This reading group guide for The Year We Left Home includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jean Thompson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
Beginning in a small town in Iowa in 1973, The Year We Left Home
follows one extended family through marriages, divorces, tragedy, and everyday life over a span of thirty years. Told from the perspectives of different characters across multiple generations, it provides a stirring, insightful look at how one family redefines happiness and relationships over the course of their lives. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Early on in the novel, Ryan muses “what really counted was the life you made for yourself, and the person you decided to be.” (p. 11) Does this prove to be true? How does this play out in his life, and in the lives of his family members? How does this concept change for him?
2. “Something in him always stood apart, and he was not who people assumed was.” (p. 27) How is this true for Ryan throughout the novel? How do the characters define themselves, and each other?
3. Which narrator did you like best: Anita, Ryan, Chip, Torrie, Audrey, Matthew, or Blake? Why do you think Thompson chose to have Ryan narrate the majority of the sections? Was there someone you wanted to hear more from?
4. Anita feels that she and her mother are always on the verge of a conversation: “Is this what it means to be a wife, a mother, a woman? Is it what you expected? Should I have gone about it differently?” (p. 105) Why don’t they ever actually have that conversation? How might things be different for them, and other women in the novel, if they discussed such things with each other?
5. Why do you think Megan ruins Ryan’s career with her essay? Is she crazy, or clever? Hurt, or just trying to stand out?
6. Why does Anita go to the Goodells’ auction and give her relatives five thousand dollars? Does she feel responsible because her husband is a banker? Talk about Anita’s concept of family and loyalty.
7. Martha’s words at Anita’s wedding startle Ryan: “You never can tell, looking at it from the outside. How miserable people can be in a marriage.” (p. 14) How are her words prophetic? Do you think she was referring to her own marriage, which seemed so happy?
8. Discuss the many different ideas of marriage in the novel. Why does Anita marry Jeff (p. 183), and why does she stay with him? Why does Ryan get married (p. 221), and then have affairs that lead to divorce? What about Blake, whose wife everyone seems to look down on?
9. Ryan thinks to himself, “You decided that your life would go in a certain direction, and maybe it did. Or maybe you were kidding yourself, and the world was mostly a matter of being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time.” (p. 221) Do you agree? How much of Ryan’s life is shaped by his choices, and how much does he simply allow to happen to him?
10. The author states: “Everybody in America is one of two things, either in or out.” (p. 288) How does this theme of insider and outsider play throughout the novel?
11. Why does Anita bring in Rhonda to live with her family? How is it true that sometimes a family needs an orphan?
12. For a while, Anita seems to be drifting through the duties of a wife and mother. What spurs her to take classes to become a realtor and get involved with Alcohol Anonymous? Did Jeff’s descent into alcoholism empower her to take charge of her life, or do you think she would have done so regardless?
13. Throughout the novel, Chip is consistently an outsider who never seems to have much going for him. However, he often provides poignant insights to Ryan and others, and doesn’t seem to experience the lack of fulfillment that plagues many other characters. Why do you think this is?
14. Why do you think Ryan and Chip remain close throughout the years? Is Ryan more like Chip than he might want to admit? How so?
15. Why does Ryan buy the Peerson house?
16. Referring to the Peersons, Blake remarks, “They didn’t think in terms of happy.” (p. 409) Do you agree that the older generations were more content with what they had, and less concerned with searching for happiness elsewhere? Discuss the characters’ conceptions of happiness, and whether or not they are able to find it. What constitutes true happiness?
17. Discuss the title of the novel. Why do you think Thompson chose this title? How does it capture the spirit of the novel?Enhance Your Book Club
A Conversation with Jean ThompsonWhy did you choose to have Ryan narrate the majority of the sections? Is there anyone’s perspective you considered writing from that you didn’t end up including?
- Torrie and Elton are both photographers who capture everyday objects in unique ways with their cameras. Try taking some shots from an unusual perspective, or take a second look at an object you might walk past every day without appreciating. Or take a trip as a group to a local photography or art exhibit to appreciate other’s perspectives.
- Read one of Jean Thompson’s short story collections, such as Do Not Deny Me. How does it compare to this novel, both in format and thematically?
- Was there an event you wanted to know more about? Discuss with your group where you would add another section to the novel. If you’re feeling creative, try writing an additional section that you feel helps enhance or develop the story.
I wanted the primary narrator, the one who begins and ends the book, to be a young person who comes of age in the course of telling the story. I wanted him to have a certain ambivalence also, one he’s not entirely aware of at first. He wants individual freedom and self-expression, but there is also the gravitational pull of what is familiar and comfortable—home. Those two forces are often in conflict. Anyone I wanted to emerge as a narrator? It would have been interesting to write from Norm or Martha’s perspective, or perhaps their daughter Pat’s. But I just couldn’t stretch my own experience enough to do a credible job. No farm in my past.Your narrators are very diverse. How were you able to capture the variety of viewpoints so authentically? How do you research your characters?
No research involved, but all writers rely on a process of active observation, wondering what makes certain people, or types of people, tick. One trait or detail leads you to imagine another, and so on. If the characters are convincing and engaging to a reader, then I’ve done my job. But characters, like actual people, are always something of a mystery.Whose perspective did you enjoy writing from the most? Which was most challenging?
The answer to both questions is Chip. He is such an outlandish character in many respects, so damaged, and at the mercy of so many impulses. I enjoyed the freedom to take his consciousness, and his story, in any direction I chose. At the same time, he was such a wild card, it was difficult to keep the character coherent, sometimes literally.After your recent, extremely successful, award-winning story collections, what made you decide to write a novel?
For the last ten years or more, I’ve alternated writing short stories and novels. There’s no ideology or strategy involved, just a sense of trying to keep things fresh for myself. Of trying to stay un-bored, if you will.Where did the idea for this particular novel and its characters and themes originate?
With a wedding I once attended, very much like the one that begins the book. In some ways it was a vague memory, in others, quite clear, and there was something about it that made me recall it after all this time and wish to revisit it and reinvent it. Then the tale grew in the telling. But I almost always begin a book, or a story, with something specific, a scene or an incident that gradually acquires meaning. For instance, how does the wedding celebration give you insight into how the family functions, and also the larger, extended family, and then the community, and from there, perhaps, our national identity.Many of the sections could potentially stand alone—did you write a particular section first, and then realize there was potential to develop an entire novel? Or did you begin with this format in mind?
I wanted to write an episodic novel, one that covered a long period of time, but in leaps and bounds, and with gaps in between. I think that’s often how we experience our own lives, at least looking back on them: the when-I-was-in-college chapter, the job-I-hated chapter, and so on.Your last story collection, Do Not Deny Me, was one of the New York Time’s Notable Books for 2009. When writing this book, did you feel any extra pressure, after receiving such an honor?
The only real pressure is self-inflicted, and is transacted between myself and the blank page.Have you spent any time in rural Iowa? What made you decide to set the novel there? What experiences have you had with small town life?
I’ve been an occasional visitor, and an observer from many highway travels, and of course, it’s only one state over from Illinois, where I live, so I have some store of second-hand knowledge. I’m probably most comfortable with Midwestern settings. Small town life? Again, I’m mostly a voyeur. I do think small towns offer a natural stage for an author, a kind of enclosed space in which to work out a story. Also, the economics and populations of so many small towns have changed rather quickly over the course of a few generations, and that was something I wanted to write about. A few years ago, you eloquently refuted Stephen King’s assertion that the short story was dying. What do you think is the place of the short story in today’s literary canon?
I do think that a lot depends on stories finding their place in the great hullaballoo of contemporary publication. Anthologies are useful, because even the most ardent reader would find it hard to search out everything published in the smaller magazines. Large circulation magazines that used to feature fiction now seem to have fewer and fewer pages, and most of those are advertisements. I grew up reading the old Saturday Evening Post
, and while no one would argue that many of those stories had literary qualities, there was at least the concept that reading could serve as entertainment. Now, of course, we are overwhelmed and browbeaten by many, many forms of entertainment. But there are still first-rate, excellent stories being written, and, as the poet Richard Hugo said, “Excellent things need no defense.”One of your characters, Elton, remarks, “The only people who have enough of a soul to make something with a soul are the ones on the outside looking in. You can’t be at home in the world and see what you need to see about it.” (p. 401) Do you agree?
I do and I don’t agree. There’s such a thing as mainstream art, that reaffirms values. Outsider art challenges those values. I’m probably more interested in the latter, but I’d rather see a well-made portrait than—an artist friend told me about this one—an installation of sod in a parking lot. In the novel, I wanted to show a variety of experiences along this continuum, that is, conventional lives that take surprising turns, and outlaw lives that end up circling back home.Are you working on anything at the moment?
Yes, but it’s still like a big unshaped glob of clay, and at this point it might turn into anything, an elegant vase, or a ceramic frog.