About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

#92 - Sing Them Home

Wrapping up September with another backlog of fiction books. #92 was Sing Them Home, by Stephanie Kallos (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009). The short verdict here was, definitely a girl book, and a bit of a slow starter, but engaging and worthwhile once I got there.

I picked this one up at the library based solely on the author's name; I absolutely loved Kallos's Broken for You. (Then again, I did read that one on a long bus ride, so I may have gotten past any slow starting because, well, there was nothing else to do but keep reading.) At 542 pages, Sing Them Home is on the hefty side, and as I said before, it took a little while to draw me in. Without giving too much away, there's an extended magical/ whimsical piece at the beginning which wasn't really what I was looking for ... but fortunately, this does wrap up within a few pages and is only referred to occasionally throughout the rest of the novel. Essentially, this is a story of family, love, and loss set in the fictional Nebraska small town of Emlyn Springs. For those not up on their geography, Nebraska is in Tornado Alley, and in a sense, the novel is bracketed by tornadoes: one 30-odd years before the story begins, and the other ... well, I won't spoil that piece for you. Anyhow, the earlier cyclone still looms large in the town's collective memory, and larger still for the Jones family; it was this tornado that swept up Hope Jones, the young wife and mother who'd fallen in love with then-fiance Llewellyn's home town and insisted on settling there some years earlier. To this day, people talk not about Hope's death, but about when she "went up," and in the cemetery where most of the departed townspeople are buried, there is only a memorial marker.

But all of this is mere context. As the book opens, Hope's widower, Dr. Llewellyn Jones, ignores the nagging of his long-time companion (and Hope's one-time best friend) Viney to play golf in a thunderstorm. The results are tragic, if predictable; lightning strikes, and Llewellyn is killed instantly. Viney quickly summons the 3 adult Jones children, who must come home not only to mourn and bury their father, but to confront the demons that still linger around their mother's death 30 years earlier. Larken, the eldest, is an art history professor in Lincoln who seems poised to be the next department chair. However, her personal life seems painfully empty; she takes comfort and joy only from near-constant, furtive snacking and her weekly babysitting date with Esme, cherubic daughter of Larken's on-again, off-again neighbors John and Mira. Gaelen, the middle child and only son, is a semi-famous local weather reporter who comes off as the proverbial talking head. With no meteorological training, but a telegenic face and (thanks to countless hours at the gym) buff bod extraordinaire, Gaelen never lacks for (ahem) dates, but doesn't seem to have truly loved a woman since dumping his high school and college sweetheart Bethan. And then there's Bonnie, a/k/a Flying Girl, the baby sister who remained in Emlyn Springs and who Larken and Gaelen fear is fast on her way to eccentric spinsterhood. While the local children adore her, Bonnie's means of support have always been marginal at best (as the book opens, she runs a juice and smoothie bar which is open except when it isn't), and she's long had an odd hobby of combing the local landscape for artifacts and tending local graves, convinced she'll eventually find the clue that unlocks the mystery of Hope's disappearance.

Much of the book takes place against the backdrop of a (purportedly) traditional Welsh funeral celebration, which lasts a full week. For the first 4 days, the immediate family members don't speak at all, and are attended more or less constantly by neighbors. This is followed by 3 days of nonstop (24/7, or perhaps 24/3) hymn singing, with all the townspeople and family taking shifts to honor the dead ... to sing them home, if you will; hence, the title. I have no idea if the Welsh or Welsh-Americans really do mourn their dead in this manner, but the idea does make for an interesting metaphor: how do we behave in that in-between time, after the death and before the burial? How can we truly grieve when there's no body to view and bury -- no "closure," in pop psych-speak? And what does it mean, after a life-altering loss, to go on with our lives, to get back to normal?

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