Thursday, September 4, 2014
The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
Anyhow, I was mislead. Sort of. Imagine my crestfallen face when after reading the first two or three chapters I realized that the sweeping family saga was told entirely in interconnected short stories about the different members of an Iowa family in the waning decades of the twentieth century. Again, if this isn't your first visit to my blog, you probably know that the term "short story" does not drum up excitement and anticipation in my heart of hearts. But wait, here's the thing, and it took me a while to realize that while I was busy constantly toying with the idea of putting it down because, ew, short stories, I actually liked it. Like really liked it, because here's the thing, this book manages to create a real family through its stories of its different members and their everyday struggles while at the same time actually delivering on the other promise of the jacket copy which says the book is "a moving meditation on our continual pursuit of happiness and an incisive exploration of our national character."
Thompson does an admirable job of bringing the Erickson family of rural Iowa to life in such a way that even though the characters are often unlikable they are also sympathetic. First, there is Anita, who, while still young, got married to a banker and tried to make herself into the perfect stay at home mom without ever giving any thought as to whether that was who she wanted to be. Then, there's Ryan who spends his elder sister's wedding day thinking about how he doesn't what to fit into the mold his family has set out for him, marrying, having babies, having a "small" mid-western life. He might escape, but will he like the new him that he discovers? Younger brother Blake is living the life that Ryan dreaded, but it seems to suit him just fine. Little sister Tori, brimming with potential, becomes a target for tragedy and is bound to her childhood home where she tries the dedication of her faithful parents. On the fringes of the Erickson family is cousin Chip who came back from Vietnam damaged and addicted to drugs and lightly deviant behavior.
Thompson tells bits and pieces of their stories in chapters that focus on one character at a time until she's teased out what is essentially a microcosm of the American experience in recent history. There's the guy that came home from Vietnam with his young life turned upside down who could never seem to turn it right again. There's the woman caught on the outer fringes of an era when being the perfect stay-at-home mom and homemaker was expected. She thought she wanted to be that, but maybe it's time that she can be more. There's the guy riding the dot-com bubble to wealth, and discovering that wealth can't deliver what he really needs. These are people living hollow lives, looking for something to fulfill them. They're looking back on older generations in the glow of memory, respecting the work they did to give the current generation the resources and the privilege to go in search of themselves. They miss that sense of hard work and purpose that permeated the lives of their elderly aunt and uncle, but these people can't be satisfied by that kind of life anymore for better and for worse.
As the book wears on, it gets to feeling a little hopeless and sad, but then something changes. The characters find some of what they're looking for in their striving. They might never quite arrive, but they come to an understanding. The Year We Left Home is a slice of life book that is over before it's truly ended, but it's got one of the best last paragraphs I think I've ever read, a paragraph that starts out cryptic but then ties Thompson's whole accomplishment together with respect for the past and hope for the future. This book demands a little extra time and a little extra effort when it comes to empathizing with the characters, but it's got a lot of true things to say about our lives and times in these United States. Well worth a read.
(I bought this book for myself. And then I read it, too! No disclaimer needed, but I do think I deserve a pat on the back. LOL!)