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The effects of war on soldiers, families, friends and communities is often catastrophic.

Wolf Season - Helen Benedict

This book is a wonderful examination of the social, moral, and political conflicts and concerns facing society today. The marvelous cast of characters touches on and exposes the issues with honesty, clarity and a force that will grab hold of your heart and make you look into your own thoughts and beliefs about our enemies during wartime, our friends and family at home, and those impacted by a war they may or may not wish to be involved in, but geographically find themselves in the middle of, experiencing the battles, facing the danger, and dealing with the death and loss of property, family, and life as they once knew it.

It is a terribly painful and emotionally draining story to read as you learn of the debilitating effects of the war on the returning soldiers, on their families and on their friends. As you learn of the devastating effects of the war on those who helped America, essentially, those who then became the enemy of their own country, those who collaborated in some way to rid their country of injustice who were then also considered enemies by those who disagreed with the need to rid the country of the tyrants, those who did not see the injustices perpetrated upon their neighbors everyday, but rather turned a blind eye and forced those that helped America to succeed to become the enemy of both, the vanquished and the victor, the weak and the strong, you will feel overwhelmed, at first, but at the end, you will feel the hope that the author has tried to convey, the hope that all people will one day rise above their differences and unite as one, with love in their hearts, rather than harboring hate for and fear of those that are different.

The brutality our own countrymen inflicted upon each other and our enemies is difficult to put on paper, but Benedict has communicated the full force and effect of the battle-scarred complete with the pain they feel when they are in the field of war as well as when they attempt to return home to the field of peace. The distance from their families, the nightmares and their inability to communicate, in contrast, comes across loud and clear to the reader. The victims of this life, these wars, are carefully laid open so the reader can identify with each of them and experience their individual suffering and scars of war. From the child to the adult, the soldier to the wife, we are enmeshed with them in their loss, their pain, their confusion, and their grief. We are in their flashbacks, their dreams and their nightmares. There are several important characters, in this novel, but even the minor ones are dealing with the difficulty of their wounds of war.

First there is Rin, a mentally, battle-scarred soldier who was unbelievably, brutally raped by her fellow soldiers after her husband was killed on the battlefield. She was already pregnant with her husband Jay’s child when she was attacked. She is always afraid for her safety and that of her daughter, Juney. She keeps wolves on what was once Jay’s family’s property, to fulfill the dream she and Jay had once shared. She also believes they protect her, in spirit and in life, and they are necessary for her well-being and her thin hold on her sanity. She protects both herself and her daughter, fiercely. She has hostile reactions to people, and has visions, what I would call “daymares”, that influence her behavior and made her seem bizarre, but was she really bizarre, or were those who attacked her more sinister in nature? Who was really the sick individual, Rin, her fellow soldiers, the sheriff, the Iraqis, the Americans, the war widow? What made each of them tick, and which of them ticked to the beat of normal and which to the beat of the mentally disturbed?

Juney, Rin’s daughter, is 9 years old and blind. She also has some odd behavioral issues that make her susceptible to being bullied, but she is gentle in nature and very helpful to her mom because of her great insight, her ability to feel things, which is essentially a “sense” for her, like sight is for others. Juney is aware of changes in her mother’s moods and is able to calm her.

Naema is a doctor from Iraq. She is a devoted mother who wishes to protect her son from any further violence from the war she was unwillingly dragged into, in Iraq. Her family was killed by American bombs during the war. Her husband was murdered and their son Tariq lost his leg when their car was blown up by those who resented his collaboration with the Americans. He was an interpreter.  Naema was working in a pediatric clinic in upstate New York, in an effort to be recertified as a doctor in the United States. Juney and Rin were in the examination room of the clinic, at the same time that a hurricane was raging. In a flood as a result of the storm, Naema almost drowns, and Rin is consumed with guilt because of her part in that tragedy.

Beth is Flanner’s mother. Flanner was Tariq’s friend. While Tariq is calm and gentle, Flanner is angry and has begun to act out. She is an unhappy woman who wants more out of her life and resents her husband’s constant absence and redeployments, but also fears his violent returns on leave. She drinks too much and Flanner has begun to resent her because she often forgets that her first responsibility should be to his welfare and not her own. She is vindictive and takes no responsibility for her own behavior which has caused her decline. Both Beth and Flanner want to hurt someone because they can’t hurt the person really responsible for the pain they feel. Both seem obsessed with hurting Rin Drummond. Both seemed consumed with their own needs and do not try to understand the needs of others.

Louis is another soldier who has survived the battlefield with scars. He is in love with Naema, which is ironic since she is Iraqi and his scars are from that war. He thinks, shouldn’t she be his enemy? Their relationship crosses all lines of conflict and reaches a state of harmony all people may aspire to, but never achieve.

We know that Tariq’s dad, Khalil, was killed in Iraq, Juney’s father was killed in Iraq, and Flanner’s dad is a marine who has been severely damaged, mentally, by his many redeployments. He can be cruel and mean, brutal and violent. His own violent future awaits him in Afghanistan. Louis is a survivor who has learned, with great difficulty, to control his irrational impulses and deal with his war wounds, in ways that the others have not.

The story is filled with the irony of relationships, child to child, man to woman, enemy to enemy, animal to human. The line between enemy and friend is blurred and scrutinized. Through the use of wolves, the reader discovers the meaning of trust and mistrust, safety and danger, fantasy and reality. The reader views logical, common sense responses that are contrasted with impetuous, irresponsible behavior. The interpretation of ideas is paramount. While a wolf may be friendly, its nature is to survive and that comes before your safety, so a wolf may become your enemy, through no fault of its own. In the same sense, in a war, the instinct is to survive, and the soldier sometimes has to cause collateral damage. Friends are put in a position of being the enemy and vice versa. Expedience rules, oftentimes. During the hurricane, there was collateral damage, too. In a confrontation, there is often collateral damage before reconciliation takes place. The line between right and wrong may not often be clear. As the reader continues tp read, the idea of supporting American values or confronting them is imprecise; it feels like America’s actions are being questioned and the jury seems to judge it poorly.

Can your enemy transmogrify into your friend? Are their ramifications for choosing one side over another? What makes a friend or an enemy? What makes a friend of an enemy or an enemy of a friend? Who was the greater friend, the Iraqi Naema or the American Beth? Who had better values? Why must someone be an enemy? Why did it feel like the Americans were the least able to handle the results of the war on their homes and families, while the ones who were different or foreign seemed better equipped and able to deal with the after effects? Was one group more desperate than the other or perhaps more resilient?

The two children who were damaged physically show the reader how different life is when viewed through their eyes or their emotions. Juney saw the world through the colors she made up in her own mind since she could not see. She, in her way, saw more than anyone sighted. Tariq made up for his handicap by treating it as natural, and then by reaching out to someone who had a greater handicap. He recognized that they were both lonely and both bullied. Both of these children were able to view the wolves as beings with power to be respected and admired, not feared unnecessarily, but respected for their strength. Both seemed able to identify with the needs of others and were unselfish. Their relationship with the wolves was spiritual and a bit magical. The book is a tender and tragic tale. It is at once, juvenile and sophisticated, simplistic and complicated, poetic and straight forward. It is authentic and surreal. The author has infused herself into each of the character’s lives and spit out their essence.

It is both anti-war, and pro democracy. It is both anti-American and pro American. All sides of the issues are illuminated and all promote the reader to think about the victims of war everywhere; the communities and the families that are compromised, the families that lose their loved ones, the families waiting for their soldiers to return, the soldiers far from home, the fields of battle, the idea of an enemy and an ally. All have to cope with loneliness, loss, anger, fear, frustration, violence, lack of hope, and broken dreams. Can life ever return to normal for any of them?

My one negative comment is the author’s note at the end in which she specifically casts blame on Trump for the situation of those Iraqis who collaborated with America as interpreters. They are between a rock and a hard place, but to blame Trump, when 8 years of Obama did nothing for them, seemed disingenuous and politically biased. I realize her book is antiwar and anti many American policies, but that is a point of opinion. Blaming Trump is “fake news”.

The book was a Library Thing Early Reviewers Giveaway.