Book Review: Today We Go Home by Kelli Estes

Seattle, Washington
Larkin Bennett has always known her place, whether it’s surrounded by her loving family in the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest or conducting a dusty patrol in Afghanistan. But all of that changed the day tragedy struck her unit and took away everything she held dear. Soon after, Larkin discovers an unexpected treasure—the diary of Emily Wilson, a young woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union in the Civil War. As Larkin struggles to heal, she finds herself drawn deeply into Emily’s life and the secrets she kept.

Indiana, 1861
The only thing more dangerous to Emily Wilson than a rebel soldier is the risk of her own comrades in the Union Army discovering her secret. But in the minds of her fellow soldiers, if it dresses like a man, swears like a man, and shoots like a man, it must be a man. As the war marches on and takes its terrible toll, Emily begins to question everything she thought she was fighting for.

Today We Go Home took my breath away.

In this dual timeline novel, we follow two separate but interwoven and related threads. The main character in the contemporary timeline is Larkin Bennett, a US Army veteran who receives a medical discharge after being wounded in action in Afghanistan, now suffering from PTSD and the tremendous guilt she feels over the death of her best friend. And as Larkin explores her friends’ personal effects, she finds a family treasure — the diary of Emily Wilson, who fought as a man in the Civil War. Through these two remarkable women, we see devotion to duty and family, as well as the toll that war takes on a person’s soul.

Larkin’s story is moving and tragic. She was never happier than in service to her country, and felt a calling to the military. Her best moments were when she and her friend Sarah were side by side, whether in college, in training, or in Kandahar. But Larkin, when we meet her, is emotionally destroyed by her experiences, turning to alcohol to numb herself and drown out the memories that haunt her every moment.

Larkin’s family is supportive (can I mention how much I love her grandmother and cousins?), and they do what they can to help, but there’s just so much that Larkin has to process on her own, and she resists reaching out for professional help. Her growing obsession with Emily’s diary gives her a purpose, and the more she reads, the more determined she becomes to both tell the stories of military women and to find out more about the real Emily Wilson.

Meanwhile, Emily’s story is equally powerful. After her father and oldest brother ride off to join the Indiana regiment heading to support the Union cause, Emily is left behind on the farm with her younger brother Ben, expected to just wait at home and be content with “women’s work”. When their father is killed and their brother takes ill, they set off to go take care of their brother, and from there, they decide to enlist. Emily is both called to serve and determined to protect Ben at all costs, and together, they join their late father’s regiment and learn to become soldiers.

Emily takes the name Jesse and poses as Ben’s brother, knowing that she must keep her gender a secret. She finds that she’s actually good at soldiering, and starts to love the freedom that comes from being seen as male — the freedom to work, to speak her mind, to not hide her skills, to pursue what she wants.

She would never again settle for a life where her every action, even her thoughts, were controlled by someone else. From now on, no matter where life took her, she would live on her own terms.

The threat of discovery is always present, and the true meaning of going to war doesn’t really sink in until the regiment enters its first battle and Emily gets a close-up view of shooting at the enemy and being shot at.

The general shook his head. “I will not send you back to the field. You can no longer impersonate a soldier, do you understand me?”

Emily had to look away from his accusing glare. She had not been impersonating a soldier. She had been a soldier. “Yes, sir.”

The author does an amazing job of weaving together these two stories. Some dual timeline books feel forced, or as if one only exists as a frame for the other. Not so here. You know it’s a well-done approach when both halves of the story feel so compelling that you hate to leave each one to switch to the other. When an Emily section would end, I’d want more… but then I’d get re-involved in Larkin’s story, and couldn’t imagine wanting to read anything else but her story.

Kelli Estes has clearly done a tremendous amount of research into both women serving in the Civil War and into the plight of today’s veterans, especially the staggering rate of PTSD and suicide among women veterans. She provides a list of reference materials as well as information on support for veterans at the end of the book, and is definitely doing a great service herself by calling attention to the issues confronting today’s combat veterans.

She set the diary aside, thinking about Emily’s struggles. They were timeless. Even now, over a hundred and fifty years later, female veterans faced many of the same challenges that Emily did: being seen as inferior because of her gender, not being able to find work after being discharged from the military, earning less than men, becoming homeless.

Some of the social commentary is really spot-on, such as Larkin’s anger over the general lack of interest and awareness she encounters once back in the US. To Larkin, she was serving in Afghanistan to protect the United States, yet most Americans seem indifferent or unaware of what’s going on there and the sacrifices being made by American service men and women. Likewise, she is understandably infuriated when a clueless man, who spots her wearing an Army t-shirt, asks her whether it’s her father or her brothers who served, failing to recognize the very real service of hundreds of thousands of women.

Today We Go Home is beautifully written and is so very powerful. I tore through this book probably faster than I should have, because I just couldn’t get enough of either Emily or Larkin and had to know how their stories would turn out. The emotional impact is strong and real. By the end, I felt such sorrow for their experiences, and yet hopeful and uplifted as well. And while Emily’s story is set in the past, Larkin’s story has an urgency to it, knowing that brave men and women are still facing the unbelievable struggles that come with serving in war settings and then coming back home afterward.

Don’t miss this amazing book. This goes on my list of top books for 2019.

Other reading resources:

For more on women in the Civil War, I highly recommend two excellent novels:

  • I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe (review)
  • Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy & Becky Hepinstall (review)

I don’t think I’ve read any other novels recently about contemporary women serving in the military, but I’d love some suggestions!

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The details:

Title: Today We Go Home
Author: Kelli Estes
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Length: 401 pages
Genre: Contemporary/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Terrifying two-fer: Our War and Wanderers, two all-too-believable versions of our world (and its future)

Over the past two weeks, I read two gripping, enthralling, un-put-downable books that scared the pants off me. These two books are quite different, but each presents a vision of our world that’s utterly terrifying because it’s so utterly possible.

Title: Our War
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: August 20, 2019
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher 

A prescient and gripping novel of a second American civil war, and the children caught in the conflict, forced to fight.

When the president of the United States is impeached, but refuses to leave office, the country erupts into civil war.

10-year-old Hannah Miller, an orphan living in besieged Indianapolis, has joined a citizen’s militia. She had nowhere else to go. And after seeing the firsthand horrors of war, she’s determined to fight with the Free Women militia.

Hannah’s older brother, Alex, is a soldier too. But he’s loyal to the other side. After being separated from Hannah, he finds a home in a group calling themselves The Liberty Tree militia.

When a UNICEF worker and a reporter discover that both sides are using child soldiers, they set out to shine a light on something they thought could never happen in the United States. But it may be too late because even the most gentle children can find that they’re capable of horrific acts.

Where to even start describing this powerful and upsetting book? It feels all too real, as an increasingly factionalized and radicalized America is plunged into a brutal civil war. Sides are drawn — and armed. It’s deadly serious, and as is sadly the norm in armed conflicts, children are the ones who are caught in the middle, starving, orphaned, witnessing death and brutality that no child should have to see,

Hannah is one of several POV characters; others include a hard-charging journalist pursuing her next great story, an inexperienced but determined UNICEF representative, the militia leader who takes in Hannah’s bother Alex, and Alex himself. Each shares their unique viewpoint on the war and its impact, and through each, we see the futility of the armed conflict and the seeming hopelessness of any attempt to find a resolution.

The political situation in Our War is, honestly, not so far different from our own current situation. It’s scarily easy to imagine these events evolving from where we stand today.

As a reporter, Aubrey had always been shocked by the right wing’s war on facts. They regularly vilified anybody in fact-based professions, from scientists to doctors. They generated and consumed propaganda and called anything else fake. For them, reality wasn’t as interesting as a good simple narrative that had them righteously and perpetually enraged.

At first, I found it confusing to keep track of which side was which, but I think that’s part of the point. After all, your view of whether someone is a patriot or a rebel may depend very much on which side of the line you yourself are standing on.

The writing here is raw and shocking and immediate, and makes for a completely gripping read. Above all, the children caught in the middle are the ultimate victims here, and seeing the war through Hannah’s eyes is truly gut-wrenching.

Title: Wanderers
Author: Chuck Wendig
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 800 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Purchased

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. In the tradition of The Stand and Station Eleven comes a gripping saga that weaves an epic tapestry of humanity into an astonishing tale of survival.

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and are sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them–and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them–the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

This massive, 800 page book seemed like a huge reading undertaking… but once I started, I savored every word, paragraph, and chapter. Did it need to be this huge? Why, yes. Yes, it did.

Wanderers is truly epic in scope. What starts as a weird local event — a sleepwalking girl who can’t be woken or stopped — turns into something huge and eerie (and to some, horribly frightening) as Nessie is joined by more and more sleepwalkers in her journey across America. Escorted by family members and friends who look after them, the flock moves endlessly forward. Meanwhile, the CDC scrambles to find out why, and right-wing militiamen, politicians, and conservative rabblerousers see the flock as a harbinger of end-times, and use their existence as an excuse to ramp up their hateful, violent rhetoric, whipping their public into a frenzy.

Just what is causing the sleepwalking phenomenon is revealed over time, as is the connection to a money-hungry tycoon’s mysterious death. The weirdness of the sleepwalking is leavened by the beauty of the human interactions and interconnectedness as we get to know the various shepherds, their motivations and fears, and their own sense of running out of time.

Parts of this book are terrifying. Strangely (or not), I was much more disturbed by the human evil and hate-mongering than by the pandemic threat to all of humanity. Nature, science, possible extinction — these just are, without good or evil. Instead, it’s the people of Wanderers who inspire admiration for their bravery, sacrifice, and wisdom, as well as despair over the cruelty that people display toward one another.

This book takes our current crises related to climate change, increasingly drug-resistant bacteria and viruses, and hate-filled politics, and spins these into a tale that feels prophetic, cautionary, and disturbingly real. Wanderers forces the reader to ask “what if”… and then see how the scenario plays out in full, grisly, technicolor detail.

I suppose I should add, if not already clear, that this book contains violence and cruelty and should be approached cautiously (or not at all) by anyone who may find themselves triggered.

That said, I just loved so many of the characters, felt completely invested in their journeys and ordeals, and could not stop reading. At the risk of sounding incredibly corny, reading Wanderers made me feel like I’d been on a journey too. A terrific read.

I want to note that Craig DiLouie and Chuck Wendig are both new-to-me authors, although they’ve been on my radar for a while now thanks to friends’ recommendations. Having read these two books, I definitely want more! Please let me know if you have suggestions for me!

Side note: I have so much more I’d love to say about both of these books, but with my arm and hand in a cast for several more weeks, typing is a challenge — so I’m keeping this on the short side. Bottom line: Both of these books are 5-star reads for me. I can’t recommend them highly enough!