When it became apparent that we were all going to be settling in for the long haul during COVID-19, I immediately looked for an escape.
Not a literal escape because, you know: quarantine. But definitely a bookish one.
With my kids increasingly tolerant of Mom’s reading time, I’ve been able to devour quite a few stories recently. Jennifer Wilson’s Running Away to Home: My Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters is easily my favorite of the lot — the most engaging and delightful book I’ve read in ages.
It certainly helps that I relate deeply to Jennifer: writer, wife, and mom to two young kids — a son and daughter — who, along with her husband Jim, realized that the rat-race life in suburbia was leading to stuff, but little satisfaction. Or happiness.
Armed with the limited knowledge Jennifer has of her great-grandparents, who immigrated from a small village called Mrkopalj, the Wilson-Hoff family leaves Iowa to spend four months in a town of 800 people — where everyone knows everyone, the homemade alcohol is freely flowing, and lessons about abundance, scarcity, and friendship are abundant.
I knew I was in for a treat as soon as I cracked the cover … even if it took me eight years to get to this point. After finishing Running Away to Home yesterday, I immediately clicked over to send a quarantine copy to my mom, who identifies strongly with our Polish roots. Poland isn’t Croatia, but there were so many similarities in the stories (and recipes!) shared by Jennifer, I knew Mom would love this tale of roots and wings.
That’s when I saw the helpful “You’ve purchased this before!”-style note on Amazon. When I ordered it? Dec. 16, 2012, the day Spencer proposed. I purchased Wilson’s memoir along with a copy of The Wedding Book! (In a world before Amazon Prime, gotta get that $25 free ship.) Seven-plus years later, it finally called loudly enough to me from my bookshelf. If it’s any indication of how the past few years have gone, this memoir was perched next to Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction (helpful book, by the way).
So. Right. Running Away to Home found me at a good time.
It’s hard to put into words just why I loved it so much. Certainly tons of credit goes to Wilson’s funny, warm, astute and tight writing, which drew me in immediately and never let go. Beyond Jennifer, Jim, and young Sam and Zadie, the cast of characters in Mrkopalj — particularly Robert, their landlord/bartender/friend — were endearing and unforgettable. Everyone had so much personality … because, well, I’m sure, they do have so much personality.
When Jennifer is able to connect with lost relatives who still live nearby, I was taken back to my own long afternoons in the sitting rooms of elderly relatives in Pennsylvania, where my own grandparents grew up. We made these pilgrimages every summer, around the time of my great-grandmother’s birthday, playing nearby as the adults reminisced over meals in family-favorite restaurants.
The world Jennifer draws is at once familiar and foreign. It was impossible not to imagine my own great-great-grandparents making the decisions that led to their voyage to America (from Podkarpackie Voivodeship, Poland, sayeth 23andMe).
Running Away to Home is full of revelations about family — the ones who made us, and the one we create ourselves — without ever becoming preachy, condescending, or eyeroll-inducing. Jennifer and Jim wanted to connect with their children, with the land, with others, with each other … and they did, often in ways they did not expect.
Finishing Wilson’s book definitely had me eager to:
a) Learn to officially make my grandmother’s cabbage rolls,
b) Start a garden and grow my own herbs, and
c) Plan a post-COVID vacation to explore my roots abroad.
Recommend highly to readers who are…
- Fans of memoirs and family sagas
- Interested in ancestry/genealogy
- Looking to travel without leaving the couch
- Like entertaining stories with heart, and no tragedy
In short, what I mean to say is … I loved it. And eight years after its initial publication, it totally holds up.
Get it for your Kindle. Grab it on audio. Borrow it from your library. I don’t care how you get here, just … get here if you can.