In Other Words The Distance Home by Paula Saunders
The Distance Home by Paula Saunders, 288 pages,
The Distance Home is a fiercely intimate portrait of a mid-20th-century South Dakota family caught in the crossfire of a rapidly changing American culture. With her incisive eye for the undercurrents of the seemingly ordinary, Paula Saunders has created an unforgettable cast of characters that the reader can’t help at first hating, judging, and dismissing. But it’s a group that we will ultimately empathize with, cheer on, and come to love. Her debut autobiographical novel is impossible to put down. Events hurl the characters toward their foreseeable failures and successes as they each strive in their own way to fulfill elusive hopes and dreams. René, the complicated and endearing protagonist, prays for her dysfunctional parents and siblings, that angels “would lift and carry each one of them forward, delivering them safely to wherever it was they all needed to go.”
What begins after World War II as a hopeful marriage between high school sweethearts and the three cherished children they bring into 1950s America, becomes a saga of striving and cruelty, misogyny and violence. Eve grew up along a long dirt road on the wrong side of the Bad River, and as soon as she graduated from high school as class valedictorian and turned eighteen, she decided to marry “Al from up the street.” He was “tall with glossy black curls, fine cowboy boots, and a smile big enough to make the town girls blush.” His red-and-white convertible and green motorboat attested to his adventurous streak, his parents’ fancy house to his solidity.
With the birth of their firstborn son, Leon, quarrels and jealousy infect the newlyweds’ immature union. Al’s meddling mother, Emma, drives a wedge between them, while Eve’s devotion to the baby leaves Al feeling left out. Then along comes René, whose name Eve insists — over Al’s objections — be spelled “with one e and the French diacritical accent aigu right out of nowhere, as if it had fallen through the starry expanse of the night sky on the vast western prairie and landed on her name.” With that, the stage is set for a domestic tug-of-war, as the two children become proxies for the growing hostility between Eve and Al — predictably fueled by Emma. As suddenly as they had married, they had become a family of four, living in a tiny apartment below Eve’s motherin-law. Into this toxic brew comes baby Jayne, a placid, sensitive creature who becomes the perfect foil for the favored René and the wildly talented outcast Leon.
The novel is based on Saunders’ upbringing in Rapid City, South Dakota, and the implausible opportunity for her and her brother to become proficient ballet dancers. In a bizarre twist that is quintessentially American, an émigré dancer from Paris’ legendary Ballet Russe had founded a ballet school in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Leon in the novel — like Saunders’ brother — was among the first male dancers not only in the Dakotas but also across the Intermountain West. Leon’s passion for dance is anathema to Al’s old-fashioned machismo forged from two generations of cattle traders. “All anyone needed to know was that Leon studied ballet, which to ranchers and sons of ranchers, cattlemen and sons of cattlemen, farmers and sons of farmers — who’d grown up with an open horizon stretching before them, the smell of earth and grain and hard work filling their nostrils, and the firm belief that they knew what was what and weren’t going to be bamboozled by some fancy, newfangled, citified way of thinking — meant only one thing: homo, freak, weirdo, faggot, queer, fairy, ‘Twinkle Toes.’ ”
The more accomplished the son, the more aggressive and ruthless the father. As Al ratchets up his brutalizing of Leon, he idolizes René, elevating her to the throne of the “chosen” and saddling her with the burden of being the favored, blessed child. It’s not her fault, René reasons, yet Eve blames her for subtly aligning with Al against Leon; all the while, the clash deepens between her mother and father. Neither parent has the emotional or psychological skill set for introspection as Al spends more and more of his time away from home, eschewing professional help from a local family therapist. Everyone — not just Leon — seems to be in a fight they “didn’t ask for, didn’t understand, and couldn’t win.”
Still, although Leon is the most abused, one cannot help sympathizing with the golden girl. “As far back as René could remember, it had seemed like she’d been riding a stormy, disordered team of horses — Eve and Al, Leon and Jayne, school and ballet — standing astride as many saddles as her legs could manage, clutching a fistful of tangled reins, balancing in jerks and starts like an untrained circus performer.”
It is a testament to Saunders’ outsize talent as a writer that she exquisitely weaves the threads of several complex themes into an inspiring tapestry. Like the beauty and severity of classical ballet — the romance, history, and cruelty of it that prepares one for anything in life and lifts one “beyond the mundane” — this hapless family somehow finds that their struggles lead them to peace and acceptance of one another. From “sweat and bleeding blisters, from the inescapable force of gravity, from the endlessly circumscribed range of the body — ballet was nothing less than the one pure expression of humankind’s ability to transcend, to make this coarse material realm at once central, ethereal, and fully luminous, as if the very word — ballet — meant nothing less than ‘to ripen, to bring to fruition.’ ” In Saunders’ hands, and with a spellbinding conceit that keeps the continuum of past, present, and future both inevitable and changeable, it is a beautiful story. — Sally Denton