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  • Written by Kim Barnes
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On Sale: September 30, 2008
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27027-6
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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fiction (14) idaho (9) adult (4) coming of age (4)
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A powerful novel of young love and rural isolation from the acclaimed author of In the Wilderness.

Thomas Deracotte is just out of medical school, and his pregnant wife, Helen, have their whole future mapped out for them in upper-crust Connecticut. But they are dreamers, and they set out to create their own farm in rural Idaho instead. The fields are in ruins when they arrive, so they hire a farmhand named Manny to help rebuild. But the sudden, frightening birth of their daughter, Elise, tests the young couple, and Manny is called upon to mend this fractured family. An extraordinary story of hope and idealism, A
Country Called Home is a testament to the power of family—the family we are born to and the family we create.


Chapter One


The druggist waited, whistling, looking out the window, nodding to each person who passed along the Main Street of Fife. It was early, the bank not yet open. The warming September wind wafted through the door seams. On the north hill, he could see the sun just hitting the flat metal roof of the Clearwater Mental Hospital and, across the shared parking lot, the high school. Dr. K often joked that the children of Fife could look out their windows and see their future before them.

“How much?” Manny asked again. The boy was tall enough to meet the older man eye to eye, but he kept his gaze on the faded counter as though some miracle might transpire there.

“Same as last time.”

The cola sat between them, dripping condensation. Manny laid out three pennies, pretended to search for more.

“Don’t got it, do you?” The druggist was not an unfriendly man but brusque and burly, built more like a butcher than a purveyor of medicine. Dr. K, the locals called him, his full name, Kalinosky, too much to mess with. His role in the town went beyond the filling of prescriptions and the dispensing of antiseptics: he diagnosed strep throat, checked children for lice, scoured the wounds caused by pitched rocks, chain saw slips, bicycle wrecks.

“No, sir.” Manny freed his hands, let them drop to his sides. He peered at his shoes, the seams stretched and frayed.

Dr. K sighed, shook his head, pointed toward the door. “Broom’s just outside. Make yourself useful for an hour.”

Like others in Fife, Dr. K knew the details of Manny’s life: his parents’ move from California to the isolated Idaho land they believed a more honest place; the strange little canvas hut that inspired the town’s curiosity and contempt. His father’s insistence on learning the dying art of horse-logging from an old man who stank of sweat and juniper berries. Manny’s birth just a few miles up Itsy Creek, and the death of his mother twelve years later when his little sister, born already dead, was followed by the blood they could not stop flowing. The father, once admired for his native ingenuity and his matched team of Percheron geldings, had headed south to find work and never came back. The good women of Fife had proceeded with a kind of communal adoption, passing the responsibility for Manny’s care from one to the other, each week a different mother, father, cast of siblings, and then the cycle repeating. Dr. K remembered the morning he’d opened the drugstore to find Mrs. Keasling wringing her hands, repeating again and again that der boy, der boy was missing. Dr. K had found Manny where he thought he would, asleep in the fair barn, his father’s auctioned draft horses snuffling his hair, placing their great hooves gently beside him.

Manny stepped outside with the broom, scattering the cats that had gathered for their morning meal. Too many toms, Dr. K thought. Too many litters, but he couldn’t turn away a single one of them. He watched as Manny worked the windows clean of cobwebs, pleased with the care he took with the corners. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, he’d grown into a fine young man: tall and strong-shouldered, more handsome than he needed to be. Thick dark hair, dark eyes, skin like an Italian, Dr. K thought. He looked like he might be broody, but wasn’t. When Manny ran the broom a final time along each crack of the sidewalk and knocked the bristles clean before stepping back into the store, Dr. K opened the cash register and pulled out a dollar bill.

“Here. Buy yourself some real food.” Dr. K slipped the pencil behind his ear, wiped a hand the length of his face. “Listen. You need to get out there and do something. Ray Coon’s logging outfit might need a swamper. Or what about the railroad? Didn’t I hear that they were hiring?”

Manny shrugged. “Guess I’m okay.”

“Okay? What’s that mean? There’s just no reason for you to be living like a hobo. It’s one thing when you’re a boy to be spending your days piddling around at the river, but you’re about past that now. Pretty soon, if you’re not doing nothing, you’ll be good for nothing.”

Manny nodded, agreeable as always. “You got more work you’d like me to do?”

Dr. K sat down on the high stool he kept for resting his feet. “Another few months, I might use you for delivery. Bad weather sets in, business picks up. Which reminds me—how many jars of VapoRub you see on the shelf?”

Manny counted three, one large, two small. The druggist grunted, made a note on a piece of paper. “Better order more. Those Carter kids eat that stuff. Mother thinks it does them more good from the inside.”

Dr. K was tallying his laxative inventory when a man stepped in. Dress shirt and shoes, pants still holding a crease. Sharp nose and chin. Hair just past a good cut. Outside, a faded red Volkswagen sat at the curb, a young woman in the passenger seat, holding her hair away from her neck, fanning herself with a map.

Dr. K moved to rest his meaty palms on the counter. “Yes, sir. What can I help you with?”

“I’m looking for Bag Balm.” The man’s voice had a strange cadence.

“Bag Balm we got.” Dr. K pointed around Manny. “Grab that green tin, Manny. Large size?”

The man nodded his head and pulled a money clip from his pocket.

Not many people came in who weren’t known by the pharmacist in some intimate way. He’d sold the boys their first condoms, seen most of the town’s women through menstruation, childbirth, and menopause. He prescribed headache cures and hangover remedies, administered narcotics to the suffering and sedation to those stricken by grief. If this new man had settled himself within the county, Dr. K would soon make him familiar; if he were only passing through, Dr. K would extract some anecdote to amuse or enlighten the next customer who came in.

Dr. K extended a thick hand. “Burt Kalinosky.”

“Thomas Deracotte.” The stranger shook quickly. He seemed less nervous than efficient. Knew his business and wanted to get on with it.

“Just traveling through, then?”

“We’re here from New Haven. Connecticut. My wife and I have purchased the Bateman place.”

“Sure, I know the place. Knew Olie, too.” Dr. K dealt out the man’s change and followed him to the door. “Bateman place, huh? Last I heard, it’d gotten pretty lean.”

The man took a moment to examine his shoes, looked out the window to Main Street before turning his attention back to the pharmacist. “You might let people know that we’ll be looking for a few laborers. We’ll be able to offer room and board, once our buildings are complete.”

“Well, then,” Dr. K said, “you should meet this young man. He could use some work.”

“How old is he?”

“Manny? Hell, I’m not sure exactly. How old are you, Manny?”

Manny cleared his throat. “Near eighteen.”

“He’s got a good head on him. Only fault that I can see is that he’d rather fish than break a sweat. That and read books.”

Deracotte’s face relaxed. His eyes were stone gray, the color of river rock. “What are you reading these days?”

The boy flushed with the sudden attention. “Great Gatsby, sir.”

Deracotte gave a slight nod of approval. “Are you a fan of Fitzgerald?”

“Guess I’m not sure yet.”

The man smiled. “How about Monday morning to start? Do you have transportation?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you know the place?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. I’ll see you then.”

Dr. K watched through the window as Deracotte ducked into the little car and said something to the woman, who nodded and laughed.

“You better be grateful. I might decide I want that job myself.” He walked to the cash register, began counting change into the till.

“Bet he’s that doctor we heard might be coming,” Manny said.

Dr. K stopped counting his money long enough to gaze toward the door, process the possibility. “You think?”

“I do.”

The druggist stacked the quarters, then the dimes, scratched numbers on the back of a receipt. “Wonder what that would mean.” He touched the nickels, looked up at Manny blankly. “I can’t remember how many goddamn five-cent pieces there are in a dollar.”

“Twenty,” Manny said.

“Yeah,” Dr. K said. “Twenty.” He let them drop back into the till one at a time. “Guess a doctor might mean more business. More prescriptions to fill.”

“That’s true.”

“Injured wouldn’t have to travel so far.”

“You’ve always been good to come to.”

Dr. K let his fingers rest in the drawer. “I think I saved your life once.”

“You did. When I swallowed all the baby aspirin.”

“Yeah, that’s it.” The druggist’s eyes focused, took on more light. “You’d crawled up on the counter, got into Lily Wendle’s medicine cabinet. Whole bottle. Ate them like candy.”

“I remember you holding my head over the sink.”

“Made you drink raw eggs and vinegar.” The pharmacist snorted. “Nothing stayed down. Taught you a lesson, too.” He rolled the bank bag snug. “Think you can work for that man?”

“Guess I might see.” Manny pulled his pants higher. “Think I’ll be going.”

Dr. K nodded and turned to his shelves of pills and syrups. “Thought that rickety-ass salesman was supposed to drag in here today. I’m about out of thyroid.”

He waited for the door to open and close before sitting back down on his stool and pulling out the pack of cigarettes he carried in his breast pocket. The smoke would help take his mind off of the truth laid out before him: a month’s worth of bills and not enough money to pay.

He tapped the ash of his cigarette and considered the man who’d come in for Bag Balm. Myrta, the city clerk, had chippered away at anyone who would listen about the call she’d gotten from some man wanting to know about farm property for sale. “Sight unseen,” she said. “Didn’t even care to look at the place.” Buying without first walking the lay, weighing the dirt in your hand, seeing with your own eyes the well and tasting the water—beyond comprehension to anyone who made his living off the land. Dr. K couldn’t imagine what a physician might want with the Bateman place, but sometimes these people coming in from outside had funny ideas, had to find out things for themselves. With enough money and a little luck, you could make about anything work.

He lifted the bank bag and weighed it in his hand. If the new doctor took away more than he gave, the store would be in trouble. It might have been enough for his father, who had tended the sick with even less and still made something of himself, but lately Dr. K had been thinking less about his father’s life and death and more about his widowed mother, who had moved to Kansas for reasons she couldn’t explain, except that in all the years she’d lived in the river canyon she hadn’t witnessed her share of sky. She was a ninety-year-old woman living two thousand miles away when she’d called him to say that her head hurt. The neighbor found her the next morning, dead of a massive stroke. Maybe he could have saved her, given her a few more years of life, had she stayed near. An aspirin, or a shot of whiskey at bedtime—sometimes it takes so little. What was left in Fife to keep him was little more than his name on the glass and the need he felt to mend and minister to the townsfolk he’d known all his life.

He began to whistle to fill the silence. A few more hours and he could make his way up the stairs to his apartment and turn on the stereo. Maybe he’d choose Verdi, or maybe Puccini. Madame Butterfly. How many times had he listened to the death song of Cio-Cio-San and cried as though it were a new sadness just visited upon him? He’d have some whiskey, and then some dinner. Maybe some of the venison Lyle McNutt had traded for his wife’s medicine. The druggist figured he’d eaten his own weight in deer roasts and sausage over the course of the year it had taken Tally McNutt to die. But it was good and tender and an easy trade for the drugs that erased some part of the woman’s pain.

He’d have offered to feed Manny but the boy had always been shy of charity. Dr. K halfway envied such a life, unencumbered by anything more than the simplest of needs. Maybe working for Deracotte would change all that. A little money always begged for more. He hoped Manny would stop in, let him know how the job was going. Bring him a little news. Want another soda and stay long enough to drink it down.

“You’re a lonely sack of shit,” he said aloud and nodded because there was no arguing with someone as stubborn as he was.

From the Hardcover edition.
Kim Barnes|Author Q&A

About Kim Barnes

Kim Barnes - A Country Called Home

Photo © Scott M. Barrie

Kim Barnes is the author of two memoirs and two previous novels, including A Country Called Home, which received the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in fiction and was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post, the Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian. She is the recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award for an emerging woman writer of nonfiction, and her first memoir, In the Wilderness, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in a number of publications and anthologies, including The New York Times; MORE magazine; The Oprah Magazine; Good Housekeeping; Fourth Genre; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; and the Pushcart Prize anthology. Barnes is a professor of writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.

Author Q&A

Q: Part One of A COUNTRY CALLED HOME is preceded by an epigraph by John Gardner: “The fall from grace is endless.” Why did you choose this quote?
My young life was defined by the teachings of religious fundamentalism and the constant reiteration of man’s fall from grace—that fall from the Garden of Eden. The fact that my own father was a man characterized by a mix of uncommon nobility and flawed judgment...well, that’s the very definition of a tragic figure.

My father was an absolutist, a man of deep conviction who was determined—driven, really—to create a better life for himself and his family. Even though my character Thomas Deracotte is a Yale educated physician, while my father was a logger with very little education, they both believed that they could control the world around them with a mix of superior insight and will. Such people are often blinded by their own vision, even though the vision itself may be an honorable one. And the fact is that, even in their failure to realize that vision, and even though their flawed judgment and blind hubris may result in chaos rather than order, we benefit from their attempts. This is why A COUNTRY CALLED HOME is divided into two parts: the first part is the story of Thomas Deracotte’s attempt to create a Utopian existence for his wife and daughter. Part II explores how Deracotte’s vision, though destructive, is also creative: in the life of his daughter, Elise, we recognize the chance for redemption.

Like Elise, I have been both scarred and shaped by my father’s vision. The strength of his will and demanding nature instilled in me a sense of fearful respect, but it also allowed me the opportunity to rise above the poverty and familial dysfunction that had informed his own life. Without my father’s vision, even though flawed, I would not have achieved my educational and creative goals, and I am grateful. But I’m also aware of how that fall from grace—from childhood innocence and adult obliviousness to consequence—is perpetual.

Q: Where did the novel’s title come from?
My editor Jenny Jackson and I had been knocking around titles for a while. When I suggested the title A COUNTRY CALLED HOME to Jenny, she loved it immediately. I think that we both understood how the title evokes the sense of hope, longing, and resolution that the book explores. Home means so many things to me: a place of comfort, of recognition, of belonging. And country, too, is a word whose meaning is much larger than it seems. A woman or man without a country is someone without a community, a tribe, an identity. I think of Hemingway’s story “In Another Country”: that country is not simply physical but emotional and mental as well. William Gass has a wonderful story titled “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” and I love the use of the word heart to suggest not just a geographical center but an emotional core.

Q: A COUNTRY CALLED HOME takes place in Idaho, which is where you live. There seems to be something about the landscape of the West that has inspired many writers. How has living in
Idaho inspired you to write regional literature, if at all?
I resist the term “regional literature,” but I also understand how the western landscape seems to take on a life of its own in the minds of readers. There is a way in which the West is still the unknown territory, terra incognita, to those outside, and it may be that such a large and dramatic stage defines the atmosphere of a story.

For me, having grown up in the isolated logging camps and small towns of northern Idaho, the landscape is intrinsically linked to my sense of story. The western landscape is new, still being broken down and shoved around. The mountains are still being cut by rivers, the volcanoes are still erupting, and I embrace that sense of motion, of things still being formed and reformed, on such a grand scale. I love the drama, the potential for the natural world to incite action.

I don’t care what place I am writing about, I want to write about it intimately, to know it as my characters do, to have integrated its hanging valleys and river bluffs into my own consciousness. We are all defined by the physical realities of place, whether that place be New Haven, Connecticut, or Fife, Idaho. The smells, the flora and fauna, the feel of rain coming in off the ocean or the mountain snow—it’s all a part of the experience that a writer must re-create in order for the story to be credible.

Q: The novel is set in the 1960s and 1970s. Why did you choose this time period? Has Idaho changed significantly since that time period and would this be a different story if it were set in the present?
Like so many places in the West, Idaho has undergone dramatic changes in the past several decades, mostly brought on by an increasing population. The 60s and 70s represent the cusp of that change.

I often say that people come to the West believing that they can escape their torments. There is still that voice in their heads saying, “Go West, young man!”—that desire to “light out for the territories,” as Huck Finn said. It's so big after all, all that open space and big sky. It allows us to believe that there is still a place we might escape to, where we can disappear and remake ourselves. But, of course, all we do is bring our torment with us. The landscape doesn't absorb—it reflects. Maybe this is why I'm interested in the story of "newcomers" like Thomas and Helen Deracotte. What does it take to belong to a place? When do we know we've been accepted? In my mind, it all comes down to story. When our story becomes a part of the larger narrative of the place, then we have an investment there—we belong.

Even though I’ve set A COUNTRY CALLED HOME in the 1960s and 1970s in order to take advantage of that sense of impending change and to capture a time when much of the West still seemed defined by possibility, I believe that the story of the family itself could happen in any place at any time. Our dreams and visions, our flaws and failures, our desire for love and fear of loss, our need for identity—more than the landscape or time setting, these are the elements that define the story.

Q: In your memoir In the Wilderness: Coming o f Age in Unknown Country, you write about your parents’ involvement in fundamentalism. In A COUNTRY CALLED HOME, the character Elise is drawn into the fundamentalist Pilgrim Holiness Church. Does her experience mirror your own at all?
In many ways, Elise’s experience with the church is a projection of my own. My young life was defined by the teachings of Pentecostal Fundamentalism. We were charismatic, which meant that we believed in the “gifts of the spirit”: speaking in tongues, prophesy, and healing. We also believed in demon possession and exorcism. Every pain, point of confusion, and moment of despair could be blamed on Satan’s influence.

I’ve often thought my parents turned to the little church we attended because of their need for community in such an isolated setting. They were very young when they married, and both were trying to break the cycle of poverty and alcoholism that had defined their own upbringings. Like Elise, what they found in the church was a community of believers with a defined (and very strict) code of behavior, which brought order to the chaos that was their inheritance. The small congregation was like a family: we called one another “brother” and “sister.” We practiced public confession and believed we knew the secrets of one another’s heart. Our beliefs were absolute, and so we were freed from the need to question.

What Elise is searching for is some way to understand what her life is made of, to make sense of her young woman’s turbulent emotions. In a place of social isolation, in the absence of her mother, and without her father’s guidance, she is left to find meaning on her own, and the church offers her a sense of belonging and comfort.

Like Elise, my experience with the church took a dramatic and devastating turn when I was a young woman: the minister and his wife, whom I believed loved and cherished me as a member of their spiritual family, accused me of being demon possessed. Luckily, I was eventually able to move beyond their devastating accusations and escape their influence. But for Elise, the situation becomes increasingly dire, and she is forced into great torment before finding her own way to a place of safety and understanding.

Q: One of the characters in A COUNTRY CALLED HOME has the condition synesthesia, which has gotten more attention recently as studies of music and the brain have increased. What initially caught your interest in this condition?
I’ve always been intrigued by synesthetes—people whose senses function differently, outside of the “normal” experience. Elise is a synesthete: she sees color when she hears music. Like most synesthetes, it takes her some time to realize that her condition is unusual.

Who can help but be fascinated by how the brain works? I remember a quote that goes something like, “The brain is governed by forces that even the brain itself cannot understand.” Even though we’ve learned a great deal about the perceived mind/brain divide, the brain and its functions remain one of the great mysteries.

So, scientifically, I’m intrigued by synesthesia, but I’m also interested in the aesthetics of the condition. It seems to me that synesthetes live in a state of ongoing metaphor. I was interested in exploring how such a characteristic might inform the tension and action of a story. Like so many “differences” between individuals, synesthesia has often been misunderstood and seen as a kind of illness or disorder rather than as an integrative and creative interpretation of sensory stimulation. Scientists sometimes describe synesthesia as part of a “cognitive constellation.” How beautiful is that? Famous synesthetes include Liszt, Kandinsky, Nabokov, and Duke Ellington.

Q: Your husband is a poet. What is it like to be part of a writing couple?
I’ve been married for twenty-five years to the poet Robert Wrigley. One of my students once asked, “What do the two of you talk about over breakfast?” I had to laugh because, in her mind, we must live in a perpetual state of excited interaction. And the truth is that we often do find ourselves talking about an idea for a poem or a breakthrough insight into character motivation. We never tire of imagining and discussing the possibilities contained in our art. From the beginning, Bob has been my first and most important reader, and I’m most often the first lucky person to see drafts of his new poems. From him, I have learned how to listen for the music in words.

I feel very lucky that I share my life with someone who understands how I absorb the world. For both of us, it’s all about word, image, story. I’m also lucky that whatever competition that exists between us is gentle and often humorous (and it’s probably a good thing that his focus is poetry and mine is prose). We understand how locked in and distant the other can get when concentrating on a poem or a scene. We’re empathetic when the writing isn’t going well, and we know how to offer encouragement and support without giving advice, which no writer wants to hear when he or she is in the depths of creative depression. I love that I never have to explain my passion to Bob or rationalize my use of time to write.

Q: What are you working on now?
I’m at work on a novel set in 1960s Saudi Arabia. It is the story of a young American couple who follows the oil boom from Oklahoma to Abqaiq, one of the Arabian American Oil Company’s gated compounds. All they want is to make a better life for themselves, and they end up paying dearly for that desire. In this way, it is not unlike A COUNTRY CALLED HOME—that endless fall from grace.

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards


A Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
An Oregonian Top Ten Northwest Book of the Year

“Gorgeously written . . . lush and memorable. . . . A Country Called Home contains whispers of its literary ancestors but issues its own rich-throated cry into the wilderness.” –Kansas City Star

“In the literature of the American frontier, few setups are as fertile and reliable as the Easterner come West. . . . Because [Barnes] knows the territory so intimately, A Country Called Home is filled with exquisitely etched landscapes. The novel brims with the smell of brambles and berries along an Idaho riverbank, the gritty feel of the dust in an abandoned homesteader’s shack, the sounds of grouse and quail in the fields.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Casts light on the yearning, restless human heart. . . . Powerful.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“In the tradition of the great Western writer Willa Cather, Kim Barnes has written a novel as deeply rooted in the soil of her native Idaho.”–The Oregonian

“Quietly haunting…. [Barnes’s] descriptions of the rugged landscape quiver with stark beauty, wisdom and redemptive grace, much as her characters do.” –The Washington Post

“The idealistic dreams and careless attitudes of the 1960s echo through this powerful novel…. Barnes captures Northwest country with a poet’s eye.” –Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Brilliant. . . . One of three epigraphs, from master writer John Gardner, reads ‘The fall from grace is endless.’ And so it is with Manny, Thomas, Helen and Elise, who are always and slowly losing the battle not just with nature, but with themselves.” –St. Louis Post Dispatch

A Country Called Home, like many Western works of its kind, is a story of perseverance. Barnes’s characters, all carrying their own secret pain, barely keep their heads above the waters that rage around them, literally and figuratively. . . . An elegy of sorts, to the power of the natural world, the lives it so indifferently claims and the grace with which those affected respond to its blows.” –The Oregonian
A Country Called Home is poetically written. The vivid descriptions of the land paint a romantic portrait of the wilderness, where the couple dream they’ll find their ideal life but soon discover that nothing comes easy.” –Las Vegas Review-Journal

“Barnes’s prose is lovely, often incantatory, as she weaves the story of the troubled Deracotte family.” –New West

“At the heart of this disturbing novel set in the Idaho wilderness is the desperate hunger of its characters to escape ennui and emptiness–in short, to find love. . . . Written in beautiful poetic prose, A Country Called Home is highly recommended.” –The Tennessean

“The country through which Kim Barnes characters’ travel in this novel of spiritual and emotional searching is a landscape eroded by grief and yearning and ultimately shame for our dissolution from our gods.  I finished reading A Country Called Home some time ago and still cannot quite move on from the experience.” –Mark Spragg, author of An Unfinished Life

A Country Called Home feels like a classic. . . . An engrossing, sometimes heartbreaking read with a leavening of hopefulness, Kim Barnes’s new novel is not to be missed.” –Bookreporter

“Kim Barnes’s new novel is an exquisitely complex story, by turns pointed and poignant, about everything that matters: family, loyalty, religion, memory, love. With a master's skill Barnes paints a world tinged with loss, adeptly depicting sentiments left unspoken, relationships stunted by the hard winds of grief and guilt, and singular moments full to brimming with natural beauty and grace.”  –Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

“Barnes’s use of language is stunning, making you want to reread paragraphs out loud to someone else so they can enjoy it with you.” –Sacramento Book Review

A Country Called Home is a weave of human longings, accurate in its rendering of the ways they accumulate. . . . Give it a while, watch it come to life, and you’ll find yourself rationing the pages, wishing it was longer.” –William Kittredge, author of The Willow Field

“A seductive book of love and obsession. . . . Some books are easily put down, but the best of them, like A Country Called Home, won’t let go of you.” –Claire Davis, author of Winter Range

From the Hardcover edition.


WINNER 2009 PEN/USA Literary Award
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

"Casts light on the yearning, restless human heart. . . . Powerful." —San Francisco Chronicle

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Kim Barnes's brilliant and unsettling new novel, A Country Called Home.

About the Guide

A lyrical novel deeply attuned to the rhythms of nature and of human consciousness, A Country Called Home contains a vast range of human experience and emotion—birth and death, kindness and cruelty, passion and numbness, hope and despair. In telling the story of Helen and Thomas and the tragedy that befalls them in rural Idaho, A Country Called Home reveals the larger human story of love and loss, and of the secret emotional undercurrents that can so easily engulf us.

Thomas had always dreamed of living by a wild river, and when he marries Helen and convinces her to move to Idaho with him—and to buy a broken-down farm, sight unseen—it would seem his dream had come true. The year is 1960, and the young couple is fleeing the East Coast and the stifling influence of Helen's wealthy parents. But once they arrive in Idaho things begin quickly to go wrong. Thomas is a doctor with an aversion to practicing medicine. His love of fishing and lack of interest in making money force them to live close to the bone. When Helen gives birth prematurely to twins, the second child is born dead. Instead of grieving together for the child, they quickly bury him, with no ceremony or ritual to honor his death, and he is never spoken of again. The pain of that secret loss, known only to Thomas and Helen, casts a shadow over all that follows. Thomas retreats into a solitary world of fishing, loafing, and eventually drug addiction, leaving Helen to care for their daughter, Elise. Helen's loneliness and isolation become so intense that she turns for comfort to Manny, the young man they've hired to help run the farm, and takes the first step that will draw her away forever.

A Country Called Home offers an unflinching look at how dreams can go awry and at the pain human beings can both inflict and endure. Family life in particular is fraught with suffering in this story—children are abused, neglected, and abandoned. But it is the moments of connection, of real tenderness—especially those between Manny and Elise, Manny and Dr. K, and Elise and Lucas—that offer glimmers of hope. These hard-won instances of genuine connection and compassion, rendered with such honesty and emotional nuance, push back against the darkness that seems to hover over all the characters and, in the end, tip the balance of the novel toward hope.

About the Author

Kim Barnes is the author of the novel Finding Caruso and two memoirs, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country—a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize—and Hungry for the World. She is coeditor with Mary Clearman Blew of Circle of Women: An Anthology of Contemporary Western Women Writers, and with Claire Davis of Kiss Tomorrow Hello: Notes from the Midlife Underground by Twenty-Five Women Over Forty. Her essays, stories, and poems have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, MORE magazine, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She teaches writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.

Discussion Guides

1. Why does Kim Barnes begin A Country Called Home with a prologue and end it with an epilogue? How do these two sections create a frame through which to view the novel?

2. Part one of the novel is preceded by an epigraph by John Gardner: "The fall from grace is endless." Why would Barnes choose this quote? In what ways is A Country Called Home about the fall from grace?

3. How are the novel's three main male characters—Thomas, Manny, and Lucas—alike? How has each been shaped by his past?

4. Thomas and Helen are motivated to move to Idaho by a romantic dream of a simpler life in nature and by a rejection of the wealth and empty social conventions of Helen's parents. What causes their dream to unravel so quickly? Is the novel suggesting that such dreams are inherently flawed, or only that Thomas and Helen lack the practical skills to make theirs last?

5. Helen says of her son's death: "the shame that came of his short life had never been spoken, his death never acknowledged" [p. 118]. Why don't Thomas and Helen ever talk about or acknowledge their son's death? Is the fact of his death or their repression of it more damaging to their relationship?

6. Thomas blames himself for Helen's death, just as Helen's mother blames him. Is he, in fact, responsible for her death?

7. Manny wonders, "Was it loneliness that had sent Helen into the water? Despair?" [p. 149]. What was her reason for setting herself adrift in the river? Was it a suicide? What role did her making love with Manny play in her death?

8. How sympathetic is Thomas? Does he invite empathy or judgment, or some mixture of both?

9. Near the end of the novel, during the frantic search for Elise, Lucas feels that he is guided to her: "The dog, the pharmacist, the barrette—it had been easy enough to believe he was being led by fate to some fairy-tale rendezvous with Elise" [p. 262]. Is it fate that leads him to Elise? Does fate seem to play a role in the lives of all the main characters in the novel, or are their experiences determined more by their personal histories and free choices?

10. Why is Elise so easily drawn into the fundamentalist Pilgrim Holiness Church? What unmet needs does the church seem to fill? How does being in the church affect her?

11. A Country Called Home describes a world where children are abused, abandoned, and neglected, where pain and suffering get passed on from one generation to the next. And yet the birth of Elise and Lucas's child seems hopeful. What are the chances that Lucas and Elise can break the cycle of abuse and neglect that they have suffered and raise their child in a more loving way than they were raised?

12. How does the setting of the novel affect its outcome? In what ways do the plants and animals and natural surrounding of backcountry Idaho shape the course of the story?

13. What is the significance of the novel's title, A Country Called Home? What role does home and the idea of home play in the novel? Why do so many of the characters seem to lack a solid sense of home?

14. What roles does Thomas's drug addiction play in the novel? What is he trying to shut out through his addiction?

15. In what ways does the past seem to control, or at least influence, the present in A Country Called Home? How do the main characters try to repress or escape the pain of their pasts? What does the novel as a whole seem to be saying about the relationship between past and present?

Suggested Readings

Willa Cather, My Antonia, O, Pioneers!; Kent Haruf, Eventide, Plainsong; Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite; Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, Home; Mark Spragg, An Unfinished Life; Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge.

  • A Country Called Home by Kim Barnes
  • October 06, 2009
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $16.00
  • 9780307389114

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