Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home follows members of the Erickson family for 30 years, from 1973 to 2003. Their lives reflect societal upheavals--feminism, wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the farm crisis of the 1980s--as well as personal struggles. The story unfolds in a series of what are almost vignettes, each focusing primarily on one family member; the vignettes jump ahead in time irregularly--some chapters take place only a month after the events of the previous chapter, some as much as three years later.

Among the book's multiple narrators, Ryan Erickson feels like the central character. This may be because he is the narrator of the first chapter, which takes place at his sister Anita's wedding, or because he is the character who seems to most fully leave his hometown and thus serves as a foil for the family members who stay in small-town Iowa. Ryan is eager to get away from that milieu, and he does so, going to college and then settling down in Chicago, where he eventually achieves financial success in the high-tech world. His personal life is more problematic, and his separation from his Iowa roots is incomplete, as he invests in various properties in his home town in ways that seem designed to rescue family members in trouble.

Older sister Anita is the beautiful girl who always dreamed of being married. But she finds motherhood challenging, and her husband is a bit of a lout--a banker with a drinking problem. While she breaks out of the housewife mold, that break is as incomplete as Ryan's with his hometown.

The youngest sibling, Torrie, has one of the most interesting stories in the book. When her older siblings have all left home and she feels herself to be a victim of her over-involved mother, Torrie mounts some minor rebellions, one of which has disastrous effects. Yet Torrie is able to rise above her circumstances and achieves the most thorough intellectual break from her childhood (not without some irony, however).

Blake is the sibling who plays the smallest part in the story, overshadowed by cousin Ray (known to the family as Chip). Ray was an outsider as a child, joined the military to become "a man," and spends his years after Vietnam floating from place to place, engaging with a variety of shady people and activities.

The book's multiple narrators allow Thompson to explore a variety of social concerns, and the irregular way in which the story lurches forward reinforces the notion that change was occurring in a similarly irregular yet inexorable fashion. The downside of this structure is that the "plot" does not develop in a traditional sense: I was not surprised to learn that Thompson is known as a short story writer, as the book resembles a series of linked short stories. As a transplanted Midwesterner who was, like Ryan, a political science major who took some abuse for that choice and, like Anita, got married in 1973, much in the story resonated for me. Occasionally snarkiness about the Midwest and Midwesterners did manage to annoy me (it's okay for me to be snarky about the region but not novelists), but Thompson's empathy for her characters overrides that bias. While not a great novel, The Year We Left Home is a rewarding read.

Favorite passage:
It filled him with holy dread to stand in this place that testified to their grinding, incessant labor. How hard they had worked, and how stubbornly, every day of their lives, for their little bit of ease, little bit of pride. They had done so much. They had meant to do so much more. Imagine them slipping off to death regretting the task unfinished, the field unplowed, the child unloved. It could break your heart.

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