"The Year We Left Home" by Jean Thompson (Simon & Schuster, 325 pages, $25)
The Ericksons, who form the center of Jean Thompson's terrific new novel, may not be exactly like your family, but many things about their lives are strikingly familiar. The irksome duties. The simmering discontent. The odd moments of grace. Moving up. Moving on. Comedy. Tragedy. You know, all the things that make up a life, yours, mine, everybody's.
"The Year We Left Home" is about leaving the place where all this commotion begins, but Thompson also skillfully examines the elements that drag us back to our pasts, no matter how much time has passed or how far we've traveled. Unsentimental, enlightening and quietly brilliant, the novel examines three decades in the lives of the Ericksons of Grenada, Iowa, no dirt under their fingernails but still tied to the tough, earlier generations that farmed the land (which makes them vulnerable to the looming economic disaster due to strike farm country in the 1980s). They are quintessential middle America — blond, stoic, thrifty — and Thompson deftly captures their various discomforts during times of incessant change as the 20th century winds to a close.
Two wars bracket the story set over 30 years, one in Vietnam and the other in Iraq, neither taking center stage but instead indirectly affecting the characters. Each chapter is so finely drawn it could stand as a story, though "The Year We Left Home" is best absorbed as a whole to appreciate its incisive exploration of how we become who we are and why we come home.
The book opens at a chilly winter wedding in 1973 — two weddings, actually, one with cake in the Lutheran church basement "for those of the bride's relatives who were stern about alcohol," and one at the American Legion hall with a bar for everybody else — and ends on the steps of an old family farm in 2003. A man gazes at the old barn and marveling at earlier generations who struggled (and failed) to keep the farm going. "It filled him with holy dread to stand in this place that testified to their grinding, incessant labor."
In between, we mainly get to know three of the four Erickson offspring: Son Ryan, headed for college and destined to be the most financially successful by stumbling into the tech business at the crest of the Internet wave; his older sister Anita, whose wedding kicks off the novel but doesn't necessarily bode well for her future happiness; and younger sister Torrie, rebellious and impatient to get out into the wider world.
There's another son, too, quiet, hands-on Blake. Thompson paints a blue-collar existence into his future but never provides him with a voice or a moment in the spotlight. Likewise, conservative patriarch Randy is only seen through the eyes of others and not always kindly or patiently.
But Thompson paints an indelible and poignant portrait of mother Audrey, whose job has always required her to tend to the needs of family first — husband, kids, grandkids, sick cousins. When things go wrong — and they do; the Ericksons, like most of us, do not get to sail along free of tragedy — Audrey's role is to pick up the pieces and keep going, no matter how she feels. Mothering proves as unrelenting, difficult and unpredictable as coaxing corn from a fallow field: "If you followed the string back far enough, she was no one's mother. But you could only go forward, and so she would always always always be the one who cleaned up the messes, coaxed and threatened and soothed, loved them no matter what they did except she didn't. It wasn't one of those things like breathing."
Also on the fringes of this group is cousin Chip, a boy who loved comic books and science fiction and ended up in Vietnam. "Somehow he'd managed to return from the war unshot, skinnier than ever but somehow bigger, alarming people by the way he looked and the way he acted and the knowledge that now he at least knew how to use a rifle."
That bit about the gun is indicative of the tidbits of dark humor Thompson scatters effectively throughout "The Year We Left Home," often using the wayward, roaming Chip, who can't quite stay away from trouble, as a catalyst. Thompson is a master at mining the most ridiculous of human foibles while never losing compassion for her flawed characters. Even when they stumble. Even when they weather aging and alcoholism and loneliness and disability with a distinct lack of grace.
And yet, they eventually come home, physically, spiritually or both. At least they find a weird comfort and respect in what they once rejected. At the novel's end, middle-aged Ryan, who has endured employment and marital disaster, reflects on that Iowa barn and the people who built it. "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. ... It could break your heart."
So could Thompson, who has written one of the best and most memorable books of the year.