Monday, July 18, 2011

the year we left home

Poor Mr. T is at Boy Scout camp all week--his first night there they had a string of severe thunderstorms blow through. Of course he's in a tent. Of course it's the first night. Of course his mother is worried...

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we're getting ready for Mr. G's party. In the middle of a heat wave, he was hard-pressed to find a buddy who didn't want to attend a pool party (with water balloon games!).

I'm a fan of reading obituaries and came across this charming excerpt last week:
[Robert]was a hard worker who truly loved family farming and the simple pleasures that coutnry life afforded. In his free time, Robert enjoyed mowing the lawn, traveling the countryside on back roads, and stopping for a burger or ice cream cone.
I would have liked Robert. He sounds like a man living the dream. And an excellent grandfather, no?

I've got grandfathers on the brain lately. My sons are severely lacking in this category in the biological sense, but we've got some swell older gentlemen stepping up to the plate. J, the neighbor who Mr. G adores, will let Mr. G tag along in the yard and garden and talk to him about important stuff, like tips on playing ping pong and the names of different caterpillars. Our neighbor G is quick to hand popsicles to my crew and talk to them about hunting, dogs and sports. Since his grandchildren are peers of Team Testosterone, he'll cheer on Team Testosterone at flag football and baseball games, too. D is our handyman, a jolly guy who smells like Swisher Sweets. He lets Team Testosterone "help" when he's here, allows them to try out the tools, explains the finer points of construction, tosses a baseball with them when they finish. C has been my sons' spiritual mentor at church, greeting them every week with a huge smile and leading them in AWANA and holding them up in prayer. I am so thankful for surrogate grandpas.

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson begins with an older couple, surrogate grandparents, getting the American Legion hall ready for a wedding reception. From that moment we're pulled into the Erickson family and journey from 1973 to current times, watching them tear apart and rebuild through a series of tragedies, small and large. Similar to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, it's so much better. Both are about dysfunctional families, both deal with modern day issues, both provide perspective on American culture. Both draw clear pictures of life in the Midwest, capturing exactly the setting. But that's where the similarity ends.

Where Franzen goes into 30-page political diatribes, Thompson is succinct, but no less provocative.

Students coming and going, the artsy sort, with big portfolio cases and scuffed boots and funky knit hats, and they looked at him kind of strangely because after all he didn't belong here and it showed and it was funny that these kids who were all about looking peculiar and different seemed to draw the line when it came to his peculiar self.

Thompson masterfully describes Iowa, only missing two insignificant beats (one being a reference to a blacktop road, when everyone knows the farmhouses sit on gravel and dirt roads, only the main byways are paved in Iowa--picky stuff only a native would recognize). She nails the place, time, culture, mood--uses details in a stunning way.

The oak-veneer cupboards were marked with years of fingerprints, scrubbed down and reappearing again and again with the persistence of ghosts. Here were the same yellow-striped plates and cloudy-glass salt and pepper shakers, the same slant of afternoon light making the air in the room turn slow and brown. Everything here was familiar, a comfort to him, but at the same time he wondered how long he'd have to sit and endure it.

Her characters are so authentic, she digs so deep into them that they're repulsive at first and then slowly grow on the reader. The Bumbles agreed that Chip ended up a favorite, which didn't make any sense on the face of it, yet Thompson delved in and revealed for all of us a sympathetic person instead of relying on cliche (a trick Franzen didn't master as we'd previously agreed that very few of the characters in Freedom evoked our sympathies, they behaved more selfishly, had less redemption). Thompson switched the point of view around between key characters, and while we all wished for more closure for the mother's character and speculated on why one brother in the tale was left largely unexamined, we found the result very satisfying. It was interesting how one could trace back to little things, insignificant moments that resulted in defining events for a few characters. And just as in real life, a few startling coincidences made us gasp or laugh out loud.

Finally, instead of writing a sprawling 562-page saga about American life (I'm talking about Franzen's Freedom), Thompson took the entire work up a notch by employing one of my favorite structures to her novel. Each chapter reads as a stand-alone short story, but the collective work is threaded together with common characters, themes and settings. I'd love to do this with a book, I've made a feeble attempt, and let me tell you it's no easy trick. Her mastery of language AND form AND structure should leave Franzen groveling and weeping with envy at her feet. I enjoyed both, but I have to give The Year We Left Home the extra gold star.

Spill it, reader. Have you read this book? Will you?


  1. I'll have to try this book. (I couldn't even get through Freedom.)

  2. I can so relate to worrying about the kids...I still do. It doesnt' matter how old they are.

  3. It sounds like a book I would love. In a little while, after we have settled in! Thanks for the tip and the review.

  4. Now you got me interested in this book, and I find it wonderful that your sons have found surrogate granpas to share arcane wisdom about ping pong and caterpillars and to be a church mentor too.

  5. ~ what a great review! ~
    I will remember the title, it sounds like one I would enjoy.

    Did Franzen write 'The Corrections'? I thought that was interesting, but not fantastic.

  6. You know, that is a great obituary. So many times people try to make others sound like something they're not. Short, sweet, simple is always better. That obit says so much about Robert.

    I hope your son is having fun!

  7. I'm another who couldn't get into Franzen. I keep thinking I'll try again. Since I'm on a different page now of course I've forgotten the title of the new book, but it sounds good enough to see if the library has a copy.
    Thanks for the review.

  8. I did like it, but I identified (and for some reason liked the most) the older sister with the trying child. Something about that character really hit home for me.

    I had read Robert's obituary too last week (I scan them never know...) and I loved that bit about the ice cream. Made me think of my grandpa, who couldn't pass up an ice cream cone if his life depended on it. He always allowed whatever grandkids were around(and there are 36 of us...grandpa had 10 kids!)to have just one lick. :)

    I miss him as much as Robert's grandkids miss Robert.

  9. a tent..yeah, I would have been a mess! I'll have to find that book--you make it sound amazing!

  10. I'm sold! I went to a Franzen reading and he managed to insult the audience so much that his arrogance was the topic of conversation at a nearby coffee house. He was actually unbelievable -- but I loved The Corrections.

  11. I worried about my son in sixth grade camp because he was so afraid of spiders. When he returned, he told us one night he had to fall asleep with a big black spider on the wall behind his bunk! I keep reminding myself they're tougher than I think.

    The book sounds like one I'd enjoy.

  12. Sounds like a lovely book. I'll be adding it to my to-read list.

    Aren't surrogate grandparents the greatest?!

  13. My daughter has a great relationship with my mom and dad (her Oma and Opa), and I know she's going to miss them when they go (they're in their early 80's). However, they live 8 hours away, so we don't get to see them often. Luckily, she has gained two surrogate grandmothers at our church --both used to be teachers, and they show her so much love.

    The quotes you picked from the book are really lovely --I especially like the fingerprint image, and I think I'll be reading it. I wonder if I can get it on my Kindle?

  14. I will add it to my wish list. I had such a time with The Corrections. Everyone loved it. I didn't. I have not read Freedom yet. Now, with your advice, I will go this route and push the other down the line.

  15. I will know. I enjoyed Freedom, but agree that it was a bit long-winded.

  16. P.S. I read obituaries also. And my kids all survived boy scout camp. Even when it was my turn to spend the night out there.

  17. I'm always looking for a good book ~ I think I would love this one...thanks!!

  18. If there's any group of people that can handle a storm, it's the scouts. My son had severe thunderstorms at his summer camp, and he said the adults made them all get up and stand in the showers. He found that highly ironic, but it made sense to me - the showers are in an actual building.

    Yes, I think I will read this book! But I'm still waiting on the library to get the other book you recommended to me ("The Wilder Life").

  19. I haven't read that book. It sounds fantastic. And as for surrogate grandpas, I'm jealous of your boys. I miss mine.

    (And I would have liked Robert too.)


Spill it, reader.