I had been a fool to think that this trip was only about my family. It had been about the whole family-those who left, those who stayed, and all those connective tissues on either side of the journey my great-grandparents made. The journey that began with their parents. Mrkopalj had needed to tell its far-flung family its difficult story.
For Jennifer Wilson (and her family, Jim her husband, Zadie her daughter, and Sam her son) an idea born out of a deep inner reflection (Is this the American Dream? Because if it is, it sucks.) in an Iowa Starbucks, creates a 4 month journey for all of them that takes them literally back the village of Mrkopalj (MER-kop-pie) in Croatia, a nation (and region) known in recent times as a place of terrible war and ethnic cleansing, but for Wilson, the nation of her mother’s ancestry.
Written in a first person narrative, Running Away to Home is reminscient of another travel writer’s work that I enjoyed in the early 1980’s, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways. (Wilson is an accomplished travel writer as well with published work in magazines such as National Geographic.)
But this book is a book about a 3-D journey, one that is geographic, one that is genelogical, and one that is an inner journey. All three merge together at various points as Wilson (and her family at times) wrestle with navigating the roads (and culture) of an ancient and diverse people; as she navigates the very trying journey of piecing together her ancestry with little information available to her; and as she journeys in her mind and heart through her own challenging relationship with her mother… and with herself as a mother and a post-modern American woman.
Yet on another level this book is a very delightful read of how challening it is to navigate another culture, one which is little known by many, and which merely “reading about it” does not often help as one experiences it. Among the memorable events in the book (and I share just a few to whet the reader’s appetite) are the experiences of their first pig’s roast in which Zadie and Sam are brought face to face, literally, with the meat they usually saw wrapped in plastic and styrofoam containers.
Another delightful part of this book are the unforgettable people they meet and grow to love while in Croatia: Robert, Cuculic (with an accent mark on the second “c”), Ivana, Karla, and Roberta, as well as others. They become friends, they are family, they are part of the journey as Wilson works, in spurts, at finding the places, people, and graves, of her ancestors who stayed, lived, survived, fought, and died in Croatia. And the chapters in which she comes face to face with living relatives who would have known of her relations who came to America are priceless and moving.
I really enjoyed this book and Wilson’s journey as it is a reminder of how much this nation is truly an immigrant nation even today. And though I read an advance copy of the book, it would have been nice to have some photos to view that would have helped better frame what I was reading. (And Jennifer, I would love to hear how you and your family have re-adjusted to life again here in the states and what lessons you took away from that time in Croatia.)
On my scale of one to five, with one being poor and five being great, I give A Running Away to Home a four, or good read. And believe that this text would be a great one to have in a course on contemporary American society or a writing course.
Note: I received a copy of this book via the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review of it. I was not required to write a positive review.