brave and remarkable recovery from a devastating brain injury.

This skillfully structured memoir, co-written with Jeffrey Zaslow (who helped make Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture and Chesley Sullenberger's Highest Duty bestsellers), looks at Giffords' and Kelly's lives before and after the shooting, providing a clear sense of what gave each of them the determination to survive their personal catastrophe.

Kelly paints a warm picture of Giffords' happy Tucson childhood — she played the title role in Annie as a kid, belting "Manana, you're only a day away!" — her years helping to run her family's business and her political career as a moderate Democrat in the Arizona Legislature and then in Congress. He also describes his fractious youth in New Jersey; he and twin brother Scott, sons of two police officers, had some bumpy years as teenagers. But both would find a flight path that took them into space as the only siblings ever to serve as astronauts in NASA.

The romance of a congresswoman and an astronaut sounds almost like a movie hook — at least until Kelly describes his first date with Giffords: joining her on a fact-finding visit to Arizona's Death Row. His affectionate and funny account of their courtship doesn't shy away from the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship between two people with high-powered careers.

These back stories are interlaced with the events of Jan. 8 and their aftermath. Kelly refuses even to name the man who shot his wife: "(T)here is no need to give more space to him here."

But there is a wrenching description of how Kelly, who was spending the weekend in Houston with his two daughters, received a call notifying him that Giffords had been shot. Not knowing the details, he boarded a friend's private jet for Tucson and turned on the television once they were in the air — only to hear the false reports that Giffords was dead. For an excruciating hour, Kelly worked the phones, finally emailing NPR's Scott Simon, a friend, for help. Simon pushed for information about the sources of the report, which had originated with NPR, resulting in its withdrawal. Kelly calls the flight "surreal."

Much of the book is devoted to Giffords' arduous recovery and the many people who helped make it possible: doctors, nurses, therapists, family, friends, the Tucson community, colleagues in Congress and, ultimately, people across America. The hardest work, though, was put in by Giffords herself, and Kelly pays honor to her exhausting struggle with aphasia and paralysis. He leavens it with plenty of humor, like her calling herself "Goofball Giffords" and tartly agreeing with him when he calls himself a "moron" for misunderstanding something she says.

Kelly gives his accounts of the public events — President Barack Obama's galvanizing speech in Tucson, Giffords' iron-willed appearance in the House to vote to raise the debt ceiling — but he also reveals personal details both touching and painful. At the time of the shooting, he and Giffords were undergoing fertility treatments in the hope of having a child, a hope he still holds. When Giffords' wallet is returned to him days after the shooting, he finds in it coupons for Buffalo Exchange used clothing (his wife loves to recycle) and a newspaper clipping with the names of all the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead from her district.

Kelly describes Giffords' loving support of his going up as commander of the final space shuttle mission — and the enormous argument they have when he leaves town again a few days later on a business trip, missing her birthday party. " 'I am mad at me!' she said.

"She wasn't the type of woman who'd blame herself when it was really the man in her life who'd screwed up. I knew that. 'I think you mean you're mad at me,' I replied.

" 'Yes,' Gabby snapped, and now the words came out perfectly. 'Yes, Mark, I am mad at you.' "

It takes the intervention of a marriage counselor to work that one out — but it's also a sign of an astonishing level of recovery for a woman who only five months before had been shot through the brain.

Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope is a gripping and inspirational memoir (whatever your politics might be). It's also a real-life love story in the face of daunting odds. Early on, Kelly writes that Giffords' mother, Gloria, always said her daughter took a long time to marry because she was looking for "a glamorous guy who will understand and adore her." The burly, bald, plain-spoken Kelly may not be glam, but two out of three ain't bad.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope

By Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly, Scribner, 320 pages, $26.99

'Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope' tells tale of love, determination 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 3:31am]
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