For those of us never deployed into active duty, it is difficult to fathom the adrenaline-fueled combination of terror and anger that combat instills. We only see the aftermath, when soldiers return home, forever changed, trying to connect with a world where everyone seems flawed and fragile and uncomprehending.
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, N.Y., for the holidays 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.
Lauren finds some solace through those around her who also served, like her music teacher, Troy. She could see “the war in him, his familiarity with silences, his drive, a reconciled sorrow that lifted the corners of his mouth in a kind of mocking self-abnegation. The weight of being alive, being a victim of the killing you’ve done.”
However, for others, Lauren puts on a brave front. And at first, she is on good behavior, 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 packs all manner of cold-weather camping gear and sets her sights on an oil field in Jeanne d’Arc basin, where she plans to reconnect with an Army friend.
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 (“So Much Pretty”) 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.