Reading Jean Thompson’s novel is much like paging through a family photo album that says “The Year We Left Home” on the cover. Inside, each photo is neatly labeled:
Ryan, January 1973, Iowa
Ryan, April 1973, Iowa
Chip, July 1976, Seattle
Each photograph focuses on one character, but the whole Peerson clan comes and goes in the background of the photos. We get to a look at everybody multiple times over thirty years. We see them at weddings, funerals, family vacations, conventions, trips to visit the sick and dying, farm auctions, business dinners, Al-Anon meetings, moving day.
At the beginning, Ryan is eager to leave home. He doesn’t want to be Norwegian; he doesn’t want to be a tall, bony Peerson. Yet when Norm and Martha, two tall bony Norwegians like himself, only old, claim the dance floor at the wedding reception, Ryan has an intimation of what he is leaving. As he watches the elderly couple dance, “It was like the perfect heart of the snow globe, and Ryan guessed rightly that he would remember the moment forever.”
At the end of the story, Matthew and Jimmy, of the next generation, are getting ready to leave home. And Torrie – brilliant, beautiful, ambitious, creative Torrie – has finally, thirty years later, managed to leave home.
The most compelling “leaving home” photos are of Torrie and Audrey. In the early family photos, Torrie is just a leggy kid in the background of other people’s pictures. But then we come to the photo of her (Torrie, November 1979, Iowa). She’s in the foreground with Martha’s funeral happening in the background. Torrie has acquired big, big dreams. She is going the fastest on her way out of this place. She literally guns her car to get away from the headlights of her dad’s car behind her.
And on the next page of the photo album is a picture of her mother (Audrey, June 1989, Iowa). In this photo, Audrey is trying to take care of an adult Torrie. “Her beautiful, willful daughter had been stolen away and replaced by this changeling creature, a furious and oversize baby who had to be taught all over again how to eat with a knife and fork, toilet herself, tie her shoelaces.” Some days Torrie will not put on clothes and turns on all the stove burners. Torrie looks through the family photo albums and puzzles because pictures of her stop appearing. She demands her mother get her a camera. Soon Torrie begins to wander around the declining small town photographing things and people. We’re told that Torrie’s photos looked less like Torrie looking at the world, and more like the world looking back at Torrie. Audrey, for all the years of grotesque motherhood forced on her when the nest was supposed to empty, feels abandoned.
The great strength of this novel is the way it reveals characters. We see them in selfies (if selfies had been invented then), we see them in formal poses the way they want to be seen, we see them caught off guard, we see them through the eyes of other characters. We see them in their own photography. We know them well at the end and recognize them as ourselves.
Thompson explores many of themes in this novel: maturation, alienation, memory, change, family, tradition love, betrayal, marriage, parenthood, heritage, creativity, and home above all.
Leaving home turns out to be a life long endeavor. Thompson’s characters leave home over and over. And every time they return home, it looks different. As do they.
As do we.
— Sharelle Moranville