Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

The Pulitzer Prize committee did not award a fiction prize this year. The New York Times Magazine editors invited a number of writers to make their own recommendations, and Gregory Cowles, an editor of the book review, suggested Jean Thompson's fifth novel, The Year We Left Home. It is extraordinary.

It begins in a small Iowa town in January 1973 (Thompson labels each chapter with a place and date) and ends outside the same town in June 2003. Over the 325 pages and thirty years we watch an ordinary family's four children and a cousin grow, change, get married, divorced, have children themselves, deal with death, and try to live as the country changes around them.

Thompson uses a limited third person point of view for each chapter, and each chapter is a different person, at different time, and set in a different place. They could, it seemed to me, almost be short stories (she's published five story collections) except that we follow virtually the same cast of characters through the entire book, and things that happen in one character's life resonate and connect with another character's. Moreover, she's done something very difficult to do (I know because I'm trying to do it myself in my new book): She's made each point of view character an individual, with individual perceptions, attitudes, and personalities.

Not only that, but she's been able to use the larger events of the period—the Vietnam War, the emptying out of small Midwest towns as family farms failed, the Reagen assassination attempt, the dot-com bubble, and more—to indicate how they affected these individual people. On the one hand, Thompson is not heavy handed about these influences; on the other, her characters are living in a recognizable world of news, television, and pop culture, and social change.

And Thompson is brilliant in sketching a relationship in a few sentences. A character thinking about his wife: "At some point in their life together he had assumed the burden of making her happy. Her most familiar mood, what he thought of as her default position, was one of exasperated suffering. Which he must attend, coax, tease, and try to reason away. He would never be entirely successful; at best she would only be not unhappy. But he would always be obliged to try."

One more example, a description of Norwegian relatives: "They lived out in the boondocks, what his father 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." If you have write exposition, that's the way to do it.

I don't know if The Year We Left Home should have won a Pulitzer Prize (I plan to read the other recommendations). I do know it's a wonderful book.

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