No Man's Land
By S.T. Underdahl
Published on November 8, 2012
Published by Flux
Published by Flux
If life were a movie, Dov Howard's role would be Emo Kid/Family Loser. His brother Brian would star as Master of the Universe. But that's okay. Dov's got great friends-and possibly a new one named Scarlett. Like everyone else, Dov loves his brother and is thrilled when Brian, a National Guard soldier, is sent home in one piece. Then things get weird. Talking to his jumpy brother is like juggling grenades, and Dov can't help but notice Brian's new best friends: Jack Daniels and the pistol he sleeps with. What will it take for his family to wake up and see the ugly truth?
I don’t often read contemporary YA novels, as I often prefer my fiction to be a bit more escapist in nature. Sometimes, real life can be enough of a downer that I don’t need my fiction to be full of kids experiencing huge problems or weird relationships or whatever. If I’m going to read about that stuff, well, there might as well be a werewolf or secret powers involved, right? Every so often, though, a contemporary YA finds its way into my hands that’s right up my alley. With a background in psychology, I have a bit of a soft spot for well-written, realistic books that center around mental illness. They’re very frustrating when they get it wrong, but stellar when they get it right. No Man’s Land definitely gets it right.
Dov Howard is an emo kid living in the shadow of his well-respected, practically perfect older brother Brian, who has deployed to Afghanistan. Brian was a football player, dating the most beautiful girl in town, pretty much the ideal All-American Boy. Dov, on the other hand, favors My Chemical Romance and skinny jeans and hiding behind a curtain of dark hair. Dov’s friends are the misfits and losers of his high school, and he’s just fine with that, even if he can’t escape feeling like everyone’s comparing him to his brother and he somehow has still failed to measure up.
Before Brian returned from Afghanistan, Dov’s biggest problems were in trying to get to know Scarlett, the new girl at school, and trying to figure out why his pet gecko wasn’t eating. We first get to know Dov in this context through his own eyes. He’s not a bad kid, just different, and what he lacks in interest in school, he makes up for in passion for music and art and his friends. Brian’s return home changes everything, though, because he’s not the same perfect, easy-going young man that he was when he left. The second half of the book focuses on Dov trying to deal with this new, frightening version of his brother, who talks about horrific experiences, is constantly jumpy, and has flashbacks to his time overseas.
The book’s depiction of Brian’s behavior is so realistic that it’s kind of scary. You feel for him, jumping when a car door slams or insisting that they drive around the block again because he thought he saw something suspicious. But you feel less sympathy when his behavior turns destructive, as many people with PTSD may experience. Brian’s PTSD is severe, and you spend most of the time waiting for the other shoe to drop, for him to completely lose what little control he had left. When that shoe does drop, I was holding my breath, waiting to see how bad the fallout would be.
The most heartbreaking part of this book is how hard it is for Brian to get help. Unfortunately, too many people have this experience, whether it’s related to combat trauma or other mental health issues (depression, anxiety, etc.). Everyone wants to sweep it under the rug, hoping that pushing Brian back into his old life will make him magically able to move on, and no one seems to understand that he can’t. Watching everyone’s reactions to Brian’s issues really shows a lot about the family’s dynamics, and sometimes it can be very anxiety-provoking to read a story where everyone is trying to ignore or downplay the elephant in the room.
I did sometimes feel like the two halves of the story were very disconnected. The first half spends a lot of time building up the friendship between Scarlett and Dov, but she fades out of the picture once Brian’s problems become more severe. While this is what happens in real life, it felt a little jarring in the book. By the time she popped back up again as the story came to a close, I’d nearly forgotten why I was supposed to care about her in the first place. Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book for its sensitive yet unflinching look at our walking wounded and how lack of treatment not only impacts the veteran him/herself, but also their families and friends.
I’d recommend this book to readers interested in mental health or seeing a realistic portrayal of a returning veteran struggling PTSD. It may be helpful for teens in a similar situation to Dov, as well, to help them understand what they’re going through. There is a lot of strong language and talk of violence and warfare, and Brian occasionally makes some racist remarks after he returns from Afghanistan.