by Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s Press, 2012
$27.99, 400 pages
Toward the end of 2011, two stories about contemporary war vets captured headlines. In the first, former soldier Benjamin C. Barnes killed a 34-year-old park ranger in a section of Mount Rainier National Park called Paradise. In the second, honorably discharged Marine Itzcoatl Ocampo shot four homeless men in southern California. Both incidents seemed unprovoked. It was later revealed that the men suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Kristin Hannah’s twentieth book, the novel “Home Front,” zooms in on the aftermath of war by telling a deceptively simple story. In it, Jolene Zarkades, a member of the National Guard and a wife and mother of two, is called to Iraq. The narrative not only charts her 2005 deployment to Balat, but also describes her life in country. It further chronicles her return home after devastating arm, leg and facial injuries – compounded by PTSD – make it impossible for her to continue fighting. The story is told with compassion; at the same time, Jolene never criticizes US involvement in Iraq and never sheds her gung-ho support of God and country.
While this will likely disappoint readers hoping for a critique of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the book nonetheless offers a clear-eyed look at the lives of female combatants, especially those who are trying to juggle family responsibilities with military duty. What’s more, Hannah’s searing account of Jolene’s mistreatment at understaffed military hospitals and outpatient clinics, alongside the more general misery of wounded warriors, is heartbreaking and deeply affecting.
Similarly, Jolene’s domestic conflicts are well rendered. Her daughters, five-year-old Lulu and 12-year-old Betsy, are realistically portrayed and their tantrums, angst and resentment – in their eyes, their mom has abandoned them – is gut churning.
Jolene’s husband Michael, a workaholic lawyer, is the book’s most complex character. He hates that his wife is in the military and hates her support of US foreign policy. Truisms about loving the warrior, but hating the war enrage him and his anger has begun to escalate. Not only will he have to play Mr. Mom in Jolene’s absence – he has no idea how to do this and no desire to learn – he is furious that he’ll have to cut back on the legal work he loves and do work he despises. By the time Jolene is ready to leave their suburban Washington home, Michael can no longer contain himself; he lashes out, verbally belittling his spouse and telling her that he no longer loves her. Needless to say, Jolene is devastated, but there’s no time to process Michael’s words, or even discuss them, before she has to depart. Instead, once Jolene arrives in Iraq she dives into work and sends frequent emails to her daughters and mother-in-law – but ignores her husband. He responds in kind, never writing or getting on the phone when she calls home. As Jolene sees it, what’s done is done. What can she possibly say to rekindle his love?
Yes, there’s a touch of soap opera here, but it gives Jolene and Michael’s relationship added heft and is a window into the sexual double standard – that is, sexism – that continues to flourish in all too many heterosexual unions. After all, when men are deployed and women become sole caretakers of home and hearth, no one bats an eye. When women leave, male caretakers are typically revered for “taking over” parenting and household responsibilities or are pitied as subservient sissies living in their shadow of their valiant wives or girlfriends.
“Home Front’s” secondary plot addresses PTSD and what it means to suffer from it. As the story unfolds, Michael’s law firm is contacted by the parents of a potential client named Keith Keller, a 24-year-old veteran accused of murdering his wife. “According to the police, Keith had gone on a rampage, shooting up everything until his neighbors called for help. When the police arrived Keith barricaded himself in his house for hours. At some point in all of this he’d – allegedly – shot his wife in the head,” Hannah writes. Over time, Michael gets to know Keller and is stunned – and at first suspicious – when he reports having no memory of killing the woman he describes as the love of his life. Later, as Michael does his research, Keller’s PTSD takes center stage in a legal defense that catalogs the dissociative state and hypervigilance that mark the disorder.
This storyline allows Hannah to illuminate the plight of returning veterans – real men like Barnes and Ocampo as well as their fictional counterparts – in human terms, without overt discussion of politics. When Jolene returns home, for example, she is badly injured both physically and emotionally, and Hannah juxtaposes her experience with that of Keller. This allows readers to not only glimpse the day-to-day impact of PTSD on the Zarkades family, but to simultaneously peer into the class dimension of war since Jolene’s family can afford to buy good care for her. Keller’s family, with fewer economic resources, prays that time will heal his wounds. When it doesn’t, they have no idea how to stem the insomnia, nightmares and flashbacks that plague him. “He drank too much to mask these symptoms and unfortunately, alcohol only exacerbated the condition,” Michael tells the jurors who will decide Keller’s fate.
It’s a tense scenario, with enough pathos and drama to keep the pages turning. Hannah is a terrific storyteller, albeit a less than sparkling writer, and “Home Front” touches numerous resonant themes including friendship, grief, honor, love, loyalty, parenting, patriotism romance, survivor guilt and faith. In Jolene’s world, everyday tussles between children and parents and between spouses and friends occur in tandem with military conflicts and Hannah illustrates the perils endemic to both, bringing bedroom and battlefield into sharp focus.
“Home Front” presents the consequences of war clearly, without moralistic rhetoric and the horrors Hannah depicts are graphic and upsetting. PTSD – even in fictional form – is terrifying and the risk of more soldiers like Benjamin Barnes and Itzcoatl Ocampo coming home to wreak havoc on their communities should give Congress pause about launching new military actions. As pacifist clergyman and activist A.J. Muste (1885-1967) concluded more than 50 years ago: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” “Home Front,” however obliquely, reinforces and deepens that message.