THE DISTANCE HOME
By Paula Saunders
288 pp. Random House. $27.
In “The Distance Home,” Paula Saunders’s debut novel, family alliances ossify early. Al and Eve are the parents of young children when Al’s mother, Emma, begins to favor the middle child, René, over her younger sister, Jayne, and her sensitive older brother, Leon.
“The problem,” Saunders writes, “which had started earlier — maybe even back before time itself — was that, as Emma was every day bringing René into her heart and holding her as the beloved, she was, in the same moment, handily evicting Leon.” Al sides with his mother; Eve aligns herself with Leon and Jayne. And so the fault lines are drawn, the children made actors in a home as harsh and factious as the rural South Dakota landscape in which the novel is set.
The family moves to the Black Hills above Rapid City, where Native and white populations live in uneasy proximity. By the 1960s, the indigenous people who inhabited the Black Hills for thousands of years have been confined, violated and stripped of their culture by the United States government. Just as discrimination and systemic inequality endure — reinforced by upwardly mobile whites like Al and Eve, who are all too happy to buy food cheaply “in the Indian part of town” but warn their children to stay away from Native classmates — so too does history shape the lives of Leon and René.
This is particularly evident in the case of Leon: natural peacemaker, natural dancer, derided by his father for the latter as well as the “beautiful high cheekbones and broad nose of the Sioux” risen “from somewhere buried deep in the silence of the genetic line.” Al, a second-generation cattle trader, has no framework for unconventional masculinity. Though he is frequently on the road — making Eve, in one of the novel’s rich vernacular details, a “grass widow” — he disdains Leon at home. Leon’s torment is expressed first through a stutter and later through trichotillomania (pulling his hair out), but he remains tenderhearted, quick to defend his sister at school despite her privilege at home.
Leon and René’s sole parity exists in the realm of dance: Naturally talented, they excel in the region’s only elite ballet academy. Through ballet, as unusual in midcentury South Dakota as Leon himself, Saunders explores the extent to which it is possible to escape one’s circumstances. The siblings’ dance instructor argues that although it rose “from the basest limits of our existence … ballet was nothing less than the one pure expression of humankind’s ability to transcend.” Her optimism mirrors the up-by-your-bootstraps narrative core to a mythic version of America, one that’s accessible to very few.
I couldn’t help feeling disappointed, then, that the novel’s exploration of prejudice and vulnerability remains incomplete. Early on, Leon’s struggle to escape his environment is compared to that of Native Americans: “Leon was in a fight just like the Indians — a fight he hadn’t asked for, didn’t understand, and couldn’t win. … He was going to lose, and it wasn’t going to be fair or just or right.” Saunders movingly explores the difficulty of changing one’s course in the face of accumulated trauma, but the deeper implications of this rather delicate analogy to Native American experience remain unclear. Posing Leon as a subtle proxy for indigenity risks an oversimplified equivalence — unexpected in a novel sensitive to imbalance.
Still, Saunders skillfully illuminates how time heals certain wounds while deepening others, and her depiction of aging is viscerally affecting. As Leon’s life tunnels toward its inevitable conclusion, “The Distance Home” becomes a meditation on the violence of American ambition — and a powerful call for self-examination. René is pained by her brother’s suffering, “but when it came to sacrificing something for Leon, it always seemed to René like there was an answer she couldn’t remember or that she’d never known in the first place. … And mostly, she was watching out for her own skin.” It’s easy to hold Leon’s family in contempt. More difficult — and, as this compassionate novel implies, more important — is to acknowledge in ourselves the combination of fear and complacency that prevents those of us who know better from acting like it.
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