It is difficult to determine what kind of book April Smith intended her new novel to be. Is it to be a piece of personal American history like her "A Star for Mrs. Blake"? Is it to be a thriller in the manner of her FBI Special Agent Ana Grey series? As it stands, it’s a mash-up of both — and a rather rickety mash-up at that.
"Home Sweet Home" begins in 1985 in the emergency room of Mercy Medical Center in Rapid City, S.D. It is the day after Christmas, and the relatives and friends of the Lance Kusek family have gathered to discover what happened in the Kusek home the night before. Two of the three Kuseks struggle for life; one has died.
It’s a pretty unsettling beginning to the novel. In fact, it is riveting. We are ready for the thriller ride.
But then Smith’s other novel takes over, one that has echoes of the recent Jane Smiley "American trilogy." "Home Sweet Home" segues into broad history of a small town in South Dakota. The novel becomes a history of the Calvin Kusek family (Lance will be their younger child) and their search for the "real" America a generation earlier.
Calvin Kusek has been a pilot during World War II. He returns to New York to become a labor lawyer and ends up defending Betsy Ferguson in a case involving a labor dispute with Gimbels department store.
Their attraction is immediate. Their antipathy to big city life grows, and after they marry and start their family — their first-born is the independent Jo — the Kuseks end up in South Dakota with the intention of becoming part of the American heartland.
With the initial generosity of the Roy family, whose son Scotty flew with Cal during the war, the Kuseks eventually begin life on their own ranch. It is hard and rewarding work. Cal eventually joins a law practice in Rapid City; Betsy becomes a nurse.
Oh, and we do return to Mercy Hospital in 1985 every once in a while, just without much forward momentum towards understanding what happened to Lance Kusek on Christmas Eve.
Cal runs for U. S. Senate, losing the election badly because of an FBI investigation into Betsy’s supposed links to the Communist Party of her youth. There’s a libel suit to hold the fear and hate from their friends at bay.
The problem is that readers are held at bay, too, confused about where to look as they read "Home Sweet Home." Is the book focusing on small-town life? Mass hysteria? McCarthyism? The tenuous — at best — American Dream?
And what about the horrors at the home of Lance Kusek, the incident that Smith uses to begin her novel?
The two threads of the novel do come together — sort of — but not in any completely satisfying way. This simple fact will make astute readers wonder why the mash-up? Why is the murder mystery so necessary for the Calvin Kusek history?
That’s a pretty big question.
Steven Whitton is a Professor of English at Jacksonville State University.