This story that follows the journey of one family—from the 1970s to the 2000s—is filled with haunting themes of alienation, disillusionment, and a smidgen of hope thrown in occasionally. It spotlights not only one family from a small town in Iowa, but an era.
The Erickson offspring grew from hearty Midwestern stock, with traditional values more deeply entrenched, perhaps, because of the hint of the Norwegian origins that still cling to them. Some of the family members are still farming, while others have given up and “gone into town.”
In the beginning of The Year We Left Home: A Novel, we meet several of the characters at the wedding of Anita, the family’s beautiful daughter, who is filled with hope as she marries Jeff, a banker. On the fringes, we see Ryan, still living the somewhat “hippies” lifestyle, but excited about studying political science. Others, like cousin Chip, appear damaged, with strange behaviors–a legacy of his war years in Vietnam.
Told from shifting perspectives, the unfolding years are revealed, with the changes time and circumstances have wrought. Sadness, tragedy, loss…all of these visit them: Anita, Ryan, Blake, and Torrie, along with the cousins like Chip. None of them will escape what life throws at them, and some deal better than others.
I like this paragraph at the end, as Ryan contemplates an old farmhouse belonging to an aunt and uncle, now deceased, which he has bought in order to reclaim what it stood for.
“Built to last, Ryan agreed. It filled him with holy dread to stand in this place that testified to their grinding, incessant labor. How hard they had worked, and how stubbornly, every day of their lives, for their little bit of ease, little bit of pride. They had done so much. They had meant to do so much more. Imagine them slipping off to death regretting the task unfinished, the field unplowed, the child unloved. It could break your heart. He felt an urgency in him, a clamoring. Compared to them, he wasn’t old at all. Chip stooped and picked another horseshoe out of the soft dirt and handed it to Ryan and Look, he said. You’re lucky too.”
In a sense, these two men have reclaimed their place, standing inside. Giving up life on the fringes. As I read this story, that sometimes jumped ahead several years in the telling, I could feel the spirit of the times. The details of the characters and their daily lives were haunting, yet down to earth in the manner of the Midwesterner. While the characters had “left home,” they still contained the seeds of family that ultimately defined them.
The author’s leaps and jumps in time frame sometimes left unanswered questions. Leaving some characters behind while rejoining others felt a little disjointed at times, which is why I am giving this one four stars. Still heartily recommended for students of family, tradition, and how the twentieth century marked the lives of one family in a way that echoed throughout the country.