The title of Margaret Vandenburg’s new novel The Home Front (The Permanent Press) refers not only to the state-side virtual military activities of Air Force Major Todd Barron, who oversees drone strikes against Afghan targets from his home base in Las Vegas, but also to the battle going on in his own house over his 4-year-old autistic son, Max.
Vandenburg links these two unlikely subjects effectively, sustaining interest in whether Todd will redeploy to Iraq in order to escape the tensions at home with his wife Rose. She, out of desperation, secretly pays for New Age guidance that encourages her to see her troubled son as gifted and prophetic. Todd also misses the action of flying actual combat missions, especially because he sees how joystick warfare might desensitize young recruits into seeing drone attacks as a video game. He’s conflicted, frustrated, locked out from his son and wife, while an older daughter drifts on her own. A graduate student who works with Max tries to stay out of the family fights while attempting to administer professional and compassionate therapy, but the strains between Todd and Rose mount, and Max becomes regressive.
Both drones and autistic children stare “without seeing, recording unlimited amounts of unfiltered information, none of which they understood,” Vandenburg analogizes. The conceit of linking drones and autism could easily have degenerated into a sentimental daytime soap or simply strain credulity, but such are Vandenburg’s writing skills and knowledge about both autism and drone warfare that the comparison works and the story yields understanding of these two timely and significant aspects of contemporary life.