Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Book Review: Home or Away

By Jami Denison

Ten years ago, when my son was a senior in high school, I wrote a novel loosely based on his first summer playing travel baseball. Last year, when he was antsy waiting to hear whether he’d passed the bar, I suggested he finally read it. I thought it would be an amusing diversion, a memory of fun and funny times. Instead, he paced the living room floor in between chapters, anxious and regretful. “Why,” he asked me, “did you parents always have to ruin everything!”

This cry from my son’s nine-year-old self echoed through my head as I read Kathleen West’s latest, Home or Away. Like her earlier novels, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes and Are We There Yet (reviewed here), Home or Away takes place in Liston Heights, Minnesota, a fictional suburb filled with overachieving kids and their helicopter parents. Unlike these novels, Home or Away is missing that note of satire that made the characters feel slightly exaggerated. Parents who haven’t experienced youth sports might feel that West’s portrayal of youth hockey is embellished, but those of us who’ve been there know it’s a hundred percent true.

When she failed to make the U.S.A. women’s hockey team, Leigh Mackenzie walked away from the sport, seemingly forever. She married her college sweetheart, Charlie, got an MBA, became an investment banker, and moved to Tampa. But now a job opportunity beckons her back to Minnesota, and she’s anxious to see how her nine-year-old son Gus, who’s “Florida good” at hockey, could fare in the hockey-mad environment of Liston Heights. But Leigh will have to confront her troubled past to help Gus make the A team for the Liston Heights Lions. Susy, her former best friend who made the Olympic team in Leigh’s place, is now a coach for the organization, and she knows Leigh’s deepest secret. Will Leigh make the same mistakes again in order to help her son? 

There are many threads and points-of-view in Home or Away, and West weaves them together tightly. While the book starts strong with the hockey, these stories could have any type of sport as their backdrop. Four characters get their own points-of-view: Leigh, ultra-competitive and still in pain over not making the Olympics all those years ago; Charlie, who’s put his own life in the backseat for his family; Susy, who missed her friend and never judged her actions; and finally Gus. For me, Gus’s point-of-view was heartbreaking – a nine-year-old kid keeping a journal of his hockey highlights and lowlights.  

I’ve never read a book before with a character like Leigh—so competitive, so committed to sports and winning that she’d do anything for a spot on the Olympic team. Female athletes aren’t often featured in women’s fiction and domestic thrillers, and the protagonists of West’s other novels were teachers and stay-at-home mothers. I appreciated the uniqueness and specificity of the character. 

When Leigh is forced to confront her actions at Olympic training camp all those years ago, her denials and secrecy ring true. While intimidation and sexual harassment are universal problems, it’s especially endemic in sports, where coaches have all the power and expect access to athletes' bodies. Being inside Leigh’s head as she grappled with understanding what actually happened to her was illuminating in ways that went beyond the novel.

Still, for me, the most important character was Gus. The number of times this nine-year-old fights off tears because of something an adult said to him was disheartening. Hockey becomes his entire life—there’s no mention of school, field trips, or music lessons. Other kids on his team ostracize him because he took a spot from their friend. All of this on the shoulders of a fourth grader. It’s tough to read, especially for a parent.

In her earlier books, West uses a touch of satire and a few broad strokes that enable the reader to distance herself from West’s over-the-top characters. In Home or Away, there is no such escape. These hockey parents hold up a mirror to modern parenting, which treats the successes and failures of children as life or death. Childhood is over way too quickly, and these sports obsessions make it even shorter. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

Enjoyed this post? Never miss out on future posts by following us.

No comments: