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“Written in lyrical rhythms . . . an affecting hymn to family love and a mantra of empathy and forgiveness.”
“We can only admire the way Lott . . . creates and differentiates so many characters and sets them into action so naturally. . . . A chance to visit a country of grace where the twisted roads of American literature seldom lead us.”
–Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Lott uses lyrical, poetic language and addresses moral principles that force the reader to stop for self-reflection. . . . A moving story.”
“Vividly intense, intimately detailed . . . a memorable book.”
–The Sunday Oklahoman
I stood outside my son Mahlon and his wife Ruth’s bedroom door, in my hands two coffee cups, the pain sharp shards in my old fingers looped through the handles. I had on my pale blue bathrobe and slippers, my hair still in a net. I’d had it done just yesterday morning, before the funeral, and though I wore a net every night, funeral or no, there came to me last night as I slipped it on and settled into bed that somehow this was wrong. That worrying over my hair enough to put it in a net might somehow be a sin, this vanity.
But I put the net on, like every night, because it was what I’d done every night. It was my life, the way I lived it. Who I was.
A widow who lived with her son and daughter-in-law.
Eight years I’d been there with Mahlon and Ruth. Eight years since my husband Eli passed, and our old house out on 116 had revealed itself to be too big to live in. Just too big once Eli was gone, though the space he took up was no more than any other a man might take.
Because it was the love we had for each other filled that house. Love, one for the other. Then he was gone, me left behind to wander through our rooms, the house emptied of love with the last breath my husband gave out.
Now here I was, with coffee for two at Ruth and Mahlon’s door. Up and breathing like every morning, but bringing coffee upstairs. Not sitting downstairs to my kitchen table, where until four days ago there’d been three cups poured and waiting, breakfast on the way.
Because now my son Mahlon was gone, too.
I pushed open the door, and there lay Ruth on the bed, beneath the Wedding Ring quilt I made for her and Mahlon. Cold sunlight fell in through the window, the shade left up last night. She was still asleep, inside the sometime blessing I’d known sleep could be, though half her face was in that light, the other in shadow. Her mouth was open, eyebrows knotted, her chin high like she might be singing some cold and sad song in her dreams, a song so sad she had no choice but to keep her eyes closed to it.
A song I knew by heart.
I looked out that window. Morning sun shone down on the frosted rooftops of the houses in this Massachusetts town, where I’d lived for the last fifty-six years. The air was the thick white veil November air will be, white with itself and that light. Through it, and beyond anything I could ever hope to touch, lay the hills beyond town, gray and empty as my heart this morning.
My only child had died. Killed four days before in a trick of light itself: my Mahlon, on his way home from visiting Lonny Thompson up to Sunderland, hit a patch of black ice from a cold snap too early.
Lonny Thompson. My Eli’s best friend since their days at the submarine yards out to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, just after the war. Him the reason we’d moved here in the first place, why Eli brought me here once they were out of the service. He’d been like a father to my Mahlon after Eli was gone, and then’d been diagnosed with the cancer last April, Mahlon on his way home from visiting him.
Black ice on the roadway home. No way for Mahlon to know it was there, his headlights no help at all. Useless as this sun in through their bedroom window.
And it came to me then, a moment as deep as the sorrow I was inside. A moment as unexpected and sharp as the death of my child.
This: the memory of light.
Light, and the way when I was a girl it fell through the pine and live oak I grew up in a thousand miles south of here, the way it fell through palmetto and magnolia and water oak too. Light sifting down through the woods to spread like scattered diamonds on the ground before me as I walked to the creek. Bright broken pieces of light on the pinestraw at my feet so many perfect gifts of warmth.
All this came to me, whole and perfect and real. All of it in just the time it took to look out that window to see those empty hills, the rooftops.
My boy, my Mahlon.
Ruth woke, stirred beneath the quilt. Her eyes blinked open, blue-green eyes so clear and crystalline there was never a doubt in my mind why my Mahlon’d loved her from the minute he met her. You could see in her eyes her good heart, constant and certain. It’d been my Mahlon’s blessing to find her, to see that good heart, recognize in those eyes a heart worth holding on to. Twenty-three years they would have been married this next February.
Ruth’s eyes shuddered open to this cold room, and I saw the ugly promise of what was left to her, a promise I’d seen fulfilled every day for the last eight years of my own life: her husband was gone, and wouldn’t be back.
She blinked, blinked again, squinted at the light, her eyebrows still knotted up, her mouth still open. She quick reached from beneath the quilt to beside her, where, if God loved us all as He said He did, Mahlon should have been.
She still had on the black dress from yesterday. From the funeral. She hadn’t taken it off last night.
I knew what she was just then being given, knew the pain of that move, of a hand to the flat quilt, to the pillow gone untouched, to cold sheets. It was a move wouldn’t go away, this touching to see if any of what’d happened weren’t a dream.
It was what I’d done every night these last eight years: come awake sometime from inside the forgiveness of sleep, and reach for my Eli.
Ruth’s hand stopped when she found the empty pillow beside her, on her face the puzzlement that showed she knew it wasn’t a dream.
“Bless your heart,” I said, and moved toward the bed. Ruth blinked again, her eyes now on me and still with the startled look. Like I was no one she’d ever known.
Then her mouth finally closed, her chin set to trembling, and I knew her now better than I ever would’ve hoped.
It was grief she’d been given, the black and empty gift God gives you like it was something you were owed. It was grief she’d been given, and grief we shared.
“Naomi,” she whispered, the word only sound. She reached that hand from the quilt out to me, sat up in bed, her full in the light now.
Naomi. My name.
Now she was crying, her eyes closed again, her mouth and chin giving in to this morning’s discovery. One she’d make brand-new every morning from here to the end.
Still her hand reached for me, her shivering in her black dress. And still that empty whispered word Naomi hung before me, its own black dress. One I had to wear whether I wanted it or not.
The name of a woman whose husband had died, who knew the feel of cold sheets. The name now too of a woman whose only child was gone.
The name, I heard in the shattered heart that’d spoken it, of a woman whose life’d been poured out like water on the ground.
Ruth still held her hand out to me, and I whispered again, “Bless your heart,” though the words were just as empty as my name. Just sound, air out of me.
I went to the dresser, set the coffee cups on Mahlon’s side, next to his nametag from work, and the penholder, the spare change, and half-roll of cherry Lifesavers he dumped out of his pockets at the end of a day. What four days ago was only the clutter of a man’s daily life, but was now, I saw, bits of the failed history of my own blood.
I turned to Ruth, up on the edge of the bed now, hands in her lap. Her eyes still closed, her heart let out the broken silver sound of grief I’d heard myself give up too many nights and days, and then I was beside her, and I reached to her. I touched her hair, felt the softness of it, felt the deep chestnut beauty of it. Beauty my son’d known and felt and never would again, and in that cold moment of seeing what had been and would never be again, I took my daughter-in-law in my arms, pulled her close to me. I closed my eyes, felt her arms rise to me, move slowly to me, and we held each other.
Two widows, in each other’s arms. Another house emptied of love.
God in His heaven, and nothing right with the world.
And I had to ask again: Why call me Naomi?
Naomi was a teenage girl in a flowered cotton dress, a girl who walked summer afternoons barefoot through that broken perfect light of the woods to the creek. She was a girl who walked the pinestraw littered through the woods, a warm and prickly carpet beneath her, a girl born and raised in that South Carolina light, in a small town on a deepwater creek that led to a harbor that led to the great green sea.
And once through those woods, she was a girl who stood at the edge of the marsh that bordered the creek all bathed in unbroken light, colors all around too rich and beautiful and full of the peace of a girl’s afternoons to be believed: the greens and browns and reds of the saltmarsh hay and yellowgrass, the shiny solid black of pluff mud at low tide, the soft green and blue of the creek itself. Shattered light banged up off the water those afternoons, the sun on its way down too fast, too fast, even though these were the longest days of the year, days that seemed somehow to stretch long and slow and full of themselves until now, in the afternoon, when the day seemed to hurry itself too fast for how slow and forgetful it’d been all day long.
That was when the girl, this Naomi, watched the water, and the harbor, and the church spires of Charleston across it all reaching up like they might pierce the sky itself; that was when she watched and watched, and then finally here they came: her daddy, and his shrimp boat, the Mary Sweet, making the long turn in from the harbor and into the creek, the trawler seines pulled high beside her clean white hull like hands up in praise, she always imagined, this girl standing each afternoon on a small bluff on a deepwater creek in a South Carolina town, all of it loved by this sun, warm down on her, perfect and whole and light.
And once she saw her daddy’s boat head into the creek, she waited, waited, and then, when the Mary Sweet pulled near even with her, she waved to her daddy high in the cabin, there at the wheel, her daddy always putting on surprise she was there—his mouth open, eyebrows high, head quick turned to her like he hadn’t seen her from a half mile out—then letting one sharp hoot from the horn, a signal to her he’d seen her, and to her momma a mile away back to the house that they’d made it in, he’d be home before long.
This was Naomi: a girl blessed with a momma and daddy, a creek to walk to, pinestraw to feel beneath her feet, the pine smell up off it a blessing too, all of it dressed in colors so full there was no need to name them or think on them. Colors it was enough just to look at to have them live in you.
She was a girl, too, blessed once more and forever, though she could not know it those afternoons in summer light so sweet she could taste it on her tongue: once her daddy’d turned his attention to the docks a quarter mile up creek where he’d raft up the Mary Sweet to the other trawlers, this Naomi was a girl who turned her own eyes to the stern of the boat, and to the boy in blue jeans and black rubber boots on the deck back there, hands on his hips, his shirt off and skin brown for this peaceful sun, his hair a kind of sun-drenched brown made light for that sun, his eyes squinted near shut for that sunlight too, him watching her.
Eli. The boy who’d sat behind her three years running at Mount Pleasant Academy. The boy she’d been baptized in the ocean with summer before last, a good twenty or thirty kids saved one night at a revival out to Sullivan’s Island.
The teenage boy her daddy’d had to hire to do the best he could to replace her older brother, off to the war.
Eli. The boy she loved.
Naomi was a girl who gave him the smallest of waves, the boy, her Eli, giving one back, a hand up from his hip and waving just once and then smiling before heading to the bow to ready the lines he would cast to raft them up.
And though she could not know it then, his was a smile she would carry with her the rest of her days, and though she could not know it too their hands raised to each other was a pact sealed all the way back then, made with no true notion in their hearts they were making it, but making it all the same: you have my heart.
Naomi. A girl who turned each afternoon from all this, from the whole of her life laid out before her and ready to be lived, and headed back into those woods toward home, where she and Daddy and Momma, and best of all her Eli, would be having supper soon.
That was Naomi.
1. Read the story of Naomi and Ruth from the Bible. How does an understanding of the biblical story help to illuminate the relationship between the two women in the novel? In what ways are the two stories different?
2. Naomi knows that she must return to South Carolina when she remembers the light of her childhood home, which is different from the light in the North where she lived as an adult. Why do you think it is the memory of the light that pulls her back? What do you think the light symbolizes, not just in this instance but throughout the novel?
3. Why do you think Ruth decides to go to South Carolina with Naomi, even though it is not her home? Why does she say, “Where you go, I will go. Where you live, that’s where I’ll live too. This is a pact between us. Here. Now” (p. 97)?
4. Variations on the title A Song I Knew by Heart appear throughout the novel. What is the significance of the title in the beginning of the novel, and does your understanding of it change throughout the book?
5. The lives of Naomi and Ruth are filled with many of the rituals of daily life. One that plays an especially important role between the two of them is the baking of biscuits, a recipe that was passed down to Naomi and one that she has passed along to Ruth. Why do you think this act is so important between the two women? Explore some of the other daily rituals that appear throughout the novel and how they play an important role in bringing the characters closer.
6. Even though the book opens with the death of Mahlon and the remembrance of Eli’s death, A Song I Knew by Heart is in many ways a love story. It tells of the love between Naomi and Eli and Ruth and Mahlon. What other love stories are told? What other types of love are revealed?
7. Why do you think Ruth decided to betray her husband with Lonny Thompson? How do you understand Eli never telling her that he knew what she did? What other betrayals occur in the novel?
8. Throughout much of the story, Naomi is seeking forgiveness from her husband. Why do you think she seeks forgiveness now, instead of earlier in her life, when he was still alive? Do you think she is able to find the forgiveness she needs? Why or why not? What role does returning home play in her search? Lonny is also seeking forgiveness from Ruth. Why do you think he needs to be forgiven?
9. Naomi wears a locket around her neck. Why is it so special to her? What does the locket hold at different points in the novel? What does it mean when Ruth gives Naomi her ring, and why does Naomi put it with her locket?
10. After having finished the novel, how do the epigraphs at the beginning of the novel enrich your understanding of the story as a whole?
11. This story is filled with loss, but each loss gives way to a new beginning, a new relationship. Even the beginning of the relationship between Naomi and Eli when they returned from their first walk was punctuated with the news of her brother’s death in the war. In what other instances does death make a new beginning possible?
12. What role does memory and the act of remembering play in this novel? Naomi remembers her life with Eli, and cherishes many of the private moments they shared, like when they told each other “Nice to meet you.” Why do you think she urges Ruth to keep her memories of Mahlon private? Do you agree with Naomi? Are memories things that can be owned? Why, or why not?
13. What is the relationship between memory, loss, and forgiveness in A Song I Knew by Heart?
14. “When we are young, it means, I have made a mistake. When we are old, it means, I have separated myself from love” is how Naomi describes sin (p. 77). Do you agree with her? How does her understanding of sin affect the course of the novel? How do she and the other characters in the novel separate themselves from love? In what ways do they embrace it?
15. There are many quilts throughout the story—the wedding ring quilt given to Naomi for her wedding, the quilt given to her before she leaves to return home. Why do you think the author chose quilts? What is it about quilts and quilting that lends itself to a deeper understanding of relationships and love?
16. How do you understand the incident at Harris Teeter when Naomi witnessed Ruth first meet Beau? Why do you think Ruth was so uncomfortable? Why do you think Naomi encourages Ruth to go to Beau? What is the significance of giving Ruth the quilt before she meets Beau at the firehouse?
17. Naomi wonders what her name can mean, what it contains. Often she feels that it is emptiness, that she is empty. She contemplates the names she is called, like Aunt Naomi. What is she accomplishing in trying to understand her own name? At the very end of the novel, she asks, “Why call me Naomi?” and she answers, “My name is Naomi. And I am filled” (p.303). How has she come to this place in her life? How does she understand herself differently? What has allowed her to be filled?
Posted May 8, 2008
I read a lot of various genres, styles, etc, so when I opened this book and read the first few pages, I was shocked that I could not get into this author's style! It was frustrating and awkward. I thought maybe I was just tired, so I set it aside and picked up again a few days later. This time I got through chapter 1 and just quit. There are too many wonderful books out there to force myself through this one. I lived near the setting in this story so that initially peeked my interest. Maybe Lott's other novels are better. I'll try another one. This one read like someone trying too hard to sound poetic or different, instead of just relaxing and telling the story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 10, 2008
I guess Bret Lott is just not the author for me. After attempting 'Jewel' and finding it lacking, I thought I would give 'A Song I Knew by Heart' a chance. It sounded like a wonderful story as I enjoy fiction which uses a Bible story as its base. Sorry, but I just could not even finish this one--too bland and predictable and very far-fetched.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 4, 2005
The author is wonderful expressing emotions.He says how the home was filled with love and how that love was gone with her husbands last breath.He reminds me of of another book Beach Music in his story telling. Loved this authorWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 7, 2005
Bret Lott's 'A Song I Knew by Heart' may not be the fastest paced read of the summer and it does fade a little in the stretch BUT the first third with its wondrously written prose -- and the middle passage with it's story of forgivenss secretly offered and belatedly recieved -- make this beautiful book a treasure.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 8, 2004
I enjoyed this story. I found it to be believable in premise and in plot. The reader gets the impression that the mother (Naomi) and daughter (Ruth) genuinely care for one another in addition to their friends in the sewing circle. The only thing holding me back from giving this 5 stars is the voice of the narrator. I'm not saying that it can't be done successfully or convincingly, but I found it difficult to hear the narrator as a woman, not a male author speaking through a woman, with this novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 14, 2009
No text was provided for this review.