Booklicious: Booklicious Reviews ... The Year We Left Home

June 23, 2011



“The drive from Iowa City was 150 miles and Janine said there were 150 redwing blackbirds, one on every milepost. She was from Chicago and she had these ideas about nature, which meant that she got excited about ordinary things.”

Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster) tells the somewhat depressing tale of a Midwestern family of Norwegian descent (this isn’t important to anyone who isn’t Midwestern or a fan of Prairie Home Companion, but readers get reminded every seventh page nonetheless), following the Erickson parents, children, and cousins across the span of three decades. I suspect that the depressing part is just my own reader’s response to the book, as I come from a similar location wracked with similar ruin. The story begins in 1973 in Grenada, Iowa, with a backdrop of the farmland hardships of the latter 20th century: economic and agricultural troubles leading to bank foreclosures and farm bankruptcies; small-town retail collapse; and hints of the rural methamphetamine plague creeping in at the end. These broad, underlying strokes and unspoken details do lend it an authenticity in both plot and characters, though, and are only truly depressing if a reader knows them firsthand or looks into them further.

The mini-epic (it’s about 500 pages shorter than some similarly structured novels) follows a linear timeframe, skipping months or years to catch the protagonists at their best (or worst). In a reversal of conventional book wisdom, the story kicks off with a wedding that establishes the main three characters: Anita, eldest of three children and bride; Chip, Vietnam veteran and cousin; and Ryan, future dot-com bubble boy. Anita and Ryan have a sister, Torrie, who becomes sort of a Dickensian character (think Mr. Dick), a brother that doesn’t feature enough to remember, and a bunch of other relatives that would quickly turn into a sprawling list of stolid Midwestern names if typed out. In the end, it’s mainly Chip, Ryan, and Anita who occupy center stage, making it a sort of triple Bildungsroman; the others merely fill in little gaps, provide impetus for the main three, or discuss each other in the interludes.

Each protagonist has his or her own issues to deal with over the decades, mainly marriages and money, with some alcoholism, university scandal, and shootings mixed in for good measure. As a character-driven novel, what’s happening matters a lot less than the way it’s told, and Thompson’s characters hold up just fine. With the exception of Chip, who bumbles along somewhat unscathed, like an archetypical black sheep, the characters have their ups and downs. Interestingly enough, most of the peaks and valleys take place between the chapters. This device is cunningly employed, making the narrative read like a catching-up conversation at a family holiday, lending an unexpected extra air of authenticity to the events. It also spared me from having to read the blow-by-blow of failing relationships, which I loathe completely.

In the end, The Year We Left Home was a satisfying read, but not the type of book that I’m likely to revisit. It follows the progress of the Ericksons in a fashion reminiscent of The Corrections but without the excruciating attention to every horrible detail in the characters’ average lives. It’s a classic character-driven novel; a surefire hit for fans of the genre and a decent way to spend a couple of reading days for everyone else.


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