A COUNTRY CALLED HOME by Kim Barnes

Book Quote:

“He’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.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (DEC 22, 2009)

When Helen and Thomas Deracotte—the protagonists of the novel A Country Called Home—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 doesn’t help that her mother is an exceedingly critical and domineering woman—someone who drives Helen’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. Wouldn’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 “broken 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,” Barnes writes of Helen’s attraction to her husband.

The couple is drawn to Idaho “by its promise of cheap land and free-flowing rivers.” It’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 “self-reliance” come home to roost. What’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. “This is not who I am,” he says when confronted with even the smallest of medical emergencies. He is not sure the medical practice is cut out for him—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. “After weeks of little more than trout or beans, she craved chateaubriand with borderlaise sauce, fresh asparagus with béarnaise, new red potatoes with rosemary,” Barnes writes. Worse, she realizes she doesn’t have much of a choice: “Which 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?”

Helen becomes very lonely and tries to reach out for company – 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 Deracottes’ 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 “synesthesia” 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 “therapies” 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 “eats the cheese and drank grape Kool-Aid.” 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 event—one that should provide the reader with the emotional uplift they’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 it’s no country for dreamers. After all it is here that they come to realize—there’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: stars-4-0from 9 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor (paperback) (October 6, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AMAZON PAGE: A Country Called Home
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Kim Barnes
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More Idaho:

Mineral Spirits by Heather Sharfeddin

The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris

Bibliography:

Nonfiction:

As co-editor:

As co-editor:


December 22, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Reading Guide, US Frontier West, Wild West

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