In Elizabeth Marro's tremendous debut novel Casualties, San Diego becomes a battleground fought by the men and women behind the scenes of America's military efforts in the Middle East.
Ruth Nolan is a senior executive at RyCom, one of the largest military defense contractors in the country. She was hired when RyCom was just a start-up, moved up the ranks and followed the company across the country when it relocated to La Jolla. Fiercely determined to succeed, Ruth made herself an indispensible part of RyCom's senior management. Now, with a massive merger imminent, she is on the verge of becoming a very wealthy woman.
However, there is one crucial difference that separates Ruth from her peers, "people hatched in nests of wealth and nurtured in private schools, and then let loose among their own kind, secure in their belief that they had earned everything they had gotten and deserved better": she is the mother of a twice-deployed Marine. While her colleagues ensure the company profits handsomely from the United States' military interventions abroad, as the single mother whose only son is on active duty, Ruth has a much greater stake in the outcome.
Ruth's son, Robbie, returns from Iraq a changed man. Haunted by the things he witnessed "over there," namely the deaths of his comrades in arms, Robbie struggles to adjust to being back in the United States. He only has a few months left before his enlistment is up and he doesn't know what to do. He enlisted in the Marines to turn his life around, but also to avoid being sucked into the trajectory that his mother was planning for him: school, work, a normal life. Now he no longer knows what any of that even means. How can he go back to "normal" when he feels anything but?
"He didn't know who or what he was when he enlisted. He just knew what he wasn't."
When Robbie is granted leave so he can visit his mother, he takes a bus trip to visit his mother's family home in rural New Hampshire, a place his mother fled at the first opportunity, but one he often thought about while he was in the desert, wondering if he would ever see it again.
"Shadows fell across the mountain and sank into him. The night loomed and with it came the desire to escape even the people he'd traveled two days on a bus to find. Their attempts at conversation sounded like demands in a language he no longer spoke. As they went about their quiet evening routines, he found himself watching and realizing with every passing minute that he was the foreigner here."
While Ruth waits for her son to return, RyCom finds itself embroiled in a scandal of epic proportions with accusations that it failed to protect the contractors it hired to serve the men and women who serve our country. The scandal threatens the impending merger, and it's up to Ruth to fix it. After reading an email from the wife of a contractor who'd committed suicide—"He may have died here, but he was killed there"—she knows she must make the most difficult decision of her career.
Casualties is a heartfelt, harrowing story, but never maudlin or melodramatic. Marro moves back and forth through multiple perspectives, each one believable and real, yet impossible to predict. When Ruth recalls her grandmother's advice, it feels like the ache of a lesson learned the hard way. "It's all one life, honey. You can't just start a new one because you don't like the one you have."
While San Diegans are all too familiar with the challenges that military personnel and their families face during deployment and after they come home, the personal lives of those who work for the defense industry in the boardroom and on the ground is new territory for a work of fiction. During Ruth's journey with her son—both literally and figuratively—she struggles to undo the damage inflicted by wounds new and old for which she now feels responsible.
"Each 'if' launched her into a waking dream, so real that she could almost believe that she had made the right decision at each of these points, that the events unfolding around her happening to the mother of another young boy."
Come see Elizabeth Marro discuss "Casualties" at Warwick's in La Jolla on Thursday, February 4 at 7:30pm.