Larkin Bennett, protagonist of Kelli Estes’ novel Today We Go Home (Sourcebooks), was sure she’d never recover from Afghanistan. Not after the explosion. Not after she watched her best friend, Sarah, die right next to her. Not after being discharged from the Army and plunged back into everyday civilian life.
She didn’t want to recover. In Larkin’s mind, the horrors she experienced in Afghanistan would follow her to her grave, and all she needed to do to keep her feelings at bay was to drown them with alcohol and sleep through the day, continuing to distance herself emotionally from those around her.
All but stripped of her identity, Larkin comes across a Civil War diary Sarah had left her that contains the writings of Emily Wilson, one of Sarah’s ancestors. Soon, Larkin begins to uncover Sarah’s family history, piecing together broken relationships that may just help her find herself again.
“What she hadn’t realized was that she’d needed to go down into that pit so she could emerge out the other end, free from the fear that had controlled her.”
Nearly three centuries earlier, nineteen-year-old Emily Wilson sneaks off her farm with her brother, Ben, to join the Union Army and fight in what would become one of the most well-known wars in history. Tired of living the confining life of a subordinate daughter and eventual wife and inspired to protect the last of her fractured family, Emily assumes the identity of a young man named Jesse, which enables her to swiftly enter the army. Emily vows to protect her brother no matter the cost, even if it means taking another person’s life.
Once entering the army, though, Emily comes face-to-face with harrowing moral dilemmas that Estes dramatizes with pristine precision: Who is truly innocent? What gives anyone the right to take a life? Is killing justifiable solely because the cause is for the greater good?
As much as Emily’s narrative is a story of morality, it also eloquently describes the concept of identity and what it means to be human. As Emily contends with these overwhelming dilemmas, Larkin finds herself ever the more drawn to Emily’s experiences. They distinctly parallel her own—the blatant racism and nonchalant sexism, the belittlement and condescension. The issues are not just exclusive to Larkin’s story and suggest that society’s social progress toward equality may be more fiction than fact.
Estes writes with a passion for women soldiers; it seeps through each page and character. The detail to historical accuracies creates a raw, emotive story that speaks to any reader, and it is through this that Estes cultivates a dual-narrative story that is as much a history lesson as it is an illumination of the harsh, binary world of both the past and the present.
Juggling this is no small feat, and Estes successfully tackles another element: portraying the struggles of PTSD. The anxiety, hallucinations, and night terrors that plague Larkin’s everyday life authentically and viscerally portray post-war life for many veterans. Readers don’t merely read Larkin’s feelings; they experience it first hand through immersive flashbacks and detailed interiority that makes the situation all the more real.
Despite Larkin’s all-encompassing anxiety, her dedication and pride in her service is commendable. She is at once both fierce and vulnerable, resilient and fragile. Emily, too, suffers through humiliating circumstances, yet her bravery never falters, and her valiance and loyalty are infectious. In narratives like these, dynamic female characters make the stories come to life even more.
At its core, Today We Go Home is a story that shines a light on the women who didn’t make it into the history books, who offered up their services when no one asked. And, most importantly, it’s a story of breathtaking resilience, honor, and courage in the face of unprecedented challenges. Characters’ struggles quite literally transcend time and generations, offering up connection and hope in a time of need. And, as Larkin comes to understand and say, hope never tasted so sweet.
Today We Go Home is now available.
About Kelli Estes
Kelli Estes grew up in apple country near Yakima, Washington before attending Arizona State University where she learned she is happiest living near the water. Today she lives near Seattle with her husband and two sons. When not writing, Kelli is hiking, reading, exploring, traveling or drinking tea.