Thursday, January 5, 2012: Maximum Shelf: Home Front

St. Martin's: Home Front by Kristin Hannah

St. Martin's: Home Front by Kristin Hannah

St. Martin's: Home Front by Kristin Hannah

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Home Front

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a new title that we love--we present Kristin Hannah's Home Front, which is a January 31, 2012, publication. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl and Valerie Ryan. St. Martin's Press has helped support the issue.

St. Martin's: Night Road by Kristin Hannah

Books & Authors

Review: Home Front

Home Front by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin's Press, $27.99 hardcover, 9780312577209, January 31, 2012)

What happens when you live a life based on a glass half full, and the glass shatters? In Kristin Hannah's 20th book, Home Front, we find out, as the world of a strong, willfully positive woman is upended by a faltering marriage and the Iraq War.

Jolene Larsen grew up with alcoholic parents who were killed in a crash when she was 17. Jo believed that some families were like well-tended parks, others like battlefields, "littered with shrapnel and body parts." Determined to create a well-tended life, she joined the army at age 18, where she met her best friend, Tami Flynn. They spent 10 years in the service, then, with marriage and motherhood, moved to the National Guard. Now, at 41, Jolene Zarkades has that tidy park: her husband, Michael, a lawyer; two daughters, 12-year-old Betsy and four-year-old Lulu; Tami next door on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound; and work--she and Tami are Black Hawk helicopter pilots in the Guard. Jolene is the chief, and her crew trusts her.

But Jolene's carefully managed life has some fissures. Her husband has become distant, though she's chosen not to get upset. "What would be the point? Happiness was a choice she knew how to make." Less troubling, still difficult, are Betsy's preteen anguishes, like a mom in the military who wears her flight suit to career day ("Fine. Ruin my life."), and classmates who have shunned her.

Michael's idealism has been dulled by too many years defending guilty clients, and the death of his father--his law partner--weighs heavily. He can't talk to Jolene about it; she has the tightest grip on her emotions of anyone he's ever seen... except for love. Love she gives freely and deeply. But doubt? No. Anger? No. Sadness? No. Michael wants something more than a happy face and an ordered life, and he's always hated her commitment to the military; since the war in Iraq started, he's become even more negative.

When Michael misses Jo's birthday, she reluctantly considers the loneliness in not being able to talk to her husband about what matters to her. A few days later, when he skips Betsy's track meet and Jolene calls him to task instead of making the usual excuses, he tells her, "I don't love you anymore." She is devastated. She had found herself in the army, she had found her passion in flying, but with Michael, she believed, she had found completion. And now? Five words rock her foundation. Then, the next day, she and Tami learn they are being deployed.

"Honor. Duty. Loyalty. These were more than words to Jolene; they were part of her. She'd always been two women--a mother and a soldier--and this deployment ripped her in half, left a bloody, gaping tear between the two sides of her." She doesn't want to leave, and yet she wants to go. She and Tami had trained for this for 20 years. And she has no choice.

Her children are devastated, Michael is angry and resentful--how can he handle his law firm and his family? Even with the help of his Greek mother, Mila, he feels overwhelmed, and guilty for being selfish. Jolene's innate optimism fails her. She needs Michael now, and he lets her down. She videotapes a story for Lulu, she tapes advice and love for Betsy, she writes "the letter" to her daughters and husband ("I loved you. Beginning to end."), and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Zarkades goes to war.

Their new lives start. Michael is representing Keith Keller, an ex-marine with two Iraq tours, arrested for killing his wife. He's also figuring out how to get the girls fed and off to school. With Keller, Michael learns about PTSD; with his daughters, he learns how to be a parent. And he misses Jolene: "How was it he hadn't foreseen what his life would be like without her?"

Jolene and Tami settle into dust, wind and constant mortar attacks. They ferry VIPs, they deliver supplies and they go on missions to retrieve soldiers' remains. Increasingly, they go on air assault missions, rescuing troops trapped under fire. On one such mission, they are hit by rocket fire and crash.

Jolene wakes up in a white room, with machines clustered around her, monitor heads like "thin washed-out mourners." Tami, whom she pulled out of their burning Black Hawk, has suffered a traumatic brain injury. Jo's leg festers with gangrene from the blast damage, she has nightmares, and is filled with (unwarranted) guilt. She spurns Michael, who has flown to the base hospital, unable to focus on anything but her grief and rage when she loses her leg. She knows Michael will stay with her now for the wrong reasons. "Pity would bring him back to her; duty would make him stay."

Jolene is consumed with anger, bitterness, exhaustion, loneliness. Her days of smiling through pain and loss are over. She comes home to a rehab center, and her reunion with her children goes badly. She wants to feel joy, but feels nothing. She disappoints and even scares them. She masks her fear and anger with drugs, alcohol and stoicism. "From her cockpit, she had seen forever... and now she needed help to go to the bathroom."

How does a soldier come home from war, Michael asks at Keller's trial. What price deployment? War changes the warriors, but the code of warriors can prevent them from seeking help. War changes the home front as well, and the healing power of family is mixed with expectations on both sides, and lack of information. "We can come home broken, [Jo] thought. No matter how strong we are.... The military should have prepared her for it. There was so much training before one goes to war, and so little for one's return."

Jo loses her balance--physically and emotionally. She's in crisis. A PSTD therapist tells Michael, "There's no front line over there. The war is all around them, every day, everywhere they go. Some handle it better than others. We don't know why, but we do know this: the human mind can't safely or healthily process that kind of carnage and uncertainty and horror. It just can't. No one comes back from war the same."

Kristin Hannah has written a passionate, inspired story of war's cost to a family; even more, the cost of silence. She seamlessly weaves the two sides of a soldier's heart--the damage and the horror inflicted upon it with the honor and pride that make it beat--in Jolene. She is a hero, and her life is a hero's journey, psychological and spiritual and physical. It's made with others--family, the Guard, Tami--and it's a journey that we are privileged to share. --Marilyn Dahl

To listen to an clip from the Home Front audio, click here.

photos courtesy of Teresa Burgess

Kristin Hannah inspires with books that make you think and feel

Kristin Hannah: Shifting Heroisms

Bestselling author Kristin Hannah graduated from law school in Washington State and practiced law in Seattle before becoming a full-time writer. She lives with her husband and their son in the Pacific Northwest. Her many novels have explored relationships between and among women--sisters, mothers, daughters and friends--in a way that resonates with her readers. Her latest book, Home Front, is an ambitious departure; once again, Hannah covers a sensitive topic--the impact of war on a family with a member in the military, and a marriage in trouble-- but this time, the military member is a wife and mother, complicating ordinary notions of honor, duty and love.

What drew you to this subject?

I often wonder where my ideas come from. This one was inspired by the nightly news. I continually saw such sad stories of wounded soldiers and their families and realized that so many of the soldiers were my son's age. That realization hit me very hard. As an American, I am constantly grateful to our men and women in the military. Then, as a woman, I began to wonder what it would be like for a woman to go off to war. In my story, Jolene, 41 years old and a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the National Guard, is deployed to Iraq, leaving Michael to care for their two daughters. The marriage is already shaky. Michael deplores America's entry into the war, one of their daughters is a typical teenager, and the other just a little girl; everything conspires against this being a natural and easy thing to do. Michael is also suffering through the loss of his father, and Jolene hasn't helped him. Her insistence on keeping everything bright and gay is a way to mask her own feelings of abandonment and her inability to process her own grief. All of this becomes background for the immediate reality of a mother leaving home to go into dangerous territory from which she might never return. I knew that I had never read this story, so I had to tell it. What is the cost of the conflict between honor and love? One of the first things I learned is that women who choose this career are soldiers as much as they are wives and mothers.

Did you do much research for this book?

I had to do a ton of technical research. I am not from a military background so I started with very little information. Some of the greatest help I had was from Chief Warrant Officer 5 Teresa Burgess. Her help and friendship made the story better and more honest. She is a Black Hawk pilot, a wife and mother, so she kept the story grounded in reality. When you're a mom and you go to war, your teenager is still a teenager--wanting to be invisible, embarrassed by everything, especially parents, self-centered and narcissistic--the whole package. Children of warriors don't necessarily become perfect little angels. Teresa helped me on the technical side and on the personal side.

Michael's court case contributes so much to the story. Without revealing too much, was it your plan to make that the crucial turning point in the story?

That was a lucky bit for the story. I devised the court case because of so much information to impart about serving in today's wars and about PTSD. I'm not qualified to answer whether or not veterans' hospitals and programs are well enough funded, equipped and qualified to do the best job for our vets. What I know to be true is that it is part of a soldier's mentality not to ask for help. It would help returning warriors immensely if we took really good care of them when they came home--in every way possible, without them having to ask for it. The court case also provided me with the venue for my favorite scene in the book--when Michael speaks directly to Jolene.

Why is there more PTSD after recent wars than after World War II? Is it another case of under-reporting in the past?

It's always been there, but it's just been called by different names: "shell-shock," for one. So many families of World War II vets say that they never talked about their wartime experiences. They just pushed it aside and moved on, sometimes with disastrous results. It's also a different situation psychologically when there is a front line and an opponent across from you, someone you can demonize. In recent wars, the one with the IED could be the kid standing next to you or the nice lady with the baby. Witnessing atrocities every day with no safety zone to retreat to and decompress takes an enormous toll. Also, there was almost unanimous approval of World War II because we were attacked; not true of subsequent wars.

Tell us about the Greek influence in the story.

In writing my books I like to take a look at different cultures, especially their food. While I'm writing, I try ethnic recipes, learn a few words of the language. It adds another dimension. Showcasing Greek culture gave me a loving grandmother who could step in and defuse the situation at home when necessary.

What do you want people to take away from this novel?

For me, this has been the most moving of my books. I was consistently moved by the shifting heroisms in the story. The battle that was going on at home was as potentially damaging as the war. While it has a strong military theme, at its core it's about two ordinary people who have lost their way and whose marriage is in trouble. We all know that, over time, love comes and goes. The trick is to hang on when your love feels farther away, learning to fall back in love with each other and make your family whole again. Michael had to learn to be a loving and attentive parent and then cope with Jolene's homecoming. I hope that the story might start a dialogue about soldiers and military families and the heroic sacrifices they make. --Valerie Ryan

To listen to a conversation between Kristin Hannah and Teresa Burgess, the female pilot who partially inspired and served as a prototype for Jolene, click here.

Photo: Marc Von Borstel

Book Brahmin: Kristin Hannah

On your nightstand now:

As usual, my nightstand is a hoarder's type book refuge. It is stacked with research books and novels. Because I'm in the beginning stages of a book, it's especially overflowing with nonfiction. If I turn my head, what I see on top right now is a book on mental illnesses. Next to that is a friend's manuscript to be edited, and calling out to me from the bottom of the heap is Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, Night Circus.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I have answered this question often and always say Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Lord of the Rings. Both were incredibly meaningful reads for me. However, just to shake it up a little, I'll add the Oz books. I was a huge fan and collector of these books. As an aside, I saw Wicked on Broadway this year and it brought my love for these characters rushing back.

Your top five authors:

As you can imagine, I have a lot of favorite authors, and like most people, I find that list changing and morphing all the time as I discover new writers whose words make a profound impact on me. I guess the way I would judge a "favorite" right now is someone whose new book I buy without caring at all what it is about. Obviously this excludes people like Harper Lee, who is probably my single favorite author but who is no longer publishing. On that very special list, I would place: Pat Conroy, whose lyricism and insight into human nature never fails to astound me; Stephen King, who feels like a good friend with whom I have spent many wonderful--although often scary--hours; J.K. Rowling, for her magnificent vision and remarkable follow-through and characters whom I adore; Megan Chance, for her powerful, uncompromising vision; and Alice Hoffman, for her range and imagination and language.

Book you've faked reading:

I read so many books that I don't have to fake reading any. That being said, there are a few books that I have tried often to read and have never quite finished. Moby Dick comes to mind...

Book you're an evangelist for:

I am absolutely crazy for the Harry Potter series. Every adult I meet who hasn't read the books is going to get an earful. I truly believe that J.K. has written a story that will pass the test of time and become THE story for our generation--mine and my son's. Also, I speak to a lot of book clubs--sometimes several a week. I absolutely love talking to these women about my books and their reactions to my stories. I am often asked for recommendations during the course of these meetings, and the book I am most passionate about lately is Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I think it is a stunningly beautiful read. 

Book you've bought for the cover:

In the past few months, the cover that leaped out and smacked me was Night Circus. Wow. What a gorgeous, unusual cover that book has. It perfectly captures the tone and mood of the book, which is no easy feat.

Book that changed your life:

The list of books that changed my life is as big and overflowing as the stack on my nightstand. That's what books--great books--do, after all. They change us. There are so many books that have shaped who I am and what I believe. Then there are those that have impacted me as a writer, shown me something that I hadn't yet discovered on my own. For now, I think I'll offer a book that taught me something important about writing, and that would be Anne Rice's Witching Hour. That book was a beautiful, deep, complex combination of character, plot, story and message, and I drank up every word and glimpsed how much a writer could pack into a single narrative.

Favorite line from a book:

Again, so many. How about: "Mr. Frodo, I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well." The Lord of the Rings is one of my go-to books, and this line, deceptively simple, makes me cry every time. Ah, the majesty of the it, the honor, the love, the friendship... I just love it.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

This is a fabulous question. There is nothing more profoundly moving than the first discovery of an author's voice. It can hit you so hard and push all your buttons and surprise you. But you soon begin to take it for granted. Who would I most like to start over with? I guess I'd have to say J.R.R. Tolkien. Who wouldn't want to meet those characters all over again and be swept away, to Mordor and back again, on the tide of their epic, emotional journey?

Do you have a favorite of your own books?

Surprisingly, I am not one of those authors who falls head over heels in love with her own books. They are not like "children" to me and I do not ever have trouble letting them go. Quite the opposite, in fact. When I am finally finished with the lengthy--sometimes seemingly never ending--edits on a novel, I am thrilled to be done and move on. But two of my novels have had a surprising impact on me--they made me cry. And that is not an easy thing to do, not with my own work, anyway. I loved Winter Garden for the magnificent, exquisite hardships placed on my characters in World War II Leningrad, and I love Home Front. Perhaps I like Home Front most of all. In it, I have created a woman torn between love and honor, a woman on an epic journey, both to understand her own heart and to come home from war. I've never written a character as complex as Jolene, and I was surprised by how much I liked her and her story.


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