Lisa M. Wayman’s book, Longing for Home, is about–well–longing for home. It is a topic fraught with possibilities, a title the very sound of which can cause a catch in the breath, a quick flash of memory, a kind of sorrow. Is it the longing to which we all so immediately relate? Is it home, which in one way or another we all have had and most of us have lost? Is it the nearly unbearable combination of those pulls on the heart?
And does it matter? Franz Kafka wrote,
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. . . we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves. . .”
Lisa Wayman knows a bit about longing for home.
“Lisa Wayman wrote Longing for Home to explore her own heritage as well as work out what it means to find a home and family. She has many Native American friends who formally introduce themselves with their tribe, band, family and name. Lisa is at a disadvantage because she doesn’t know her tribe and band.”
Longing for Home opens with a section titled “Family: Ellis Island May 26 1892,” and is there a more familiar metaphor for home–for leaving home, for searching for home, for the home promised in America? Ellis Island. And in the crowds waiting to be processed into this new country–or returned to the homes they are hoping to leave behind–we meet Irena, seventeen years old, a domestic worker, a maid, from Austria, a Slovene. Before we have left her and her story, Irena will have travelled, and searched, and carved a life from Ohio to Wyoming to an Irish neighborhood in Chicago’s meat-packing district, against the backdrop of the fabled “Gilded Age” and the great American Age of Immigration.
This is a book rich in detail, from the dismal particulars of the lives of those struggling in poverty–laborers and immigrants–to the political realities of the time, when women’s “inferiority” was considered a gift from God that kept them from the vote and public life, both sure disruptions to the sacred institution of the family, and the Comstock Law “made it illegal to send ‘erotica, contraceptives, abortifacients or sex toys’ through the mail and made it illegal to distribute written materials about any of the above.”
Early in the book, in a scene on the train, Irena is beginning to consider the arranged marriage that lies ahead and the inevitable-and unknown-sex. She has known only “cats, dogs, pigs, chickens, and sheep” mating on her family’s farm and “the big bull on the neighbor’s farm that serviced all the cows in the area.” None of these memories reassures her, nor does her mother’s parting wisdom that the first time will hurt and after that it is just a wife’s duty.
A question that rides with subtlety and potency beneath the historical record of this novel is, “Are we entirely free of those attitudes?” The answer rides only in the mind of each reader.
Fortunately for Irena, she has an Aunt Sonya, whose experience is different and who tells her,
“It is gentler and nicer than the animals and there is more than only the physical for people. When two people join they become something different. You will take your husband into your body. You will take pleasure from each other and your hearts learn to open to each other until you both are more than you were.”
Longing for Home is set, in fact, in an exceptionally rich time in American history, and one of the great accomplishments of the book is that it juggles this heavy load without allowing it to overwhelm the one thing whose importance overrides every other consideration in a work of fiction–the telling of a story. We never forget that, while certainly we are being called to a consideration of history and of the many large problems of the late nineteenth century, we are, before all else, being summoned to participate in Irena’s story. It is through Irena that we are “wounded” and “stabbed” by the longing of Wayman’s title. And wounded and stabbed we are.
It is through Irena’s story that we might come to understand Lisa M. Wayman’s longing for home. Lisa Wayman tells us that
“I wrote this book to explore where my family came from. I enjoyed learning about Slovenian myths and folk takes. I also downloaded recipes and tried out some traditional dishes. I put my main character, Irena, in the middle of an Irish neighborhood in Chicago so I could also explore my Irish heritage.”
In addition to her longing for knowledge about her family, Lisa is a PhD nurse researcher who had the skills she needed for the meticulous research evident in her first work of fiction, and in her twenty years of treating patients she has encountered all kinds of people in all stages of health and illness. The characters in Longing for Home reflect a deep understanding of human nature. And, finally, Lisa grew up in a military family with all the moving that involved and has, in many ways, spent her whole life looking for home.
When I think of home, I think of the 200 acres of North Georgia woods where I spent part of my childhood and which has always meant “home” to me. And because of the nature of that place, I imagine finding home as being grounded, earthed, firm in my sense of belonging. As Irena waits to be processed through Ellis Island, her belongings scattered about her, not knowing what she will find in this new land, she feels, “the sensation of disintegrating. . . in little pieces,” no longer sure if she is “Slovene, American, or even maybe Irish? Catholic or Pagan?” She has lost her footing, her ground, has left home behind and, for the moment, lost herself “in the mountains and the fresh blue sky.” Lisa Wayman’s very fine novel, Longing for Home, takes us on that immigrant’s journey toward not only a new home but toward a new definition and a new understanding of home altogether. It is an important journey for each and every one of us to travel.
Longing for Home ends with the simple line, to be interpreted in an endless number of ways–or perhaps in only one–
“Just happy to be finally home. . . just happy to be home.”
Lisa M. Wayman has given us a new way of understanding that ancient truth: how happy we are just to be home.
She has, by her own admission, spent a large part of her life looking for home. She has written a novel about it. I suppose it’s fair to ask ourselves, or even Ms. Wayman, whether she has found it. Having read this lovely book, I know how I would answer.
Thank you, Lisa M. Wayman, for Longing for Home.
Treat yourself to a copy of Longing for Home, softcover or e-book at amazon.com
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