Unlike most war novels, We Are Called To Rise is not about war. It’s neither a dark satire like Fobbit, nor a true-life tragedy like Demon Camp; it doesn’t take place in a battleground. In fact, it takes place in Las Vegas, a surreal dreamland grafted onto mundane middle America. But We Are Called to Rise, like few war novels do, gets at the core at why wars matter. Especially those we’d prefer to forget.
The ripple effects of the United States’ War on Terror make it all the way to the deserts of Nevada where, at the novel’s beginning, our main characters live: a housewife, Avis, who makes a startling discovery about her husband of several decades—and then another about her grown son; a bright-eyed, big hearted volunteer caseworker, Roberta; and a young Albanian boy, Bashkim, part of a family of refugees from another conflict in another desperate corner of the world.
When Bashkim writes to a soldier overseas, Specialist Luis Rodriguez-Reyes, as part of an elementary-school assignment, the results are anything but family-friendly. Shortly thereafter, Luis, still tormented by his experiences in Iraq, finds himself in the recovery wing of a US hospital. Corresponding with Bashkim becomes one of the few activities that keep him from giving up.
The unlikely friendship between the grunt and the civilian, the Catholic and the Muslim, the bitter man and the soft-spoken boy, could feel like something out of an after-school special. Bashkim is almost too pure-hearted: he’s a watchful kid who does his homework, takes care of both his beleaguered mother and little sister, and manages to empathize with his ill-tempered, old-world father. A few other characters are also wholesome in appealing if unlikely ways, including a foster mom straight out of Dickens’ top drawer (where he keeps his good guys).
Yet debut author Laura McBride maintains a light, even tone, drawing her readers in and guiding us through her landscape with a winning confidence. Though the subject matter becomes melodramatic—a midpoint twist, which, sure enough, is based on actual events, has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality—the storytelling never does. Her setting is likewise perfect: Las Vegas, America’s most artificial city, where hope, like water, must be piped in from elsewhere. Just as Donna Tartt did in last year’s The Goldfinch, McBride captures the desperation that flavors even humdrum lives in a place known for building fortunes for the fun of knocking them down. It makes sense that atrocities perpetrated in faraway deserts resonate in this one, which we have dressed up and civilized to such an extent that we’ve forgotten it’s fatal.
McBride succeeds in making us care: both about what’s happening overseas, where we’d rather not look, and about the random acts of kindness and injustice coexisting here at home.
We Are Called to Rise is a B&N Discover Great New Writers selection for Summer 2014. See the full collection of Discover picks here.