- Community at War
Bellevue Literary Press
320 Pages; Print, $16.99
A journalist who has chronicled the effect of war on female soldiers in Iraq, Helen Benedict has also paid particular attention to the psychological and physical traumas war exacts on women in her fiction. Her focus in her new novel, Wolf Season is the same; she even reprises a character, an Iraqi woman, from her most recent novel, Sand Queen (2011). Naema Jassim and her son, Tariq, find themselves, like the other characters in Wolf Season, marooned in an upstate New York town that is by some turns bucolic, and by others, so close-knit as to be claustrophobic. Everybody is in everyone’s business; in other words, everyone’s motives or lifestyle is suspect. As refugees, Naema and Tariq are engaged in a fight for survival no less threatening than the one that first threatened their humanity, the American invasion of Iraq sixteen years ago. But so are the veterans, soldiers, soldiers’ wives, and military dependents—i.e., children—Naema and Tariq encounter at work and at play. Suicide, alcoholism, child neglect, disability and spousal abuse: they comprise the blood and treasure everyone must pay in some form for their proximity to the overseas conflict.
To say Wolf Season is merely a portrait of the war at home, however, would be misleading. Benedict’s ambitions are far more sweeping, for the fears and prejudices that motivate her characters mirror the dilemmas in the ongoing war on terror. These parallels, between a war seemingly worlds away and the quotidian details in the lives of those who have escaped it, keep her story from becoming cliché. The framing event in the novel, for instance, is a hurricane, rendered to resemble the detonation of an IED, or improvised explosive device, in Iraq. The everyday business of a summer day begins unremarkably until it is into chaos the next. When it’s over, people, property and livelihoods are destroyed, with no explanation as to how or why it happened. The widowed and battle-addled veteran who keeps the wolves of the book’s title, Rin Drummond, is a walking, talking, textbook case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: her senses ever on high alert, her instincts attuned to identifying the worst in everybody. Her fate in the novel might seem predictable, if not for Benedict’s portrayal of Drummond’s daughter, June. Born blind, she develops the razor sharp hearing and wits of a combatant in enemy territory.
“You’re a soldier?” Tariq asks upon meeting June in the woods surrounding the compound June and her mother have secured themselves in.
“Yup,” June responds. “Me and my mom both.”
Tariq is drawn to June and her mother because of the three wolves they keep fenced in, on their private wilderness. As much as these wolves protect June and her mother, they also endanger their otherwise idyllic existence living off the land and forsaking all others. Tariq believes that the wolves are especially amenable to his entreaties in Arabic, as if they might also be his personal protectors. Just like wolves, Americans can also be all things to all people, from protectors of a democracy-starved population to the slayers of dictators such as Saddam Hussein, to infidels out to remake the world in their own arrogant image. While Tariq romances the wolves, the adults around him fret and plot against their strangeness.
Benedict is so secure in the voice of her characters that she is able to rescue a requisite scene from the expected; consider the military funeral depicted here with all of the trimmings. The proceedings are immediately familiar to moviegoer—the grieving widow, the 21-gun salute, the honor guard and presentation of the colors. Yet the grieving widow sees only that she is trapped in a “grim circus.” “Tiny toy figures, stiff as molded tin,” she thinks of the pallbearers transporting her husband’s coffin.
The marines with their rifles and shiny white caps and belts, their rows of gold buttons, their Mickey Mouse gloves. She has an overpowering urge to laugh.