Usually, if a novel opens with a mention of lutefisk, you can guarantee it was written by Garrison Keillor. But National Book Award finalist Jean Thompson proves that Norwegian farmers can be used for more than gentle satire in her powerful new novel, The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster, 325 pp.).
Spanning from the Vietnam era to the war in Iraq, the novel follows the four Erickson children as they try to find their footing in a world far more uncertain than the small Iowa town they left. In Grenada, certain values were bedrock, and if life wasn't exactly fun, at least people knew what was expected of them. As Thompson writes of their aunt and uncle Peerson: “They believed in backbreaking labor, followed by more labor, and in privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity. If you wanted a tree taken down or a truck winched out of a ditch or a quarter of a cow packed for your meat locker, you called a Peerson. If you wanted lighthearted company, you called someone else.”
Oldest sister Anita did everything she was supposed to: married her sweetheart, had kids, and struggled to figure out why she was so unhappy. Older brother Ryan set out for college, but his plans to become a professor get derailed. Their cousin Chip comes back from Vietnam haunted and unable to stay put, traveling from Seattle to Mexico. Ray becomes a contractor, while baby Torrie longs to be taken seriously. “She hated it when people said, When you're older, blah blah blah. It was like a present held up just out of your reach, one you probably didn't want anyway.”
Thompson jumps between half a dozen characters over the course of 30 years, as they grapple with everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to information technology to anorexia, adultery, and alcoholism. (The banking crisis that wipes many small farms off the map in the 1980s, enveloping the people of Grenada, has a certain resonance.)
If, as Anita claims, “there are no grown-ups in this family,” Thompson juxtaposes their ambivalence with the sureness of the place they left behind: “If there were ghosts here, they were uncomplaining ones, sifting through the sunbeams like the dust, like time itself.”