• Emailarticle
  • Writecomment

The Year We Left Home, Sing You Home, and Imagine: How Creativity Works

We welcome your review. If we publish it, we will send you a gift certificate for dinner. E-mail to editorial@chicagolife.net or mail to Chicago Life Reviews, P.O. Box 11311, Chicago IL 60611-0311

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).
In Sing 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 Lincoln.
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 is legal.
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