Friday, September 30, 2011

Leaving Home

Are novels which begin with a wedding more common than I realized? Jonathan Dee's “The Privileges” began that way, and Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home opens in 1973 with the wedding of Anita Erickson in Grenada, Iowa. The device provides a great way to introduce the Erickson family – the simple hardworking parents, their four children, and their Viet Nam vet cousin Chip.

The books spans thirty years. Each chapter jumps forward in time and catches us up on the lives of some of the characters. Often a chapter reads like a short story – a fully developed episode in its own right. But this is definitely not a case where an author has simply sewn short stories together. Each episode expands and enriches our understanding of the characters and of the forces that pull the family members together and push them part. I especially enjoyed the arc Thompson created for youngest son Ryan as he moves from an earnest political science major to a disillusioned grad student to a successful IT professional and disappointed husband and father. Thompson sometimes weaves Ryan's story with that of his damaged and confused cousin Chip, deftly contrasting their two paths through thirty years of history.

Even when a storyline seems headed down a predictable path, as when rebellious younger daughter Torrie is severely injured in an accident, Thompson turns the narrative in a fresh, unexpected direction. Throughout the book some characters spin far from Iowa, others stay close, but the pull towards home is strong, and Thompson paints an honest, sometimes funny, often poignant portrait of an American family.

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