Saturday, October 03, 2015

Coming of age in the heartland: Carol Bodensteiner's Go Away Home

According to the US Census, the population of Jackson County, Iowa, was just over 21,000 in 1910. Opening three years later, Carol Bodensteiner’s debut, set on dairy farms and in the small town of Maquoketa, the county seat, is a heartfelt coming-of-age story that should appeal to adults and mature YAs.

With her clear, unfussy writing style, the author re-creates the daily lives and hopes of women living in America’s heartland, basing the character of Liddie Treadway on her grandmother. Over the course of the novel, which has an epic feel despite its narrow geographic scope, Liddie grows up, comes to see what she values most, and learns the necessity of weathering the storms life sends her way.

Maquoketa is a mere 10 miles from her family’s farm, but for 16-year-old Liddie, “boarding in town, learning to be a seamstress, living on her own – those experiences were exotic.” She has talent and wants to see where it takes her, especially if it’s far from Iowa. But after her older sister, Amelia, gets pregnant and is sent away, and another tragedy strikes, Liddie sees her career aspirations crushed.

But circumstances change, as the swift-moving plot demonstrates. Liddie’s apprenticeship in a sewing shop gives her marketable skills, and her friendship with a photographer opens doors she never imagined. She writes frequent letters to Joe Bauer, her family’s former hired hand, homesteading in distant Saskatchewan, but she sees him only as a good friend. She wants to be more than a farmer’s wife.

She often acts immature for her years, stomping her feet when events go contrary to expectations, but it’s easy to warm to Liddie and root for her to outgrow her naïveté. The social values expressed in the novel reflect the time; even the kindest, most good-hearted men expect their wives home in time to cook dinner. Themes of women’s suffrage, anti-war sentiment, prejudice against German-Americans, and the threat of Spanish influenza wend through the novel.

Bodensteiner includes picturesque images of the hills of rural Iowa, “where the pattern of fields and fences reminded [Liddie] of a nine-patch quilt.” In places the novel reads like scenes from Country Magazine come to life. This was a time of party-line telephones and Brownie cameras, letter-writing and home-made dresses, when daily chores were constant and driving a car was an exciting, new experience.

However, despite its nostalgic qualities, the story has an inner grit that adds to its feeling of authenticity. Farming is difficult, and the family relationships are far from idealized. Readers interested in early 20th-century women’s lives should appreciate this involving story about the strength to leave home, the courage to come back, and the relationships formed along the way. A sequel would be welcome.

Go Away Home was published by Lake Union in July (400pp, pb and ebook).  Thanks to the publisher for making it available on NetGalley as a "read now" title.  A special alert: for those who ordinarily read the Author's Note at the end before starting a book, please don't!  (Thankfully, I didn't.)  Doing so will spoil the reading experience. 


  1. I thought this review was great. This coming of age novel brings up issues such as careers for women, unwed pregnancy and family responsibilities. The way these issues were dealt with in novel seem so far removed from our daily life but in the early 1900s you as a women would be seen as crazy or strange to want a career other than as a wife and mother. Liddie's relationship with the photographer is unclear, makes me wonder if it is also a romantic relationship or a relationship that benefits her career.

    1. Thank you! You've caught many of the themes in the novel. And it's true, I left the details on Liddie's relationship with the photographer blurry, because I didn't want to give anything away... it is a major part of the book.

  2. What is it about the author note that ruins the reading experience? That's an intriguing comment you made!

    1. Hi Belinda, thanks for commenting! Some readers have a habit of reading the author's note first, even though it's at the very end. (I sometimes do.) In this case, it would be a bad idea, because the note discusses a critical point about how the book concludes and why the author wrote things that way. It was enlightening information, and absolutely fair for the author to have included it, but potential readers should beware!