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Book Review: Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are by Jennifer Wilson

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You wouldn’t think that the answers to some of life’s most pressing questions — what really makes us happy, how to build meaningful family connections, how to make bootleg liquor — could be found in a small Croatian town, especially if that town is in a region known for its wolf and wild boar-filled forests. But, if that village is your ancestral homeland, the promise of discovering what life was like for your great-grandparents might draw you there anyway and reveal more answers than you anticipated. Jennifer Wilson invites us to come along with her and her small family as they opt out of their typical middle American lives for a year while they live in Mrkopalj, Croatia in Running Away to Home (St. Martin’s Press, 2011).

When Wilson’s great-aunt, the last of her immigrant forebears, passes away, Wilson is left with a tin box containing a short sketch of her family’s history. Her desire to fill in the gaps paired with her love of travel sparks what would normally be seen as a crazy idea: uproot her family and move halfway around the world to the small town where her great-grandparents grew up. As she and her husband toy with the possibilities of such a trip, they realize that it is a unique opportunity to accomplish a number of goals. Not only can they learn their family history, but they will also be giving themselves the space, both physical and mental, to focus on each other and their children as a family and to redefine what their life priorities should be without the daily distractions of work, soccer practice, and the like. They decide to go for it.

While life in Croatia is not what she first envisions it to be, Wilson is humbled again and again. The open arms with which she is welcomed and the simple and honest way of life, so much slower than back home in Des Moines, has much to teach her once she opens herself up to it. And she does. By the end of her time there, she has really come to know her children as individual people, been reacquainted with her husband as the man she used to go on dates with, and found herself as a strong woman who can overcome language barriers, self-consciousness, and fears. Wilson shows us that patience, persistence, and integrity are attributes worth seeking and preserving.

Parallel to the tale of a family learning to just be together, is the detective story of finding familial roots. There are dead ends and false starts and secrets revealed. The twists and turns remind us that the search for our genealogy is done on the ground over tea (or something a bit stronger) with our elders, not alone in a room clicking through a website. Conversation is where Wilson shines and it is here that she is able to come to the most crucial realization of her foray: gratitude. Not the cheap thankfulness for all the material things back home that often comes when Americans are presented with the way the rest of the world lives, but true gratitude to her great-grandparents for having the courage to step out into the unknown to create a better life for their descendants, and to their parents for letting them go. Sincere, heartwarming, and genuine.

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