A review of Kim Barnes’ A Country Called Home (by Jill)

After spending two weeks in Latin America with the del Valle-Trueba family, I needed a break from dense prose and long paragraphs.  I needed some short chapters and a book less than 400 pages long.  So I pulled out the next book from my pile of “Cathy Books,” books my boss has given me to read.  I chose Kim Barnes’ A Country Called Home because it was the next in the pile, and because it was short, at 271 pages.

Let me preface this review by saying that I did enjoy this book; it was beautifully written.  But the blurb on the back was not exactly an accurate depiction of the plot.  And I hate it when that happens.  Why deceive the reader?  Are the blurb writers afraid if they write what actually happens we won’t buy the book?  Honestly, I liked the way the story worked out more than what I was promised.

In this book, Thomas and Helen Deracotte pack up and leave Connecticut for the wilds of rural Idaho.  Thomas just finished medical school and is looking to set up his shingle in a simple place—this is 1960, and he’s fascinated by the “philosophy that promoted a primitive existence with little dependence upon the exchange of money (p. 31).”  Surprisingly, Helen, who has grown up with every privilege (I believe she may have been a WASP), is up for the adventure.  So off they go, much to the dismay of her well-to-do parents.  So they purchase land outside of Fife, Idaho, hop into a used VW Beetle, and off they go.  Somewhere along the line, Helen gets pregnant, and because Thomas is so enamored of this back to the land business, she ends up having their daughter (oh, and a stillborn son) in a tent on their new property while people are working on building them a house.  Other than the stillborn son, this all works out surprisingly well from a labor and delivery standpoint.

The interesting thing about Thomas during the early part of the novel is that he seems to have absolutely no interest in starting his medical practice.  He wants to fish on the river that flows through their property.  And that’s sort of all.  I understand nerves and fear and all that, but it’s almost pathological to me how long he postpones going to work.  There are so many things that Thomas does that are never explained, and that is one of the weaknesses of this book.

Eventually, though, he does start to work.  Not a lot, but he does.  Helen, a social sort, gets left out on the farm with the baby, Elise, and Manny, the hired hand.  Manny is about eighteen when the story starts.  He and Helen grow close over the months that they’re isolated out on the farm while Thomas is fishing.  Eventually, for some reason, Helen and Manny go down to the river.  They have sex, and then Helen goes and stands in the river.  The current pulls her under, and she drowns.  Her body is never found.  This is on page 121.

Jump ahead to 1976.  Now Elise is sixteen.  Her father has become an absentee parent.  He has slipped somehow into a Dilaudid (hydromorphone) addiction.  Manny is her father-figure and best friend.  Over the next eight to twelve months that are documented, there are vignettes of events in Elise’s life.  Her horse dies.  She joins a Pentecostal church because of a boy.  She develops anorexia nervosa because the church tells her she is possessed by a demon and must purge by fasting.  Then she ends up in the mental institution in the town (why Fife has a mental institution and not an actual hospital, I will never understand), and meets another boy, Lucas, who she falls in love with, and who gets her pregnant.  You know what?  The more of this story I summarize, the more ridiculous it seems.  Let’s suffice it to say that Elise has a crisis, and Lucas, Manny, and even Thomas rush to her aid.  And that’s all.  The ending is hopeful, though I would not go so far as to call it happy.

Obviously, this book’s strength is not necessarily in the plot, which is borderline absurd.  The strength lies in the characters and the descriptions of the land.  Kim Barnes is from Idaho, and she loves her home.  She made me love it. I wanted to move to Idaho and lay on the beach at Omega and eat at the Blue Bottle in Fife.  Maybe this is an exaggeration.  I definitely wanted to see these places, and was nostalgic for an era in American history that is fading away—small town America is disappearing, and that’s kind of tragic.

Of the characters, I feel like Manny is the one with the most depth.  He seems to have motivations for doing things, and opinions and feelings.  He has guilt for falling in love with Helen and for being there when she gets swept away.  He has loyalty to Elise and Thomas, even though Thomas does not return the loyalty, so wrapped up is he in his addiction.

Elise is also fairly well-drawn, but in a somewhat more vague and teenagerly way.  I understand her feelings of alienation from the other teenagers in Fife—she is homeschooled, and doesn’t really fit in with them.  When one boy shows her the least bit of attention, she jumps in with both feet and embraces him and his life.  Where she loses me is when she gets wrapped up with the Holy Rollers.  Is she so eager to belong to something, anything, that she gives up her individuality?  Why ever would she believe that she was possessed by a demon?  I become further removed jfrom her when she ends up in the mental hospital.  So, she’s beginning to feel healthy again, and then she meets Lucas, and seems to go back down the rabbit hole of obsession with a single human being.  Fortunately for Elise, Lucas seems to be a person who genuinely cares for her and has no designs on her immortal soul.  She just seems like she’ll fall for anyone who pays her the smallest bit of attention.  And that’s sort of annoying to me.

And then there’s Thomas.  Such as he is.  He started out with such promise.  What happens to him?  Because he’s weird from the minute they get to Idaho.  And I know.  His wife died.  It’s awful.  I don’t know how I would function without Jacob.  But I would.  I’d put one foot in front of the other and fake it until I figured it out.  But Thomas just stops.  And while that’s very romantic and all, he had a daughter who needed him.  He needed to pull himself together.  But what does he do?  He gets addicted to narcotics and goes fishing.  Now that I think about it, Barnes does the best job in getting inside Thomas’s head when she is describing his addiction.  I felt what he was feeling then.  And maybe that’s all that was real to him after all those years.

I actually think it would have been okay if this book were longer, because then maybe the author could have included more of the things that I enjoyed.  I’m sure the point of the story was for it to be a spare tale, whittled down to the most important bits.  I get that.  I just don’t like it.  I never have.  Not much for the Hemingway, myself.

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