Galley Girl: The Tragic and Inspiring Tale of Gabby Giffords

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Publishing reporter Andrea Sachs writes about the book industry here every weekend.

It was, literally, a jet-set fairy tale. She was a two-term Democratic Congresswoman from Tucson; he was an accomplished astronaut in Houston. When they married four years ago, they embarked on a unique commuter marriage, as he orbited the earth from Texas and she worked tirelessly on behalf of her constituents in Arizona. She was doing just that on January 8, when their idyllic life was shattered forever. That was the day that U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, 41, was shot at point-blank range through the head by a deranged gunman, who killed six other people at a “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and-greet and injured thirteen others before he was taken into custody. The bloodbath stunned the nation, beginning an intense debate about the effects of a toxic political environment and easy access to guns. Newspapers and the networks were transfixed by what became one of the biggest stories of the year.

Now it’s the publishing world that is caught up in this tragic yet inspirational tale. Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope by Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly, is currently on the New York Times bestsellers list and the authors, particularly Giffords, are being pursued by the press. “Every major national media outlet wanted to be the first [to interview Giffords], “ says Scribner director of publicity Brian Belfiglio. “There was as much of a media frenzy for the book’s audio edition, in which Congresswoman Giffords reads the last chapter, as there was for the book itself.” In November, Diane Sawyer scored the first TV interview of the couple.

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The book turns out to be a surprisingly frank look at Giffords’ fight, and the couple’s loving bond. Kelly could have sugar-coated the situation, but instead is admirably open about the continuing problems. “A brain injury like hers is a kind of hurricane, blowing away some words and phrases, and leaving others almost within reach, but buried deep, under debris or in a different place,” writes Kelly. “‘It’s awful,’ Gabby will say, and I have to agree with her.” The losses are unbearable; Gabby was trying to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization at the time of the shooting.

Despite the sadness that pervades the story, it is compelling reading because Kelly, who narrates the book, proves to be a dedicated, loving spouse under the worst conditions imaginable, the living embodiment of the marital vow “in sickness and in health.” Ever at Gabby’s side, through her hospitalization and continuing physical therapy, he struggles alongside her and glories in her small victories, until she is able to return to the House of Representatives in August to cast a vote to raise the debt ceiling. He stops briefly on the page to settle some political scores on his wife’s behalf, raising the question of why House Speaker John Boehner never visited Giffords in the hospital. But Kelly, understandably, does not dwell on the actual shooting rampage, leaving that inquiry to others.

Two authors from Arizona step into the breach, one through a major New York imprint and one through self-publishing. On January 2, Viking will publish A Safeway in Arizona (the shootings were next to such a supermarket) by investigative journalist Tom Zoellner, a longtime friend of Giffords and Gabe Zimmerman (one of her staffers who was killed that day), and a fifth-generation Arizonan. Zoellner is interested in the social conditions that contributed both to the shooter “going insane in the most public way imaginable,” and the poisonous environment in the state that made it possible for such a heinous act. “This was not in any way the isolated act of a lone gunman,” the author insists. “He was acting within a specific context.”

Dr. John Newport, a Tucsonan with Ph.Ds both in psychology and public health, brings a strong sense of local color to The Tucson Tragedy. The author was determined to get this story out quickly. “I didn’t have the time to go through rigmarole with possible agents and publishers,” he says. Newport, who lives less than a mile from the sight of the shooting, writes not only about the bloodshed but also about the heroism and “wave of healing” that has since permeated the city.

Will Gabby Gifford be able to run for Congress again? She has until May to decide. As “an ardent fan” of Giffords, Newport nonetheless hopes that she will not run: “I hope for her own sake that she doesn’t run for re-election this time. I hope she takes a couple of years off, and spends some time as a columnist and commentator, fully recovers and then goes back and reclaims her seat.” Many readers would wish her the same peaceful passage.

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