Thompson opened up an unfamiliar world for me inside my very own country, the world of the mid-West where change comes more slowly … but inexorably. Jean Thompson’s book reminded me a bit of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections in that it offers a long view of a mid-western family’s trials and tribulations. And yet Thompson treats her characters with the poignancy and compassion that real, if flawed, people deserve, while Franzen’s characters were too often caricaturized and mocked for my taste.
The Ericksons are a highly-respected farm family in Iowa, where they have lived since their Norwegian descendants arrived on these shores. The parents could be nicely shoehorned into the famous painting “American Gothic” by Grant Wood. The children are another story. The novel begins in the 1970s with the wedding reception of eldest daughter Anita in the local American Legion Hall, a family event narrated from the sarcastic adolescent viewpoint of eldest son Ryan, who can’t wait to split town and begin his life in the “real world.”
Anita gets her marriage, her nice house and her son, to her ever-lasting regret, while Ryan goes out into the world and off to college. The years that follow are dominated by Vietnam and Black Panthers, poet girlfriends and drugs, but Ryan never finds his place. He goes through many painful self-discoveries and even more failed relationships before settling for a lucrative computer job which eventually turns him into the financial backbone of his family. Younger siblings Blake and Torrie don’t really get fleshed out until well into the book, but when they do, they turn out to be fascinating in their own ways, and my particular favorites.
Thompson’s book is an insightful exploration of America during the 1970s, 80s and beyond, of the generational divides, the small joys and large disappointments, the successes and failures, the tragedies and the ties that ultimately bind us all.