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All Iowans Read program continues with The Year We Left Home

BY LU SHEN | JUNE 27, 2013 5:00 AM

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No matter who you are, where you come from, where you have been, or whether you lived through the farm crisis of the 1980s, there are always aspects that resonate with Iowans in The Year We Left Home.

Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home centers on the Erickson family in Grenada, Iowa, telling a story that captures the turbulent final three decades of the 20th century. It was selected as this year’s All Iowa Reads Book by the Iowa Center for the Book, a program of Iowa Library Services/State Library of Iowa that is affiliated with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. 

Since 2003, the All Iowa Reads program has selected a book that raises “universal social issues relevant to Iowans” and encourages Iowans to come together to read and discuss that book each year. The Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St., will hold a book discussion on The Year We Left Home on Saturday.

Similar to the made-up people in the novel, Grenada is a fictional Iowa town.

“But it is every Iowa small town,” said Robin Martin, the coordinator of the Iowa Center for the Book.

Besides the universal themes of home and what home means in the book, Martin said, a member of the All Iowa Reads committee, the Iowa setting helped The Year We Left Home win the final votes.

Thompson wrote in an email that the reason she set the story in Iowa is because she wanted it to reveal “qualities of the American character — namely, our self-identification as either insiders or outsiders, those who are stakeholders, those who are dispossessed.”

“Iowa, and a family that is only a generation away from an older, agricultural life, seemed like a fitting place for a novel wanting to examine ‘typical’ American experience, both the stereotype and its more realistic (and subversive) version,” said Thompson, a New York Times bestselling author who will visit Coralville in October.

Iowa City is also discussed in the novel when the family’s oldest son, Ryan, goes to the University of Iowa to study political science.

“Iowa City is viewed as this very liberal place where strange people go by small towns in the novel,” Martin said. “And I think people who live in Iowa City could maybe recognize that as they read the novel.”

Martin — a native of Virginia who has lived in Iowa for more than 40 years — said she could relate to the book in many ways. She believes that actual events from the book’s three-decade-span will raise “sustained in-depth discussions” among its readership.

Specifically, Martin pointed out, the farm crisis that shocked the Midwest in 1980s would raise emotional resonance among Iowa readers.

“Many people who are reading the book have lived through the ’80s farm crisis, when farmers could no longer afford to keep their land and had to watch their farms being auctioned off for prices that were much below their true value,” Martin said. “We had a huge loss of small family farms, which affected Iowa small towns very significantly. So, there are lots of things that Iowans can relate to.”

Beth Fisher, the Iowa City Public Library librarian who will lead the book discussion, said the story about a unique yet normal family makes it interesting.

“They are all everyday people,” said Fisher, who said she read the book in two afternoons. “We all have the same problems at home.”

She believes that there will be a good discussion on Saturday.

“There are all sorts of things that have happened in the last 30 years [that people can relate to], and it talks about how those things affect this family, and how you just deal with life, and you go on,” said Fisher, who leads discussions for each year’s All Iowa Reads book.

The Public Library offers The Year We Left Home in all formats to “to all people, regardless of how they need to read it,” she said. Discussion questions are available on the Iowa Center for the Book website.


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