Book Reviews

Book Review: Home Front by Kristin Hannah – Keep the Tissues Handy

I’m not one who usually gravitated toward the category of books known as “chick lit”.  That’s changed as of late, and one of my favorite authors in this arena has become Kristin Hannah. I like the way she combines tearjerker stories with enough real life and deep characters that her novels are interesting, instead of stories that are shallow on stories and characters and heavy on romance.

With Home Front, I think she’s possibly written her best novel yet.  It is still a tearjerker. I cried through a good part of it, helped in no part by the fact that I learned of the sudden death of a friend of ours while reading it. At the same time, though, the story here is an important one for many of us to hear, especially those armchair warriors so eager to send our troops into battle.

Jolene Zarkades is the glue holding her family together.  That is apparent from the get-go.  With a workaholic husband, Michael, who still hasn’t finished mourning the loss of his father who was a partner in their law firm, a pre-teen daughter, Betsy, who seems loaded with attitude, and a hyper pre-schooler, Lulu, Jolene has her hands full.  She deals with life’s ups and downs with an ever-present smile and lots of platitudes that her family has grown tired of hearing.  Still, no one really wants to challenge the happiness that Jolene seems to evoke.  At the same time, she’s in the National Guard, having left the Army when her family became more important.  Her best friend, Tami, is also in the Guard and lives next door.  Tami is the closest Jolene has to someone she lets down the façade a bit for.

Right from the start, it feels like there’s something off in Jolene’s world.  Her older daughter is a bit of a spoiled brat, especially for having a parent who’s in the military. The reasoning behind this is likely Jolene’s own experiences as a child, but Betsy goes beyond what I would consider normal pre-teen behavior on a number of occasions (and I’ve lived through three girls this age).  Jolene seems to accept and excuse her husband’s distance in their lives.  However, when pressed one night he tells Jolene he doesn’t love her anymore.  Jolene’s world is shattered.

Two days later, she is notified that she is being deployed to Iraq.

Set in 2005, this was one of the worst times of the Iraq War.  Tami and Jolene head off into a world quite different from the suburban Washington world they live in and the training missions they’ve gone on.  Nothing they’ve done in the past really prepares them for what’s ahead of them.  At the same time, Jolene is even more isolated. At least Tami can share what’s happening with her husband Carl. Jolene is feeling isolated and alone.  The question is not only if she can come back to her family whole but also what will happen in her family while she is gone.

I credit Hannah with doing a tremendous amount of research for Home Front and capturing what it is like for a soldier in the field.  The horrors Jolene sees, even as a woman who’s not supposed to see combat, are horrifying to try and envision.  At the same time, I had an idea that it was building to SOME BIG EVENT.  What happens fits with the story as well as the war and will change life for all involved.

The war at home is fought as well.  Hannah captures the husband who’s thrust into a role he hasn’t bargained for.  It’s a bit emasculating to Michael at first, despite his liberal attitude.  This caused him to reject Jolene’s life in the military early on and steer clear of any involvement or camaraderie in that side of her life.  At the same time, his attitude seems to be chauvinistic in how he had seen his wife’s role in their lives.  Now he is trying to care for two daughters he hardly knows while at the same time maintaining his role as a lawyer.  His newest case is that of a former soldier who killed his wife and suffers PTSD due to time in Iraq.  This was a terrific way to mirror his growing fears about what was happening to his wife in Iraq while they still maintain their distance due to the words he said to her before she left.

I can’t imagine that part of being Jolene; to leave for Iraq knowing there’s a chance you won’t return, and the person you gave your heart to isn’t there for any sort of support. She has to plan for her possible death before she leaves, leaving letters behind for her family to read in case of that outcome.  How in the world can she write to Michael after words like that?

Hannah does a terrific job tying this all together.  It’s an emotional book that left me exhausted after reading it.  It’s the journey of a soldier as well as a family and a relationship.  The characters are good. There were times I was annoyed with Jolene, as well as being annoyed with Michael. I could get why her family grew tired of the endless cheeriness and platitudes that seemed to mask what she was feeling deep down.  As that outer layer peels away during the course of the novel, it is the one thing I could see that could possibly save their marriage as well. Michael seems to know that early on, he just doesn’t know how to vocalize it.  This makes for riveting complexity and I cared about seeing what happened to them.

All is not perfect, although I think my issues are somewhat minor to the story. I didn’t like the character of Betsy at all.  Even having gone through pre-teens with three of my own girls, I found her to be absolutely horrid. She needed a good smack upside the head or something, rather than being sympathetic.  I guess most of the time I was supposed to feel bad that she was only reacting to one thing or another in her own warped way, but instead, I just couldn’t stand her at all.  Hannah manages to jab nicely at how our troops are treated once they return home, although I felt more emphasis could have been placed on the fact that Jolene’s family had resources many others do not. It’s sort of glossed over and might give some people the impression that when the VA is so backlogged as to be useless there are other places for soldiers to turn.

Home Front is definitely a winner, despite its obvious play on emotions. Hannah doesn’t treat deployment as a mere plot point but gives it the gravity it deserves as well as its consequences. There are some gory and disturbing moments during and after Jolene’s time in Iraq that some might find disturbing.  I’m sure her descriptions aren’t anywhere near the real horrors experienced, however.  I have nothing but praise, although reading it will likely rip your heart out.