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One of my favorite novelists is Louise Erdrich. I love the way she writes about families—with unflinching honesty, but also with empathy and sensitivity. In her novels, despair exists alongside hope, and even the most broken characters are always three-dimensional. In Jean’s Thompson new book The Year We Left Home, I’ve found the closest read-alike to Louise Erdrich, yet. My comparison is not intended to diminish the individual artistic accomplishments of either author but to try to explain the way their books make me feel. After all, so much of our reading experience involves an emotional response, which is why it’s often very difficult to explain why you liked or disliked a book.
Let me just say I loved The Year We Left Home. And while I know that my reading taste is not everyone’s reading taste, this book did make me want to tell everyone I know about it. The novel begins in January of 1973 at a quintessentially Midwestern wedding observed through the eyes of Ryan, the bride’s restless and removed brother. The book moves chronologically and geographically through the lives of the Erickson family, spanning three decades. During these tumultuous years, family members endure personal , familial, and national crises as they each try to understand the meaning of home. There are deep fault lines within the family along with some humorous and smug judgment, but the tone never moves to sarcastic. With every jab there is a stronger sense of affection and empathy.
The Year We Left Home is a series of individuals leaving and returning, navigating alienation and connection, hating that they belong and deeply wanting to belong. Like Erdrich, Thompson beautifully writes broken and lost characters. The Erickson’s cousin Chip is the perfect example. A Vietnam veteran, Chip is constantly disappearing and reappearing. Although on the periphery of the immediate Erickson family, Chip is central to the novel’s themes of community, family, and home. A wonderful secondary character, Elton, remarks to Chip “The only people who have enough of a soul to make something with a soul are the ones on the outside looking in. You can’t be at home in the world and see what you need to see about it” (306).
In addition to beautifully developed characters, Thompson’s writing is simply stunning. Her descriptions of a harsh Iowa landscape, approaching snowstorms, and abandoned farmland and houses are brilliant. Characters’ words and observations never feel forced or overly dramatic. Instead, these observations seem to touch on something universal; they cause you to think “yes, it’s that way exactly!” A sentence that I had to reread and reread again is from the perpetually running Ryan:
It was a nice moment, and he felt a kind of useless melancholy at the idea that the three of them would never again sit here in just such a moment and that no moment of life was like any other and as soon as you became of aware of them, they were as good as gone (267).
I don’t want to give too much away about the book, but the characters’ evolution as they grow apart and together is deeply moving. This one is already going on my Best of 2011 list!