Review by Rosemary Brown
Sergeant Lauren Clay has returned safely from her tour of duty in Iraq, and now she must reintegrate into the humdrum daily life of her hometown. Be Safe I Love You (2014) is a bold look at one soldier’s struggle to balance the memories of war with her domestic life. Hoffman uses free indirect discourse to great effect throughout the book, showing us through Lauren’s eyes some of the ways soldiers can react after war: the soldiers who, paradoxically, find God (“so they’d have someone to blame or someone to forgive them the unforgivable” (52)), and the large number of stateside suicides committed by ex-servicemen. The proliferation of military language throughout the book suggests that Lauren struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. War is everywhere – in Lauren’s childhood memories, in her day to day language, even in church – the stained-glass windows reminding her of storyboards made by officers “back from a capture or kill” (51). References to written text (made in capitals) are also unnerving. An otherwise innocent Christmas scene is unsettled by a reference to some wrapping paper, which reads, ironically, “PEACE ON EARTH” (27).
The novel’s focus on a female soldier (a rarely addressed topic) is admirable. Alluding to Clay’s “downgrade in title and pay” (246) compared to male soldiers, Hoffman criticises the treatment of women in the U.S. army – who until 2013 could not officially serve in the infantry, being referred to instead as “combat support” (246). The gender struggle continues when Lauren returns to her hometown. Male characters are all, in one way or another, incapable. Lauren’s ex-boyfriend Shane is “naïve” (77), and “the Patricks”, are three “ignorant” (85) brothers who spend all their time drinking. Meanwhile, the women of the town are long suffering – Lauren’s best friend from school, Holly, is stuck in a dead-end bartending job while she raises her child, and her mother supports her. Lauren herself is another victim. Abandoned by her mother and father she is left to care for her younger brother, first by cooking and cleaning and then, to earn money, by fighting. Although most characters are well drawn, in this abundance of storylines means some threads feel unfinished at the end, and some issues feel forgotten, but perhaps that is Hoffman’s point: society easily forgets, easily looks away.
The second half of the book is a change of tone: Lauren travels to Canada (during winter) with her brother Danny. Hoffman’s description of the landscape, “a bleached pearly frozen blue” (200), is gorgeous and poignant in its bleakness. Throughout the novel, Lauren’s longing for ice and snow suggests a desire for numbness. Her increasing estrangement from society is encapsulated perfectly in the lyrics she sings (by Shakespeare) of “Winter Wind” (212):
Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude
But even in the cold of Canada Lauren is reminded of the fight for oil, with “offshore rigs” (200) always just out of sight. She is haunted by the fact she has fought in a war which has done nothing but save “millions from the inconvenience of taking public transport” (71). Lauren Clay’s characteristics of vulnerability and resistance should cause most readers reflect upon the comfortable and problematic nature of our existence. Hoffman forces us to wonder whether our greed, our ingratitude, and our complacence will cause more stories like Lauren Clay’s – and whether we, in her place, would have her strength.