Tuesday, May 31, 2011
REVIEW: The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson
"He's just an old soldier who needs a home," one character says about another towards the end of this extraordinary novel about how one Midwestern family weathers the last third of the 20th century, and really the phrase could be used to describe just about anyone in the Erickson family, on whom the book centers. The Year We Left Home starts with the wedding of Anita, the oldest daughter, to Jeff, an outsider in this extended Scandinavian Iowa farm family. Her brother Ryan, disaffected, forms a friendship with his wayward cousin Chip, a loner newly returned from Vietnam. The chapters follow these characters and others through three generations.
There was so much about this book that I loved. Primarily it strikes me as a character-driven story and Thompson creates beautiful, fitting arcs for each of her characters. The endings aren't always happy or perfect, but she gives each character the right ending. Individual chapters read like interlinked short stories; by telling the stories of their lives from different points of view, we learn how these people think as well as how they see each other. The two characters who made the biggest impression on me were Chip, the alienated vet, and Torrie, his cousin who suffers a tragic accident that sends her in a direction no one anticipates. Thompson gives us only one chapter from Torrie's point of view then gradually fades her out until one of the two ends up creating a miracle for the other, and I ended up in tears.
But every character has his or her own moment of miracle. The Year We Left Home reminded me a little of a kind of Midwestern version of A.S. Byatt's character-driven family tapestry The Children's Book in the way that it shows richly drawn and colored people over time- the course of their lives, the way those courses are affected by larger forces and the way they interweave and affect each other. Ultimately the theme of The Year is that search for home and belonging and the different way these people grope their way towards it; the title could refer to any one of the chapters, any one of the transitions and turning points these characters take. In any case The Year We Left Home is a must-read and a beautiful, moving and rewarding example of American literary fiction.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.