In Other Words The Dis­tance Home by Paula Saun­ders

The Dis­tance Home by Paula Saun­ders, 288 pages,

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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

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