The Year of the Return

THE BOOK: The Year of The Return.


THE AUTHOR:  Nathaniel Popkin.

THE EDITOR: Kelly Huddleston.


THE SUMMARY: Set against the backdrop of 1976 Philadelphia, The Year of the Return follows the path of two families, the Jewish Silks and African American Johnsons, as they are first united by marriage and then by grief, turmoil, and the difficult task of trying to live in an America failing to live up to its ideals.

SUMMARY: Both hyper-real and feverishly imagined, and told in the unfiltered voices of the characters themselves, Nathaniel Popkin’s seventh book summons the electric dimensions of racial conflict, sexual liberty, and economic collapse during America’s post-Vietnam urban meltdown. In The Year of the Return hope rises from disarray and despair.

NathanielPopkinPaul Silk and Charlene Johnson are journalists whose love for each other and commitment to social justice were formed in the peace movements of the 1960s. But the idealism of that era leads to the urban deterioration of the 1970s. Mayor Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia is a place of crime, white flight, and class resentment that is inhospitable to their interracial marriage, forcing them to move away. But when Charlene dies of cancer, Paul returns.

Unmoored and unable to let go of Charlene, he wades back into the lives of the two families, with the hope of helping Charlene’s younger brother Monte, once a prodigy and now a troubled veteran of the Vietnam War. Their explosive reunion leads to the baring of personal revelations and dangerous secrets.

The Year of the Return is a vivid story of families trying to reconnect with and support each other through trauma and loss, and a meditation on the possibility of moving on to a better future.

THE BACK STORY: This novel is a product of various artistic urges, which came together in a rush. I drafted it over 6 weeks at two residencies in 2017 and revised it in 2018. The first urge had to do with the election of Donald J. Trump as president. I couldn’t write a novel that addressed it directly, but by situating a story in the 1970s, in Philadelphia, I could conjure the feeling of living under an extreme narcissist, for the political performance of Trump matches that of the city’s mayor Frank Rizzo almost exactly. 1976, the Bicentennial year, provides the novel a way to think about the ways American democratic practice falls short of its ideals (in 2018 I co-edited an anthology, Who Will Speak for America?, whose title borrows from the 1976 Democratic convention speech by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan).

Another urge was to explore some of my own family’s historical dynamics, in part what it’s like to see a family business fall apart. And finally, I wanted to explore specific racial dynamics of the period, particularly the long-tense but often intertwined relationships between Black people and Jews occupying shared urban space. And I wanted to write about a character overcoming loss. How do we move on? (In my work I often explore personal, familial, architectural, and ecological loss.)

WHY THIS TITLE?: The story takes place in 1976, the year that one of the protagonists, Paul Silk, returns to Philadelphia after living in Denver for six years. It is also a point from which the city itself begins a long return from the depths of economic collapse and neighborhood decomposition.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? The characters speak for themselves and my hope, at least, is that they lodge in the reader’s imagination. This is a book about real, complex people navigating difficult times, sometimes with humor, sometimes desperation.


“Nathaniel Popkin unveils a vivid tapestry woven from the conjoined histories of two American families. United by marriage, the Jewish Silks and the African-American Johnsons struggle to navigate their blended worlds in the wake of a devastating loss. Thankfully, Popkin avoids the usual pitfalls that gobble up so many authors who try to write about “race,” focusing instead on what is universal and relatable about his characters’ emotions rather than easy stereotypes.  Set during the run-up to Philadelphia’s Bicentennial celebrations, The Year of the Return grabbed me from the first page and I dove deep, careening between enchantment and the terrors experienced by multiple characters as they tackle questions of identity, racial culpability and even the true cost of war. In keeping with the Bicentennial setting, the story even inspires a surge of patriotism: Not the repugnant Nationalism so prevalent these days, but the hard-won patriotism of the immigrant, the outsider, the patriotism of the enslaved peoples who worked for free and died for their children’s share of the American Dream. Popkin tells a deeply satisfying story of damaged heroes grasping toward the promise of a better tomorrow. He also delves unerringly into the dark nature of human ambition, racism and, ultimately, the transcendent power of hope. In an era where cynicism is easy, the better angels at play within these pages filled me with yearning, not for a America that never was, but for the America that might still be possible.” — Michael Boatman, screen actor and author of Who Wants to Be the Prince of Darkness. 

A beautiful, absorbing novel about the crisis of American cities in the twentieth century,The Year of the Return is remarkable for its generous and intimate approach to politics. A complex portrait of a family at a pivotal moment, it also sensitively and knowledgeably presents the historical failures that led to our current political chaos.” —Sandra Newman, author of The Heavens.

AUTHOR PROFILE: In his work as a writer and editor of fiction, nonfiction, film, criticism, and journalism, Nathaniel Popkin explores memory and loss: urban and historical change, architectural palimpsests, ecological grief, and the struggle for the democratic ideal.

His three novels and three books of nonfiction interrogate these themes with moral complexity and intellectual range. The Year of the Return (Open Books, 2019) revisits bicentennial Philadelphia, a place of profound social unrest, to tell the story of a Jewish family and an African American family, united by marriage then by grief. In Everything Is Borrowed (New Door Books, 2018), Popkin explores regret and shame, with dual narratives of two men of the same name: one a contemporary architect, the other a Jewish anarchist of another era. His first novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press, 2013) examines duplicity and originality among the earliest American artists, and was a finalist for the Foreword Reviews Indie Book of the Year Award.

Popkin is the co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of an anthology, Who Will Speak for America? (Temple University Press, 2018), which brings together a range of exceptional literary voices in response to the crisis in American civic life. He was is a co-organizer of Writers Resist, a day of national literary protest in 2020 honoring the life and work of Toni Morrison.

He turned his attention to the climate crisis in 2018, describing the present era as an “age of loss” in an essay for The New York Times.

In 2019, Popkin helped pilot The Valley of the Possible, a research program and residency in southern Chile that asks artists to frame new human responses to deforestation, species extinction, and the ongoing effects of colonization. He is also the curator “Her Voice Our Vote,” a 2020 festival of democracy inspired by the great Black poet and activist Frances Harper.

Popkin is co-founder of the web magazine Hidden City Daily and the founding reviews editor of Cleaver Magazine. His literary criticism and essays have appeared in The New York TimesWall Street JournalKenyon ReviewLitHubTabletPublic Books, and Rain Taxi, among many other publications.

As a close observer of Philadelphia and American urban history, Popkin has sought a fresh way to understand urban change through layers of human endeavor. His book Finding the Hidden City (Temple University Press, 2017), written with Peter Woodall and photographer Joseph E.B. Elliott, follows The Possible City (Camino Books, 2008) and Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows-Basic Books, 2002). Popkin is writer of the forthcoming docu-series American Experiment: The Struggle for Philadelphia and the film Sisters in Freedom, on a multi-racial group of abolitionist women of the 1830s, winner of the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Emmy for best documentary.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: “I am a writer of place, in the case the city where I live, Philadelphia, which has been a subject and object of my work, and also a setting.”


LOCAL OUTLETS: The novel is available at most independent bookstores in Philadelphia and can be purchased anywhere books are sold.

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Aside from Amazon (see above), all Open Books titles can be purchased directly from the publisher:

PRICE: $16.95

CONTACT THE AUTHOR:; @NathanielPopkin (Twitter); (website)

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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