Named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a People magazine “Pick of the Week,” and an Indie Next and Midwest Connections selection, The Year We Left Home is the career-defining novel that Jean Thompson’s admirers have been waiting for: a sweeping and emotionally powerful story of a single American family during the tumultuous final decades of the twentieth century.
Stretching from the early 1970s in the Iowa farmlands to suburban Chicago and across the map of contemporary America, The Year We Left Home follows the Erickson siblings as they confront prosperity and heartbreak, setbacks and triumphs, and seek their place in a country whose only constant seems to be breathtaking change. Ambitious and richly told, this is a vivid and moving meditation on our continual pursuit of happiness and an incisive exploration of the national character.
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|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
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The bride and groom had two wedding receptions: the first was in the basement of the Lutheran church right after the ceremony, with punch and cake and coffee and pastel mints. This was for those of the bride’s relatives who were stern about alcohol. The basement was low-ceilinged and smelled of metallic furnace heat. Old ladies wearing corsages sat on folding chairs, while other guests stood and managed their cake plates and plastic forks as best they could. The pastor smiled with professional benevolence. The bride and groom posed for pictures, buoyed by adrenaline and relief. There had been so much promised and prepared, and now everything had finally come to pass.
By five o’clock the last of the crowd had retrieved their winter coats and boots from the cloakroom and headed out. It was January, with two weeks of hard-packed snow underfoot and more on the way, and most of them had long drives from Grenada, over country roads to get back home. The second reception was just beginning at the American Legion hall, where there would be a buffet supper, a bar, and a dance band.
The bride’s younger brother had been sent to open the Legion building so that the food could be brought in ahead of time. He drove his pickup truck the mile from the church, playing the radio loud to shake off the strangeness of the day. He’d been an usher at the wedding and he still wore his dark suit and blue-tinted carnation boutonniere, clothes that made him feel stiff and false. The whole import of the wedding embarrassed him powerfully, though he could not have said why. Many things had been disquieting: his sister in her overdone bridal makeup, his mother’s weeping, the particular oppressiveness of anything that took place in church, the archness of the female relatives who told him how tall and handsome he looked. “Pretty soon we’ll get to dance at your wedding, hey?” He’d shrugged and said, Well, they could at least dance, which had made his girlfriend mad.
She was still back at the church and still mad, which was why he’d managed to get away by himself, if only for a few minutes. As he was leaving, she’d whispered that he should see what they had in the liquor cabinet over there. He guessed that that was what it was going to take to get her back in any kind of a good mood. A bottle they could show off as a trophy, then drink some night while they were out driving around.
The radio was playing “Horse with No Name.” He turned it up and sang along:
I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
He wished he was out there right now, in some desert, instead of smack in the middle of his family, who, because they knew his origins and his history, thought they knew everything about him. He couldn’t account for this feeling when a wedding, after all, was supposed to be this big happy thing. He guessed he must be some kind of freak.
The gray afternoon was already shutting down when he pulled into the Legion parking lot, got out, and fumbled with the stiff lock. It gave way and he stepped inside.
The hall was a big bare space with a much-buffed tile floor. Gloomy light reflected from it in pools. To one side was a kitchen with a large stainless steel double sink, two restaurant-style wall ovens, and a pass-through to the main part of the room. Long tables covered with white paper tablecloths were set up to receive food, and stools and hightops were stacked in the foyer. He tried the bar closet but as expected it locked with a separate key. Then he heard another car pull up. He turned on the overhead lights and went back out into the cold.
His Uncle Norm and Aunt Martha were unloading their station wagon. “Ryan,” his uncle said by way of a greeting, and handed him a foil-covered metal pan. “Careful, this one’s heavy.”
His aunt said it had been a beautiful wedding, hadn’t it, and Ryan said it had. That was the extent of the small talk since there was all the food to manage, work to be done, and with Norm and Martha, work came before everything else. There were a dozen or more big pans to carry inside, and two coolers, and a cardboard box full of paper towels and pot holders and other useful items. “Just set everything out on the table,” Martha directed, hanging up her coat and putting on the apron she’d brought from home. Ryan, peeking under the foil, found sliced ham with raisin sauce, a macaroni-and-tomato casserole, a green salad, potatoes topped with shredded orange cheese, beef in gravy, chicken and biscuits, corn pudding. There were sheet cakes too, and bags of dinner rolls.
He guessed that Norm and Martha had organized the supper, collecting the prepared food from different country relatives. It would have been a very Norm-and-Martha thing to do. They were not, technically, his aunt and uncle. They were his grandmother’s cousins, his mother’s mother’s people. Tall, freckled, rawboned, they seemed not to have aged since his childhood. His mother had been a Tesman and her mother was a Peerson, and the Peersons were the scariest of the old Norwegian families. They lived out in the boondocks, what his dad called Jesus Lost His Shoes territory, and their church still held services in Norwegian the third Sunday of every month. Most of them farmed. They believed in backbreaking labor, followed by more labor, and in privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity. If you wanted a tree taken down or a truck winched out of a ditch or a quarter of a cow packaged for your meat locker, you called a Peerson. If you wanted lighthearted company, you called someone else.
The boy, Ryan, thought of them as part of some grim, old-country past that laid claim to him without his consent. Ever since he was a little kid he’d heard instructive things about Norwegian this and Norwegian that, like postcards from a place he’d never been and none of it any use to him, not flags nor fjords nor rotten jellied lutefisk, which nobody made anymore and nobody even pretended to like. Maybe if you poked around in the gene pool all the way back to the Vikings, you’d find some worthy ancestor. But all that had been beaten out of people long ago, or maybe it was just that the tamest and most boring Norwegians had settled here in Iowa, where they devoted themselves to lives of piety and sacrifice and usefulness.
But he wasn’t going to spend any more time thinking about all that, since what really counted was the life you made for yourself, and the person you decided to be.
Once the food was brought in, he and Norm began setting up the hightops and stools around the room’s edges. He guessed it about killed Norm and Martha to be in a place where drinking would go on, but they saw it as their duty to be helpful, and both the duty and the disapproval would be part of the occasion for them.
“So this fella,” Norm began, and Ryan understood that Norm meant the groom, Ryan’s new brother-in-law. “What’s he like?”
“Jeff? He’s OK.” He was kind of an asshole.
“Ah.” Norm nodded, as if this was convincing information. He reached for a rag and slapped it across a tabletop. Norm’s hands were big and chapped and had been gouged and nicked and scarred and healed over so many times that the skin was as full of history as an elephant’s hide. “Where’s he from, out West someplace?”
“Yes, sir. Denver.”
Norm received this in silence. Ryan wondered what was bugging Norm about Jeff, who was your basic bullshit artist, all fake smiles and manly handshakes. You figured somebody that straight and narrow would be a hit with the home folks. But guess again. Ryan knew better than to ask any kind of direct question, so he kept on with his work, carting the stools and tables out into the room so Norm could place them in groupings.
Martha was busy running pans in and out of the warming ovens. The smell of the food was making him hungry. Pretty soon the band, or what passed for a band, would arrive to set up. It was just four guys from Ames in leather vests and striped shirts and some pitiful attempt at psychedelic effects generated by a strobe light. And then the guests would come, a mix of his sister’s friends and Jeff’s, and any of the local invitees who wouldn’t miss the chance for free food and drink. His girlfriend too, though he hadn’t been thinking about her until now and he guessed that was one more thing he’d done wrong without even trying.
The tables were in place. Norm went to the front door and peered out. “No snow yet. I don’t suppose we’ll stay that lucky.”
Ryan, looking out from behind Norm’s angular shoulder, saw the gray gauze sky and a pink sunset behind it glowing like a lamp. House lights were beginning to come on along the street, small and bright, and Ryan registered that the scene was beautiful, without thinking the word itself. “Yeah, I guess it’s supposed to start in later.”
“June’s best for weddings,” Norm said, sounding unexpectedly decisive. “Then you can have your flowers and your pretty weather. They didn’t want to wait for June, hah?”
“I think this was the only time Jeff could get off, you know, for the honeymoon.”
“Oh, sure.” Norm nodded and, turning away, gave Ryan a look he couldn’t read, or maybe he was just imagining it in the light reflecting off Norm’s eyeglasses. Embarrassment? Apology? It came to him that Norm thought his sister might be pregnant, and this was one of those hurry-up weddings. Oh, please. His sister Anita would probably still be a virgin three years after her wedding night because it would take that long for the industrial glue that held her legs together to wear off. But it was a weird thing to have to think about, or to imagine old Norm thinking about, or to witness him thinking about, and he was glad when Martha called to him, “Ryan? I need you a minute.”
She was standing at the oven, poking at one of the pans inside. “Can you slide this out a little ways and hold it? Here, careful not to burn yourself.”
He took the hot pads she gave him and supported the weight of the pan—beef, it was—while Martha lifted the foil and stirred and prodded the contents. She scooped some out into a crockery bowl. “All right, put it back now.”
She fetched a knife and fork and a paper napkin, put two dinner rolls on a plate, and set it, with the beef, on the counter. “I expect you’re hungry. Go ahead, it’ll tide you over.”
“Thanks, Aunt Martha.” He didn’t wait to be asked twice. He ate standing, filling his mouth with beef and bread. Martha took a Coke out of the refrigerator and he opened it and drank it down. “I bet you cooked this, didn’t you.”
“You like it?”
“S’great.” He couldn’t get enough of it.
“I’m glad you think so.”
The room was quiet. Norm had gone out back to get something from the car. Martha ran water in the sink and looked around for something else to do, now that the food was ready and waiting for the guests. She was almost as tall as Norm. The two of them were like a pair of trees. And just like Norm, she wore plain, plastic-framed eyeglasses. Ryan couldn’t have said if they’d grown to look alike, the way old married couples were said to, or if they’d started out as pretty much the same model, your standard Norwegian giant. She said, “I guess you’re excited for your sister.”
“She was just beautiful in that dress. Like an angel on a cloud.”
“Sure.” He’d thought she’d looked more like an explosion of tissue paper, but kept this smart-ass notion to himself.
“I’m so glad they got married in the church, even if that boy is what, Church of Christ?”
“I forget, exactly.” He didn’t think that Jeff was much of a church guy; Anita would probably make him baptize their kids Lutheran and send them to Lutheran Sunday school and everybody would be happy.
Martha said they made a nice-looking couple, and Ryan agreed with that too. He hoped she wasn’t going to start talking about how pretty soon it was going to be his wedding, blah blah blah. People acted like weddings were contagious, like it was your duty to go out and get infected.
“. . . because you never can tell, looking at it from the outside. How miserable people can be in a marriage.”
Ryan, still occupied with the beef making its way into his stomach, looked up, uncertain of what he’d heard. He hadn’t been paying attention, he’d missed something she’d said, some explanation. Who was she talking about? Who was miserable? Did she mean herself and Norm? Any of their grown children, all of whom had married and produced further legions of stoic, insensible, hangdog Peersons? He didn’t want to believe that any of them had the capacity for misery. He wanted to keep them as they had always been, fixed and reliable components of his world. Or was she talking about Anita and Jeff, was there something she knew that he didn’t? He tried to catch Martha’s eye but she was looking away from him, embarrassed, maybe, at what she’d said. He was on the outside looking in. For a moment, he felt knocked off-center, no longer knowing what he had always known . . .
. . . and then the back door opened with a cold gust, and the band came in lugging their equipment and he went to help them. And not long after that the first guests arrived and one of the Legionnaires unlocked the bar and began putting ice in buckets and taking drink orders, and everyone waited for the next big moment in a series of big moments, the entrance of the bride and groom.
Ryan’s mother came in first, taking short little steps in the shoes that hurt her feet. “Here they come, here they come!” She was in one of her wound-up states, where she might do anything: start crying again, or decide it was a good time for some uncomfortable, goopy talk. He moved to stay clear of her. His father and little brother and sister followed, and a few stray relatives. The guests lined themselves on either side of the room and a ragged clapping started up.
Called upon to register excitement one more time, Ryan set his face in a pleased, vacuous expression, just as his girlfriend crossed the room to stand next to him. She had another kind of look on her face. She could have bit nails, people used to say, a way of speaking, and he understood what they meant by that now, he surely did.
“You were supposed to come back and pick me up,” she hissed, and nothing he could say to that, not really, except Sorry, which he tried, sending it her way as a kind of mumble. But he hadn’t known he was meant to go back for her, or hadn’t paid attention, and then he realized he didn’t care, although he had not known this until just now.
“I waited and waited and I was almost the last one there and I had to get a ride with Mrs. Holder, God!”
“I had stuff to do here.”
“I could have come with you.”
“You didn’t want to,” he reminded her, which was true, even though saying so wouldn’t help him.
“Well you didn’t exactly act like you wanted me here.”
He shook his head fast, like a horse trying to get rid of flies. He couldn’t win, arguing with her.
“What’s the matter with you lately? You act like you don’t care about anything. Not me or . . . anything.” She flicked a hand to indicate the universe of anything. He guessed she meant the future she had mapped out for them, where they’d both head off to St. Olaf’s for college in the fall, and she would continue to dole out limited portions of sexual gratification until such time as he could offer her a ring that would seal the deal.
He watched her tight little face as she went on and on about his despicable and inadequate behavior, keeping her voice low because there were people all around them. And because he must have sensed that she was about to disappear from his life in all the important ways, he was able to detach himself, consider her with cold curiosity. She’d done herself up for the occasion in a hard-edged, glamorous style, with a pouf of blond hair sprayed and clipped into place, and a shiny dress that left her arms bare and goose-bumped. Looking down, he was afforded a view of her small breasts in a brassiere of pink lace.
She caught him staring down the front of her dress. Her jaw began to shake with disbelief and rage.
“You are a filthy, perverted heap of crap,” she said, just as the doors opened and a cheer went up, and Anita and Jeff, splendid and strange in their wedding clothes, swept in.
Ryan went to the bar and asked for two rum and Cokes and the barman served them up with a wink. He guessed there were some benefits to the wedding thing after all. He found a vantage point near the back door and watched as Anita and Jeff made the rounds, kissing and hugging and shaking hands. His girlfriend had taken herself off somewhere, but he didn’t think he’d seen the last of her. The bridesmaids were carrying on and showing off, his sister’s friends who were just as stuck-up as she was. The bridesmaids’ dresses were sky blue velvet tricked out with floppy ruffles and bits of gauze and some other kind of fruit-salad trim, bad enough, but they’d really outdone themselves on the tuxedos. They were dark blue, with ruffled shirts and some shine to the jacket, and wide lapels faced with more velvet. Jeff and his groomsmen looked like they were about to emcee a wrestling match. When no one was watching, Ryan unpinned the carnation on his lapel, which by now resembled a piece of blue cabbage, and tossed it into the trash.
He drank one rum and Coke and then the other, and when people began to line up for supper, he felt a little blurred, and he sat down with some guys he knew from school and ate some more of Martha’s beef to steady himself. He was working himself into a sad and rotten mood, which had something to do with his girlfriend, but was also about a loneliness that sometimes crept up on him without warning. Everybody else could have themselves a hilarious good time. He wasn’t really part of it.
The band started up. Anita and Jeff danced and made moony eyes at each other. His dad and Anita danced. His mom and Jeff’s dad. And so on. It was a regular festival of bad moves. The band had a keyboard player and a drummer and a guitarist and a scratchy-voiced lead singer who kept twirling and rocking the microphone and you had to feel sorry for them, trying to be cool when they had to play shit like “The Hokey Pokey” and “The Bunny Hop.” At least now, with his girlfriend on the warpath, he wasn’t going to have to dance. He wandered back to his spot at the rear of the room and stood there, arms folded, while in his mind he was in the desert on the horse with no name, silent, stern, keenly aware . . .
A hand landed on his shoulder from behind. “I don’t know why it is,” a voice intoned, “but I always cry at weddings.”
Ryan turned to see his cousin Chip Tesman, grinning his crooked grin. “Hey man.” They shook hands, a high-style fist lock. “How you been, I haven’t seen you in the longest.”
“Ah, I been my usual funky self. How’s the happy couple?”
“Happy, I guess.” They looked out over the room, the field of weaving, waving dancers struggling for space. They made Ryan think of a shipwreck, of bodies dumped into the ocean. In the pass-through he saw Norm and Martha moving around in the kitchen. “At least, Anita’s happy. It’s a big day for showing off.”
“There you go,” said Chip, by way of agreement. Chip hadn’t been at the wedding, and showing up at the reception looked like it had been an afterthought. He wore jeans and a sweatshirt and his green army jacket with TESMAN printed above the chest pocket. His hair was growing out in scruffy patches. He was twenty-two, five years older than Ryan. The army had been meant to make a man out of him.
“Your mom and dad are here,” Ryan told him, and Chip nodded, uninterested. Chip was really Ray Jr., after his father. Such boys were called Chip because they were chips off the old block.
Although Ray Jr. had never really lived up to that, had always been an oddball, a kid who’d collected comic books all through high school and never played sports of any kind and spent most of his time up in his room, reading science fiction and producing elaborate shaded drawings of robots, spacemen, and rocket ships. He’d managed to get himself graduated, barely, and then drafted into the infantry, and everyone had thought it was probably a good idea. There didn’t seem to be any particular future for somebody like Chip, with his nervous, skeetering laugh, his habit of ducking his head instead of looking people in the eye, his lack of any practical aptitudes or skills. Somehow he’d managed to return from the war unshot, skinnier than ever but somehow bigger, alarming people by the way he looked and the way he acted and the knowledge that now he at least knew how to use a rifle.
Chip squinted at the bar station. “You think they’d serve me a drink?”
“Sure, why wouldn’t they?” said Ryan, although he was aware that certain possibilities for friction and conflict attended Chip wherever he went. “You’re family. Hell, it’s the Legion, you’re a veteran.”
“Yeah, but I’m the wrong kind of veteran.” He punched Ryan lightly in the arm and laughed his too high laugh and sidled through the crowd. When he returned, he was carrying two plastic glasses of Scotch and ice. “Hold these,” he instructed, and Ryan watched him go back into the room, walking with his jerky, loose-footed slouch, like a puppet on busted strings, watched other people register his presence. Chip took a plate from the buffet line and loaded it up with whatever he could scrape out of the picked-over food pans.
“One of those is for you,” he said when he got back, meaning the drinks, but Ryan took one sick-making sip and shook his head. “All yours,” he said, setting them down on a window ledge.
“Get you something else, huh?” Chip asked with all the concern of a host, and Ryan said no thanks. He watched Chip hauling food into his mouth, gobbling away. Ryan was about to say Chip acted like he hadn’t eaten all day, then thought better of it, since you never knew, Chip might just have woken up and this was breakfast. Chip had been out of the army for most of a year now, living in his parents’ basement, and was having trouble getting his wheels underneath him, as Ryan’s father said.
Chip finished off the food and set the empty plate on top of a trash container. He patted his pockets looking for cigarettes and found none. He took a drink from the first Scotch, put it down, picked it up again. Then he pointed out into the room. “Hey, Ry? Your hen’s running around loose.”
Ryan looked and saw his girlfriend, or at least that’s who she’d been this morning, with one of Jeff’s Denver friends, a guy with blow-dried hair and a lot of teeth. They were dancing together, dancing about as slow and dirty as you could get away with at the American Legion. Her face was pink, and he wondered if the guy had been feeding her alcohol or if she was just a slut and always had been for everybody but him. The Denver people had mostly been standing around all night as if they were watching a not very interesting television show, as if they were too good to be here in the first place, but now some of them were cheering their buddy on, and Ryan hated them and hated her and didn’t care if they all fucked her upside down on the nearest table.
Chip tugged at his arm. “Hey, come on. Let’s get out of here.”
Ryan found his coat underneath a heap of others and followed Chip out the back door. It was cold, but that felt good after all the heat inside and the heat filling up his head, and he was glad to be walking out, even though there might be consequences to tagging along with Chip, the no-account, the fuckup, the guy everybody figured for a druggie and a criminal, though they couldn’t have said exactly what sort of criminal.
“You got your truck here?” Chip asked, slapping his sides to try to keep warm. There was nothing to the army coat. Ryan opened the truck door and got in and Chip got in the other side and they breathed out clouds of frost and said “Whoo-ee” to holler back at the cold.
Ryan started the truck and the engine knocked a little bit before settling into a rhythm. “What is this, a 305?” Chip asked.
“No, a 325.”
“Hah.” Chip nodded appreciatively. It surprised Ryan that his dorky cousin might actually know something about engines now. Another part of the new Chip. He coughed his smoker’s cough, again looked without success in his pockets for cigarettes, then continued, “I need to get, I don’t know, a van, maybe. Something I could hit the road in, crash in if I needed to. What?”
“It’s just funny, you saying crash like that.”
“What? Oh yeah, I guess.”
It was taking a long time for the engine to throw any heat. Ryan lifted himself one side at a time off the vinyl seat. His suit pants were useless when it came to keeping his ass warm. Being in the truck made him think of his girlfriend. A certain scent, a combination of wool, perfume, and cold air had accompanied their recent winter episodes, and in a wave of furious, hateful lust he saw again her white, white exposed skin. It staggered him for a moment, then he fought it down and made his voice casual. “So where did you want to go, Chipper?”
“Don’t call me that, Lambchop.”
“Ooh, that hurt.”
“I was thinking we could sit right here for a while. You get high?”
“Sure,” said Ryan. He did, he had, but not in any big-deal way. It had always been somebody else’s stuff, he wouldn’t have known how to get any himself or how much to pay for it or even how to roll a joint, a whole body of worldly knowledge he was still ignorant of. It hadn’t done that much for him either, unless the lack of oxygen from the coughing fits was some kind of high. “Sure, you got some?”
“One great thing about the great Republic of Vietnam, they got the world’s finest ganj. Jungle pot. Guys been bringing seeds back for years, starting their own little farm operations. Guys who know guys I know.”
Chip rummaged around in his shirt pocket, came up with a plastic baggie. He shook and smoothed it with one hand and with the other switched on the radio. “Got to have tunes.”
Yelps and whistles came out of the speakers. Ryan worked the dial and came up with the Cedar Rapids AM station, playing “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).”
“Fuckety-fuck. There are like zero good stations around here, you know?” Chip complained. He was busy tapping leaves into a pipe bowl, and Ryan was beginning to get a little uneasy at the prospect of smoking up right here in the parking lot. The back door of the Legion opened and a man and woman he didn’t recognize came out, walking carefully on the crusted snow. “Yeah, I’m gonna get out to see my buddy in San Francisco pretty soon. The summer of love is over, we missed that party, but they still make real music out there. The Dead still rule.”
“Yeah?” Ryan echoed, not knowing what Chip was talking about, not really listening as he went on and on, because after all it was only Chip running his mouth, the way he always did, and anyway Ryan sort of liked “Brandy” himself. The man and woman headed off down the street without looking in their direction. He decided not to be a chickenshit, to go along with the program. Otherwise Chip would give him a hard time, and even if it was only gooneybird Chip, he wouldn’t let it drop.
Funny to think that his cousin, whom he’d known all his life (though Chip had been too old and too uncool to be a playmate), had been a soldier and been to a war and come back grown-up. Or at least, as grown-up as he was likely to get. These days the war was going right down the toilet, getting more and more lost every day. You knew it was lost when they kept having peace negotiations. And though you still had to worry about that shit, about registering and getting a lottery number, odds were you weren’t going to get called up or shipped off or anything that was dangerous and important and real. It was another party he’d missed out on, though that was a strange way to think about a war.
Chip flicked a lighter over the pipe bowl, firing it up and inhaling. He motioned for Ryan to take the pipe from him, then drew his breath in and in until it exploded out of him, smoke filling the space between them. They were both going to stink like chimneys.
When it was Ryan’s turn, he fought to hold the scorching smoke inside him. The last thing you wanted to do was cough. He kept it going as long as he could, then opened his lungs and took in air. “Anything left? Gimme,” Chip said, and Ryan checked himself for anything like a high, found nothing. But after his third turn at the pipe he began to feel it a little, and then without warning it snuck up behind him and spun his head around.
“Whoa,” he said.
Chip laughed, but his laugh had slowed way down. “Catch a buzz?”
“The top of my head is ten feet tall and filled with marshmallow.”
Ryan laughed too because it was such a goofy thing to say, but it was the absolute truth.
“Yeah, this ain’t your local roadside hemp. You ever hear of Thai stick? Well, you have now.”
“Not bad,” he managed, pulling the words out of some box where all the words were kept.
“Who would have thought, a nice boy like you, smokin’ out behind the barn.”
“I’m not a nice boy, asshole,” Ryan said, because nice boys were pussies.
But he guessed he might pass for one, if he was honest about it.
Chip reached to turn the radio down, then he seemed to forget about the conversation and absorbed himself with putting different parts of his body up against the truck’s heater to warm them. There was a space of silence, except for the tiny radio noise. “Snow,” Chip said.
Ryan, his brain by now operating underwater, took a slow moment to process this, then connect the idea of snow with the small, sleety stuff accumulating on the windshield.
They watched it coming down for a time. “Man, I hate winter,” Chip complained.
“I don’t mind it so much.”
“That’s the Norwegian in you. Me, it never took.”
“I don’t want to be a Norwegian.” He guessed it was a stupid thing to say, but he knew what Chip meant. It was the same as being a nice boy.
Chip laughed another of his stupid laughs. Really, the guy should not go anywhere near a joke. “Little late for that, don’t you think?”
“Maybe you could get yourself adopted by an Indian tribe. Your Indian name could be, ah, Hair of the Dog.”
“Funny.” The snow changed over to flakes, softer now but falling faster. Ryan thought about turning on the truck’s windshield wipers, then remembered he wasn’t driving.
A thin white layer began to veil the glass and fill the cab with reflected light. Chip loaded the pipe again and they smoked again but Ryan didn’t feel any more stoned, just sleepy. Chip said, “Man, I need a cigarette. Why don’t you have any cigarettes?”
“Bad for your wind.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. Track star.”
“Sorry. You know I’m just messing with you.”
Ryan said Yeah, sure. Chip was an asshole, even if he was an asshole with good pot.
“It’s just, you know I was never your all-American-boy type. Never climbed a tree or went fishin’ with an old cane pole.”
“Didn’t go . . . fishing,” Ryan managed. What was Chip complaining about now? He couldn’t keep track of all the different gripes, which basically boiled down to all the ways Chip had been a total spaz. The snow was dragging his eyelids shut.
“Never had a girlfriend, hell, I don’t think I even had a conversation with a girl, except I must have at least once or twice, right? Mathematically impossible not to. Lost my cherry in a whorehouse in Saigon.”
“Yeah?” said Ryan, waking up. “What was that like?”
“The whorehouse? I don’t know, stud. It’s not like I got anything else to compare it to.”
Ryan had meant something else, though now his meaning escaped him, what was it like, to travel across an ocean, to be in a war, to be afraid for your life, to kill someone or think about killing them, to buy a woman. They were quiet. The windshield was a solid white layer, though Ryan’s window was still clear. The light above the back door of the Legion Hall threw a yellow cone downward, and in the light he could see the flakes falling steadily, then lifting when the wind swirled. It reminded him of a snow globe, one of those pretty scenes under glass, and then he had the sad, stoned thought that he was outside of the snow globe looking in. Just as something in him always stood apart, and he was not who people assumed he was.
“. . . beautiful country,” Chip said, as if he had been speaking all along and maybe he had, in his head. “Even after we bombed the shit out of it. It’s hot, sure, but I don’t mind that. Everything’s green. Fruits I don’t even know the name of. Mangoes. They got about ten different kinds of bananas, for Christ’s sake. Mountains, there’s all this fog or mist or something, turns the mountains this color, blue mostly but like, a rainy blue, if that makes any sense. I guess you’d have to be there and see it for yourself.”
Ryan tried to make a picture of it in his head, blue mountains and green jungle, but it kept getting mixed up with desert, what he imagined the desert to be, red sand and yellow sand and bare rocks and the heat and feeling the horse’s heat beneath him and when he looked out the truck’s window he was surprised that the snow was still there. He guessed he was good and high.
“Beautiful country, fucked-up war. People here don’t get that, they think all you do is show up in the middle of somebody else’s deal and say, ‘Hey, we’re the Americans,’ and everybody’s happy to see you. You know what Martin Luther King said? ‘America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.’ You think the old boys at the Legion want to hear any of that?”
Ryan said he guessed they didn’t. He was beginning to realize that there were all sorts of ways to be on the outside of things.
Chip fished around at the neck of his shirt and brought out a leather cord with a silver peace symbol hanging from it. “You know what the Legion boys call this? ‘Footprint of the American Chicken.’ I’ve seen the bumper stickers. They hate guys like me because we lost a war we were supposed to win and anyway we’re a bunch of baby killers.”
“Did you ever . . . ,” Ryan began, but he stopped himself because you didn’t want to say something stupid, like, you guys didn’t really do shit like that, did you? Or find out just exactly what they had done.
And Chip must have heard the question Ryan didn’t quite ask, because he started talking louder as if to drown him out. “Yeah, you want to learn a few things? I got all kinds of books I can loan you, like I. F. Stone’s white papers that rips into what a big fat fraud the Gulf of Tonkin incident was, you know what I’m talking about? No? We need to educate you. Ever hear about Dien Bien Phu? You want to understand Vietnam, you start with the French. I thought everybody knew that. Shit, Ry, it’s all out there, you just got to read up on it.”
“Yeah, I could do that.” But it was just something to say because it reminded him of Chip back when he was bragging about his comic books: “What do you mean, you don’t know who Stan Lee is?” In other words, another load of bullshit, but this was different just as Chip had come back different, and it frightened him to think he might come to know all the things he didn’t know and then there would be no place in the world where he would feel at ease, no place he would not judge or measure, no place that would be his true home, and just when he couldn’t bear sitting there another moment, Chip muttered that he’d kill for a cigarette and got out of the truck and Ryan turned off the engine and followed him.
The snow had slackened though it was still falling at a steady, sifting pace. If it kept up all night they’d have to shovel out in the morning, and his dad would make sure Ryan did his share and more. It wasn’t anything to look forward to. Chip was strolling along as if he didn’t feel the cold anymore, sniffing the air as if falling snow was just another stoned treat. It was a pretty safe bet that Uncle Ray didn’t wake him up early these days to tell him there was a shovel with his name on it.
They stopped at the door of the Legion. “You coming in?” Ryan asked, though he guessed he knew Chip wouldn’t.
“Nah. I’ll probably go on back home. I can only handle so much excitement.” He laughed his unsteady laugh and slapped Ryan on the back. “Go on in, man. Join the party.”
It’s not my party, Ryan wanted to say, because it both was and it wasn’t, and the people inside would welcome him and draw him in and he both would and would not want them to. “Hey, thanks for the . . . ,” he began, but Chip was already walking away down the snowy street, raising his arm in a backward wave.
Ryan opened the door just wide enough to step inside. And because he was still high and he was afraid it showed, and also because his girlfriend might still be in play somewhere, he hung back.
The band was taking a break. People were sitting down and haw-hawing over their drinks, and his sister had taken off her veil and perched it on the table next to her like a doll or a pet, and her new husband was off somewhere Ryan couldn’t see, probably being talked out of shooting himself in the head now that he’d gone and signed his life away.
Through the pass-through he saw the kitchen, wiped down clean, every pan washed and scrubbed and stacked. The band straggled back to the microphone, ready for one last set. They started in playing something fast and swingy Ryan didn’t recognize, something with no words in it, nobody getting up because they didn’t know how to dance to it.
Then an amazing thing: his Uncle Norm came out of the kitchen with a can of Dance Wax, sprinkling it over the scuffed floor. Little powdery flakes, like snow falling inside. Then Aunt Martha joined him, and the two of them clasped hands, Norm’s arm around her waist. They stepped together, stepped and twirled and glided, up and down and round and round, some fast step they must have learned back when they were kids and had been practicing ever since in some unsuspected secret life that included fun, moving in perfect time with each other and the jazzy music.
Who would have thought it? People at the tables clapped for them. Norm was smiling. Martha, flushed with heat, almost pretty, smiled back. It was like the perfect heart of the snow globe, and Ryan guessed rightly that he would remember the moment forever.
© 2011 Jean Thompson
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Year We Left Home includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jean Thompson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Beginning in a small town in Iowa in 1973, The Year We Left Home follows one extended family through marriages, divorces, tragedy, and everyday life over a span of thirty years. Told from the perspectives of different characters across multiple generations, it provides a stirring, insightful look at how one family redefines happiness and relationships over the course of their lives.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Early on in the novel, Ryan muses “what really counted was the life you made for yourself, and the person you decided to be.” (p. 11) Does this prove to be true? How does this play out in his life, and in the lives of his family members? How does this concept change for him?
2. “Something in him always stood apart, and he was not who people assumed was.” (p. 27) How is this true for Ryan throughout the novel? How do the characters define themselves, and each other?
3. Which narrator did you like best: Anita, Ryan, Chip, Torrie, Audrey, Matthew, or Blake? Why do you think Thompson chose to have Ryan narrate the majority of the sections? Was there someone you wanted to hear more from?
4. Anita feels that she and her mother are always on the verge of a conversation: “Is this what it means to be a wife, a mother, a woman? Is it what you expected? Should I have gone about it differently?” (p. 105) Why don’t they ever actually have that conversation? How might things be different for them, and other women in the novel, if they discussed such things with each other?
5. Why do you think Megan ruins Ryan’s career with her essay? Is she crazy, or clever? Hurt, or just trying to stand out?
6. Why does Anita go to the Goodells’ auction and give her relatives five thousand dollars? Does she feel responsible because her husband is a banker? Talk about Anita’s concept of family and loyalty.
7. Martha’s words at Anita’s wedding startle Ryan: “You never can tell, looking at it from the outside. How miserable people can be in a marriage.” (p. 14) How are her words prophetic? Do you think she was referring to her own marriage, which seemed so happy?
8. Discuss the many different ideas of marriage in the novel. Why does Anita marry Jeff (p. 183), and why does she stay with him? Why does Ryan get married (p. 221), and then have affairs that lead to divorce? What about Blake, whose wife everyone seems to look down on?
9. Ryan thinks to himself, “You decided that your life would go in a certain direction, and maybe it did. Or maybe you were kidding yourself, and the world was mostly a matter of being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time.” (p. 221) Do you agree? How much of Ryan’s life is shaped by his choices, and how much does he simply allow to happen to him?
10. The author states: “Everybody in America is one of two things, either in or out.” (p. 288) How does this theme of insider and outsider play throughout the novel?
11. Why does Anita bring in Rhonda to live with her family? How is it true that sometimes a family needs an orphan?
12. For a while, Anita seems to be drifting through the duties of a wife and mother. What spurs her to take classes to become a realtor and get involved with Alcohol Anonymous? Did Jeff’s descent into alcoholism empower her to take charge of her life, or do you think she would have done so regardless?
13. Throughout the novel, Chip is consistently an outsider who never seems to have much going for him. However, he often provides poignant insights to Ryan and others, and doesn’t seem to experience the lack of fulfillment that plagues many other characters. Why do you think this is?
14. Why do you think Ryan and Chip remain close throughout the years? Is Ryan more like Chip than he might want to admit? How so?
15. Why does Ryan buy the Peerson house?
16. Referring to the Peersons, Blake remarks, “They didn’t think in terms of happy.” (p. 409) Do you agree that the older generations were more content with what they had, and less concerned with searching for happiness elsewhere? Discuss the characters’ conceptions of happiness, and whether or not they are able to find it. What constitutes true happiness?
17. Discuss the title of the novel. Why do you think Thompson chose this title? How does it capture the spirit of the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club
- Torrie and Elton are both photographers who capture everyday objects in unique ways with their cameras. Try taking some shots from an unusual perspective, or take a second look at an object you might walk past every day without appreciating. Or take a trip as a group to a local photography or art exhibit to appreciate other’s perspectives.
- Read one of Jean Thompson’s short story collections, such as Do Not Deny Me. How does it compare to this novel, both in format and thematically?
- Was there an event you wanted to know more about? Discuss with your group where you would add another section to the novel. If you’re feeling creative, try writing an additional section that you feel helps enhance or develop the story.
Why did you choose to have Ryan narrate the majority of the sections? Is there anyone’s perspective you considered writing from that you didn’t end up including?
I wanted the primary narrator, the one who begins and ends the book, to be a young person who comes of age in the course of telling the story. I wanted him to have a certain ambivalence also, one he’s not entirely aware of at first. He wants individual freedom and self-expression, but there is also the gravitational pull of what is familiar and comfortable—home. Those two forces are often in conflict. Anyone I wanted to emerge as a narrator? It would have been interesting to write from Norm or Martha’s perspective, or perhaps their daughter Pat’s. But I just couldn’t stretch my own experience enough to do a credible job. No farm in my past.
Your narrators are very diverse. How were you able to capture the variety of viewpoints so authentically? How do you research your characters?
No research involved, but all writers rely on a process of active observation, wondering what makes certain people, or types of people, tick. One trait or detail leads you to imagine another, and so on. If the characters are convincing and engaging to a reader, then I’ve done my job. But characters, like actual people, are always something of a mystery.
Whose perspective did you enjoy writing from the most? Which was most challenging?
The answer to both questions is Chip. He is such an outlandish character in many respects, so damaged, and at the mercy of so many impulses. I enjoyed the freedom to take his consciousness, and his story, in any direction I chose. At the same time, he was such a wild card, it was difficult to keep the character coherent, sometimes literally.
After your recent, extremely successful, award-winning story collections, what made you decide to write a novel?
For the last ten years or more, I’ve alternated writing short stories and novels. There’s no ideology or strategy involved, just a sense of trying to keep things fresh for myself. Of trying to stay un-bored, if you will.
Where did the idea for this particular novel and its characters and themes originate?
With a wedding I once attended, very much like the one that begins the book. In some ways it was a vague memory, in others, quite clear, and there was something about it that made me recall it after all this time and wish to revisit it and reinvent it. Then the tale grew in the telling. But I almost always begin a book, or a story, with something specific, a scene or an incident that gradually acquires meaning. For instance, how does the wedding celebration give you insight into how the family functions, and also the larger, extended family, and then the community, and from there, perhaps, our national identity.
Many of the sections could potentially stand alone—did you write a particular section first, and then realize there was potential to develop an entire novel? Or did you begin with this format in mind?
I wanted to write an episodic novel, one that covered a long period of time, but in leaps and bounds, and with gaps in between. I think that’s often how we experience our own lives, at least looking back on them: the when-I-was-in-college chapter, the job-I-hated chapter, and so on.
Your last story collection, Do Not Deny Me, was one of the New York Time’s Notable Books for 2009. When writing this book, did you feel any extra pressure, after receiving such an honor?
The only real pressure is self-inflicted, and is transacted between myself and the blank page.
Have you spent any time in rural Iowa? What made you decide to set the novel there? What experiences have you had with small town life?
I’ve been an occasional visitor, and an observer from many highway travels, and of course, it’s only one state over from Illinois, where I live, so I have some store of second-hand knowledge. I’m probably most comfortable with Midwestern settings. Small town life? Again, I’m mostly a voyeur. I do think small towns offer a natural stage for an author, a kind of enclosed space in which to work out a story. Also, the economics and populations of so many small towns have changed rather quickly over the course of a few generations, and that was something I wanted to write about.
A few years ago, you eloquently refuted Stephen King’s assertion that the short story was dying. What do you think is the place of the short story in today’s literary canon?
I do think that a lot depends on stories finding their place in the great hullaballoo of contemporary publication. Anthologies are useful, because even the most ardent reader would find it hard to search out everything published in the smaller magazines. Large circulation magazines that used to feature fiction now seem to have fewer and fewer pages, and most of those are advertisements. I grew up reading the old Saturday Evening Post, and while no one would argue that many of those stories had literary qualities, there was at least the concept that reading could serve as entertainment. Now, of course, we are overwhelmed and browbeaten by many, many forms of entertainment. But there are still first-rate, excellent stories being written, and, as the poet Richard Hugo said, “Excellent things need no defense.”
One of your characters, Elton, remarks, “The only people who have enough of a soul to make something with a soul are the ones on the outside looking in. You can’t be at home in the world and see what you need to see about it.” (p. 401) Do you agree?
I do and I don’t agree. There’s such a thing as mainstream art, that reaffirms values. Outsider art challenges those values. I’m probably more interested in the latter, but I’d rather see a well-made portrait than—an artist friend told me about this one—an installation of sod in a parking lot. In the novel, I wanted to show a variety of experiences along this continuum, that is, conventional lives that take surprising turns, and outlaw lives that end up circling back home.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
Yes, but it’s still like a big unshaped glob of clay, and at this point it might turn into anything, an elegant vase, or a ceramic frog.