“The Year We Left Home” by Jean Thompson, An Iowa Family through 30 Years

“The Year We Left Home” by Jean Thompson (2011) – 323 pages

I have admired Jean Thompson’s short stories for a long time. She is a strong voice from the Midwest who can bring out the drama in plain ordinary small town people. “The Year We Left Home” is a novel of inter-connected realistic stories which follow members of the Erickson family from Granada, Iowa through thirty years. The four main characters are son Ryan whom we first meet in high school, daughter Anita whom we first meet getting married, daughter Torrie who is only ten when we meet her, and their Vietnam vet cousin Chip who is five years older than Ryan.

This is the kind of book that causes you to think of your own extended family, all those brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, nephews, nieces and so on. When you’re talking twenty or thirty people in an extended family, you’re going to get all kinds even if you’re all related. That is what the Erickson family is like. None of them are exceptionally successful.  There are a couple of hard workers who stayed close to home, there are the ne’er-do-wells, there are the drunk and the wife who must contend with him,  there are the college boys who moved away, there’s the victim of an unfortunate childhood disease or accident.

Most of the stories in ‘The Year We Left Home’ start with a fairly normal event such as a wedding, a visit home from college, or a trip to Italy, and as the story progresses, there is some dramatic development that occurs. The drama increases until it reaches its highest point, and then the story abruptly ends. This is an effective technique for holding the reader’s interest . Jean Thompson knows her way around a story.

The Erickson family members may travel all over the country and even to Italy in Europe, but they always come back to the center which is the old home in Granada, Iowa.

Some of the reviews of this novel see this as Jean Thompson’s breakout book, the book which will finally bring renown to this much under-rated author. My main cavil about this novel of stories is that it is almost too realistic. . It’s like the stories you hear about your distant relatives, most of which are sad; otherwise you wouldn’t be hearing anything at all about these people. When you do go to a family reunion, some of the people at your family reunion are quite difficult to talk to, because their lives are so different from yours. A couple of times a year, it might be nice to see all these relatives, to talk to them a little, and so on, but that’s about it. I’m not a member of Facebook and don’t want to be inundated with thousands of pictures of shoestring relatives, but that’s just me.  For the great majority of people who like Facebook, these stories will be fine.

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