Posted by: counselorcarmella | November 6, 2012

Review of “Home Front” by Kristin Hannah

No matter how any of us feel about it,  there is a lot going on with our nation’s military.   Agree, disagree, like it, hate it.  Doesn’t matter. Its a reality.  What’s happening to those who serve and their families is something that should concern all of us as individuals and as a society. 
 
To say there is a lot to be concerned about is a massive  understatement and an oversimplification. News items and articles abound. Higher suicide rates,  instances of domestic violence, substance abuse, divorce, traumatic brain injuries,   and post traumatic stress in our veterans are some of the problems  talked about most often.  Slow or inadequate   help  through the VA system is another big issue. Injured soldiers are surviving, but often with  more extensive physical and psychological damage.  Multiple deployments are common and lead to increased risk for PTSD and other  emotional fall out.
 
Most soldiers come back okay and in tact  physically and psychologically, but for those who don’t,  there can be a range of  serious issues to deal with that impact  the individual, their family, their workplace,  their health, and  all other areas of life.  There are plenty of memoirs, documentaries, blogs, and other  sources of information available to those who are interested in current military issues.    Normally, I would suggest nonfiction sources on  topics such as this because there are so many good ones.   The book I want to talk about in this entry is actually a work of fiction. Kristin Hannah’s novel “Home Front”   is an excellent read for anyone wanting to understand more about   some of the issues  faced by  deployed soldiers and their families. 
 
“Home Front” is a love story, a story about  family,  a story about  honor and loss and healing. The novel  describes  the challenges of  one  family  (wife who is sent to Iraq, husband left home with kids,  daughters ages  12 and 4) before, during, and after  overseas deployment. The main characters are a couple in their early 40s and their  two daughters. One is in middle school and the other is  a  pre-schooler.  The wife/mother, Jo, has made a career of the  Army and  National Guard.  Her husband Michael is a defense attorney and  has no interest in her military career.  Her husband is  grieving the loss of his father and  is having trouble coping with this loss.  He becomes  caught up in his work, which leads to conflict with his wife.  Right before she finds out  she is being sent overseas,  they  face a marital crisis. Tension between them continues during and after Jo’s deployment.
 
At first, Michael is angry  about the  added responsibilities he has to take on due to Jo’s absence. He’s  not the most likeable guy during the beginning of the book.   He seems selfish, preoccupied, and    clueless. His mother is a tremendous support throughout the book. Not everyone in this situation has the help and emotional involvement of family living nearby. As he handles  day to day responsibilities caring for home and daughters he realizes how much he took his wife for granted. He begins to miss her more and more and to regret the problems  they were having before Jo was deployed.
 
Jo’s adolescent daughter is angry  about the disruption to her life and  finds the attention she gets for having a Mom in the military embarrassing. She  rebels in typical small ways. I often went from feeling sad for her to being annoyed with her for being such a little snot, which is exactly what the author intended I expect. The four-year-old doesn’t completely understand and just misses her Mommy.  She’s  portrayed as cute, but like an actual four-year-old, as well, which means she can be irritating at times, too.     
 
Meanwhile, Jo is coping with   stressful conditions in Iraq. She is  proud to be serving her country but misses her family. She feels pulled in  two different directions and  is scared that she might not make it home.  She wonders what will happen between her and Michael. Though a lot of things are going on in Iraq, she tries to   keep up  a front of being strong and  doesn’t share things with her family that would make them worried.  She sends them emails that   contain little items of interest but keeps the tone light.   She shares motherly advice and  talks about how much she misses her girls.  She does not write directly to Michael. Their  phone conversations are tense and she focusses on talking with her daughters. She saves her honest thoughts and feelings for her journal and for conversations with a close friend who was deployed at the same time.
 
News reports are unavoidable, though. Jo’s oldest daughter sees them and knows Mom is in a dangerous situation. She resents the reassurances her parents give her that things will be okay. She  knows something very bad could happen to her Mom. She is worried and wishes  her parents would  be honest and open about these realities.
 
Daughter Betsy is right, of course. I don’t want to get too specific and  ruin the story if  you want to read it. There is the suspense, tragedy,  and drama we expect from a good novel. Basically, Jo is wounded in combat. She has to  face painful physical  limitations and rehabilitation.  She also  has  psychological issues,  such as nightmares,  flashbacks, hyperarousal, guilt  about surviving when others close to her did not,  numbness, and irritability. At the same time, she is  caught in self pity and afraid of the changes in her mind and body. The current  situation brings up  traumatic events from Jo’s past that were never dealt with, as well.
 
At first, Jo tries to “fake it. “She denies and avoids her feelings and the  distress she is obviously experiencing. She is used to being tough and self reliant. Vulnerability  is weakness to her.  She comes home a different person, though,  and  finds she can’t  slip back into  the routines that used to be so  easy and familiar.  She can’t relate well to her chhildren, can’t  open up to her husband, and  is unable to cope with  daily life. Jo closes off from her loved ones. Like many wounded soldiers, she turns to substances as an escape.
 
Her daughters are scared, angry, and confused about the physical and personality changes they  see in their mother. They were eager for her to come home, but don’t know who she is  now or how to  connect with her. Michael, meanwhile,  has taken on a case involving a soldier with PTSD and learns about the  condition.  He recognizes symptoms in his wife but has a hard time reaching her. He wants to encourage her to get help, but she  is closed off to him because of the issues they had before  her deployment.
 
One of the saddest moments in the book is when, in a moment of  self awareness, Jo finally admits what’s happening is more than she can handle alone. She tries to reach out for psychological help only to learn she’ll have to wait months for it. This, sadly, is  a reality for  many veterans. Then, additional  losses send her spiraling further downward.  Just when it seems like  this family is going to be another series of tragic statistics,  things begin to  turn around. That’s what we expect from novels, after all.  Several events  lead to  the start of this shift, of course. With the support of her husband, Jo  begins the slow process of emotional healing.  They also  begin taking  small steps  towards restoring their marriage and  they  are able to  begin providing a stable environment for their children again.  The story doesn’t end with everything all wrapped up in a neat bow, but by the end of the novel, the reader feels confident that this family is on a good path.
 
The author did her  homework, and  has written a story that is moving and accurate. I know from  clinical presentations I’ve  attended that the topics Hannah addresses in “Home Front” are based on  solid information. She obviously   wanted to use  the craft of writing not just to entertain but to   shed light on   a topic of social relevance and I respect her for doing so. I think she took on this subject matter with  skill and responsibility. The plot, characters, and settings in this book are   presented with  sensitivity and  honesty, and  with a tremendous  amount of insight.  She gives attention to how each person is impacted by what is happening.   She is realistic in her presentation of  how children at different ages react,  the difficulties  faced by the person deployed  vs the spouse left behind,  the marital issues that  exist for this couple and what contributes to them, and  the impact of  serious injury, loss, and  trauma on the  individual and the family.
 
Important information about   PTSD, family and marital  stressors and how  deployment impacts them, and  the experiences of  being overseas in a war zone are skillfully woven into the story. They aren’t presented as  educational points or facts; they are simply part of the narrative. You will be learning a lot just by  taking in the story. 
 
Hannah’s  writing style is straight forward and solid. It is almost as if the  author wanted to  keep her language simple so that it wouldn’t distract from the story  itself. Its not about “Wow!  What a unique wway of capturing that in words” or “what a clever turnof phrase.”  Its about  the story and the words that are necessary to tell   It.  She accomplishes the  tasks a good book should accomplish, including making characters believable,  keeping the reader interested, and conveying emotion. She also does some educating and consciousness raising along the way and not everyone could manage to do both as well as  they’ve been done in this book. She puts  things in every day language so that the reader doesn’t have to be particularly intellectual to understand  what she is talking about. I recommend “Home Front” as a relevant and entertaining read.   
 
“Home Front”has a happy ending, or at least a hopeful one.  Not every  true story of this sort does, though.  The fall out and how it is dealt with (or not dealt with) in so many cases is  disturbing and sad. Progress is being made in terms of    recognizing and meeting the  physical and psychological needs of  returning vets and their families, but   it has been too little too late in far too many cases.  The problems caused by gaps in care have often been tragic and  likely could have been avoided. There is a long way left to go to make sure  these needs are  recognized, appreciated, and adequately addressed.  I am glad to see change happening. I hope and pray    this trend continues for the sake of   individuals, families, and our society.
 
For more information on the needs of our soldiers, visit Wounded Warrior Project at 
 
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