Carry Me Home: A Novel

Carry Me Home: A Novel

by Sandra Kring

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The love of family. The heartbreak of war. The triumph of coming home.

1940. Rural Wisconsin. Sixteen-year-old Earl “Earwig” Gunderman is not like other boys his age. Fiercely protected by his older brother, Earwig sees his town and the world around him through the prism of his own unique understanding. He sees his mother’s sadness and his father’s growing solitude. He sees his brother, Jimmy, falling in love with the most beautiful girl in town. And while Earwig is unable to make change for customers at his family’s store, he is singularly well suited to understand what other people in his town cannot: that life as they know it is about to change; the coming war will touch them all.

For Jimmy will enlist in the military. And Earwig will watch his parents’ marriage buckle under the strain of a family secret. And when Jimmy returns–a fractured shadow of his former self–it is Earwig’s turn to care for him. His struggles to right the wrongs visited upon his revered older brother by war, women, and life are at once heartwarming and riotously funny. Their family and town irrevocably altered, Earwig and Jimmy fight to find their own places in a world changed forever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780440335245
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/28/2004
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 278,829
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Sandra Kring lives in the north woods of Wisconsin. She has run support groups and workshops for adult survivors of trauma. Carry Me Home is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Jimmy stands out by the oak tree next to the garage. He's turning in circles, all skittery-like. From my bedroom window I see the orange dot from his cigarette making streaks as he turns. I know if I don't hurry and get down there, he's gonna say piss on me, and leave. I walk real careful and put my ear against my door and it's cold. The door, not my ear. And I listen real good for Ma, but I don't hear nothing but for that loud whooshing you get in your ears when you're scared of getting caught climbing out your window.

I go back to the window—the one I opened while the house was still all noisy with Glenn Miller, 'cause simpleminded or not, I ain't exactly a fool—and I climb out real quiet-like. Them shingles feel like a cat's tongue against my hands as I scoot across the rooftop on my ass.

I get to the edge of the roof and drop down, my hands squeezing real tight, then I dangle there like a string of snot 'til Jimmy comes and gets ahold of my legs. He catches me, then drops me with a thud. "Crissakes, Earwig, you get any taller and you won't need me to catch you." Jimmy calls me "Earwig." He says it's 'cause I'm like one of those bugs that crawls in a guy's ear and goes right to his brain, making him go crazy. Jimmy reaches up and rubs his knuckles over my hair that is turd-brown and grows straight up like quack grass, then he grabs our fishing gear and off we go down the sidewalk.

Jimmy whistles as we go down them empty, dark streets to get to Louie's house. Jimmy's car is in the garage, the motor all ripped to shit, so Louie's gonna drive his car to the millpond, where we're gonna spear suckers and drink beers. Jimmy's real nice to let me come along. Ain't many brothers who'd take their sixteen-year-old, dumb-as-a-stump brother to fish and drink beers with 'em. But Jimmy's always letting me tag along. He knows I ain't got friends like he's got, 'cept for Eddie, and he don't count 'cause he's only six years old, fat as a Thanksgiving turkey, and maybe even dumber than me.

Louie's coming outta the garage with his creel when we get there, his orange, frazzly hair looking like fire with the porch light shining on it. John is leaned up against Louie's car, smoking a cigarette, and Floyd, he is standing there kicking up gravel with his shoe, his shoulders all drooped forward, like they always is.

"You took long enough, Gunderman," John says, and Jimmy says to him, "Ah, give it a rest, Pissfinger." I don't call John Pissfinger like the rest of the gang does, on accounta I know if I do, he's probably gonna stick his boot so far up my ass I'll gag on his shoelaces.

We all whoop and holler as we pull outta the driveway, spitting gravel.

"Serve 'em up, Earwig," Jimmy says. I reach under the seat to fetch the bottles of Schlitz that are clinking and clanking there. I pry a cap with the opener I got dangling from my belt, slip the cap into my pocket, and hand the first bottle to Louie. It's the rule: The number-one guy gets the first beer, and usually, whoever's got a car that's running is the number-one guy.

All the way to the millpond, them guys talk about titties, beers, and whose asses they're gonna kick. Jimmy's the only one of them guys that can really kick anybody's ass. Jimmy ain't real tall, but he's got muscles pert' near as big as Captain Midnight's, and like John says, Jimmy knows how to use his fists when he's gotta. I tell 'em I know a few asses I'd like to kick, and Jimmy tells me to shut up or he's gonna fart in my face. I know he will too, so I shut up.

Them trees along the road to the millpond look like butt-naked skinny girls against the sky that's bright from a fat moon. Jimmy told me once that them fat circle moons remind him of a big, white titty. Course, he thinks everything looks like a titty.

We turn off Mill Street and head down the dirt road that goes to the millpond. Louie drives so fast over the bumps that I bang my head on the roof.

Louie jams on the brakes and we stop real fast. Beer slops down the front of John's shirt and he pisses and moans about it like he's going to the town hall for a fancy-up dance instead of grubbing for suckers at the millpond.

We stand on the bank and rip our shoes and socks off. I know damn well it's gonna be cold as shit in that rushing water, the snow here in Wisconsin not being gone all that long when them suckers start wriggling upriver looking for a place to drop their eggs. We're all laughing and joking and having a good time. Ain't nothing more fun than spearing suckers with Jimmy and the guys.

"Hey, Earwig," John says, as he balls up a sock and throws it at me. "I hear you tried choppin' off Edna Pritchard's fat leg." Floyd and Louie start to laughing. I talk real loud so John can hear me above the laughing and the whooshing of the water. "I wasn't trying to chop her leg off. That's the God's honest truth."

"That's right," Jimmy says, talking all mumbled 'cause he's got a Camel sticking outta the corner of his mouth. "He wasn't trying to cut off her leg, he was trying to measure her fat ass." This makes them laugh all the harder.

"Tell us the story, Earwig," Floyd says, so I tell 'em. I tell 'em how Dad said, right there at the table while buttering a piece of nut bread Mrs. Pritchard brought, that that Edna Pritchard has the biggest ass he ever see'd on a woman. Dad said, "That ass has got to be at least three ax handles wide."

"Well, that didn't sound right to me," I tell the guys, and it didn't. "Mrs. Pritchard has a fat ass, sure as my name's Earl Hedwig Gunderman, but three ax handles wide, that just didn't sound right to me. So I wait 'til I hear her big mouth yapping in the store, then I go out to the woodpile real fast and I fetch myself the ax. Then I go back into the store, whistling so as no one thinks I'm up to something, and I start taggin' after Mrs. Pritchard. Ma and her was talking about that Dickens girl getting polio and what a pity it will be if her legs get all crippled, and how, worse yet, if that little girl dies, her mama's heart's gonna cripple up too and she'll die right along with her. Mrs. Pritchard is looking at cans of applesauce while she talks, 'cause she's gonna make some gingerbread and Mr. Pritchard won't eat gingerbread unless it's got applesauce poured over the top."

"Crissakes," Jimmy says as he roots around in our stuff for a spear, "get to the goddamn point of the story, Earwig," but he ain't mad when he says it, 'cause he's laughing.

"Well," I tell 'em, "I go'ed up behind Mrs. Pritchard, holding that ax like this," and I show 'em how I holded it, sideways like, right behind her fat ass. "And it sure is a fat ass," I say, and Floyd holds his skinny guts that are sunk in like a bowl and asks how would I like to hose that fat ass, and I say I wouldn't like that at all. Jimmy says, "The story, Earwig, get to the point of the goddamn story."

So I go on with the story. I tell 'em how I was holding that ax up crossways, following behind her, and how when she walks, her ass under that dress looks like two bulls fighting under a sheet of mill felt.

"Then Ma looks up and sees me behind Mrs. Pritchard, who ain't so far seeing nothing but that can of applesauce in her hand, and Ma yells, 'Earl Hedwig Gunderman, what on earth are you doing with that ax?' and Mrs. Pritchard starts to turn and she sees me holding that ax, and she starts to screaming. I get all scared 'cause her scream is as big as her ass, and that ax falls right outta my hands, just as her fat legs are turning her around." Floyd is slapping the ground with his hand, laughing real hard.

I turn to Louie, who is laughing too, but not so hard he can't hear me. "You ever see an ax fall, Louie? It don't fall flat and nice at all. That cutting part, it falls first, making it look like a ghost is fixing to split a chunk of wood. And that ax come right down on Mrs. Pritchard's fat ankle."

Jimmy is laughing 'til he's choking out, "Cut through her fat almost right down to the bone!" Floyd laughs 'til his dark hair is slapping his forehead like a horse's tail. "Ol' Fat Ass starts hopping around like she's got a rat trying to crawl up the crack of her ass, and Earwig here goes nuts like he always does when he gets rattled. He starts slapping the sides of his head, almost knocking himself out. Then Pritchard really loses it." They're all in stitches now, only I'm starting to think it ain't so goddamn funny. Ain't nothing funny about blood, all red and shiny, spewing out of somebody's fat ankle.

Jimmy shakes his head. "Ma starts in with her 'Oh, good Lord! Oh, good Lord!' And she runs to fetch a towel, then gets down on all fours, trying to get that towel slung around Pritchard's ankle to stop the bleeding. That Pritchard was going nuts, yelling that Earwig had tried to kill her, and Ma was going nuts, screaming at me to go get Dr. McCormick. I had to leave then, so I missed the rest of that freak show."

Them guys start joking about how I shoulda chopped a chunk of her ass off while I was at it, but I ain't listening too hard to 'em now. I'm trying to get Mrs. Pritchard's words outta my head. Them words, "You should have locked that boy up long ago, Eileen."

Ma didn't make me mop up that blood that was already seeping into the cracks of the floor, turning it all dark by the time Dr. McCormick come and took Mrs. Pritchard back in the kitchen to stitch her fat back together. Ma, she came back into the store with a pail of soapy water and started scrubbing with a bunched rag. She made me stand right there, where she could keep an eye on me. She sounded all winded, like she'd just run all the way down Main Street and back without stopping, as she preached at me about minding my Ps and Qs and not scaring people.

"So," John asks after he lights his Lucky Strike, "how many ax handles wide is the old bag's ass, anyway, Earwig?"

"Well, I didn't exactly get to finish measuring it," I tell him, "but I got as far as knowing it's more than one ax handle wide, that's for sure."

I'm real glad when the guys get done laughing and go back to talking about titties and kicking ass.

I go to the trunk of Louie's car to get the bucket we use for keeping the beer cold. I take that bucket and dig the rest of those Schlitz bottles out from under the seat and put them in the bucket. Then I bring the bucket to the groove in the bank that Louie cut out, leaving a little ditch so the water fills up the hole some. I put water in the pail and I set the pail in that little ditch.

While I do this, Floyd and John are getting some wood for the little fire that Jimmy's leaning over, huffing into the thick smoke to get the flames sparking.

When we get everything all set up perfect-like, Jimmy hands me a spear, reminding me to stay on them flat rocks in the shallow part. Jimmy knows I can't swim for shit. The guys head upstream, laughing as they slosh through the water, their arms pumping, each of 'em taking turns bitching about how cold the water is.

The water looks like silver coins swirling in beer foam. I steady myself on a rock and stare real hard through them swirls. I wait for a dark shadow to come along, 'cause that would be one of them suckers. Suckers are ugly critters if I ever see'd one, with scales big as fingernails, and round mouths that move like an asshole trying to squeeze out a turd. Them suckers are mighty ugly, but after Louie sets 'em up in his smokehouse for a time, they end up tasting mighty damn good.

I see one, not far from my feet, and I stab my spear as hard as I can. It don't go into the fish, though. It just bangs against the rock I'm standing on, then skids sideways. I do a little dance to keep that spearhead from kicking up against my foot. Upstream, I can hear the guys and I can tell from their yelling that they're gonna come back with their creels stuffed.

I get real busy then, listening to some noise in the brush, hoping it ain't no bear. I'm scared shitless of bears 'cause I know if one starts wailing on me, there's gonna be lots of blood. And while I'm watching for bears, I'm jabbing my spear into the water any which way, and it keeps clanking against the rocks. Then, about the time Floyd calls out that it's time for a beer break before they all freeze their balls off, I stab my spear into the water and it hits something tender. That handle starts dancing all over in my hands, and I can feel that I got a pissed-off sucker stuck at the other end. "Jimmy! Jimmy!" I shout, real loud.

"You got one, Earwig?" Jimmy shouts back, all excited.

I can't talk, 'cause I'm excited as shit. I don't know what to do, so I don't do nothing 'cept keep dancing on that rock and hanging tight to the spear that's still bucking in my hands.

Jimmy kicks water up on me as he jumps to the rock I'm standing on. "Jesus Christ, Earwig, you gonna stand there pissing yourself, or are you gonna pull it up?"

I ain't gonna piss, but Louie is. He's in the water, his pecker out, and he's about to start pissing. Excited or not, I know I don't want Louie's piss getting on my fish, so I lift that spear up. And there it is, a big-ass sucker, wiggling and squirming 'cause he's got two tines stuck through his back. Even though it's mostly dark, I can see blood, black and shiny, running down the sides of that poor fish.

Reading Group Guide

As World War II descends on the close-knit families of Willowridge, Wisconsin, the town’s wisest resident proves to be a simpleminded teenage boy nicknamed Earwig. Though a childhood illness left his mind diminished in some ways, he has a gift for candidly sorting fact from gossip and offering unbridled advice. When his beloved brother, Jimmy, is sent to the Pacific and becomes a prisoner of war, Earwig keeps his family hopeful while he struggles to understand the nature of suffering itself. And in the aftermath of war, it is Earwig who brings Jimmy back from a state of trauma and anguish, giving voice to the truths that remain unspeakable to the rest of Willowridge.

By turns tender and wry, Carry Me Home captures a mesmerizing snapshot of love–between brothers, parents, young couples, and lifelong friends–through the eyes of a frank, inspiring narrator. The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Sandra Kring’s Carry Me Home. We hope they will enrich your experience of this heartwarming novel.

1. What are your initial impressions of Earwig? What does the opening scene reveal about his community?

2. Mrs. Gunderman often says, “We always pay for our mistakes.” What does she perceive her mistakes to be, and what price does she believe she has paid for them? Do any of the novel’s characters pay for tragedies that are simply due to circumstance, in which no one is to blame?

3. Earwig’s community divides women into two distinct moral categories, perplexed by the euphemism about not buying a cow when the milk can be obtained for free. How do these codes translate for Earwig? What moral categories does he establish for himself? Is gender a factor in them?

4. How was Earwig affected by his discovery of the family secret? How does his newfound knowledge affect the narrative overall? 

5. What enables Mrs. Pritchard–and those who are like her in our contemporary lives–to feel so confident about her opinions? Did benevolence motivate her to share And They Shall Walk with Eddie?

6. Discuss the presence of Lucky in Earwig’s life. What is the significance of his being surreptitiously named after Charles Lindbergh, whom Mr. Gunderman despises? How does the presence of a pet, especially one that is difficult to train, transform Earwig?

7. What do the novel’s characters teach Earwig about being a man? Does he get conflicting advice from his mother and father, Jimmy and his friends, and the women in town?

8. Is Wisconsin a significant aspect of the novel’s setting, or does the fictional Willowridge capture the experience of most small towns in America during the 1940s?

9. Discuss the circumstances of Jimmy’s enlistment, and his involvement in the horrific Bataan POW camp. What does his narrative convey about the individual nature of every person serving in the armed forces? How are fate and choice balanced in Jimmy’s story?

10. How would you characterize Earwig’s voice? How do his irreverence and haphazard grammar make for engaging storytelling? What determines whether those features make a narrator attractive? Why aren’t the other characters able to achieve his level of clarity?

11. Compare the time period depicted in the novel to the present day. Earwig witnessed a tremendous economic shift, one that caused his father to take a job in another town while everyone tracked their ration allotments. Earwig also witnessed a period when unprecedented numbers of women temporarily entered the workforce. Did his generation possess more gratitude and resilience? Or are current generations just as strong and enlightened?

12. Jimmy comes home at a time when the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder was essentially unknown territory and the horrors of war were not to be discussed, much less publicized. What techniques do the novel’s characters use to heal Jimmy and Floyd? How does Earwig ultimately carry his brother home? What members of your family or community could “carry you home” from a similar emotional state?

13. While others looked to the mailman for information about loved ones, Earwig relied on the sign of the blue star to tell him whether Jimmy was alive. What beacons do you look to for reassurance?

14. What aspects of history did you learn about in Carry Me Home? What details of life during World War II were new to you?

15. Though Floyd feels tremendous guilt about surviving his internment, the birth of his baby girl appears to set him free in many ways. Just as Earwig’s parents passed many legacies and wise words on to him, what legacy will Floyd impart to his child?

16. Seeking a more independent life, Earwig declines his brother’s offer to live with him and Eva Leigh. In a last glimpse of the brothers, on the eve of these new chapters in their lives, we see them returning to their beloved millpond. In what ways have they changed since the initial scene at the millpond? What remains permanent for them?

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