THE SNOW QUEEN: BE SAFE I LOVE YOU
“Because crying only gets you half way there, duh.”
By Cara Hoffman
Cara Hoffman’s second novel is a coming home story. The hook is the soldier returning from war is a woman. This is in and of itself important and noteworthy and accounts for one half of the response to this novel from women readers. Women are fighting wars and women suffer from the same suite of pathologies men do. Arguably their experience both in the world and the military compounds this situation. Men suffer the silence of the returned; women suffer the silence of their gender. But this is not a point Be Safe I Love you engages directly.
Lauren Clay is a woman who has fought for a year in Iraq. Like many young working class women (she is around 20), she has been caring financially and emotionally for her family, and her choice is determined by that: she wants the signing bonus, she wants the training, she wants money for her family, right away. It is also the culture of the upstate New York town she grew up in: Watertown, home of Fort Drum. Watertown, a grimy, blue collar city, does not just host the base, but delivers countless numbers of its own to the military. Many of the people in her life, her choir master Troy, her uncle PJ, her boyfriend Shane’s uncles, The Patricks, have served and all are damaged by that service.
Hoffman is careful to note that Lauren Clay has been treated well by her community and the military. She has not been raped or even experienced significant sexual harassment in the military, and her singing voice, gorgeously described by Hoffman, is recognized by Troy. Even her father, clinically depressed after her mother abandons the family, is a caring and loving man. What happens to Lauren Clay happens not because she is a neglected, abused, poor woman, but because she is trained to give and obey orders to kill.
Once conditioned to obey and kill, and having experienced a year of combat, she cannot make the adjustment to civilian life. She doesn’t even want to. Rather than pick up where she left off, accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music, she wants to take her beloved brother Danny, now 12, with her to live in northern Canada, where Daryl, her best friend from the army, lives with his wife and child. It is a life Lauren has idealized. What follows is a tragic unfolding of one young woman’s confrontation with the truth, a confrontation she has not avoided, but rather been blinded to by her own intense love and post-traumatic stress. In this detailed, emotional narrative the words ‘post-traumatic stress’ take on flesh and sinew, the reader feels the synapses misfire. Every sentence is balanced on a point. Beneath the point lies an underworld of violence and chaos.
In some ways Be Safe I Love You picks up where her last book ended: I can imagine Alice Piper, the young anti-heroine of So Much Pretty, signing up and going to Iraq. Violence is Hoffman’s great subject. In her writing she is fascinated and appalled by it, and by the male right to commit acts of violence. The position women assume, both as victim and witness to male violence, drives her imagination. There is in Hoffman a crusading, muckraking journalist out to expose injustice. But there is a much darker shade to her art, for she is able to inhabit this violence and the horror and regret it leads to.
There is another aspect to her writer’s DNA that emerges more clearly in this book and accounts for the unbearable emotional energy of the last third: that is the intense love of childhood and adolescent friendship. Danny and Lauren live in a utopia of pilfered food, inside jokes, adversity turned on its head. They listen to David Bowie on a TURNTABLE. They have a secret code of communication. They read like Nabakovian prodigies. A favorite fairytale is The Snow Queen. “A story in which a speck of glass—a speck of broken mirror—causes all the trouble.” It is a story about a little boy and girl who get lost in the frozen waste of The Snow Queen when a speck of a shattered, evil mirror enters the little boy’s eye. He is rescued by his friend, whose tears wash the speck from his eyes. Danny, thinking about his childhood adventures, his obsession with the North Pole and the arctic, remembers this story and thinks, “Smaller things seemed more important now, a microscopic world beneath this one, beneath all worlds, inside your own body. There was no real way for a person to be alone, he thought. Every single person is a vast crowd of other living things, a universe….It was the grain of mirror that really mattered in the Snow Queen, and the drop of salt water that washed it away.”
The drop of salt water is the grace we all live by. And it is the grace evoked in this book as Lauren fulfills her plan and takes Danny off in a car full of military survival supplies, into the far north, in search of Daryl and a better life. In Lauren’s eye is a single grain of burning sand.
Her sentences are sensuous and visually stunning. There is a musical structure to the story, building through counterpoint, harmony, and movement to a devastating emotional climax that left me speechless. How great it is to read a novel that is both socially engaged and important, as only the novel can be, and also a beautiful work of art.