In The Year We Left Home, Jean Thompson takes us on a three decade journey through the lives of the Ericksons, a farming family in Grenada, Iowa. Beginning at the tail end of the Vietnam war, the story skips through years that are signposts marking significant episodes in the finely drawn characters’ world. The aftermath of war and failing economics takes its toll on this family. Still they manage to get by.
Audrey is the matriarch, a woman who believes in family above all. She is reluctant to keep up with the changes the passing of the years brings and holds fast to her old-fashioned values. This refusal to change with the times does not always serve her well.
Then there is Anita, the eldest of four siblings, whose conventionality, along with Audrey’s, irks Ryan, the youngest of the clan, causing him to rebel in his own way. He takes up with free-spirited Janine and, when they split, heads for the wilds of Chicago to teach. Cousin Chip, the burned-out Vietnam vet, finds settling down next to impossible. The one relationship he manages to half-way foster predictably ends with a break. But down the road something positive and unexpected comes from that liaison.
One thing Thompson is not reluctant to offer is hope, which is beautifully illustrated in Torrie’s story. She is the Ericksons’ youngest daughter, a lively yet troubled soul who finds solace in Bob Dylan records and shows signs of a burgeoning eating disorder. When tragedy strikes her, it is unexpected and seems like the end of the road. But Thompson has a genius for turning things around, and Torrie’s piece of this family saga is the most heartbreaking yet uplifting story in the book.
Jean Thompson’s talent for economy serves the novel well; thirty years of the Erickson’s lives fit neatly into the three hundred plus pages. The prose is simple yet elegant and Thompson has a gift for conveying a world of detail and emotion in sentences, not paragraphs. For a book filled with an abundance of characters, this is a plus.
The Year We Left Home is a fine read that, in the end, might make you consider how quickly life passes and the changes we all go through along the way.