Back Home

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“I guess you would call us a normal family. Once a month, and sometimes other times, too, Dad would be gone for a few days. Mom told us that he was in the National Guard. We were normal, you could say. And then we weren’t.”

Rachel “Brownie” Browning is thirteen when her father comes back from the war in Iraq. Of course she understands that he has been injured and that he will be a little different, at least for a while. But Brownie doesn’t ...
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“I guess you would call us a normal family. Once a month, and sometimes other times, too, Dad would be gone for a few days. Mom told us that he was in the National Guard. We were normal, you could say. And then we weren’t.”

Rachel “Brownie” Browning is thirteen when her father comes back from the war in Iraq. Of course she understands that he has been injured and that he will be a little different, at least for a while. But Brownie doesn’t even know the man with a prosthetic arm and leg who sits in the living room day after day. He’s certainly not the father who helped her build a fort in her backyard, or played basketball with her sister, or hauled her little brother around like a sack of potatoes.

Brownie’s mother says that because of his traumatic brain injury, their father needs their affection and patience. In time, he’ll be better–Dad will be back. But Dad doesn’t seem to be making much progress, or much effort. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t talk. He won’t even get out of his wheelchair, even though the doctors have taught him how and say that walking is essential to his recovery. And Brownie begins to wonder, will her family ever be able to return to the way life was before the war?

A story about an ordinary family forced to deal with an extraordinary loss, Back Home tells the tale of families scarred and the battle just beginning when their wounded loved ones return home.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Julia Keller has written a novel of heartrending honesty and integrity. Her characters are vividly drawn, her "ordinary" American family is achingly real, and what is perhaps most impressive about Back Home is the author's refusal to provide easy answers, let alone easy solutions, to a contemporary social tragedy. Back Home is a novel for readers of all ages."
--Joyce Carol Oates
Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Keller's debut suffers from too much telling, not enough showing. Developed from the author's experience as a reporter following families whose loved ones were afflicted with traumatic brain injuries, but focusing on a returning war veteran, the book feels more like an expository essay on the disorder's impact on soldiers and their families than a novel. This unflinching account of a father's return from Iraq (without two limbs and with severely reduced brain function) is narrated by his 13-year-old daughter, Rachel. However, there's little of the emotion one might expect from a girl in her situation: she delivers the facts about his inability to function, her mother's steady loss of patience and the decline in relatives' support with detachment (“People—teachers, other kids, our friends—treated us like we were made of paper or something, and if they said the wrong thing... it would be like poking a finger through a thin sheet of paper”). While this emphasizes the emotional difficulties Rachel has in coping, the repetitive way in which the story's details are laid out can be tedious, despite the harrowing subject matter. Ages 10–up. (Sept.)
VOYA - C. J. Bott
Rachel's dad was in the Coast Guard before he became a soldier in Iraq. When he came home, he was missing an arm, a leg, most of his communication skills, and suffering from a traumatic brain injury. Rachel Browning narrates this story of how she, her mother, younger sister, brother, and father struggle to be the family they once were. Keller writes the story that everyone who loves soldiers fears, and she tells it through the honest eyes of a thirteen-year-old who watches the struggles of this new person who used to be her father. The telling is incredible. Keller's words create such a complete image of Browning's emotions that the reader not only sees what she sees but also feels the fear, sadness, resentment, curiosity, and slow acceptance that life will never be the same again. There are no judgments about the war, no political concerns, just a very real story of what so many Americans are experiencing. The language, beautiful and passionate, offers great respect and honor for those returning from one war to face another. Reviewer: C. J. Bott
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—Ed Browning returns from National Guard service in Iraq with a prosthetic arm and leg and traumatic brain injury. His 13-year-old daughter, Rachel, chronicles the first year of their family's adjustments: her mother's efforts to encourage her husband's healing and the varied reactions of her younger brother and sister, relatives, and family friends. As the year progresses, they see that the injury includes the part of the brain that produces initiative. He becomes more responsive and has the ability to use his prosthetic limbs, but he doesn't. He sits in his wheelchair as life goes on around him. The family survives, but it has changed as much as he has. Drawing on her research for a 2003 Chicago Tribune series on brain injury, journalist Keller tells this imagined family's story movingly, clearly explaining the ramifications and including some of the responses veterans encounter. Fans of stories about medical issues won't mind that readers never really come to know the first-person narrator. A strong addition to the small body of Iraq war titles.—Kathleen Isaacs, Children's Literature Specialist, Pasadena, MD
Kirkus Reviews
Rachel's father, a member of the National Guard, has come back from Iraq with a serious head injury and without one arm and one leg. In a first-person narration that features an overabundance of often-intrusive similes and metaphors and never truly captures an authentic 13-year-old voice, Rachel relates her family's despair over her father's lack of improvement, his growing social isolation and her mother's eroding ability to cope. Rachel's narrative focuses far more on feelings than events, with her initial anger gradually evolving into a discouraging although believable resignation. The lack of action may leave readers with little motivation to turn the pages, though. In an afterword, the author cites a statistic that more than 80 percent of Marines and Navy soldiers wounded in the war have brain injuries without mentioning that the same source, U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, states the figure for all wounded soldiers is about 22 percent. Most likely to resonate with children of seriously wounded veterans (who may find the lack of hope discouraging but accurate), Rachel's slow-paced tale lacks significant general appeal. (Fiction. 11-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781606840054
  • Publisher: EgmontUSA
  • Publication date: 9/8/2009
  • Pages: 208
  • Age range: 10 - 12 Years
  • Lexile: 700L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Julia Keller was born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia. Her father was a mathematics professor and her mother was a high-school English teacher. Julia has taught at Ohio State and Princeton universities and the University of Notre Dame. She won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for her work at the Chicago Tribune. Her first book, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel, is the true story of the man who invented the world’s first working machine gun–because he honestly thought it would help end war. Julia lives in a high-rise in Chicago and a stone cottage on a lake in rural Ohio. You can visit her at
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by hoopsielv for

    It should be a joyous time for Rachel, her mom, and her siblings, Marcy and Robbie. Her father is coming home from Iraq. They should be celebrating and creating new memories together as a family.

    Things will never be the same, though. Her father was injured while overseas. He's lost an arm and a leg and also has some brain damage. He's got to learn most things over again and spends time first at a rehabilitation center before coming home.

    At first, it doesn't even seem like Dad is home. He just sits there. Rachel knows she must step up and help. She struggles to figure out how. Is Dad really not capable or has he lost the will to try? Will their family always be like this?

    BACK HOME is a realistic novel about a family trying to pull together and be one during a difficult adjustment. It is full of touching moments. I would strongly recommend this book!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 7, 2009

    Gorgeous writing, crucial message

    Our nation is at war, but you'd hardly know it from news coverage. This simple, beautiful book reminds us that soldiers have families, and many of those families are grieving.

    You can read this book in a sitting. You can read it aloud to your children. You can share it with friends. It is told by a young girl -- but anyone can relate to her story.

    Semper fi.

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  • Posted September 24, 2009

    Eloquent, thoughtful family drama

    So many novels today are loud and silly and filled with cliches and cheap sentimentality. Not this one. I heard about "Back Home" in a radio interview with the author and wanted to read it: It's about the Iraq war -- but on the homefront, not on the battelfield. The family is torn apart by the terrible injury of the father -- but they come back together again, bit by bit.

    I was moved to tears by this story. I learned a lot about brain injuries.
    It made me proud to be an American.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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