The Year We Left Home
- Jean Thompson
- Simon & Schuster
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Bob Gibson
- June 20, 2011
A series of loosely linked vignettes tracking the lives of a small town Iowa family, Jean Thompson’s novel The Year We Left Home also tells the story of an America coping with identity crisis and loss over the last quarter of the 20th century.
Reviewed by Bob Gibson
We first meet 17-year-old Ryan Erickson on a cold and snowy January day in 1973. He’s anxious to escape the wedding reception of his older sister, the attentions of his petulant girlfriend, and, most of all, the confines of his hometown, Grenada.
But Ryan’s sense of alienation pales when the real thing drifts into the legion hall and claps him on the shoulder. His cousin, Chip, was an introverted loser before he stumbled into service in Vietnam. He has returned from the war, now a man in an army jacket, but hollow at the core. Chip and Ryan form an awkward and inarticulate bond that tracks the course of the novel, if not quite its heart.
A bookend to Chip’s lone orbit are Norm and Martha, older relatives of Ryan’s mother. The husband and wife are members of the dour Peerson clan, salt-of-the-earth Norwegian farmers who for 100 years have toiled on Iowa land. Norm and Martha come to the reception not to revel in the party but to work, doing their family duty by setting up the hall and preparing and putting out platters of home-cooked casseroles and roasts.
Ryan is startled by two things: first, when stoic Martha allows that “you can never tell, looking at it from the outside. How miserable people can be in a marriage.” Could she be speaking of her own relationship with Norm? Then, at the end of the night, when the farm couple takes to the dance floor in a rare break from working behind the scenes, and “stepped and twirled and glided, up and down and round and round, some fast step they must have learned back when they were kids and had been practicing ever since in some secret life that included fun.”
Thompson, known for her quietly evocative explorations of the lives of everyday people, has won an ardent following and some notable literary acclaim, including selection as a 1999 finalist for the National Book Award for a volume of short stories, Who Do You Love. She is not a showy writer, but because the details she focuses on are both unusual and true, her characters reverberate with the reader long after the book has closed. In this sense, Thompson’s fiction reminds me of such realist short story writers as Kate Braverman and Ron Hansen.
The second chapter of The Year We Left Home picks up in the summer of 1975. Again we are with our presumed protagonist, Ryan, as he makes a reluctant return home from college with his girlfriend, Janine. As they near Grenada in Janine’s Chevy Nova, it is quickly apparent that not only is mini-skirted, bedangled, ethnic, urban Janine going to land like a bomb in the straight-laced Erickson home, but that she is way beyond Ryan in maturity and worldliness – and in interest to the reader.
It is sexual heat that bonds these two. Thompson describes Janine’s allure to Ryan in plain but breathtaking prose. “Her face was too round to be beautiful in any ordinary sense, just as her body was too short-waisted and low-slung. But guys always noticed her. He certainly had.”
Once in the family home, teenage brother Blake, who “blushed dull red with embarrassed lust” upon meeting Janine, advised Ryan that “Mom and Dad have, like, burglar alarms on that [guest room] door.”
But Janine is gone the next morning and the momentum of the novel stalls. Perhaps this is a risk of an episodic story that covers a lot of ground in a spare 325 pages. We go from the sizzle of Janine, to depressing glimpses of Chip in a dead-end life in Seattle, and then to (initially unsympathetic) older sister Anita in an unhappy marriage in a nameless Iowa suburb.
In fiction, as in life, we can weather adversity and bleak times, but we need some sign of hope and redemption to keep us going. Before she lets hope wink out altogether, Thompson artfully shifts our empathy from undeserving Ryan to Anita. Along the way, she tells the tale of the devastating collapse of the farm economy in the mid-1980s. The salt-of-the-earth Peersons, despite their large, willing families and flinty focus on hard work, are no match for the economic forces rolling over the land.
Those forces perversely favor the ancillary contributions of the non-farming Ericksons over the tangible productivity of their Peerson relatives. When the vagabonds Ryan and Chip end up back in Grenada in Norm and Martha’s old farmhouse, there is not a Peerson in sight, and the family land has been shorn away by corporate farms.
The most affecting passage of the novel occurs late in the story (chronologically 1997) when Ryan’s younger siblings Blake, Torrie and nephew Matt (Anita’s son) share a lunch of take-out burritos in Torrie’s main street apartment in Grenada. It is a brief intersection of the lives of three people who have never before, and will never again, be together in a moment like this, when they are completely at peace with each other and with themselves.
As a reader, all senses are engaged. We hope this moment, this serene moment, can and will last forever. But we feel our hearts breaking because we know that the best moments in life are fleeting, and that this is one of them.
Yes, I wish she had put more of the details, the “what happened” on paper. But the wonderful gift that Jean Thompson gives us is the power of imagination. Even while mourning the passing of a special moment, we readers fill in the blanks in our musings following Matt to California, Torrie to Seattle, and Blake through the lives of his children, the next generation that will someday leave home.
Bob Gibson is a fiction writer and former newspaper reporter, magazine writer and editor. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Preservation, GW Review, and The Washington Book Review.