Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Be Safe I Love You includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cara Hoffman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Returning to her upstate New York hometown after serving in Iraq, Lauren Clay is haunted by emotional battle scars and has trouble adjusting to civilian life. She struggles to reconnect with family and friends before setting out with her younger brother on a winter road trip to visit Canada’s remote wilderness—a journey that will determine her future, for better or for worse. Be Safe I Love You is a poignant, impassioned novel about the devastating effects of war, both on the front lines and at home.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “She was back but didn’t feel so far away from Iraq,” admits Lauren (page 9). How does she see her family and friends in a new light since returning from the war zone? How do they, in turn, view her? Why are they so quick to believe that Lauren is fine or, in Jack’s case, that he can help her simply by offering snacks and a willing ear?
2. How do Lauren’s roles as soldier and caregiver become intertwined? Why does she find it so difficult to relinquish her position as a commanding officer when she returns to civilian life?
3. Lauren confides in Holly that it seems as if Jack Clay was “replaced by an imposter” while she was gone (page 75). Why isn’t she happier to see her father working and taking care of Danny? How does his recovery impact not only her post-military plans but also her identity as her brother’s surrogate parent?
4. What is your opinion of Jack and Meg Clay as parents? Meg says to Lauren that although she loved her and Danny, “Sometimes leaving makes the most sense, does the least damage. Sometimes it’s the better option” (page 170). Do you agree with Meg’s reasoning about why she left? Why or why not?
5. For two weeks after Lauren received an acceptance from Curtis, she felt as if “she could do anything before the first foreclosure notices came in the mail” (page 304). What, if anything, might she have done other than join the military? What would you have done if you were in her situation?
6. Of the soldiers in her unit, why was it Daryl with whom Lauren developed a close friendship? “Daryl got it,” she claims, while Shane “she wasn’t so sure about” (page 10). When she compares Shane to Daryl, why does Shane come up lacking?
7. Why does Lauren have such conflicted feelings for Shane? Why did she stop communicating with him while she was in Iraq and yet seek him out as soon as she arrived home? Discuss the divergent paths each one took and their motivations for doing so—Lauren joining the military and Shane attending college. How does each one view the other’s decision?
8. Lauren found comfort in the church building during the time she was training with Troy. How does she view the Stations of the Cross (artistic depictions of Christ’s final hours) differently since returning from Iraq? Share your thoughts on her religious views, including why she believes “battlefield baptism” (page 56) was among the worst things she saw while in Iraq.
9. Most of the townspeople’s perception of Troy differs from reality. In what ways is he a role model to Lauren and the parental figure she didn’t have? After her return, why does Lauren refuse when Troy or others ask her to sing?
10. When Danny was a child, Lauren read him Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Why is Danny so fascinated by this fairy tale? How do the events in The Snow Queen parallel what takes place in his and Lauren’s own lives?
11. Despite the fact that Jack is adequately caring for Danny, why does Lauren proceed with her plan to take her brother away from Watertown? Is she doing it more for Danny, as she claims, or for herself?
12. Why does Lauren believe she was “kept in a woman’s prison” (page 276) while serving in the military? How does she equate it with the years she spent keeping house and caring for her father and Danny? Why is Lauren upset when Danny tells her that their father’s crippling depression was alleviated in a matter of weeks with medication?
13. How does the author build and sustain suspense throughout the story? Were you surprised when the truth was revealed about Daryl? Why or why not? Looking back, what clues were there along the way?
14. Be Safe I Love You illuminates the personal cost of war to each individual soldier and to their families. In addition, how does the novel illustrate the broader issues associated with war, including politics and corporate interests?
15. Do you agree with the author that there is a cultural tendency to romanticize war? Why or why not? When Lauren confides in Troy that she did terrible things, he says to her, “Of course you did. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise” (page 321). Why does he offer her this advice?
A Conversation with Cara Hoffman
Q: What prompted you to write a war-themed novel? Was it something you were considering for some time, or was there a particular moment when you realized it was a topic you wanted to explore?
A: We live with war. The United States has permanent military bases throughout the world. The foundation of our culture is exploitation and conquest. There are many books written about battles but there are few written about how deeply enmeshed our personal lives, our livelihoods, our pleasures, and entertainments are with war. And very few novels deal with what life is really like for families of returning soldiers.
Q: Why did you opt to have the central character be a female soldier? What particular challenges do female soldiers face?
A: The main challenge that women in the military now face is constant risk of sexual assault by the people they are serving with. It’s something I didn’t write about in Be Safe I Love You but it would be wrong not to mention here. Rape in the military is at epidemic proportions. Apart from that, women have different issues when they return home—particularly if they are parents and expected to be nurturing and to be caregivers for an entire family, women face humiliating kinds of gender-based discrimination at war and at home.
Q: There are so many vivid details in the story about a soldier’s life in and out of uniform, from Lauren’s thoughts on battlefield religion to the emotions she experiences after she returns home. What research did you do for Be Safe I Love You?
A: I interviewed veterans. And my brother was a combat veteran who did two tours of duty and worked as a military contractor. I’ve spent a good amount of time around military people since I was a child and have a good idea of what that culture is like. The character of PJ was inspired by a close family friend who was a Vietnam vet and civil rights activist.
Q: Authors are often asked if they share similarities with their novel’s protagonist, how do you feel about this common trend in linking authors’ personal lives with their work?
A: I think there’s been a serious cultural shift in the way people read and receive fiction influenced first by the rise of the memoir as a genre, and second by forms of visual media and social media which normalized self exposure. I write fiction, not memoir. So I am more interested in talking about language and craft and ideas than I am about my personal life. The characters in my novels, like the characters in all novels, are the result of research, imagination, and experience. Any personal similarities I have with the characters are pretty generic. I come from upstate, from an Irish catholic family, have an older brother who is a soldier and a younger brother who is a brainy sort of guy. But my experience of loving them, of caring for them is universal. Readers might link my experiences with the Danny character but that would be a mistake. In many ways, we’re all Danny. Living in a military culture and coping one way or another with the fallout of things soldiers have done; the burdens they’ve taken on under the guise of protecting us, the way they shape us and the world we live in. I guess my answer to this question is Be Safe I Love You is fiction. And I’d like to keep my personal life private. But I will say that anyone looking for clues about where my life and upbringing intersect with the novel need look no farther than Troy, the Patricks or the post-industrial towns of upstate New York.
Q: But what about Lauren? In the novel Lauren trains as a classical singer. Is this a talent you share with her? A: Yes. I trained as a vocalist and sang and performed classical music when I was young, often with my step-brother who was a classical concert pianist and accompanist. I went to juried competitions and performed pieces from operas. I still sing sacred music with a choir and enjoy the music my son composes. Had I stayed in school I’d likely have become a musician like him instead of a novelist.
Q: What made Watertown, New York, the ideal setting for Be Safe I Love You?
A: There is a military base in Watertown, it has one of the highest suicide rates in New York State, and it’s close to Canada. In many ways it’s the quintessential upstate town.
Q: You note that Be Safe I Love You is “an homage” to Louis Ferdinand Celine and his work, in particular his autobiographical novel Journey to the End of the Night. What other books and authors have influenced or made a lasting impression on you?
A: That would be a long list! And most of the people on it would be French. Celine changed the way people read. He changed our whole conception of narrative. The work is visceral and immediate in a way that I think is unsurpassed. I have read passages from Death on the Installment Plan that made me laugh so hard I was crying and at the same time made me feel like throwing up. He’s a genius. I also love Jean Genet, Flaubert, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginie Despentes, Sartre, Camus. I love Orwell—as folks who’ve read So Much Pretty know. And then the Americans: Paul Bowles, Joan Didion, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor. It may sound strange but I’ve read with total pleasure everything by Phillip K. Dick—including the first 500 pages of the Exegesis which is just a lunatic work. I love PKD. Because his books are about Gnostic philosophy and identity and fighting against a false authoritarian world—but the stories are about people living on Mars or spying on themselves from inside disguises. I’ve been deeply affected by David Wojnarowicz’s work, particularly the waterfront journals and Close to the Knives. It resonates with me the same way that Journey does and in my view it’s a perfect book. I come back to it over and over again. It’s a source of strength and inspiration, raw and real and filled with beauty and rage. When I read it I feel awed and excited, and very sad that he didn’t survive the plague.
Q: You’ve mentioned in interviews that there is a tendency toward “romanticizing war as a thing that gives life meaning, war as inevitability.” Do you see that changing with novels about the Iraq war that have been published recently? Why was it important to you not to take that direction with Be Safe I Love You?
A: I have no patience for the narcissism of war narratives. People think murder adds gravitas and mystery to their work. But nothing is more superficial, more under-developed or unenlightened than violence and killing. There are ways to write intelligently about war and violence, ways that demystify the mundane causes and get somewhere more interesting and significant, but that kind of work is rarely undertaken. Fetishizing violence and killing, studying battles and weapons, getting a vicarious rush from reading about or seeing brutality is literally the definition of a perversion. It’s an ignorant practice. The fact that any of it carries weight in our culture is laughable. War is state sanctioned murder. There’s nothing lower than that. It is the conscious misdirection and exploitation of men’s bodies and of hyper masculinity in order to steal and profit from others’ misery. I don’t see that changing in books like The Yellow Birds; the language is utterly lovely but the story is still one of men suffering because of the suffering they’ve inflicted. And it still reinforces the dominant paradigm. It’s time to do something wholly new. Helen Benedict’s The Sand Queen was an inspiration and a good start toward capturing the big picture. David Finkel’s nonfiction The Good Soldier is brilliant. But the longer we continue to tell epic tales of Cowboys and Indians the longer we’ll remain in a kind of cultural infancy. It’s thumb sucking, plain and simple.
The short answer to your question is I couldn’t take the direction of romanticizing war because I don’t write propaganda for the government. Poverty and propaganda are what make kids strap on suicide vests, join the Taliban, or the IRA or the RUC, help destroy their neighbors with machete,s or leave their jobs at the Dairy Queen and travel thousands of miles to dump white phosphorus on an entire town. I won’t have any part of that propaganda. I won’t pretend for a minute that there’s any meaning at all in that kind of brutality. This is the main way in which the book is an homage to Celine, who understood these things as a soldier and as an anarchist.
Q: “Home is not always the safest place for a returning warrior,” you write in Be Safe I Love You. What strides have been made in recent decades to support soldiers when they return from war? What still needs to be done?
A: People can make donations to the Service Women’s Action Network, which works to end sex discrimination and reform veterans’ services.
The “strides” that have been made to support soldiers clearly have to do with transport and medical support in the field. The prosthetics and physical rehabilitation people can get today are amazing. More soldiers are surviving combat than before because of it. But the suicide rate for returning soldiers is high. The fact is, these folks often end up dead or homeless or abusing or killing people close to them after returning from combat. Talking about what should be done once people return is really talking around the problem. Obviously creating a society where military intervention is not the norm is the goal. But gender exploitation of men to commit violence is not going to change any time soon. So it’s a good question. What do you do once you’ve trained a person to murder and then sent them out to experience extreme trauma? What do you do to help those people? I don’t know.
Q: What would you most like readers to take away from Be Safe I Love You?
A: An understanding of how important fraternity is, actual brotherhood, siblinghood, mutual aid, and solidarity—not false brotherhood created by the trauma of war. The book is about how relationships based on hierarchies are detrimental. And how the creative force is life saving. It’s about how history and the worship of patriarchal narratives threaten our future. It’s about the power of autonomy and equality, and the terrible things you have to face about the world in order to get that power. It’s about love.
Q: Be Safe I Love You is your second novel, after So Much Pretty, the story of a reporter who investigates the death of a young woman in a small town. What is your next novel about? Does it share any themes or other similarities with your first two books?
A: My third novel is about a homeless teenage girl living in Athens, Greece in the late 80s and early 90s who gets involved in some illegal activities. Just as in So Much Pretty and Be Safe it’s an examination of institutional violence—and how we cope with and transcend it. There’s a Camus quote that I think sums it up nicely. “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Enhance Your Book Club
Pair your reading of Be Safe I Love You with Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, a book that had a profound influence on Cara Hoffman.
Suicide is now the leading cause of death for US service members and veterans, far outstripping combat related deaths. Please consider making a donation to the Service Women’s Action Network to help end sex discrimination, reform veterans’ services and ensure high quality health care and benefits for women veterans and their families. Go to servicewomen.org or write to: Service Women's Action Network 220 E. 23rd Street, Suite 509 New York, NY 10010
Arvo Part is Lauren’s favorite composer. Listen to his music while reading Be Safe I Love You.
Lauren’s favorite poem is “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost. Incorporate a reading of the verse into your discussion of Be Safe I Love You.
Visit CaraHoffman.com to learn more about the author and her books.