Everyone in Emlyn Springs, Nebraska, knows the story
of Hope Jones, the physician's wife whose big dreams
for their tiny town were lost along with her in the
tornado of 1978. For Hope's three young children,
the stability of life with their distant,
preoccupied father, and with Viney, their mother's
spitfire best friend, is no match for their mother's
absence. Larken, the eldest, is an art history
professor who seeks in food an answer to a less
tangible hunger; Gaelan, the only son, is a
telegenic weatherman who devotes his life to
predicting the unpredictable and whose profession,
and all too much more, depend on his sculpted frame
and ready smile; and Bonnie, the baby of the family
is a self-proclaimed archivist who combs the
roadsides for clues to her mother's legacy, and
permission to move on.
When, decades after their mother's disappearance, they are summoned home after their father's sudden death, they are forced to revisit the childhood tragedy at the center of their lives.
I am singing praises for Sing Them Home, a delightful read. It has what any good musical and literary composition should havea unique melody with harmony, tempo, lyrical style, rhythm, lulls and crescendos building to a stunning climax. It also has characters to cheer for in spite of all their foibles. Perhaps that is why it is so easy to like them. Who could not sympathize immediately with three young children, ages 7-14, whose mother was swept away in a Nebraska tornado never to be found. Not a trace, not even of the wheelchair that encased her body ridden with multiple sclerosis. Sing Them Home could be a depressing story, but instead I found myself smiling and laughing quite a bit as Stephanie Kallos depicts, with humor and sensitivity, life in Emlyn Springs, Nebraska, a fictional town thirty miles from Lincoln.
Kallos has created a familiar fictional scenario - adult children reconvening at the death of a parent, who find themselves reminiscing and re-examining their lives, but therein the similarity ends. There is nothing ordinary about this funeral or the children themselves. Her story line is as unique as the characters.
As I attempt to analyze their uniqueness, what comes to mind is the opening line from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This family's "unhappy way" could be called "emptiness" as the children try to fill the hole left by their mother's abrupt disappearance. Although the father's funeral is the catalyst that brings them home, the story is about their lives with their mother, her disappearance and the impact this loss has had on their lives for decades.
Larken, the oldest daughter is an art history professor who tries to fill her emptiness with chocolateactually food of all types. Gaelan, the handsome son, finds his solace in conquests of beautiful women and shallow relationships. Once again, common and universal themes, but Kallos presents them in interesting waysGaelan discovers that women cannot resist falling into his bed when they see the hand-made quilt that was his mother's and we sympathize with Larken's food addiction because of all the embarrassing moments it causes and because, as the oldest, she still looks out for her siblings.
The youngest, Bonnie, has never left home and her way to deal with the mother's loss is to continue to actively search for her. For decades, on her daily bike ride she has looked for artifacts, pieces of paper, scraps, and objects - anything that may lead her to clues of where her mother might have landed. Her greatest wish is that she will find a bone, a human remain. She also frequents the local cemetery where she converses with the inhabitants. Ghoulish you might say, but Bonnie's earnest attempts and child-like belief that she will find her mother endear her to us. It is only fitting that the mother's name was Hope. "'If only she had a different name,' they often think."
Although the mother is now gone, she is very much alive to the reader through her diary entries, from the day she fell in love with the young medical student, to the birth of each child and eventually to her struggles with her disease. She makes some difficult choices about her life that add a depth to this story. The wisdom of the author shines through which causes us to ponder our own mortality. As her opening line says, "It's so hard to explain what the dead really want."
Interspersed with the stories of these four characters, we hear the refrain of Viney, the step-mother - not the wicked kind, but one the children love - who in a very innocent search of her own discovers some startling facts about the children's father after his death. Turns out the well-loved small town physician and mayor has some skeletons of his own in the closet.
Added to the mix are the colorful characters who live in Emyln Springs, a fictional Welsh community where they still practice century-old customs, rituals and burials (see side bar for the Gymanfa Ganu tradition). There are elements of mysticism and the super-natural, that require a willing suspension of belief on the part of the reader, but it seems easy to do so; and so seamlessly does Kallos weave her rich Midwest tapestry that the reader flows effortlessly through the years and minds of the characters. As the struggles of the children and Vinney come to a climax at the town's annual celebration of Fancy Egg Days, we find ourselves reading quickly to the end of the book to find the answers of the past, yet it is a bittersweet rush because ending the story means saying goodbye to people who will be missed.
See Stephanie Kallos's Q&A at BookBrowse for the back-story to Sing Them Home.
This review was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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