Sometimes you just read a book at the right time, and that was the case two weeks ago when I took two back-to-back trips with my children — first to Monterey, CA, to visit my mom, and then to St. Paul, Minnesota, to visit my in-laws — and brought along (as my sole book, because I knew that, traveling with three kids, I would not be doing too much reading) a copy of Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg.
Home Leave is a slim, unusual novel exploring the lives of the Kriegsteins — Chris, an international businessman, his wife Elise, a quiet, thoughtful former evangelical and survivor of childhood abuse, and their daughters Leah and Sophie. Leah is older, a little more awkward, bookish; Sophie is athletic, sensitive, and feisty. As Chris’s work takes the family across continents, Leah and Sophie band together, challenging and defending one another. Sophie’s untimely death shakes the family to its core and forces them to reevaluate the notion of home: if it resides in a place, a person, a collection of memories. What is “home” for someone who has never lived in one place, who has had to shape-shift every few years?
This is something I’ve thought about almost obsessively over the past nine or so years. I grew up in the same small, comfy northern California hometown for eighteen years. My parents were married throughout my childhood, and my brother was born when I was six. I had a cocker spaniel named Puff who I trained to go up and down the slide at the playground across the street. Everything in my life seemed permanent: Puff lived for seventeen years; even a goldfish my brother won for me on a fluke toss at the school’s fall carnival lived eleven years in a tank in my bedroom. The things in my life lasted, almost absurdly so. My parents were both public school teachers and, in fact, one of them worked at every school I ever attended until I left for college, meaning that I was sometimes the recipient of embarrassing call slips that a teacher would read aloud: “Andria, your dad says that your lunch and your trombone are in his office.”
Just after my fourteenth birthday, I met the guy who’d become my husband. Of course, at the time I thought he was just the sweet, athletic, forgivably nerdy kid with a distinct Midwestern vibe and a hat that said “Duck Head” (totally unfathomable to our Californian ilk and the subject of some giggling between my girlfriends and me). My parents, being teachers, had always taught me to be kind to the new students, and so when I saw him — in band, no less — I instantly registered him as someone who’d just moved into town. There’s a meek look to new kids, and I sympathized with it instantly, because I knew how comfortable it was to be like me, always living in the same town where your parents knew every teacher and you were always greeted by name. Nothing seemed more horrible to me than having to move, to leave one circle of friends and flail about in some new place for another. So I always — dutifully, and with the reward of several very good friends — befriended the new kid, and this time was no different. I trotted up and asked him where he’d come from, introduced myself. He was as sweet as he looked, and, as it would turn out, one of those people who was good at everything. We were friends for two years, and it was all very normal with one notable exception: a time when he got up and walked across my tenth grade English class. I looked up and had the weirdest flash of conviction, like the cliched burst of lightning. As clear as day I thought to myself, I want to be important to that person. I heard it as if someone had said it inside my head. And then I sat there, stunned and embarrassed, and ducked back down to my book. But I couldn’t shake it off. I looked up and it happened again, with more certainty: I want to be important to that person and then, as if in response, You will be important to that person. This was absurd; I was not a big believer in fate; I hated chick-flicks; I was not particularly “girly.” Plus, I was dating someone else, with, you know, the usual teenage gusto. But I couldn’t get past my bizarre little internal pronouncement.
Not long after, Dave and I were dating; we were living together at Berkeley, where I worked at University Press Books and would walk home from closing the place up to grab a rotisserie chicken for dinner and then meet Dave at the Aaron Brothers store where he worked. We’d walk home together, chatting about our days, with that wonderful chilly bay air and the smell of a hot rotisserie chicken swinging at my side. We had no real responsibilities. We were so damn young!
Then we moved to Minnesota where I attended grad school; we were married at the St. Paul county courthouse.
I loved living in Minnesota. I loved teaching, and I adored my college students, who were only two or three years younger than me. I think I could probably have stayed there forever if another gong hadn’t gone off in my head, more like a bomb detonating: I wanted to start a family. I was twenty-five and I wanted to become a mother with the kind of crazed conviction that my teenage self had wanted to be important to the gangly, adorable kid across the English class.
There was one problem: Dave, with his UC-Berkeley history degree, was having trouble finding work. While I’d loved life as a grad student and teacher, he’d toiled at a lead battery-recycling plant where he’d had to have his hair tested monthly for lead exposure; he’d picked up trash at the hockey stadium. I was writing a novel all afternoon and he was spearing greasy wrappers at the XCel Energy Center. He’d always had an interest in joining the military; it went hand-in-hand with his history degree, his love of people, his quirky admiration for the more valiant moments in the American past. At Cal, I’d recycled the Navy pamphlets that would show up in our mailbox before he could get to them. I figured it was something he’d outgrow — but it was not.
It turned out that the very moment he was at the Navy recruiting office getting sworn in, I was at the university health clinic being told that, no, I did not have a UTI as I’d peevishly suspected: I was pregnant. Eight weeks along, in fact! And from then on, there was no looking back. For the past nine years we have been in the Navy, moving roughly every two years. The first three tours, we had a baby at the start of every tour: nomadic children born in Virginia, and Illinois, and Monterey, CA (kids who would never live in the same place for more than a year or two, who’d never know the joy of watching a back yard change across the years). We became a small tribe, marching back and forth across the country, watching Dave get better and better at his job, more invested, more sure of his role.
Dave had moved several times as a child, and I had not. This had always intrigued me, made me feel tenderly toward the nervous kid he’d been, over and over again, while I’d charged happily through my sunny youth, anxiety-free. Now that we had children of our own, I’d ask him, “But did you MIND moving so much? How did you know where you belonged? How did you have a sense of place?”
He’d chuckle and be like, “A sense of what?”
“A sense of place!” I’d cry, feeling yet again the strain of my own intensity. “A sense of, you know, the place where you should be, and the things that place makes you love, and care about! Over time…gradually!” I had come to love Minnesota: the green summers and crystal-cold winters; the close proximity of nature; the charming downtown bungalows with their vegetable gardens and back alleys. We’d canoed in the Boundary Waters and rented an apartment near the River Road, where I spied bald eagles heading north each spring as the ice on the Mississippi began to break up. I wanted to raise kids who appreciated these things, too.
“Kids belong where their parents are,” he’d say. “Don’t worry about it. They’ll adjust.”
But I always worried about it.
So, traveling this August — without Dave, who’s on deployment — I had Home Leave in my suitcase. In Monterey I was reminded of my northern California childhood, the things I loved and the things that have fallen away (my parents no longer married, the prohibitive cost of owning a California home). In Minnesota I felt a particular pang for the years Dave and I had spent there, their feel of being both cozy and adventurous.
Opening Home Leave during stolen moments, I felt like Brittani Sonnenberg was inside my mind. She grew up across multiple continents. She’s lived and worked in Germany, China, Minneapolis, southwest Asia.
She, like her character Leah, lost a sister, the person who might have embodied home to her when there was no one place to fill that role. And she, like me, is concerned with what a life on the move makes people into: resigned and somewhat distant, like Chris’s wife, Elise; savvy but unsure, like Leah? If you are like Chris, and the initiator of all these moves, do they have the same impact? (“‘I’ve stayed the same,’ he thinks, stubbornly, and suddenly feels betrayed.”)
“Home Leave,” according to a prefacing note, is a State Department term, a span of time when “employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States.” In the case of Leah and her family, it is their ten-week trips back to the American south every summer — usually just the women of the family and not Chris, who has to stay behind to work: “Like Persephone’s annual permitted return to her mother aboveground, by the gods in Olympus, the powers that be at Chris’s company will grant the Kriegstein women ‘home leave’ once a year, each summer, when they will stay with family and friends.”
But going back only once a year mainly serves the purpose of showing people exactly what they have missed. It reminds them how on-the-outside they are, whereas from a distance, in their heads, they could pretend that nothing has changed. It’s just enough to reinforce their doubts about the major life changes they long ago, so breezily, made.
Was it a mistake to leave the comfort of Atlanta, to presume the struggle abroad would be better, more interesting, build character? How different was that celebration of hardship from the farming philosophy practiced by Chris’s father, waking up at four every morning to work the land?
The novel is told through a kaleidescope of chapters, told by several characters, some wholly unexpected: Elise, Leah, Chris, Chris’s mother (one chapter only, but a favorite of mine); one chapter is told from the point-of-view of a house; two are from the P.O.V. of a character who’s beyond the grave. One chapter is told entirely in the collective voice of ex-pat children (“We are happy our parents are on flights back…We’re happy our roommates aren’t total weirdos”). Given the nature of the book, and its characters who are forced to make large global moves every few years, the fragmentation feels appropriate. And it does not get in the way of caring for the characters.
“Home leave feels like trying to watch two movies with one VCR,” Sonnenberg writes:
Early on in the middle of the first film, you eject the tape and slide the second one in, watch that for a while, then go back to the first one, in the middle of the scene where you stopped the tape. The advantage of such a system is that you can watch two movies, nearly simultaneously. But the choppiness of the viewing experience speaks against it…
This reminds me of one of my favorite Maile Meloy collections, All I Want is to Have it Both Ways. Sonnenberg’s characters all want to have it both ways: Elise wants a sense of adventure and fun, but she wants to put down roots; Chris wants a secure and comfortable family, but this requires that he move them every two years; Leah wants to fit in overseas but can’t, and back in the US for college she is distracted and antsy.
Sonnenberg explores this dislocation with tenderness and expertise, and after reading her novel I felt soothed, even though no one solution had been found.
Our own “Home Leave” was enjoyable, and worth it: good for the children to reconnect to important places, important people.
I guess time will tell how we all end up after this lifetime of wandering: if the kids miraculously just love what we have loved all this time and been unable to show them, or if their childhood associations will be so strong that they want to replicate them, someday, for their own children: the dry heat of a San Diego back yard, palm tree swaying above the fence; the late-summer locusts and heady nighttime flower-scent of St. Louis. What do children care about if they haven’t had eighteen years to hone it? How do adults settle down after two decades of wandering while their peers have bought homes, planted trees that still grow and live ten feet outside their back windows, watched their children wend as a group from elementary to middle to high school, said hello to the same sets of parents at back-to-school-night year after year?
Home Leave was a relief to read, on the one hand, because sometimes I feel I’m the only one who frets over what to others may seem to be a non-issue; but it also showed me that, all these years later, Sonnenberg is still coming to terms with the nomadic youth over which she had no control, still figuring out who it’s made her into and who she’ll decide, in the end, to be.