Book Review: Running Away to Home

Sometimes I dream of uprooting my family and moving to another country for a year (okay, maybe six months), so it’s no surprise I enjoyed reading Jennifer Wilson’s account of her family’s multi-month stay in a small Croatian village in Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters. The book’s title and topic is similar to Halfway to Each Other: How a Year in Italy Brought One Family Home, which I read (and liked) last year. Indeed, Running Away to Home similarly made me laugh out loud and weep; both books detail a family’s trials and tribulations of moving to a foreign country for a family sabbatical, in an effort to reconnect without the distractions of computers and carpools and commitments that come with typical family life in the United States.

I think Running Away to Home (St Martin’s Press) spoke to me a bit more than Halfway to Each Other (Guideposts) because I related to the author’s desire to learn more about her ancestors. She moved her family (husband Jim, Zadie age 4 and Sam age 7) to tiny Mrkopalj, Croatia, for a year to see firsthand how her great-grandparents lived in the small mountain village. Similarly, this summer I did my own family tree research, discovering that my mother’s family is from Germany, not Holland as previously thought, and that my father’s family is Galician. How cool would it be to experience your ancestral village — to see the dusty streets, countryside and even the home sites where great grandparents once lived? Jennifer actually had the gumption to do it!

The Wilson family’s home in Mrkopalj for four months was a room on the third floor of a bar owner’s house.

I fully appreciated Jennifer’s candor in describing the difficulties she and her family encountered after moving from Des Moines, Iowa, to tiny Mrkopalj, a village of 800 residents that had been seemingly frozen in time. I marveled at them agreeing to stick it out when, on arrival, the housing they were expecting had fallen through and the foursome had to live on the top floor of their landlord’s house. In one room. With Jennifer and Jim on a futon. For several months. (Yikes!)

The author is someone I can totally relate to. Jennifer is self-deprecating and really funny and, as I mentioned above, totally honest in telling tales about life in Croatia. Her husband and children adjust much more easily to daily life in Mrkopalj, where parental supervision is minimal (the young children loved it) and drinking the local liquor takes place all day long (Jim bonded with the menfolk well before Jennifer found her tribe).

Sheep on a spit, a common meal in Mrkopalj. That’s Jennifer’s husband Jim on the left, bar-owner/landlord Robert on the far right.

There are tales of hiking in mountains, day trips to the beach (with the kids’ new Croatian-speaking playmates in tow), taking in local festivals and indulging not only in alcohol (when in Rome!) but also copious amounts of grilled pork and meat. Daily life for the Wilsons slowed to a crawl in an world that is devoid of shopping malls, soccer practice, Starbucks and school (Jim homeschooled the kids while Jennifer wrote on her laptop). It’s hard not to be envious of the Wilson family and their simple lives, despite being foreigners in a place that is polar opposite of Middle America.

You can guess from the book’s tagline that Jenifer Wilson’s family was changed by the experience, not only because they did indeed reconnect with one another (no surprise since they lived in small quarters without the distractions of modern life), but because Jennifer was able to actually track down living blood relatives. I stayed up late into the evening reading quickly as Jennifer and Jim (Yenny and Jeem to the locals) connected the dots and traveled to meet Jennifer’s grandmother’s first cousin. Their meeting: emotional and raw.

Searching for family information in old church records.

Many parts of the book are simultaneously engaging and emotional, but equally present are sections enhanced by Jennifer’s fabulous sense of humor. Some of the funniest parts of the book occur when Jennifer is dealing with Robert, the local bar owner and the Wilsons’ landlord. Occasionally hapless, sometimes annoying and typically drunk, Robert eventually works his way into Jennifer’s heart — after all, if he hadn’t put the Wilsons up in the attic-like dorm room in his house, they would have been homeless in Croatia. (Of course, it’s his fault to begin with that the original agreed-upon lodging — multiple rooms on the second floor — were under construction and never quite finished in a timely manner.)

On that note, while reading the book I was so curious to see a photo of Robert — and images of the other villagers, young and old, who befriended the Wilsons. I wish I could have seen the Wilsons driving the compact Eastern European car, drinking in the bar, playing games at the festivals, pouring over church records, meeting their distant cousin…. Alas, the author chose not to illustrate her 317-page memoir with personal photographs. She told me she didn’t want to influence the images that her readers conjured up in their minds of life in Mrkopalj. Still, I think photography would have only enhanced the storytelling. (I did later find photos from their stay in Croatia on Jennifer Wilson’s website — click over to the Croatia photos. You can also watch Robert sing and play guitar on the Running Away to Home YouTube video channel.)

Day trip to the beach! That’s Sam in the middle, Zadie at right, and Croatian friend Roberta at left.

Indeed, I highly recommend Running Away to Home for any novice (or expert) genealogists or parents considering long-term travel with young children. For other opinions of this book, read my friend Mara Gorman’s “Croatia or bust” post on Mother of All Trips, as well as the accompanying Q&A with Jennifer Wilson, and Vera Marie Badertscher’s review on A Traveler’s Library.

And a bonus for anyone who has stuck with me through this lengthy book discussion: I mistakenly received two review copies of Running Away to Home. I’ll mail my extra copy to whomever wants it and first comments below (and has a U.S. mailing address)! Otherwise you can purchase the book at online retailers like Amazon.com.

Photos courtesy Jennifer Wilson.

Longtime Mrkopalj resident Baka Ana and her garden.

5 Comments on "Book Review: Running Away to Home"

  1. Kellie M. Kline | December 13, 2011 at 10:39 am | Reply

    Surely, I can’t be the first to leave a comment? I’m so interested in reading this book. My husband are thinking of doing something very similar to what this family did. We are trying to learn everything we can from others.
    Thanks,
    Kellie Kline
    Bethesda, MD

    • Yep you’re my first commenter! Email coloradogal @ thevacationgals dot com with your mailing address & I’ll get the book in the mail.

  2. This is going on my reading list – thank you for sharing

  3. The spirit of this website reminds me a lot of the documentary American Bear. It’s about the kindness of strangers and meeting new people that filmmakers experience while traveling throughout the US. The website is http://www.americanbearfilm.com–check it out and you can even add your own experiences of kindness and traveling in the “Your Voice” section!

  4. Cruises Galveston | December 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Reply

    I have always been very interested in my ancestry and I will certainly have to add this book to the list. I think we all get so caught up in our work and our regular lives we forget about the real joys of life. It would do every family some good to really find out where they came from and how their ancestors lived.

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