Home Field by Hannah Gersen, out yesterday from HarperCollins, is a book about recovery. It is a book about the ways people rebound from injury, from heartache, from death. This debut novel follows its characters as they learn the limits of their bodies and struggle to entrust themselves to those around them. Gersen’s bold debut is dark and hopeful and begs us to question how depression and suicide are treated in society.
Home Field sets the pace in the prologue, when Nicole, wife of high school football coach Dean Renner, mother of three, commits suicide. A lesser novel may have tucked the suicide away, but Gersen is daring enough to write it for all to see. It’s when Stephanie, Nicole’s daughter, realizes “what a fragile thing her body really [is]”: a motif the novel returns to again and again. Dean worries at one point that Stephanie “had decided just to put her mother’s death out of her mind,” that she wasn’t physically able to cope, and later he relishes his old football days, the “heavy animal sound of their bodies smashing together . . . the dizzying, disconcerting pain of it.” They’re different pains, different trials for the body to undergo. Every word that follows Nicole’s suicide is a step toward recovery. Stephanie struggles academically and experiments with drugs; Dean resigns from football, only to become the interim girls’ cross-country coach; eleven-year-old Robby withdraws and skips school; eight-year-old Bry develops a sudden interest in his aunt’s fundamentalist Christian church. Gersen’s characters question how to rebuild their lives in the wake of their tragedy. How can everything change and yet feel the same?
Throughout the 400 pages of Home Field, there isn’t a wasted moment. Gersen does a masterful job of depicting small-town life. Everyone, even the peripheral characters—the parents of the cross-country girls, the woman Dean falls for and then drifts away from, the extended family members—has a purpose. They all feel like fully-realized characters. Every member of Willowboro, a rural Maryland town near the site of the battle of Antietam, seems to make an appearance in the novel. They arrive to comfort, and complicate, the lives of the Renner family: Stephanie’s first friends at college, Raquel and Gabe, who give her ecstasy; Dean’s niece Megan, who arrives as a ringer for the cross-country team; even Robbie’s friends in the high school play, an activity he feels his father is ashamed of, because it isn’t a sport.
Home Field finds its footing in the darkness, in the exposition when its characters are alone with their thoughts, when Dean or Stephanie has a chance to remember what life was like with Nicole, to remember, often painfully, the markers of Nicole’s depression, the things they failed to notice, their own shortcomings. Stephanie recalls a week away as a kid, receiving cards from her mother that she never opened, and she imagines her mother unpacking her things for her and finding the sealed envelopes. Dean remembers how Nicole, before their marriage, had confided she’d come close to killing herself. The pain of that memory strikes deep as Dean realizes he hadn’t taken her seriously. Gersen understands the ways in which suicide affects those close to the deceased. Dean constantly feels inadequate, like there was something he could’ve done to fix Nicole. But he reflects: “she was always going to be with him, his ghost that no one else could see.” Stephanie feels like she’s the only one who understands her mother’s death, but it’s a childlike understanding. She feels lonely knowing she recognized the depression her mother felt and couldn’t save her. But this recognition is also a blessing for Stephanie: she “saw her [own] depression as something physical—and she knew, deep down, that it wasn’t going to break her. She wasn’t like her mother.”
Gersen’s novel is so wrapped up in the way society romanticizes violence and tragedy. High school football is king in small-town America, and in Willowboro, Coach Renner is treated as a hero. Before Nicole’s death, it was something Dean relished, but in the aftermath, resigning as coach feels like the right choice for his family, and even so, he feels guilty. He feels incapable of supporting both his team and his family, and even though he knows it’s the right choice, he feels disarmed. There’s a sense that suicide prevents loved ones from thinking or seeing clearly. For teenage Stephanie, suicide was romantic. She begged to stay home from school the day her grunge idol Kurt Cobain killed himself. But Gersen rips the curtain back on this romance: “Stephanie missed her mother—it was that simple—but her longing was mixed up with an anger so powerful that she couldn’t really touch it without hurting herself.” Later on, Stephanie’s friend at college is fascinated with Nicole’s death “in a way that [makes] Stephanie feel slightly uncomfortable,” even though Stephanie had felt the same way only years before. It’s different, she learns, when it’s someone close to you.
Home Field claims its heart is in football and small-town America but the reality is so much bigger. Home Field pushes the boundaries of what’s comfortable to speak about, to consider. It pushes us to stop and wonder, to truly understand, what it is our loved ones are struggling with.
Publication date: July 26, 2016
Reviewed by Cole Meyer