Jean Thompson’s poignant The Year We Left Home chronicles life as it unfolds for the Erickson family over a span of 30 years. The book begins in Iowa circa 1973. The novel’s matriarch and patriarch are salt-of-the-earth folks, each of their four children “some gradation of blonde, long-boned Nordic-ness.” Servant-hearted and fiercely loyal to family who abide in the area, Mom and Dad are subtly written into the background as Thompson narrates the passing years.
As the parents gray with age and irrelevancy in the lives of their children, their progeny play more of a central role in the story. Readers become intimately acquainted with Ryan, Blake, Anita and Torrie as they experience all of life’s stages. Thompson’s nuanced prose echoes each of their distinct voices as she explores the most heartbreaking times in all four characters’ lives.
Ryan, endowed with good looks and brains, leaves the nest with aspirations outside the rural Midwestern perimeter. For most of the book, readers reside with him after he’s landed in Chicago. Ryan struggles with an undercurrent of guilt: He has lost connection to his roots since leaving home, and there are moral missteps, marital skirmishes and paternal responsibilities that weigh heavily on him.
Meanwhile Blake, a carpenter, Anita, a housewife, and the youngest, Torrie, who is forever changed after a tragic accident, remain close to their roots. Although they have the luxury of familial support, they only lean on one another in the worst times.
Thompson paints a compelling, realistic picture of four siblings slugging through issues such as alcoholism, infidelity and handicaps in The Year We Left Home. Thompson tackles the stuff of real life, and it’s clear that she has great compassion for her characters. Their gut-wrenching, honest inner monologues and resilience imbue them with humanity. Readers will undoubtedly see slivers of themselves in this flawed family, and while the content in The Year We Left Home may be heavy, it’s not without an occasional glimpse of a silver lining.