The Year We Left Home, Sing You Home, and Imagine: How Creativity Works
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By CHICAGO LIFE MAGAZINE
The Year We Left Home
by Jean Thompson (Simon & Schuster, $25.00).
What a gloriously crafted novel this is. The tenth and latest work of
fiction by National Book Award nominee Jean Thompson, The Year We Left
Home follows members of a Norwegian-Lutheran farming family in
small-town Iowa during the last three decades of the twentieth century,
carrying them on into the new millennium. As the children leave home and
move around, some of the chapters are set in other places: Chicago
(both Hyde Park and Lincoln Park); Seattle; Reno; Italy; Mexico. But The
Year We left Home uses rural Iowa as its home base and paints the
locale memorably, in a way reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s depiction
of Maine in her 2009 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge.
As was also the case with Olive Kitteridge, every chapter in The Year
We Left Home can stand on its own as an independent short story, though
the separate chapters, chronicling events in the lives of various
members of the Erickson family, entwine ingeniously to form a novel.
Among the Erickson children, as well as their friends and cousins, quite
a few leave Grenada, Iowa, where they have grown up; they set up lives
for themselves elsewhere, with varying degrees of success. Others
remain, trying to farm or run small businesses at a time when much of
rural and agrarian America is in decline. Strikingly, the novel as a
whole adds up to something much greater than the sum of its separate
parts. John Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath, famously used the Joad
family to depict economic and social upheaval in 1930s America. In the
same way, Jean Thompson uses the Erickson family to explore some of the
major social and economic dramas in late twentieth-century America: the
Vietnam War, unemployment, the death of small farms, urbanization,
greater mobility and fragmentation in families, increasing
secularization, technology rendering old jobs and ways of life obsolete.
Jean Thompson has taught creative writing for years at the University
of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Her earlier fiction has had much
acclaim, and in this new novel, there isn’t a false note anywhere.
Thompson is a master of her craft, as seen in this passage where Ryan, a
grown Erickson, surveys an old barn significant to his family: “Built
to last.... It filled him with holy dread to stand in this place that
testified to their grinding, incessant labor. How hard they had worked,
and how stubbornly, every day of their lives, for their little bit of
ease, little bit of pride. They had done so much. They had meant to do
so much more.” This lovely novel could—and should—become an American
classic.—Julie West Johnson
Sing You Home
by Jodi Picoult (Washington Square Press, $16.00).
You Home Jodi Picoult continues her pattern of taking on a controversial
issue, this time gay and reproductive rights.
Zoe Baxter is a music therapist who has been married to Max for nearly
ten years and is desperate to conceive a child. Years of fertility
treatments and miscarriages have left both their marriage and their
finances strained, to the point where Max, a recovering alcoholic,
leaves. He finds solace by becoming “born again” in the fundamentalist
church his brother attends, and becomes a follower of its pastor, Clive
Zoe, emotionally drained by Max’s exit and the fertility
merry-go-round, throws herself into her work and connects with Vanessa, a
school counselor, while doing music therapy with one of her students, a
suicidal young woman. The two form a deep friendship, which evolves
into romantic love. They marry in Massachusetts where same-sex marriage
Conflict arises when the women want to have one of Zoe’s frozen,
fertilized eggs implanted in Vanessa so that they can begin a family.
Max and Pastor Clive are vehemently opposed to this and take the issue
to court, where a vicious battle ensues.
Picoult valiantly attempts to show both sides in an understanding
light, but it is patently obvious on which side her sympathies lie.
Although Max is not a demon, he is a dupe of his church and his lawyer.
The relationship between the women is beautifully drawn; they exhibit a
love encompassing nurturing, humor, intelligence and sacrifice.
The book includes ten soundtracks based on Zoe’s work, but they are
not essential to reading the novel. Picoult’s books almost seem designed
for book clubs, almost too obviously saying, “Here’s something to talk
about this month.” However, she does tell a decent story, which holds
the reader’s attention through the last page.—Cynthia Taubert
Imagine: How Creativity Works
(by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15.00).
In 1965, The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards fell asleep while his tape recorder was on. When he awoke, he played the
tape back and found out that he had written “I Can’t Get No
Satisfaction” in his sleep. Imagine: How Creativity Works is full of
stories like this, illustrating how we create things great and small.
You’ll learn how the floor Swiffer® and Post-It® Notes were created as
well as how Bob Dylan wrote all that music when he was ready to call it a
day. These are fascinating stories you will love. But if you are
expecting a scientific book, this isn’t it. —Kari Burns.
Published: June 10, 2012
Issue: Summer 2012 Issue