I’ve lived in the same house, with the same wonderful partner, for over 30 years. Our house isn’t big, or fancy, or elegantly decorated, but it’s our home, filled with comfort and love, and on a cold, grey day it’s a wonderful, cozy place to be. Curling up with a book on such a day is a treat.
Every year I keep track of the books I’ve read, and in 2017, of the 19 novels, 20 non-fiction titles, and 12,250 pages I read, the theme of home — searching for it, journeying from it, or finding it — features prominently.
There were books about emigrants, and others about immigrants. How fascinating that one vowel and an extra “m” change the meaning from “leaving behind one’s home” to “seeking a new home.” “The Road to Jonestown” by Jeff Guinn chronicles the lives, and ultimate deaths, of those who emigrated from the U.S. with the Reverend Jim Jones to Guyana, in search of a new utopian home that proved to be more hell than home. On a more lighthearted subject, “The Mother-In-Law Cure” by Katherine Wilson follows the emigration of a young American woman to Sicily, where she fell in love with an Italian, and set down roots there.
For the past several years, my interest in the subject of immigration has influenced my choice of books, and 2017 was no exception. One of the most compelling reads was “The Far Away Brothers — Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life” by Lauren Markham. The author explores the harsh but true realities of two teenage immigrants from El Salvador (identical twins), who escape their homeland (rife with gang murders and horrendous poverty) without family or friends, ending up, after a horrific journey, in the United States.
A favorite book of 2017 was “Last Bus to Wisdom” by Ivan Doig. Like “The Far Away Brothers,” this novel follows the solo journey of a young boy from his familiar home to an unfamiliar place. He travels by bus and, unlike the Salvadoran boys, finds love and support from strangers along the way. (I found this wonderful book in a neighborhood Little Free Library, and have since shared it with many other readers.)
One of the most unusual homes I read about in 2017 was “Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit” by Michael Finkel. It’s the fascinating story of Christopher Knight, who left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the Maine woods, where he lived undetected, without a structure, for 27 years. He existed by pilfering food and supplies from vacation cabins nearby, relying on his skills as a tinkerer, locksmith and forager.
“The Sound of Gravel” by Ruth Wariner is the true story of a woman who was unable to escape her home for part of her life. The 39th daughter of her father’s 42 children, she was raised in a polygamist community in Mexico, living in inadequate housing, surrounded by violence and terror. Ultimately, she escaped her childhood home, and now lives in Oregon.
Hometowns are explored in “Janestown: An American Story” by Amy Goldstein, and “American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse. In “Janestown,” Goldstein paints a portrait of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s Michigan hometown, a place that once thrived, and now struggles with the loss of many auto industry/family wage jobs. “American Fire” is the true story of a once-thriving county on the rural Virginia coast that was beset by dozens of arson fires. Among other things, this is the compelling story of the amazing volunteer fire fighters who worked to protect their hometowns.
Though I tried to hide from the dismal politics of 2017, my home was inundated with the news of rude leaders, sexual assaults, and atomic bomb buttons. So too was my reading list. I read “The Making of Donald Trump” by D.C. Johnson; “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate” by the now ex-Senator Franken; and “King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea” by Blaine Harden. Luckily, there were also inspiring books. Among my favorites was “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy” by Rachel Joyce. This lovely novel is the sequel to “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” one of my favorite reads of 2013. The character Queenie, on her death bed, reminds us, “It has been everywhere, my happiness … but it was such a small, plain thing that I mistook it for something ordinary and failed to see. We expect our happiness to come with a sign and bells, but it doesn’t.” She continues, “People think you have to walk to go on a journey. But you don’t, you see. You can lie in bed and make a journey too.”
It has been my good fortune to have a home, and a hometown, that I love and cherish. I didn’t need to ford a river, cross a desert, hide in a car trunk or sell my body to call this home. I came to this place in a Chevrolet Vega. I’m not sure why I migrated west — I wasn’t impoverished, hungry, or threatened. I had a home, and friends, and food to eat. But 38 years later, I’m glad I did.
Laura Markham, the school counselor who became a writer to tell the story of two Salvadoran boys, has this to say: “People migrate now for the same reason they always have: for survival. The United States can build a wall, dig a two-thousand-mile trench, patrol with drones and military-grade vehicles and machine guns, and put thousands more guards at the border. Desperate migrants will still find another way … Plenty of work must be done here in the United States to achieve responsible immigration reform — but to focus only on our side of the border is to miss the urgent and persistent realities at the very heart of undocumented immigration. It is also to understand far too narrowly the lives and motivations of the millions who have made this country their home. Immigrants to the United States were and still are determined by the places from which they came, and we in turn are determined by them. Whether by choice, by necessity, or both, they are also Americans.”