Summary: The setting is Philadelphia, 1976, just before the country’s Bicentennial. The country is still reeling from the effects of the Viet Nam war. Mayor Frank Rizzo is throwing his weight around, doing his best to foment racial uprisings, just so he can quell them with force.
In the midst of this stew are two families, the Silks and the Johnsons. They met and connected a few years previously when Paul Silk married Charlene Johnson. As the story begins, Paul has just returned to Philadelphia from Denver, about a year after Charlene died of cancer.
The Russian Jewish Silk family’s patriarch, Sam, owns Silk Industries, a textile and clothing manufacturing business, which has been in the family for a couple of generations. His two sons, one of whom is Paul, don’t want to go into the family business. Paul is a newspaper editor/reporter and his brother, Alan, is an insurance executive.
The African-American Johnson family make their way wherever they can. Charlene’s father, Charles, works as a delivery driver. Charlene’s sister is a dental office assistant and her brother, Monte, is an unemployed Vietnam War veteran.
Besides the marriage that bound these two families together, they are also connected by changing times and racial prejudice. They are living in an era and a city that is experiencing growth and turmoil in its population, neighborhoods and political climate. Each family also faces challenges from within their own members. And each family has secrets, one of which is dangerous enough to threaten the stability of both families.
Comments: The Year of the Return is a literary snapshot of a period in Philadelphia’s history. By focusing on two families whose jobs are widely spread throughout the city—including a mobile and observant reporter—the author brought me right into that city with the Silks and Johnsons. I visited Philadelphia twice just a few years prior to this book, and I grew up in a suburb of Baltimore, so I have some personal experience of the era and place to add to Popkin’s descriptions.
It took me a while to get into the book as it is written in a sometimes poetic stream of consciousness style. The voices, other than Monte’s utterly unique one, tended to sound much alike in my head. This was helped by the clearly named chapters so the reader would know who was speaking.
I found myself thinking about this book long after I finished reading it. 1976 was just a few years before the digital age exploded in the country. In one scene in the book, Charlene and Paul are arrested for kissing by a passing cop because they are an interracial couple Forty three years later, with a backlash political climate, ubiquitous cameras, cell phones and social media, the situation for non-whites not only hasn’t improved, it’s gotten worse.
The Year of the Return is about more than two families in one year, in one city: it is a tale about our shared past and an arrow pointing to our troubled future.
Recommended for readers of Literary Fiction, Family Sagas and Historical Fiction.