The Distance Home

A Novel

About the Book

“[Paula] Saunders skillfully illuminates how time heals certain wounds while deepening others. . . . A mediation of the violence of American ambition.”—The New York Times Book Review


“A deeply involving portrait of the American postwar family” (Jennifer Egan) about sibling rivalry, dark secrets, and a young girl’s struggle with freedom and artistic desire

In the years after World War II, the bleak yet beautiful plains of South Dakota still embody all the contradictions—the ruggedness and the promise—of the old frontier. This is a place where you can eat strawberries from wild vines, where lightning reveals a boundless horizon, where descendants of white settlers and native Indians continue to collide, and where, for most, there are limited options.
René shares a home, a family, and a passion for dance with her older brother, Leon. Yet for all they have in common, their lives are on remarkably different paths. In contrast to René, a born spitfire, Leon is a gentle soul. The only boy in their ballet class, Leon silently endures often brutal teasing. Meanwhile, René excels at everything she touches, basking in the delighted gaze of their father, whom Leon seems to disappoint no matter how hard he tries.

As the years pass, René and Leon’s parents fight with increasing frequency—and ferocity. Their father—a cattle broker—spends more time on the road, his sporadic homecomings both yearned for and dreaded by the children. And as René and Leon grow up, they grow apart. They grasp whatever they can to stay afloat—a word of praise, a grandmother’s outstretched hand, the seductive attention of a stranger—as René works to save herself, crossing the border into a larger, more hopeful world, while Leon embarks on a path of despair and self-destruction.

Tender, searing, and unforgettable, The Distance Home is a profoundly American story spanning decades—a tale of haves and have-nots, of how our ideas of winning and losing, success and failure, lead us inevitably into various problems with empathy and caring for one another. It’s a portrait of beauty and brutality in which the author’s compassionate narration allows us to sympathize, in turn, with everyone involved.

“A riveting family saga for the ages . . . one of the best books I’ve read in years.”—Mary Karr

“Saunders’ debut is an exquisite, searing portrait of family and of people coping with whatever life throws at them while trying to keep close to one another.”—Booklist (starred review)
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Listen to a sample from The Distance Home

Praise for The Distance Home

The Distance Home is a deeply involving portrait of the American postwar family: its promises and disruptions—surrounded by a rich, shimmering, sensuous South Dakota landscape.”—Jennifer Egan

“[Paula] Saunders skillfully illuminates how time heals certain wounds while deepening others, and her depiction of aging is viscerally affecting. . . . The Distance Home becomes a mediation of the violence of American ambition—and a powerful call for self-examination.”The New York Times Book Review

“Saunders’ debut is an exquisite, searing portrait of family and of people coping with whatever life throws at them while trying to keep close to one another. . . . The Distance Home will leave readers eager for more from this extraordinarily talented author.”Booklist (starred review)

“The author’s compassion for her characters shines through in this honest story.”Library Journal

“Penetrating and insightful . . . This debut wonderfully depicts the entire lifespan of a singular family.”Publishers Weekly

“Paula Saunders has given us a riveting family saga for the ages. The Distance Home is fresh, with a seductive Midwestern innocence, though the book’s outwardly ideal clan holds dark secrets that kept me turning pages into the wee hours. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years—destined to become a classic.”—Mary Karr

“In The Distance Home, a family’s story—its past, its present, and (most surprising) its future—traces the intricate, often subterranean lines that connect damage to redemption, creation to dissolution, and the everyday to the eternal, just to name several of its moving and startling aspects. It’s a true, and rare, accomplishment.”—Michael Cunningham

The Distance Home is a bracing and beautiful novel about a fierce struggle for love and understanding in a South Dakota family, and about aspiration (both thwarted and encouraged) in an unforgiving place. Read it—it will break your heart and open it up.”—Maile Meloy, author of Do Not Become Alarmed

The Distance Home is the coming-of-age story of an artistically talented girl who grows up amid the emotional turmoil of a dysfunctional family she yearns to save. Set in the isolation of South Dakota prairie towns and then the provincialism of Rapid City, The Distance Home is an exemplary story of what hardworking people suffered in Middle America in the late twentieth century while striving to achieve dreams. This soul-searching first novel offers everywhere that most mysterious and essential of artistic achievements: heart.”—Douglas Unger, author of Leaving the Land and Voices from Silence

“An extraordinary debut. Paula Saunders writes beautiful, evocative prose that engages you in every aspect of this world. The Distance Home is heartbreaking and full of compassion while also managing to be exacting, precise, and truthful. It accomplishes what great fiction should: we get a glimpse of our own humanity—a hard-won clarity—through the story of this particular haunted family and the woman who moved on, survived, but never exactly left.”—Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others and Stone Arabia 
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The Distance Home


The End: A Refrain

“It’s you or me next,” René said to get a laugh.

Her brother had already passed away, as had her father. Now René and her sister were once again driving the length of the state. Black cattle dotted the yellow hillsides. Out their open windows, long-abandoned homesteads flew by—roofs pitched eerily to one side, windmills cracked in half, groaning. With this one more passing, it was down to just the two of them.

Mostly René had been steely, while Jayne had been unable to stop crying. René was older, but it didn’t matter how old they were. Their mother had finally stopped messing the bed and tearing her clothes off in the middle of the night, ending up naked and haywire on the mattress or sprawled, drooling, on the carpet next to it, her translucent body shimmering with sweat. She’d lain unconscious for the final week, cold and luminous as porcelain, as the girls came in to handle her by hip bones and shoulder blades, to turn her this way and that.

They would bury her ashes next to their father’s and brother’s.

They’d been busy—cleaned and sold her house, divided everything without jealousy or rancor. In so many ways it was all done, and in so many ways it was just beginning.

“You girls will miss her,” someone had said at the service. “No one in the world can love you like your mother does.”

René had nodded and smiled coolly, dismissing the sentiment as tired and trite, while Jayne reached for a tissue.

“Thank you for coming,” René had said. She’d found herself repeating the same line all morning, as if by rote, wondering if it was the right thing to say or if perhaps there was something fundamentally cold and incorrect about her that was causing her to sound standoffish and transparently unfeeling.



Yvonne, called Eve, grew up around the corner and down the long dirt road from Al, two houses from the muddy banks of the Bad River, just where it joined with the Missouri, so there was always the problem of flood and river smell. On wash day she and her mother would change the sheets, moving top sheet to bottom, because it hadn’t been too badly used, then bottom sheet to the washtub, through the wringer, and out onto the line, where the wind was kicking up dirt and chicken scat. Despite the sun-burnt yard, the pile of old tractor tires, the chickens underfoot, and the yellow haze that rose around the confluence of the two rivers, Eve never considered herself a country girl. She was just on the wrong side of the Missouri. Across the water, in Pierre, the state capital, were the politicians and doctors, the green lawns with walkways and trimmed hedges. On her side, in old Fort Pierre, were the bars, the yards full of chickens and stray cats, the overgrown lots thick with snakes and broken-down cars, and on the hill as you were coming down into town, a plaque indicating a stop on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

She knew from the beginning she’d have to have grit, have to make her own way, so she’d come up with a plan to apply to the South Dakota College of Business, to be an executive secretary, a professional girl. Then the uniformed men had arrived at her door, holding their hats like dinner plates, to say that her eldest brother, Buddy, had been killed by a land mine in Germany, on his way home, the war already won. And not two weeks later—as the house was still reeling in grief, her mother still laid up in bed—her baby brother, Tom, the skinny little six-year-old Eve was mostly raising herself, combing his hair for school and yelling for him to get in out of the rain, drowned in the dried-up Bad River, disappearing into a sinkhole so deep that no one was ever able to recover his remains.

And suddenly, at seventeen, Eve was weary. She was tired of watching her little sister, Fanny, flirt with the priests, lifting her skirt at every town dance to show off her raggedy underthings, making an ass of herself, and tired of seeing her mother—a woman who’d never sat down in all her life—stunned and speechless with grief, first unable to rise from her bed, then unwilling to get up from her chair, her once-auburn hair a shock of white, her strong, steady hands taken with uncontrollable tremors, and her father, who after a day or two of stumbling through the house as if blind, simply went back to work, an invisible weight pressing him forward, bending his spine, so that each day seemed to set him a little closer to the earth.

So Eve finalized the year’s last edition of the school newspaper, wrote the class remembrances for the yearbook, finished her run as lead in the senior play, graduated valedictorian from Fort Pierre High School, and made up her mind to marry Al from up the street, as he’d been asking her to do. When her folks refused to grant permission for her to marry him ahead of legal age, she bit her tongue and set her wedding for the day of her eighteenth birthday.

Al was tall with glossy black curls, fine cowboy boots, and a smile big enough to make the town girls blush and call him “Pretty Boy.” But it wasn’t just his looks that spoke to Eve. Al had a dignity, an elegance, a quality of floating above that captured her attention and seemed to match her idea of what was right. Plus, he had a red-and-white convertible, a sweet green motorboat on a tow in the driveway, and his folks had the nicest house this side of the Missouri—stately, with fieldstone pillars, fresh white paint, and a wrap-around porch overlooking Deadwood Street, the only paved, tree-lined thoroughfare in town.

He’d been in the service, training as a bombardier in North Carolina, when Germany surrendered and the boys started coming home. And during all his time away, he told Eve, he’d been thinking about her—about how she had the greatest legs in town. So when he got back to Fort Pierre, he came straight to the café where she was working after school. He’d come in during her breaks just to sit with her in a booth and help her refill ketchup bottles and salt shakers, occasionally wrapping his feet around her slim ankles or letting a hand fall under the table to graze her firm, bare calves. He’d even loiter all through the dinner service just to walk her home. They went on picnics, they went on boat rides, they dressed up in their best clothes and went out to the movies, and in no time, they fell in love.

So Eve and Al were married with both a wedding cake and a birthday cake, her old dad walking her down the aisle with his mouth pulled into a crescent-moon frown. Then Eve leaned out the window of Al’s new pickup for a photo, tossed her bouquet, and they took off for Chicago. And just a week later, they came back and moved in with Al’s parents, occupying the little basement apartment, not taking the least notice of his mother’s heavy tread above them.

Still, it wasn’t lost on Eve that, whenever they happened to speak, her new mother-in-law, Emma—who’d known her since Eve was a tow-headed tomboy running the streets in her brothers’ hand-me-down overalls, climbing trees and throwing stones down by the Bad River—would now feign visible shock at her presence, unfailingly turning her head away and sniffing as though she’d just smelled something vinegary. Most likely Emma was busy wondering how her fine boy could have ended up married to that little street urchin whose father plowed the county roads and filled in pot holes, sweating in the sun all day, whose pack of older brothers were known all over town for their fall-down-drunk escapades, whose rat-haired little sister was out and about at all hours of day and night. It was some innate prescience of this very thing, Eve figured, that had made her sweet old dad, who loved her like the first light of morning, initially say, “No, that ain’t gon’ be,” when she’d asked his permission, then, on her wedding day, turn his mouth down into a semicircle of gloom.

So Eve was eighteen, newly married, and suddenly a “grass widow,” alone in her new in-laws’ basement apartment as Al struck out to make the only living he knew how, following his father onto the road, into the business of trading cattle.

And while Al was busy learning an occupation he had no interest in and had been hoping all his life to avoid, Eve kept her position at the town café and took a job at the telephone company. She listened in on calls between men and women, married, but not to each other. Holding her cigarette between her lips as she plugged them in, she quickly got to know who was with whom and when and where. At night she served burgers to the same guys who’d met their illicit lovers just hours before and were now treating their families to dinner. Then she served steaks to the after-hours crowd, which most often included her new father-in-law, who, no matter how finely he dressed, clearly headed the list of town drunks.

The night he passed out face-first into the sizzling hunk of beef she’d just set in front of him, she figured he was such an ass for running around with that high school cheerleader from Pierre, courting the girl on her parents’ front steps for all the world to see, that she just left him there. Facedown. Served him right.

“What’s the difference between a gentleman and a dirty old man?” she started saying to anybody who’d listen. “Money,” she’d answer, not laughing.

And all the while Al was on the road.

He finally got his first deal—an order from a buyer over east, an acquaintance of his dad’s, for two hundred head of Hereford cattle—and he sought out every cattleman across three states, stopped at every sale barn, found twenty head here, thirty there, selecting what he felt was the best bunch of Herefords in the Midwest. Then he and his dad met the buyer at the feedlot for delivery, and as the two of them held the gate and hee-yaed the livestock into the corral, there passed, mixed in with all the rest, a few cows—“maybe two, maybe three”—with half brown-colored faces. Al beamed at the great-looking cattle now shuffling and running and kicking up dirt, but as they lifted the gate behind the last cow, swinging it across and latching the wood with the wire, his dad gave him a sharp kick to the heel. Standing close, eyes blazing from under the rim of his cattleman’s hat, he had just one thing to say: “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”

“Now, you know Herefords, traditionally, have the all-white face,” Al explained to Eve that night when he got back home. “But there isn’t one iota of difference between a Hereford with an all-white face and a Hereford with a half-brown or even a full-brown face. Not one. And those were some great cattle, Eve. Why, a guy couldn’t find any better than those cattle anywhere.” Then he quieted and hung his head.

“Seems pretty unfair” was all Eve said, though she had a mind to say more, given that she happened to know for a fact that Al’s dad had recently been escorting that little cheerleader to the Pierre Hotel, giving her silk stockings and ungodly, strappy high heels, along with any number of decanters of brandy.

Al nodded.

The sale had gone off all right and the buyer was happy, he told her, but the drive home had been long. Al had set his eyes to the rolling plains and dreamed of running down the steps to Eve, unfolding the check, letting her get a good look at it. In the morning, he said, they could head straight to the bank and open their first account.

In that little basement apartment, Eve and Al got along. They’d go fishing in the Missouri in his little outboard motorboat, or they’d get dressed up—Al in a pressed white nubby short-sleeved shirt and cuffed zoot-cut pants with a thin belt, Eve in the new pedal pushers and sleeveless zipper-back jumper top she’d made for herself from the latest Butterick pattern—and they’d drive to the pasture outside of town and play golf. They’d make a day of it like they were movie stars—put the top down on Al’s Rambler, bring a picnic of fried chicken and potato salad.

And after some years had passed, as Eve and Al were in no hurry to give up their license to do as they pleased, finally Leon was born—ten pounds, eleven ounces, and twenty-one inches long—with olive skin and, from somewhere buried deep in the silence of the genetic line, the beautiful high cheekbones and broad nose of the Sioux. And three years later, there was a girl, whom Al had wanted to call Susan until Eve finally put her foot down, insisting on René, with one e and the French diacritical accent aigu right out of nowhere, as if it had fallen through the starry expanse of the night sky on the vast western prairie and landed on her name. And it was her arrival, complete with her own abrupt and fiery nature, along with Al’s full head of thick, black hair—which the nuns in the hospital were so tickled by that they’d combed it into the latest Mamie Eisenhower hairdo, bangs and all, before handing her to Eve—that seemed to fix the trajectories in place and set the course for what was to come.


Fault Lines Set in the

Swirling Cosmos

What comes together falls apart. Parties are planned, celebrated, then disperse and dissolve as though they were no more than dreams; seasons come and go like magic tricks, flowers blooming then fading, snowbanks swelling then melting away. How could it be different for families? There’s coming together and moving apart, being young and growing old, being here and being gone.

Still, to two young people just starting out, joined by two more just opening their eyes, this truth is hidden by the hopes and dreams that the filling of their hearts tells them are now certainly within their grasp—primarily, that they will be happy. After all, affection, love, is everything. If only things are handled correctly, if only care is taken and attention paid, there will be no falling away. They’ll nurture and care for one another, love and protect and abide with each other. What need could there be for a harsh word, a raised voice? Who could be so careless? Who’d make such a mistake? No. They’re young and strong and determined. There will be only the glory and joy of coming together and staying, coming together and building, building, building.

About the Author

Paula Saunders
Paula Saunders grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota. She is a graduate of the Syracuse University creative writing program, and was awarded a postgraduate Albert Schweitzer Fellowship at the State University of New York at Albany, under then-Schweitzer chair Toni Morrison. She lives in California with her husband. They have two grown daughters. More by Paula Saunders
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