Tag Archives: Chicago Tribune

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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Ripped from the Headlines?

Agents and publishers caution writers against selecting story ideas based on breaking news events. Why? As my journalism professors used to say, news is a perishable commodity. News stories have a short shelf life, especially in today’s 24/7 cable-and-internet fueled world, where the demand for fresh content is relentless. The timeline from inception to publication of a novel is generally three to five years. What’s hot news at
the moment will be long forgotten by the time a book is written and published.

Another reason not to draw inspiration from topical news events is that other writers are doing the same thing. Look at all the books published in the last five to eight years that used the 9-11 terrorist attacks either as part of the main plot, a subplot or a character’s back story. This may not be an adequate analogy because 9-11 was such a monumental event that it deserved to be explored and written about in all its dimensions, much like the Civil War and World Wars I and II continue to be the subject of books, even today. The point is, though, unless you are confident you can write the definitive, breakout book on the subject, your story will be lost among the sheer number of novels dealing in some fashion with the terrorist attacks.

I have mixed feelings about using news stories as the inspiration for novels. I understand the wisdom of staying away from major events that tend to grab writers as grist for novels. Yet, I come across news stories all the time that fascinate me and make me wonder, “what if?” I’m not
talking about a story where a writer can change a few names and circumstances and call a news story an original work. I’m talking about stories with a captivating premise a writer can use as a jumping off point for a fresh, original story.

A lot of people were riveted by the Amanda Knox story and I’m sure there’s more than one writer out there trying to figure out how to rearrange the events into a novel. That’s obvious fodder for a novel.

Recently a couple of not-so-obvious news stories intrigued me. The Boston Globe is running a series on Whitey Bulger, a notorious criminal who was recently captured after nearly two decades of hiding in California. Here was a man whom the FBI claimed was responsible for more than a dozen brutal murders, a man who allegedly ran a far-flung criminal enterprise. What’s so unique about that? you may ask. Think about it. Bulger was living a seemingly ordinary life in plain sight with his mistress in southern California, where a neighbor might have mistaken him for a kindly old gentleman.

So what’s the premise here for a novel? You could take this story in any number of directions. Here’s one: the main character is a criminal who flees from the law and over the course of time, repents, and turns his back on crime. He is guilt-ridden and wants to pay his debt to society. So he does anonymous good deeds. He builds up enormous good will. Perhaps he is a lay leader in his church. All the while, he is hiding a brutal
past. Then someone finds out about his past.

The second story that caught my eye was a Chicago Tribune piece on Steve Bartman, the poor young man who was vilified by Cubs fans when he caught a foul ball, which kept alive a rally by the Florida Marlins. The Marlins overcame a three-games-to-two deficit to defeat the luckless Cubs and eventually win the 2003 World Series. I always felt sorry for Bartman. All he did was what any fan would do: he brought a glove to a game and caught a foul ball. The Tribune tried to reach Bartman for the story. He refused to be interviewed. He kept a low profile since the
incident. He never talked about it publically. Friends said he had moved on. He had a good job and he was content. He had turned down large sums from companies who wanted him to do commercials to capitalize on his notoriety.

So how is Bartman’s story a novel? Similar to the Whitey Bulger story, here’s the premise. A young man makes an innocent mistake which is so egregious he is ostracized. He has to leave the community he loves and make a new start. He makes a good life for himself, but he is haunted by
his past. He cannot live with himself unless he returns to his hometown and redeems himself. Or perhaps he anonymously helps people in his hometown in the condition that they never reveal his identity. Again, he is found out. It’s not exactly Bartman’s story, but still a winning premise.

Neither the Whitey Bulger nor the Bartman story was a huge national story (the Bulger story was big news for about a day), but they stuck with me in a way the major headlines of the day did not. I’m not sure if either story will inspire a novel, but both are in my idea file for later reference.

It shows sometimes you can find gold nuggets at the bottom of your prospecting pan.

What news story has captivated you and sparked your interest as inspiration for a novel?

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