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Prodigal Pages Celebrate Many Awkward Returns

by Emily Wylie
Sep 11, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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'Optimist's Daughter' 'Running in the Family' home Emily Wylie

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Emily Wylie

Homecoming is one of those funny smashup-sounding words that English is full of — a weird Saxon two-parter people made up because they needed to describe something ineffable but important to the human experience. And homecoming is an old human experience; the Greeks had a word for it — nostos, which is where we get "nostalgia."

Of course, for many, coming home isn't nostalgic — it's more like combat than like sinking into a warm bath. Whatever the experience, homecoming is always loaded with emotion, and authors can't get enough of talking about prodigal sons and daughters returning to the fold. Here are some of my favorite homecoming stories.

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'Animal Dreams'

Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver, paperback, 352 pages

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams is a classic of the genre, with a reluctant heroine returning to her hometown to care for a father she'd never felt close to. Her return there is part rescue, part retreat: Grace, Ariz., was the locus of her earliest misery, but having failed to feel rooted there, she has been unable to put down roots anywhere else. She has become, as her friend puts it, not a homewrecker, but a home ignorer.

While her father becomes increasingly unanchored with Alzheimer's, Codi struggles to stay still and face home and all the uncomfortable intimacies that it demands. Intrusions on her solitude come from all sides: a posse of salty abuelitas in housedresses who seem to know a lot about Codi; a local heartthrob Navajo traindriver who doesn't seem to give up; and the teenagers Codi starts teaching in the local high school that Kingsolver actually gets quite right. With this company, Animal Dreams makes uncomfortable homecoming quite a pleasure.

'The Optimist's Daughter'

The Optimist's Daughter, by Eudora Welty, paperback, 192 pages

Eudora Welty is a writer who once trained as a photographer, and her portrait of a woman's homecoming in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist's Daughter gets right to the hidden selves good photographs reveal.

Laurel, widowed some time ago, comes to nurse her father who seems to be dying after a simple cataract surgery. When he succumbs, Laurel must negotiate the memories that crowd around her in her childhood home — as well as the awful second wife who's intruded into that home with bad taste and small understanding. Past and present collide and eventually knock Laurel into a new understanding of how to go on. In the end, the optimist's daughter starts to figure out how to look for her light in the future, not in the past.

'Running in the Family'

Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje, paperback, 208 pages

If Welty's work is photographic, Michael Ondaatje's is musical. It's easy to get a little drunk on his words, but a memoir he wrote called Running in the Family (which is, in part, about his perpetually drunken ancestors) laid me to giddy waste when I read it. In this case, homecoming means going to Sri Lanka in order to revisit the scene of a childhood he'd "ignored and not understood."

Ondaatje strokes open the pages of his family's history in dialogues, poems, travel-reporting and transcriptions of raucous family dinner conversations. In the end, his willingness to celebrate the odd and uncomfortable gives us all a lesson in how to approach coming home — no matter how weird those crazy people who greet us there are.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

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