Jean Thompson
Credit: Marion Ettinger

The Year We Left Home

The Ericksons are an ordinary family, unhappy in their own unique, Tolstoy-pleasing way. Rural Iowans sprung from generations of oxen-strong Norwegian stock bred on ”privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity,” the clan at the center of Jean Thompson’s spare, startlingly resonant new novel remain inextricably linked to the place that made them, even as they reach for lives richer in both geography and purpose.

The Year We Left Home leapfrogs across nearly four decades, following the Erickson offspring — along with their skittering oddball of a cousin Chip — from 1973 to nearly present day: high school beauty?turned?disillusioned housewife Anita; restlessly ambitious Ryan; and willful baby of the family Torrie, daily plotting her escape to Berkeley or Bryn Mawr. (A fourth sibling, laconic firstborn Blake, hovers on the perimeter until the final pages.)

When the novel begins, the Vietnam War is just limping to a close and an economic crisis looms. Family farms across Iowa are foreclosed on and swallowed up by starch-collared men like Anita’s banker husband, while Ryan is a world away in Chicago, learning to shed his small-town skin and dating dangerously un-Lutheran girls with jangling ankle bracelets, and Chip pinballs from city to city, ”a puppet on busted strings.”

It’s Torrie, in the end, with her swinging ponytail, scratchy Bob Dylan records, and strident self-discipline, to whom fate (or, more accurately, Thompson’s hand in guiding it) is the least kind — though ultimately, perhaps, most forgiving. But even minor characters receive the full attention of the author’s prodigious talents; each one is drawn so vividly that they never feel less than utterly real. To say too much more would ruin the slow, lovely unfurling of Home, a string of largely unremarkable moments told with extraordinary grace. A?

The Year We Left Home
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