Although I was predominantly raised in Arizona, I have lived in six states and five other countries. It creates awkward pauses and half-truthful answers when someone poses the question, “Where are you from?” To make matters worse, everyone seems to think my husband has a foreign accent. Their guess is usually German or Russian. Really, he speaks with a standard American accent, albeit in deep tones. My response may be based on whether I suspect they are wanting to know the origin of my birth, the greatest number of years lived in one place consecutively, where my extended family currently live, or even more complicated, where my heart longs for when I hear the call for “home.”
A true sense of belonging is something that has not been with me for years now. Yet I don’t say this full of self-pity, but with a better understanding about myself. I don’t expect to ever feel that I am of any one location. There are several “homes” in me. Several places I long for until I may be there again, and then a different “home” may arise in my thoughts.
I have lived in the Midwest longer than in any one place, yet as much as I love that my family and I are here, it is not “home” in the sense that most people think. For this reason I find it unusual that the classic novels I am particularly drawn to feature characters who possess an almost fierce loyalty to geography. If I cannot share with them their love of country, soil, property and culture, where does my delight come from with these masterpieces? Although their attachment to land and soil may seem unlike anything I have known, they appeal to me deeply in resonant tones.
The following are examples of some of my all-time favorite classics. As foreign as the idea of genuine belonging may be to me, it is not difficult to appreciate the loyalty and passion with which these people meet the world and create a sense of “home” and belonging.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. While most readers are more familiar with the title character’s story thread, I gravitate more toward the story of Levin. Written from the author’s own heart, Levin is an awkward aristocrat, sensitive, questioning, and more connected to his property and peasants than the parlor. It is a beautiful scene Tolstoy paints with his words as the scythe moves rhythmically, determinedly.
He thought of nothing, desired nothing, except not to lag behind and to do the best job he could. He heard only the clang of scythes and ahead of him saw Titus’s erect figure moving on, the curved semicircle of the mowed space, grass and flower-heads bending down slowly and wavily about the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the swath, where rest would come…Levin lost all awareness of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change now began to take place in his world which gave him enormous pleasure. In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light, and in those moments his swath came out as even and good as Titus’s.
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather details the struggle, loneliness and victories of a Swedish immigrant family in Nebraska, particularly of the headstrong and reliable daughter Alexandra Bergson.
When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps since that land emerged from the water of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning…The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.
They went into the house together, leaving the Divide behind them, under the evening star. Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck recounts the life of poor farmer Wang Lung in pre-revolutionary China. It follows Wang Lung from the morning of his modest marriage day through gut-wrenching personal and political events as he and his family are swept along as victims. Wang Lung, however, refuses to give up what he has slaved so desperately for; he will not lose his land. Here, the soil, a plot of ground, is as much a character, a driving impetus for story arc and plot, as are Wang Lung, or O-lan or Ching.
The weakness of surrender in him melted into an anger such as he had never known in his life before. He sprang up and at the men as a dog springs at an enemy.
“I shall never sell the land!” he shrieked at them. “Bit by bit I will dig up the fields and feed the earth itself to the children and when they die I will bury them in the land, and I and my wife and my old father, even he, we will die on the land that has given us birth!”
Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric. There is no other book on this list, nor arguably in literature that presents an inanimate object, an architectural structure, a man-made piece of the country as the main character throughout the novel. Spanning centuries, the bridge emerges. It is a part of the country, as is the Nobel Prize winner, Ivo Andric.
Hiding their emotion, they bent over the map which showed the future partition of the Balkan Peninsula. They looked at the paper and saw nothing in those curving lines, but they knew and understood everything, for their geography was in their blood and they felt biologically their picture of the world.
Everything appeared as an exciting new game on that ancient bridge, which shone in the moonlight those July nights, clean, young and unalterable, strong and lovely in its perfection, stronger than all that time might bring and men imagine or do.
As momentous and thriling as these novels are, the sentiment behind them eludes me. Yet not the desire. Even though I will never labor over land, I see the beauty of these novels to be in their metaphors. They are, for me, metaphors of a true home. I feel blessed NOT to feel attached to any one place alone here on earth, because I have hope even more certainly in a place that has been promised to me. Over there, far away. There I will one day be “home.” For such a home the geography pulses within me because of His blood, and with His eyes I can feel the landscape of that world.
By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country….he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God…they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one…
Hebrews 11:9a, 10, 16a
But our citizenship is in heaven…