Be Safe I Love You, by Cara Hoffman (Simon and Schuster)
Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You follows soldier Lauren Clay on her first few days home following a tour of duty in Iraq. There’s a strong arc to this story: unsatisfactory meetings with old friends and family leading to Lauren’s decision to take her younger brother on a survivalist journey through a remote area of Canada in midwinter.
Suspenseful as that narrative is, the real heart of the book is the characters and their wrestling with questions of identity. What makes this book exceptional is what people think, not what they do. Lauren, not surprisingly, has the roughest time of it, unable to drop her vigilance and expectation of command (she was an NCO) as she returns to civilian life. For her, entering the military was an economic, not an ideological, decision and she questions what exactly it was she fought for. In her old church, she redefines the faith in which she was raised:
The stained glass windows were dimly lit and she looked at them pane by pane; the long slow journey of Jesus, dragging his cross from window to window, until the Roman soldiers crucified him. It was a storyboard, she thought, like the kind you have to make and go over with your CO when you get back from a capture or kill. The stations of the cross were so everyone had their story straight, created agreement and uniformity in reporting the event. […] Insurgent Jesus. […] The stations of the cross made sense now, one more common war story hiding in plain sight.
The characters around Lauren struggle with their own displacements. Her high school boyfriend has moved on to college and resents reminders of his working class origins. Her best friend’s early motherhood has limited her to minimum-wage jobs despite her outstanding high school record. There are “the Patricks” three brilliant, but failed men and a choir director who lost a promising career to alcoholism. All of these characters are drawn with a detail and honesty that makes them simultaneously sympathetic and irritating.
If I were to call any book I’ve read this year a “must read,” it would be this one. The examination of the price paid by those who go to war on our behalf and of the compromises made necessary by poverty is rich—as is the prose in which it is presented.