Book Review: “The Year We Left Home,” By Jean Thompson

I decided to read this book based on a review in The Chicago Tribune. It attracted me because the subject matter was similar to that of my first novel, Small Change, which centered on two families in the Midwest over a period of 30 years. As it turned out, The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson was dissimilar to my book in style and tone, but was a real treat.

Thompson is an acclaimed author of several short story collections and has taught creative writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and other universities. She is a National Book Award finalist.

The Year We Left Home focuses on the Erickson family of Grenada, Iowa. It covers a lot of ground in terms of time (30 years), geography (Chicago, Iowa, Italy, Mexico, Reno and Seattle), and events, on a personal and a national scale. Thompson uses alternating points of view for each chapter to great effect, with much of the story told from the perspective of Ryan Erickson, the second oldest of four children.

The story begins in 1973 at a festive occasion, the wedding reception for the oldest daughter, Anita, who has just married Jeff, a banker from Denver. The joy of the event soon gives way to grim realities. Ryan leaves home to pursue an academic career, but his plans are derailed. Chip, his
cousin, is an addled Vietnam veteran who drifts from city to city, haunted and unsettled. Anita is trapped in a bad marriage with an alcoholic husband. Her younger sister, Torrie, is involved in a tragic accident. Their brother, Blake, stays in town, but wonders what his life might have been if he left town. Their mother, Audrey, struggles to adjust once her children leave home.

Ryan often feels like a detached observer, looking at his family from the outside. Thompson illustrates this perspective with great skill. In an early scene, Ryan is in a car getting high with Chip during a snowstorm. Ryan looks at the snow outside and observed:

“It reminded him of a snow globe, one of those pretty scenes under glass, and then he had the sad, stoned thought that he was outside of the snow globe, looking in. Just as something in him always stood apart, and he was not who people presumed he was.”

As the family members struggle with personal challenges, Thompson chronicles major trends facing the nation, from wars and farm foreclosures to recessions and the technology boom-and-bust, through the prism of the characters.

Each chapter covers a key phase of one of the family member’s life. The chapters function like short stories—each with an arc—yet each chapter flows seamlessly into the story as a whole. Thompson’s prose is simple, but packed with emotional power. Each family member leaves home, but
never leaves the family for good.

Thompson has an insightful, uncluttered writing style. Her simple prose belies the complex and conflicting emotions of the characters. The Erickson siblings, especially Ryan, are both eager to break away from their nuclear families, but find themselves pulled back by the enduring
ties.

The Year We Left Home was one of the most enjoyable and well-crafted novels I’ve read this year.

What are you reading now? How do you like it?

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