A COUNTRY CALLED HOME by Kim Barnes
â€śHeâ€™d been reading LIVING THE GOOD LIFE, which detailed the beginnings of the back-to-the-land movement, and had told her how fascinated he was by the philosophy that promoted a primitive existence with little dependence upon the exchange of money.â€ť
Review by Poornima Apte (DEC 22, 2009)
When Helen and Thomas Deracotteâ€”the protagonists of the novel A Country Called Homeâ€”first meet, each is desperately trying to break clean from a trying past. Thomas, the son of an alcoholic single father, is brought up by an illiterate grandmother and through hard work, makes it to medical school. When his grandmother passes away just as Thomas graduates from medical school, he can find nothing to anchor him to home. On the contrary, Thomas wants, both literally and figuratively, to put as much distance between him and the life he has known, as possible.
For her part, Helen finds her life as the youngest daughter of an elite upper crust Connecticut family to be extremely stifling. It doesnâ€™t help that her mother is an exceedingly critical and domineering womanâ€”someone who drives Helenâ€™s father away for extended periods of time.
So when Helen and Thomas decide to marry, Thomas proposes a totally romantic idea. He has been reading up about living off the earth, he says. Wouldnâ€™t true self-reliance be a powerful goodbye to their old way of life? Helen is game. After all, Thomas was the man who had â€śbroken the back of her boredom, thrilled her with his odd intelligence. There had been something feral about him, exotic, as though he had come to her from some faraway country,â€ť Barnes writes of Helenâ€™s attraction to her husband.
The couple is drawn to Idaho â€śby its promise of cheap land and free-flowing rivers.â€ť Itâ€™s all like a romantic treasure hunt and they decide to buy an abandoned farmstead in the town of Fife. Thomas promises his new wife that he will soon set up shop and a thriving practice in town.
Soon though, the harsh realities of â€śself-relianceâ€ť come home to roost. Whatâ€™s worse, it might be that Thomas was not just running away from his past but also from his own self-doubt that haunts him even in Fife. â€śThis is not who I am,â€ť he says when confronted with even the smallest of medical emergencies. He is not sure the medical practice is cut out for himâ€”besides, the town seems to be doing just fine with advice dispensed by a local pharmacist. So he keeps fishing and doing other inconsequential tasks all in an effort to stall the realities of what might come next.
As Thomas gradually draws inward and stays away from the pregnant Helen for hours at a time, Helen begins to question her impulsive decision. â€śAfter weeks of little more than trout or beans, she craved chateaubriand with borderlaise sauce, fresh asparagus with bĂ©arnaise, new red potatoes with rosemary,â€ť Barnes writes. Worse, she realizes she doesnâ€™t have much of a choice: â€śWhich was worse, Helen wondered: the sadness of staying in the mess she had made for herself, or the shame of returning home having failed, just as everyone had predicted she would?â€ť
Helen becomes very lonely and tries to reach out for company â€“ in the form of a lively local woman at the town bar or in Manny, an 18-year old farmhand who is of the earth and self-assured in so many ways that Thomas never will be.
The Deracottesâ€™ daughter, Elise, takes up center stage in the second half of the book. Interestingly enough, she too tries to escape the aloof smugness of her father by joining a local fundamental Christian sect. Elise has a condition called â€śsynesthesiaâ€ť which makes one see colors when listening to music. This condition is diagnosed as the work of the devil and Elise is subsequently subjected to guilt and all kinds of â€śtherapiesâ€ť by this group of fundamentalists.
All along it is Manny who does the fathering even while trying to figure out just how much space he can call his own in the Deracotte household.
Kim Barnes is at her best when she writes about the settings of her native Idaho. And despite some very despairing dark material, there are some touches of humor in here. When Elise visits the church once, for example, she â€śeats the cheese and drank grape Kool-Aid.â€ť A careful reader will discover such intelligent doses of humor in the novel.
Overall though, A Country Called Home very often teeters on the verge of melodrama. In the very end Barnes tries to stage a beautiful, redeeming eventâ€”one that should provide the reader with the emotional uplift theyâ€™re looking for. But by this stage, it all begins to feel a touch overdone and too staged.
Where Barnes shines best is in her description of the slow unraveling of once-idealistic dreams. As the Deracottes find out, Fife, Idaho, may be home but itâ€™s no country for dreamers. After all it is here that they come to realizeâ€”thereâ€™s a big difference between solitude and loneliness. The one can revitalize you just as surely as the other can do you in.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 9 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Anchor (paperback) (October 6, 2009)|
|AMAZON PAGE:||A Country Called Home|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Kim Barnes|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More Idaho:
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