The Distance Home by Paula Saunders
Penguin Random House: 8/7/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
The Distance Home by Paula Saunders is a very highly recommended
family drama which is beautifully written while brilliantly depicting a
highly dysfunctional post World War II family living in West River
René narrates the story of her contentious childhood in South Dakota,
beginning on the plains next to the Missouri River in Fort Pierre, and
later in the foothills of the Black Hills in Rapid City. Set in the
1950'and 60's, her parents, Al and Eve, married young and lived in Al's
parents' basement, where Leon and René were born. Al is a
cattle trader, which means he spends more time away from his family
than at home, so Eve must make a life for her children. She also fights
to overcome the blatant favoritism Al and his mother show to René, by
favoring and fighting for sensitive Leon, who is mocked and treated
harshly by Al and his mother - first for his stutter and later for
dancing. Eve signed Leon up for a tap dancing class, and later ballet,
when he showed a natural aptitude for dance, which Al cannot accept.
When René shows the same natural ability for dance, she is applauded and
praised. The battle lines are clearly set, with Eve defending Leon and
Jayne and Al favoring René.
When the family moves to Rapid City, the gulf between parents and
children widens and worsens. The parents are constantly battling each
other when Al comes home. His disdain for Leon is as obvious as his
favoritism for René. Sides are clearly drawn: Eve defends Leon; Al
prefers René. Al even ignores Leon's many accomplishments playing
baseball and never attends a game. The epic battles and the abusive
punishments doled out to Leon result in both Leon and René being
diagnosed with PTSD as adults. Leon turns to self-destructive behavior,
while René tries to excel at everything.
The novel follows their abusive childhoods through René's narrative.
Occasionally inserted in the story is information from future
discussions shared between Leon and Rene as adults. They provide a
glimpse into the fallout from their childhood and the destruction that
resulted. Families are complicated organisms and Saunders clearly
captures this in The Distance Home. It has been said that the
novel draws on Saunders's own family history, which makes perfect sense
because the turmoil, emotions, and the prevailing attitudes of that
period in American history is captured so completely.
The writing is exquisite in this well-written debut novel and the
narrative is compelling. I was totally immersed in this family drama and
the struggle both Leon and René faced with their combative parents
making it almost a conflict between them. (This is a testament to the
wisdom of never, ever, picking or having a favorite child.) The
conflicts are realistically portrayed with brutality, but also result in
compassion for the characters. The Distance Home is totally set
during the time period indicated and in South Dakota as it was at that
time. (Small soapbox: To judge this or any novel based on current
societal and political measurements is unfair. What is the worth of
providing a historically accurate setting if reviewers judge it based on
modern sentiments rather than being pleased over the progress we have
made and continue to make.)
The character who is most fully developed is René, especially since she
is the narrator and is telling the story. Leon's character is also
fairly well-developed through her eyes. Jayne's character is not fully
formed, but there can often be a disassociation between older and
younger siblings. Between the parents, Eve is the most fully realized
character, but then she was also the main parent who was with the
children daily while Al was usually traveling. Saunders did an excellent
job depicting the conflicting emotions René felt toward her mother, and
the final resolution of them was touching.
This is truly one of the better novels I've read this year and it is a
notable debut novel. It is immediately going on my list of contenders
for the top ten novels of the year. Hopefully Saunders will be writing
another novel soon.
My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.