Book of the week : Be Safe, I Love You - Cara Hoffman

When a soldier on the battlefield shoots an innocent civilian, what goes through his or, in this case, her mind? What did she see between the cross hairs, or hear or sense that made her feel she had to pull the trigger, and what becomes of her ­afterward?

Such tragedies have occurred repeatedly in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and each story’s details are a bit different, but nonfiction has rarely been able to capture the experience of the killer or explain just why this sort of thing happens. It takes a finely tuned piece of fiction, one that traces a veteran’s return home, to pull apart the strands

Lauren Casey, the protagonist of Cara Hoffman’s moving new novel, Be Safe I Love You, seems relatively unscathed when she first returns home to Watertown, in upstate New York for Christmas following a tour of duty in Iraq

Her mother long gone and her sweet-natured father suffering from depression and unable to work, Lauren has been the family rock since the age of 10, a mother to her brother Danny and caregiver to her father. Despite a musical gift that earned her entry into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, she deferred college to enlist for the signing bonus and keep the family home from foreclosure

We get our first sense of Lauren’s special relationship with her brother, now 12, from his humorous ‘dispatches’ to her in Iraq, which are sprinkled throughout the book, addressed “Dear Sistopher” and ending, “Be safe, I love you.” However, we get a clearer sense of Lauren herself as she slowly reconnects with friends and family upon returning home. Through those rekindled relationships as well as periodic flashbacks to her time in service, it gradually becomes clear that Lauren’s experience in Iraq has changed her in ways not even she herself understands

In crystalline language that conveys the desolation of both the Iraqi desert and the north country of New York State, the action unfolds over barely two weeks, but is layered with memories and punctuated by those affectionate letters from Danny, who tries to maintain ties to his sister-soldier receding into the hot, dry landscape of southern Iraq

At first, Lauren puts on a brave front and is on good behaviour, aware that those who know her and suspect what she might have endured will be looking for cracks in the usually solid personality. But soon, anger seeps in, and after only days at home, Lauren feels more trapped in Watertown than she had in Iraq. She offers to make peace with her mother by driving Danny to Buffalo for a visit

Instead she sets off on a strange and dangerous road trip with Danny to the distant snow-covered tundra that faces Canada’s Jeanne d’Arc Basin, a vast oil field, the winter doppelgänger of Iraq’s oil fields

Along the way, she plans to camp in Canada’s glacial forests and help Danny become stronger, more independent. “Thrust into a new experience with all its promise and excitement and danger, he’d be able to become himself. He’d be free.” Hoffman’s descriptions of their wilderness adventure are so vivid you can almost smell the snow and feel a chill crawl up your spine

As the two venture into more and more remote territory, it becomes clear that this trip will either be Lauren’s salvation or her undoing. Repeated phone calls to Lauren’s house from a military psychiatrist stressing that Lauren make an important upcoming appointment add an undercurrent of page-turning dread and suspense to the novel’s narrative arc

In prose that is both powerful and poetic, Hoffman paints a searing portrait of PTSD and the disconnect of the returning vet amid the well-meaning but clueless. “They don’t see how it is after everything is gone . . . the rising heat and rush and pop of whole towns delicately changing into white and orange petals thin as a ghost’s tattered shawl”

However, even more compelling is the novel’s rare, illuminating glimpse into the distinctive experience and psyche of a female vet. Hoffman challenges us to imagine how extraordinarily difficult it must be to reconcile the innate protective instincts of the caregiver with a culture of violence and orders to kill. Yet she does that beautifully and poignantly, without destroying our hope for redemption and healing

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