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Saturday, January 10th, 2009
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Sing Them Home: A Novel

by Stephanie Kallos

What the Dead Really Want

A review by Sheila Ashdown

We all have stories that define our pasts, that are retold until they become a kind of mythology. This is never more true than in childhood, when our memories are mutable and tinged with our still-present belief in the fantastic. From this trope, Stephanie Kallos has spun Sing Them Home, a resonant and imaginative novel that covers familiar themes of loss, grief, and family bonds, but refreshes and enlivens them with serendipity, fate, and a touch of magic.

In the small town of Emlyn Springs, Nebraska, nobody's lives are more steeped in mythology than the Jones family's. In 1976, Hope Jones was snatched away by a tornado along with her seven-year-old daughter, Bonnie. But while Bonnie lives — inspiring the community's oft-told tale of "Flying Girl" — Hope's body was never recovered. And since "the gift of bones is a profound comfort to the living," the Jones family is never able to grieve and move on. In fact, they never speak of Hope's "death"; they speak instead of when she "went up" or "disappeared." Her story takes on mythic proportions, especially for Bonnie.

Unfortunately, Hope's body isn't the only thing missing; the entire family is haunted by an emptiness and sense of incompleteness. Hope's husband, Llwellyn, and her best friend, Viney, form a quasi-marriage after her death, never able to fully commit to each other. Larken, the eldest daughter, is ever-hungry, be it for food or professional advancement. Gaelen, the son of the family, fills his empty life with sex and weightlifting. And Bonnie, the youngest, circles the countryside on her bike, collecting roadside "artifacts" like scraps of paper and old mayonnaise jar lids. She's searching for something that is "positively, unequivocally linked to Hope" to show her that "the stage is set for miracles."

But what they don't know — and what infuses this story with both its conflict and its comfort — is that Hope is never really gone. She's dead, yes, but in Emlyn Springs, the dead remain alive in their own way, watching over the townsfolk. Hope exists within her journal entries — which are humanizing and grounding amidst the mysteries of her death — and in the fact that "dead mothers have the ability to see their children not only as they are, but as they were, all at once." It's a comforting thought, the notion that the dead are still with us, but obviously the living can't know that with any certainty. And, the Joneses can't know that Hope's desire is that they "move on, see differently, find her elsewhere." Luckily, in a journey that is heartfelt and satisfying to behold, they eventually come to figure it out for themselves.

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