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A Country Called Home

A Country Called Home

3.4 5
by Kim Barnes

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A powerful novel of young love and rural isolation from the acclaimed author of In the Wilderness.

Thomas Deracotte is just out of medical school, and his pregnant wife, Helen, have their whole future mapped out for them in upper-crust Connecticut. But they are dreamers, and they set out to create their own farm in rural Idaho instead. The fields are in


A powerful novel of young love and rural isolation from the acclaimed author of In the Wilderness.

Thomas Deracotte is just out of medical school, and his pregnant wife, Helen, have their whole future mapped out for them in upper-crust Connecticut. But they are dreamers, and they set out to create their own farm in rural Idaho instead. The fields are in ruins when they arrive, so they hire a farmhand named Manny to help rebuild. But the sudden, frightening birth of their daughter, Elise, tests the young couple, and Manny is called upon to mend this fractured family. An extraordinary story of hope and idealism, A
Country Called Home is a testament to the power of family—the family we are born to and the family we create.

Editorial Reviews

Bruce Barcott
Because she knows the territory so intimately, A Country Called Home is filled with exquisitely etched landscapes. The novel brims with the smell of brambles and berries along an Idaho riverbank, the gritty feel of the dust in an abandoned homesteader's shack, the sounds of grouse and quail in the fields.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

A newly married couple abandon the comfort of upper-class Connecticut and stake their claim in 1960s Fife, Idaho, in Pulitzer-finalist Barnes's exquisite novel. Thomas and Helen Deracotte-he a young, poor doctor, she a stifled, monied rebel-buy an isolated farm sight unseen and arrive to find it a shambles. Upon arriving in the inhospitable wilderness, Thomas realizes that he would rather live off the land for their daily sustenance than open his own medical practice, and he hires Manny, a handsome teenage vagabond, to help around the farm. When Helen has baby girl Elise, Manny ingratiates himself further with the Deracottes and becomes a loving caretaker. But when the new mother begins to feel suffocated and overwhelmed, she returns to her rebellious ways and finds herself powerfully attracted to Manny. Their relationship has dire consequences for all involved-particularly for Helen and Elise, but nobody gets off easy. Barnes's descriptions of the rugged landscape are vivid, and the characters' sadness and desires are revealed with wrenching detail. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Barnes's second novel (after Finding Caruso) radiates compassion for characters struggling against dreadful odds. Thomas Deracotte, a physician by training, is an idealist whose single-minded vision takes him to a run-down farm in Idaho in a misguided move to live off the land. His wife, Helen, who married him in an act of rebellion against her wealthy family, is shocked by the brutal reality of life with Thomas; all he has to offer is a tent without plumbing or electricity. Even after baby Elise arrives, Helen is painfully lonely and longs for her family. Thomas delays setting up his medical practice because the townspeople still rely on the local pharmacist. His failure as both a doctor and a farmer drives him to abuse drugs he can easily obtain. Manny, the hired man, tries to keep the farm and the family together only to fall in love with Helen. Covering 17 years, Barnes's spellbinding story details personal tragedy and failed Sixties idealism but ends with the hope of a new generation. Highly recommended for all public libraries.
—Donna Bettencourt

Kirkus Reviews
Poet/memoirist Barnes' second novel (Finding Caruso, 2003) traces the impact of a young couple's impetuous decision to seek a new life in Idaho. Thomas is a scholarship student in medical school, Helen an undergraduate from a wealthy background, but both dream of a simple existence far from Connecticut. So they buy a farm sight-unseen near the tiny town of Fife and head there in September 1960. Helen is heavily pregnant, Thomas has virtually none of the skills required to rebuild the property's ruined structures, and the already fraught situation deteriorates after the birth of their daughter Elise. New mother Helen is astonished to find herself desperately lonely, missing the privileged family and lifestyle she once disdained. Thomas spends most of his time fishing, and although he loves her passionately, he can't bring himself to alter in any way the life that makes him happy and her miserable. Unsurprisingly, Helen finds herself attracted to Manny, the parentless local teen living with them and doing most of the farm work. Helen's accidental drowning when Elise is just a baby closes the novel's first half, leaving lasting wounds exposed in Part Two. Sixteen-year-old Elise is home-schooled by Manny, who does everything else around the farm as well, while her father maintains a desultory medical practice and a carefully controlled addiction to Dilaudid. Elise falls in with a preacher's son, becomes immersed in a hysterical, punitive form of fundamentalism, and winds up in a mental institution after starving herself and trying to scratch out her sinful eyes. Barnes's beautiful prose and tender characterizations, particularly of the Fife residents who succor the desolate protagonists, areincreasingly swamped by lurid, plausibility-straining plot developments. We get the point: Everyone here is bereft in some way, longing for love and seeking to fill the void with various, mostly damaging substitutes. By the time another baby is born under dangerous circumstances in the woods, many readers will be exasperated by the too-neat parallels and overly literary insights. Resonant with themes of longing and loss, but too self-conscious for its own good. Agent: Sally Wofford-Girand/Brick House Literary Agents
From the Publisher
A Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
An Oregonian Top Ten Northwest Book of the Year

“Gorgeously written . . . lush and memorable. . . . A Country Called Home contains whispers of its literary ancestors but issues its own rich-throated cry into the wilderness.” –Kansas City Star

“In the literature of the American frontier, few setups are as fertile and reliable as the Easterner come West. . . . Because [Barnes] knows the territory so intimately, A Country Called Home is filled with exquisitely etched landscapes. The novel brims with the smell of brambles and berries along an Idaho riverbank, the gritty feel of the dust in an abandoned homesteader’s shack, the sounds of grouse and quail in the fields.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Casts light on the yearning, restless human heart. . . . Powerful.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“In the tradition of the great Western writer Willa Cather, Kim Barnes has written a novel as deeply rooted in the soil of her native Idaho.”–The Oregonian

“Quietly haunting…. [Barnes’s] descriptions of the rugged landscape quiver with stark beauty, wisdom and redemptive grace, much as her characters do.” –The Washington Post

“The idealistic dreams and careless attitudes of the 1960s echo through this powerful novel…. Barnes captures Northwest country with a poet’s eye.” –Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Brilliant. . . . One of three epigraphs, from master writer John Gardner, reads ‘The fall from grace is endless.’ And so it is with Manny, Thomas, Helen and Elise, who are always and slowly losing the battle not just with nature, but with themselves.” –St. Louis Post Dispatch

A Country Called Home, like many Western works of its kind, is a story of perseverance. Barnes’s characters, all carrying their own secret pain, barely keep their heads above the waters that rage around them, literally and figuratively. . . . An elegy of sorts, to the power of the natural world, the lives it so indifferently claims and the grace with which those affected respond to its blows.” –The Oregonian
A Country Called Home is poetically written. The vivid descriptions of the land paint a romantic portrait of the wilderness, where the couple dream they’ll find their ideal life but soon discover that nothing comes easy.” –Las Vegas Review-Journal

“Barnes’s prose is lovely, often incantatory, as she weaves the story of the troubled Deracotte family.” –New West

“At the heart of this disturbing novel set in the Idaho wilderness is the desperate hunger of its characters to escape ennui and emptiness–in short, to find love. . . . Written in beautiful poetic prose, A Country Called Home is highly recommended.” –The Tennessean

“The country through which Kim Barnes characters’ travel in this novel of spiritual and emotional searching is a landscape eroded by grief and yearning and ultimately shame for our dissolution from our gods.  I finished reading A Country Called Home some time ago and still cannot quite move on from the experience.” –Mark Spragg, author of An Unfinished Life

A Country Called Home feels like a classic. . . . An engrossing, sometimes heartbreaking read with a leavening of hopefulness, Kim Barnes’s new novel is not to be missed.” –Bookreporter

“Kim Barnes’s new novel is an exquisitely complex story, by turns pointed and poignant, about everything that matters: family, loyalty, religion, memory, love. With a master's skill Barnes paints a world tinged with loss, adeptly depicting sentiments left unspoken, relationships stunted by the hard winds of grief and guilt, and singular moments full to brimming with natural beauty and grace.”  –Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

“Barnes’s use of language is stunning, making you want to reread paragraphs out loud to someone else so they can enjoy it with you.” –Sacramento Book Review

A Country Called Home is a weave of human longings, accurate in its rendering of the ways they accumulate. . . . Give it a while, watch it come to life, and you’ll find yourself rationing the pages, wishing it was longer.” –William Kittredge, author of The Willow Field

“A seductive book of love and obsession. . . . Some books are easily put down, but the best of them, like A Country Called Home, won’t let go of you.” –Claire Davis, author of Winter Range

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 10.94(h) x 1.05(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Country Called Home

By Kim Barnes
Copyright © 2008

Kim Barnes
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307268952

Chapter One


The druggist waited, whistling, looking out the window, nodding to each person who passed along the Main Street of Fife. It was early, the bank not yet open. The warming September wind wafted through the door seams. On the north hill, he could see the sun just hitting the flat metal roof of the Clearwater Mental Hospital and, across the shared parking lot, the high school. Dr. K often joked that the children of Fife could look out their windows and see their future before them.

“How much?” Manny asked again. The boy was tall enough to meet the older man eye to eye, but he kept his gaze on the faded counter as though some miracle might transpire there.

“Same as last time.”

The cola sat between them, dripping condensation. Manny laid out three pennies, pretended to search for more.

“Don’t got it, do you?” The druggist was not an unfriendly man but brusque and burly, built more like a butcher than a purveyor of medicine. Dr. K, the locals called him, his full name, Kalinosky, too much to mess with. His role in the town went beyond the filling of prescriptions and the dispensing of antiseptics: he diagnosed strep throat, checked children for lice, scoured the wounds caused by pitched rocks, chain saw slips, bicycle wrecks.

“No, sir.” Manny freed his hands, let them drop to his sides. Hepeered at his shoes, the seams stretched and frayed.

Dr. K sighed, shook his head, pointed toward the door. “Broom’s just outside. Make yourself useful for an hour.”

Like others in Fife, Dr. K knew the details of Manny’s life: his parents’ move from California to the isolated Idaho land they believed a more honest place; the strange little canvas hut that inspired the town’s curiosity and contempt. His father’s insistence on learning the dying art of horse-logging from an old man who stank of sweat and juniper berries. Manny’s birth just a few miles up Itsy Creek, and the death of his mother twelve years later when his little sister, born already dead, was followed by the blood they could not stop flowing. The father, once admired for his native ingenuity and his matched team of Percheron geldings, had headed south to find work and never came back. The good women of Fife had proceeded with a kind of communal adoption, passing the responsibility for Manny’s care from one to the other, each week a different mother, father, cast of siblings, and then the cycle repeating. Dr. K remembered the morning he’d opened the drugstore to find Mrs. Keasling wringing her hands, repeating again and again that der boy, der boy was missing. Dr. K had found Manny where he thought he would, asleep in the fair barn, his father’s auctioned draft horses snuffling his hair, placing their great hooves gently beside him.

Manny stepped outside with the broom, scattering the cats that had gathered for their morning meal. Too many toms, Dr. K thought. Too many litters, but he couldn’t turn away a single one of them. He watched as Manny worked the windows clean of cobwebs, pleased with the care he took with the corners. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, he’d grown into a fine young man: tall and strong-shouldered, more handsome than he needed to be. Thick dark hair, dark eyes, skin like an Italian, Dr. K thought. He looked like he might be broody, but wasn’t. When Manny ran the broom a final time along each crack of the sidewalk and knocked the bristles clean before stepping back into the store, Dr. K opened the cash register and pulled out a dollar bill.

“Here. Buy yourself some real food.” Dr. K slipped the pencil behind his ear, wiped a hand the length of his face. “Listen. You need to get out there and do something. Ray Coon’s logging outfit might need a swamper. Or what about the railroad? Didn’t I hear that they were hiring?”

Manny shrugged. “Guess I’m okay.”

“Okay? What’s that mean? There’s just no reason for you to be living like a hobo. It’s one thing when you’re a boy to be spending your days piddling around at the river, but you’re about past that now. Pretty soon, if you’re not doing nothing, you’ll be good for nothing.”

Manny nodded, agreeable as always. “You got more work you’d like me to do?”

Dr. K sat down on the high stool he kept for resting his feet. “Another few months, I might use you for delivery. Bad weather sets in, business picks up. Which reminds me—how many jars of VapoRub you see on the shelf?”

Manny counted three, one large, two small. The druggist grunted, made a note on a piece of paper. “Better order more. Those Carter kids eat that stuff. Mother thinks it does them more good from the inside.”

Dr. K was tallying his laxative inventory when a man stepped in. Dress shirt and shoes, pants still holding a crease. Sharp nose and chin. Hair just past a good cut. Outside, a faded red Volkswagen sat at the curb, a young woman in the passenger seat, holding her hair away from her neck, fanning herself with a map.

Dr. K moved to rest his meaty palms on the counter. “Yes, sir. What can I help you with?”

“I’m looking for Bag Balm.” The man’s voice had a strange cadence.

“Bag Balm we got.” Dr. K pointed around Manny. “Grab that green tin, Manny. Large size?”

The man nodded his head and pulled a money clip from his pocket.

Not many people came in who weren’t known by the pharmacist in some intimate way. He’d sold the boys their first condoms, seen most of the town’s women through menstruation, childbirth, and menopause. He prescribed headache cures and hangover remedies, administered narcotics to the suffering and sedation to those stricken by grief. If this new man had settled himself within the county, Dr. K would soon make him familiar; if he were only passing through, Dr. K would extract some anecdote to amuse or enlighten the next customer who came in.

Dr. K extended a thick hand. “Burt Kalinosky.”

“Thomas Deracotte.” The stranger shook quickly. He seemed less nervous than efficient. Knew his business and wanted to get on with it.

“Just traveling through, then?”

“We’re here from New Haven. Connecticut. My wife and I have purchased the Bateman place.”

“Sure, I know the place. Knew Olie, too.” Dr. K dealt out the man’s change and followed him to the door. “Bateman place, huh? Last I heard, it’d gotten pretty lean.”

The man took a moment to examine his shoes, looked out the window to Main Street before turning his attention back to the pharmacist. “You might let people know that we’ll be looking for a few laborers. We’ll be able to offer room and board, once our buildings are complete.”

“Well, then,” Dr. K said, “you should meet this young man. He could use some work.”

“How old is he?”

“Manny? Hell, I’m not sure exactly. How old are you, Manny?”

Manny cleared his throat. “Near eighteen.”

“He’s got a good head on him. Only fault that I can see is that he’d rather fish than break a sweat. That and read books.”

Deracotte’s face relaxed. His eyes were stone gray, the color of river rock. “What are you reading these days?”

The boy flushed with the sudden attention. “Great Gatsby, sir.”

Deracotte gave a slight nod of approval. “Are you a fan of Fitzgerald?”

“Guess I’m not sure yet.”

The man smiled. “How about Monday morning to start? Do you have transportation?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you know the place?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. I’ll see you then.”

Dr. K watched through the window as Deracotte ducked into the little car and said something to the woman, who nodded and laughed.

“You better be grateful. I might decide I want that job myself.” He walked to the cash register, began counting change into the till.

“Bet he’s that doctor we heard might be coming,” Manny said.

Dr. K stopped counting his money long enough to gaze toward the door, process the possibility. “You think?”

“I do.”

The druggist stacked the quarters, then the dimes, scratched numbers on the back of a receipt. “Wonder what that would mean.” He touched the nickels, looked up at Manny blankly. “I can’t remember how many goddamn five-cent pieces there are in a dollar.”

“Twenty,” Manny said.

“Yeah,” Dr. K said. “Twenty.” He let them drop back into the till one at a time. “Guess a doctor might mean more business. More prescriptions to fill.”

“That’s true.”

“Injured wouldn’t have to travel so far.”

“You’ve always been good to come to.”

Dr. K let his fingers rest in the drawer. “I think I saved your life once.”

“You did. When I swallowed all the baby aspirin.”

“Yeah, that’s it.” The druggist’s eyes focused, took on more light. “You’d crawled up on the counter, got into Lily Wendle’s medicine cabinet. Whole bottle. Ate them like candy.”

“I remember you holding my head over the sink.”

“Made you drink raw eggs and vinegar.” The pharmacist snorted. “Nothing stayed down. Taught you a lesson, too.” He rolled the bank bag snug. “Think you can work for that man?”

“Guess I might see.” Manny pulled his pants higher. “Think I’ll be going.”

Dr. K nodded and turned to his shelves of pills and syrups. “Thought that rickety-ass salesman was supposed to drag in here today. I’m about out of thyroid.”

He waited for the door to open and close before sitting back down on his stool and pulling out the pack of cigarettes he carried in his breast pocket. The smoke would help take his mind off of the truth laid out before him: a month’s worth of bills and not enough money to pay.

He tapped the ash of his cigarette and considered the man who’d come in for Bag Balm. Myrta, the city clerk, had chippered away at anyone who would listen about the call she’d gotten from some man wanting to know about farm property for sale. “Sight unseen,” she said. “Didn’t even care to look at the place.” Buying without first walking the lay, weighing the dirt in your hand, seeing with your own eyes the well and tasting the water—beyond comprehension to anyone who made his living off the land. Dr. K couldn’t imagine what a physician might want with the Bateman place, but sometimes these people coming in from outside had funny ideas, had to find out things for themselves. With enough money and a little luck, you could make about anything work.

He lifted the bank bag and weighed it in his hand. If the new doctor took away more than he gave, the store would be in trouble. It might have been enough for his father, who had tended the sick with even less and still made something of himself, but lately Dr. K had been thinking less about his father’s life and death and more about his widowed mother, who had moved to Kansas for reasons she couldn’t explain, except that in all the years she’d lived in the river canyon she hadn’t witnessed her share of sky. She was a ninety-year-old woman living two thousand miles away when she’d called him to say that her head hurt. The neighbor found her the next morning, dead of a massive stroke. Maybe he could have saved her, given her a few more years of life, had she stayed near. An aspirin, or a shot of whiskey at bedtime—sometimes it takes so little. What was left in Fife to keep him was little more than his name on the glass and the need he felt to mend and minister to the townsfolk he’d known all his life.

He began to whistle to fill the silence. A few more hours and he could make his way up the stairs to his apartment and turn on the stereo. Maybe he’d choose Verdi, or maybe Puccini. Madame Butterfly. How many times had he listened to the death song of Cio-Cio-San and cried as though it were a new sadness just visited upon him? He’d have some whiskey, and then some dinner. Maybe some of the venison Lyle McNutt had traded for his wife’s medicine. The druggist figured he’d eaten his own weight in deer roasts and sausage over the course of the year it had taken Tally McNutt to die. But it was good and tender and an easy trade for the drugs that erased some part of the woman’s pain.

He’d have offered to feed Manny but the boy had always been shy of charity. Dr. K halfway envied such a life, unencumbered by anything more than the simplest of needs. Maybe working for Deracotte would change all that. A little money always begged for more. He hoped Manny would stop in, let him know how the job was going. Bring him a little news. Want another soda and stay long enough to drink it down.

“You’re a lonely sack of shit,” he said aloud and nodded because there was no arguing with someone as stubborn as he was.


Excerpted from A Country Called Home by Kim Barnes
Copyright © 2008 by Kim Barnes. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kim Barnes is the author of the novel Finding Caruso and two memoirs, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country—a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize—and Hungry for the World. She is coeditor with Mary Clearman Blew of Circle of Women: An Anthology of Contemporary Western Women Writers, and with Claire Davis of Kiss Tomorrow Hello: Notes from the Midlife Underground by Twenty-Five Women Over Forty. Her essays, stories, and poems have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, MORE magazine, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She teaches writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.

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Country Called Home 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In Connecticut scholarship medical student Thomas Deracotte met, dated, and married wealthy Helen over the objections of her upper crust parents her father being third generation Yale especially detested this scholarship student. Soon after they exchange I do, the couple in 1960 moves to a farm in Fife, Idaho where he is to open up a medical practice the current local health care comes from a pharmacist. --- Shockingly, Thomas delays starting his practice as he would rather work the land Helen quickly misses her family and her New England upper class lifestyle as farm living is not the place for her. She becomes pregnant while Thomas hires teen Manny to work on the farm. Helen gives birth to Elise, but she soon wants freedom from her intolerant spouse and is lonely from the hours of nothing but motherhood while her husband turns to drugs to alleviate his feelings of failure as a physician, as a farmer, as a husband, and as a father. She considers Manny for a fling and he is falling in love with her. However after a tragedy changes the family dynamics, Manny is more a dad to Elise while her biological father is deeper into drugs. --- This is a dark family drama that looks closely at the 1960s and 1970s when youthful idealism turned to cynicism and disappointment yet with Elise there is guarded hope for the future. None of the four lead characters escape the bleakness, which in some ways becomes overbearing when one traumatic event is followed by another and another until suddenly Elsie is a teenager. Still in spite of the overwhelming sense of negativity, Kim Barnes provides a poignant look at idealism without pragmatism. --- Harriet Klausner
Queponco More than 1 year ago
When the two main characters, a newly minted physician and his bride, leave Connecticut for Idaho in 1960, all seems hopeful. The physician delays opening his practice, however, because her prefers to fish and hang around the hardscrabble ranch he bought. When a baby is stillborn, he becomes distant from his wife. One doesn't expect a young doctor to grudgingly begin his professional work and one doesn't expect a young husband to emotionally remove himself from his newlywed even after losing a child at birth. Shortly before the still birth, this couple was madly in love! The author does not explain or show the reader why her doctor acts in these ways. He experiences even greater tragedy, and this tragedy triggers a response still more morose. The author seems to suggest that his losses explain his behavior, but they do not. Many people who endure great losses get over them and carry on. The doctor's decline lacks dramatic power because it is not explained. This is the main fault of the novel. A number of pages show closely observed writing. The opening, in particular, promises a poetically imagined world. Some of the writing, however, meanders into pointless observations of ketchup splatting out of a bottle and other details that leach authority from the tale. At times, the novel reads like teen lit, as when a character spends time in an institution. The book is set in 1960 and 1976, but the writer fails to evoke these eras or use them as atmosphere for her story. Perhaps the 1960 setting is meant to suggest isolation of the young wife, those being the days before full emancipation of women. It's hard to tell. These shortcomings detract from a full enjoyment of the story. I liked the druggist best. Some of the wry dialogue he is accorded has the wise, laconic ring of a tired old man in a small town. I cared about the characters too, even when their thoughts and actions seemed improbable. A story does not have to make sense. But to be successful, it should convince the reader that it could have happened. The author asks for more faith from her readers to believe that people, young, in love, and in good health, will act self-destructively, than I was able to muster.
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