The Year We Left Home, Jean Thompson, Simon & Schuster, 2011, 325 pp
In this moving novel, Jean Thompson follows a small-town Iowan family through thirty years of changes beginning in 1973. Those are the years when the insulated, land-bound Midwest was invaded by every social and economic upheaval and became once and for all, for better or for worse, integrated into American life.
The Erickson family came from a long line of hardworking stoic Norwegian farmers, but the most recent generation is having nothing to do with all that. The blows to patriotism brought about by Vietnam, the economic devastation of the farm crisis, drugs, feminism, and marketing have driven wedges into the family unit.
I have not been a fan of novels composed of connected short stories but Jean Thompson mastered the form. Each chapter ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging from the proverbial literary cliff, the next chapter begins at an unspecified later time, yet she made it all meld into satisfying character development and exciting plot twists. Finally in a sadder but wiser tone, she ties up all loose ends.
A large part of my extended family are Midwestern people, descended from immigrant farmers. They are of sturdy stock, strong on religion, family, morality, and thrift. The women could usually stand up to anything, unless they broke down early. Most problems were solved by food, I suppose because for farmers food was forever available even when money was scarce. The men worked until they dropped unless they were sickly. God was always on their side though He worked in mysterious ways.
I have first hand experience of the bewilderment such people suffered in the face of kids who would rather get high, young women who would rather get a job than stay at home, all of us who followed rock bands, food fads, Eastern religions, and free love. The Year We Left Home captures these changes with just the right tone.
The Ericksons' story is sad, even tragic at times, but not hopeless. It is filled with sharp-eyed humor but is not ironic. I read it in one day. I loved it.
(The Year We Left Home is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)