LIFE DURING WARTIME
by Katie Rogin
Mastodon Publishing, 216 pages
reviewed by Isabelle Mongeau
Katie Rogin’s debut novel, Life During Wartime, presents the struggle that soldiers, and their families, face adjusting back to civilian life. The story begins when 21-year-old Nina Wicklow, home from duty in Iraq, goes missing in a small town outside of Los Angeles. Her disappearance sparks a ragtag group of family and friends to search for her, and during that journey, face their own trauma.
The novel unfolds through the perspective of multiple characters, the predominant two being Jim Wicklow and Lise Sheridan. Jim is the brother to Nina’s father, Ryan, who died in the Twin Towers during 9/11, seven years prior to the events of the story. Jim’s perspective acts as a bridge between the two worlds of civilian and solider—worlds that rub together harshly in the novel and leave the characters behind as collateral damage. He assumes the role of a liminal character as he witnessed Ryan’s death on “that day,” as he often calls 9/11, and can empathize with the soldiers he encounters in the search for Nina. Through Jim, the book presents 9/11 as war on U.S. territory, since it produced similar psychological effects to those who live in combat zones in Iraq. Jim’s sister tells him he experienced what a solider does, to which he replies, “That’s not war.” His sister then says, “It is. Just everyday.” Those who experience PTSD from violence share a bond that others cannot comprehend.
Jim remains with one foot in the reality of civilian life, as, post-9/11, he attempts to create a quiet existence for himself at his lake house with his wife. As he puts it, “since that day, he preferred predictability, no sudden moves and consistent lighting.” When his niece disappears, however, predictability is thrown out the window and he has to once again face the tumultuous effects of PTSD.
Captain Lise Sheridan provides the viewpoint of Nina’s peer, a young woman who spent time in the Middle East during the same period as Nina. Though not a sniper or foot soldier, Lise served as an army nurse and was forced to make tough life-and-death decisions, such as cutting off a friend’s infected limb. Nina and Lise both joined the community of veterans who attend support groups in the LA area after their tours. At the start of the book, Lise spends her time pedaling out information to her screenwriter lover, Danny, who uses her knowledge of war to craft his screenplay. The dynamic between her and Danny factors into the most fundamental question the book presents: How do we treat soldiers when they come home?
In Lise’s case, we pump them for information so we can then regurgitate a glorified version of war in movies and video games.
Although Nina’s disappearance prompts the events of the novel, it takes 40 pages to establish that she has gone missing, and even then, the declaration is uncertain. From Lise’s perspective, so many rumors surround what could have happened to Nina that the book spends less time unfolding what actually happened. The search also gets lost as bigger events take over the plot: from the roaring California fires, to the financial crash in 2008. Ultimately, Nina’s missing person’s case takes a backseat and even her friends and relatives forget they are searching for her.
The real battle does not end when the traumatic event has surpassed, but rather then only begins. Life after wartime is really life during wartime, and that is when support is needed the most.
While Lise’s experience highlights how the mainstream media glorifies war, Nina’s story shows that those who fight the battles—not on the screen—are forgotten. Her disappearance then becomes not just a physical state but also a metaphor for the neglected, broken solider. Lise ruminates on the state of the forgotten veteran in her own way. She realizes that, “the war had taken so many things from her, from her body, from her mind and from the other part of her that hovered between actions and thoughts. She didn’t want these things back—she wasn’t even sure what they were—she just wanted some kind of something to reassemble her broken world.”
Jim’s and Lise’s journeys draw in other personalities, such as Nik, a Vietnam veteran who runs the support group, and Jen Broder, Nina’s landlady and distant family friend, who finds herself in bouts of depression as her own trauma resurfaces with Nina’s disappearance. As Lise finds her mind back in the combat zone as she walks around LA, Jen relives, in her mind, her virginity lost via rape. Though many years ago, Jen can’t control her flinching when her husband touches her. She always panics, to which he tries to explain, “It’s love, Jen.” Her visceral response parallels Lise’s as she wets her pants during a war flashback.
The inner demons these women face only echo those of Jim, and despite the trauma varying between each character, the result of violence upon the person is the same. Though their PTSD plagues them, it also allows for a special understanding between Jim, Lise, and Jen, a sense of solidarity that extends to Nina. They may struggle during their journey to find her, but their empathy for Nina only grows with each step.
Jim, Lise, and Jen stumble around in a haze—not just the smoke created by the California forest fires—but a haze of uncertainty and a lethargic state of mind. As the search team for Nina gives way to more global events, the characters lose themselves, as well. Jen stays in bed most of the time, and Lise can’t cement herself in the present moment. Jim, who finds solace in his relationship with his wife, feels tempted by Lise’s company. In the ambiguity, one thing rings clear. The real battle does not end when the traumatic event has surpassed, but rather then only begins. Life after wartime is really life during wartime, and that is when support is needed the most.
Isabelle Mongeau studies Creative Writing and Film at Emory University in Georgia. Although she loves life in Atlanta, she was raised in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She has been published in Living Springs Publishers as their finalist, and Emory’s literary magazine, Alloy. Isabelle seeks to create stories that are both serious and entertaining.