Song Reader

Overview

Sure, we were a small family, but it wasn't lonely. We had the endless stream of my sister's customers and, of course, the music. Every day, all day, our stereo would play and Mary Beth would talk about the lyrics, what they really meant.
Leeann lives with her beautiful older sister — the world's first and only "song reader." Everyone in their small town thinks Mary Beth is special, and Leeann does, too. Mary Beth helps people figure out how they really feel by using the songs ...

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Overview

Sure, we were a small family, but it wasn't lonely. We had the endless stream of my sister's customers and, of course, the music. Every day, all day, our stereo would play and Mary Beth would talk about the lyrics, what they really meant.
Leeann lives with her beautiful older sister — the world's first and only "song reader." Everyone in their small town thinks Mary Beth is special, and Leeann does, too. Mary Beth helps people figure out how they really feel by using the songs they can't get out of their minds. And her advice is always right. But when Mary Beth makes a terrible mistake and half the town — including the family of the one boy Leeann cares about — turns against Mary Beth, Leeann will have to rethink everything she knows about her own family. She will have to be the stronger sister for a change. But she will also have a chance to discover that even an "ordinary" girl like herself can sometimes figure out what the music really means...

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Margot Livesey author of Eva Moves the Furniture [A] sparkling debut...delightful and engrossing.

John Dufresne author of Louisiana Power & Light [A]n achingly beautiful and bittersweet tale.

Silas House author of A Parchment of Leaves A stunning debut by a major new voice for her generation.

Publisher's Weekly
>Starred Review. Tucker's assured debut novel is an achingly tender narrative about grief, love, madness and crippling family secrets. Preteen Leeann Norris introduces readers to her world: recently orphaned when her mother was killed in a car accident, she lives with her older sister, Mary Beth, who supports them by waiting tables and performing "song readings" for locals in their small Missouri town. Rather than reading palms to tell people's future, Mary Beth analyzes the songs stuck in their heads, explaining what the song fragments reveal about her clients' psyches. The plot device is fascinating, but what cleaves the reader to the page is the relationship between the two sisters--one determined to track down their long-missing father, the other equally resistant to looking at the past. When Mary Beth's song reading uncovers a local scandal, the community turns against her, and her resolve to help those around her crumbles. Leeann must become the stronger sister, and her quest to find their father finally succeeds, though not in the way she'd hoped. Tucker's dexterous portraits of the fragile family dynamics expose quirky and compelling characters. Her expertly sprung revelations will surprise readers. This intoxicating debut may remind them of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides, but it's not lost in their shadows. Agent, Marly Rusoff.
Booklist
Leeann is the perfect narrator for this engaging and bittersweet story of compassion, forgiveness, and the search for redemption. This is a wonderful first novel.
John Dufresne
I've just made that most rare and wonderful discovery--a writer at the start of her brilliant literary career. Lisa Tucker is the real deal, my friends. .
Margot Livesey
In this sparkling debut, Lisa Tucker takes a fascinating premise--the possibility of reading the future through songs--and uses it to tell the absorbing story of two sisters, struggling to grow up together. . .a delightful and engrossing novel.
Kevin McIlvoy
A novel of remarkable wisdom and tenderness. . .Every splendid page inspires courage.
Silas House
..this is a stunning debut by a major new voice for her generation.
Albuquerque Tribune
Tucker's first effort out of the gate is a clear winner. . . This novel works on so many levels - the strong, suspenseful story line; the evocative characters you come to love (or hate); the eternal themes of compassion, forgiveness and redemption; and the wonderfully unambiguous and intelligent writing. . .It took Tucker seven years from the time she wrote the novel's first sentence to its public debut this week. My prediction is it won't take a fraction of that time for The Song Reader to be heralded as a literary sensation and for Tucker to become one of the most sought-after authors of her generation.
Denver Post
Tucker turns an engaging premise into a fascinating novel. The Song Reader is the debut pick for Seventeen Magazine's Fiction Club and, as such, is appropriate for teen readers. But the appeal of this novel isn't limited to those who are members of the high school set. Leeann's voice, a combination of wistfulness, pragmatism and humor, is utterly authentic. . . The Song Reader could well end up to be one of the summer's hot beach reads. It is engaging, it is discussable and, in its trade paperback format, it is affordable.
Publishers Weekly
For 20-something Rachel Silverstein, finding the right guy to marry was the easy part-she'd known her now-fiance, whom she met during her freshman year in college, for about two minutes before she started referring to him as "the love of my life Dan Gershon." Luckily, Dan returned the affection-but now they have to plan the wedding to prove it, as Rachel's motley crew of family and friends weigh in on an event that is quickly spinning out of control. A writer for a popular young adult novel series, Rachel is living the dream-sort of-of making a living through her craft while enjoying plenty of time to explore her beloved adopted city of New York. But her skinflint father and social-climbing stepmother are issuing sign-and-return ultimatums to her semi-estranged mother, the poster child for borderline personality disorder. Meanwhile, Dan's parents, apparently still mired in the 1950s, blissfully plan a breadwinner-father-stay-at-home-mother existence for the happy couple. Bridesmaid Naomi wants an edgy, experimental dress, and voice-of-reason Aunt Natalie is overcome by familial forces and retreats to the background to dispense martinis and offer a shoulder to cry on. What's a girl to do? Wry observations of young New York life from a bagels-and-lox-at-Barney-Greengrass perspective instead of a Manolos-and-Cosmos-at-Balthazar angle are refreshing, and the hints of Jewish life in New York are atmospheric and charming. Schwartz, a columnist for the New York Sun, offers a pleasant and witty, if somewhat familiar, tale of wedding woes. Agent, David McCormick. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT
Tucker's storytelling and writing style elevate her first novel above the usual. Her young teen narrator, Leeann, tells a compelling story of life with her older sister. Mary Beth, a waitress during the day, works with clients in their small town who come to her for song reading. The sole guardian of her younger sister and her adopted son, Mary Beth has discovered a talent for counseling her clients based on song lyrics that have a significant meaning for them. In spite of appearing strong, and sacrificing her personal happiness in pursuit of making a home for Leeann and helping clients, Mary Beth is a fragile personality. When she is blamed for the attempted suicide of one of her clients, she becomes dysfunctional and is unable to care for her sister. Leeann takes it upon herself to locate their missing father in the hope he can be of assistance. Discovering that both Mary Beth and her father are mentally ill (he is barely functional himself), Leeann learns a great deal about her family and herself. Tucker portrays characters with great depth who will tug at readers' heartstrings. The 1980s setting is not as well defined. YA and adult readers will be looking for more from this first-time novelist. KLIATT Codes: SA;Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Pocket Books, Downtown, 306p., Glantz
VOYA
The book portrays really well a young person's road to self-discovery and understanding her past. It also illustrates a very different kind of family-just the two sisters after their mother's death and Mary Beth's adopted son, with their father out of the picture. This modern family and Leeann's struggle to put all the pieces back together seems realistic. The whole book is a journey Leeann takes to come to an understanding, to figure out the mysteries of her past, and to be comfortable with herself. I liked the idea of a "song reader" who analyzes someone based on songs; however, it was really hard for me to get into this book because it goes into a lot of boring and unnecessary detail and sidetracks from the two sisters' story. Leeann was so overshadowed by her sister, Mary Beth, and seemed to be just eyes and a voice to describe and talk constantly about her sister. I wanted to get to know Leeann better but was unable to until the second half of the book when Mary Beth is out of the picture. I'd give this a 3 for Quality, 4 for Popularity, and recommend it for junior and senior high school readers. VOYA CODES: 3Q 4P J S (Readable without serious defects; Broad general YA appeal; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2003, Downtown Press/Pocket Books, 313p,
— Inka Bajandas, Teen Reviewer
Library Journal
Starting out with what seems na ve and sometimes even trivial, Tucker's first novel soon evolves into something much more. The story revolves around Mary Beth, who has decided that she can help people solve their problems by analyzing the music they most often listen to or cannot get out of their heads. Narrated by Mary Beth's younger sister Leeann, the novel soon makes us privy to the utter dysfunction of both their family and the larger community. As Mary Beth analyzes the musical habits of those around her, deeply buried secrets work their way to the surface. Eventually, when she can no longer contain all her own and others' secrets, she is hospitalized and her tightly woven world falls apart. In this incisive and ultimately startling work, Tucker very skillfully reveals the damage that family members can do to one another and the energy required to repair the damage-or not. Recommended for most collections.-Patricia Gulian, South Portland, ME Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Leeann Norris, 12, comes of age in the midst of an almost overwhelmingly dysfunctional family. After her mother is killed in a car crash, Mary Beth, 23, takes on the care of her younger sister in the absence of their father. She supports the two of them, and eventually a hyperactive foster child with learning problems, by waitressing and "song reading," a skill she developed to help people uncover their problems by charting the songs running through their heads. This occupation also enables her to obscure her own guilt and shame over choosing to love her selfish and victimized mother more than her insecure and inept father. When one of her clients attempts suicide, Mary Beth's fragile structure collapses and she is sent off to a mental hospital. Leeann slowly finds out or remembers small pieces of information she uses to put the picture, and the family, together again. Her voice is honest and intelligent and the other characters are interesting and believable, though each one has an emotional disaster to deal with. Both an attempted date rape and her first loving sexual encounter are sensitively handled, and Leeann's ultimate resolution is hopeful and fitting. While loaded with possible pitfalls, the situations are believable, Leeann is authentic, and teens will recognize the feelings, if not all of the events.-Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743497008
  • Publisher: Downtown Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,011,977
  • Product dimensions: 4.20 (w) x 7.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa Tucker

Lisa Tucker is the bestselling author of The Promised World, The Cure for Modern Life, Once Upon a Day, Shout Down the Moon and The Song Reader. Her short work has appeared in Seventeen, Pages and The Oxford American. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family.

Biography

Lisa Tucker grew up in a small town in Missouri and held a string of odd jobs before becoming a writer. In her novels, Tucker's dedication to storytelling is evident; her tender, engrossing plotlines infused with wit keep readers turning the pages.

In 2003, Tucker burst upon the scene with The Song Reader, a moving coming-of-age drama that resonated as much with adolescents as with adult readers. The novel's narrator, a vulnerable preteen named Leeann Norris, recounts the story of her adored older sister Mary Beth, a hardworking young woman who supports them both after their mother's death by waiting tables and reading songs -- that is, interpreting the events in people's lives by analyzing the songs they can't get out of their heads. When this extraordinary gift turns inward and a devastating family secret is revealed, Leeann must reach inside herself to save the sister she loves. Selected by Book Sense for its 2004-2005 reading group, The Song Reader received glowing reviews, and Tucker was hailed as "a brilliant new literary talent" (The Albuquerque Tribune).

Since her bestselling debut, Tucker has gone on to craft more compelling, emotionally nuanced novels that have garnered praise from sundry quarters. Her work has appeared in Seventeen magazine, Pages, and The Oxford American; and her short story "Why Go" (inspired by the classic Pearl Jam tune) was included in Lit Riffs: Writers "Cover" Songs They Love, an anthology of music-related fiction by Jonathan Lethem, Tom Perotta, and other contemporary writers.

Tucker is also a talented teacher who has taught creative writing at the Taos Conference, at UCLA, and at the University of Pennsylvania.

Good To Know

In our interview, Tucker shared some fun and fascinating anecdotes with us:

"I started writing fiction in 1995 for no other reason than that I loved reading it. I'd never had a creative writing course or attended a workshop; I didn't know any writers. I still feel there's something so magical about just plunging in and learning the craft as you go."

"I've had a lot of jobs. Probably the most unusual things I've done are touring the Midwest and South with a jazz band and teaching math at an urban community college."

"Of all the nice things that have been said about my novels in reviews, I think Frank Wilson's description of my characters (in The Philadelphia Inquirer) had the most meaning to me:

'These aren't the human orchids populating so much of what gets called literary fiction. These are working stiffs, the store clerks and waitresses who inhabit Heartland America [and] Tucker has drawn them without condescension.'

No one else had mentioned this, but I do write about ordinary people, the kind I grew up with and still identify with. I used to get rejections that said no one would care about these people's lives. I'm so glad that hasn't proved true!"

"I love teaching almost as much as I love writing and hope to have a chance to do it again. I also desperately want to live closer to water. Anyone know of a teaching gig near the ocean?"

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    1. Hometown:
      Santa Fe, New Mexico
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1984; M.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1987; M.A., Villanova University, 1991
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

My sister Mary Beth was a song reader. Song reading was her term for it and she invented the art as far as I know. It was kind of like palm reading, she said, but instead of using hands, she used music to read people's lives. Their music. The songs that were important to them from as far back as they could remember. The ones they turned up loud on their car radios and found themselves driving a little faster to. The ones they sang in the shower and loved the sound of their own voice singing. And of course, the songs that always made them cry on that one line nobody else even thought was sad.

Her customers adored her. They took her advice — to marry, to break it off with the low-life jerk, to take the new job, to confront their supervisor with how unfair he was — and raved about how much better off they were. They said she was gifted. They swore she could see right into their hearts.

From the beginning, my sister took it so seriously. She'd been doing readings less than a month when she had those cards printed up. Each one said in bold black letters:

Mary Beth Norris

Song Reader/Life Healer

Let me help you make sense of the music in your head.

[Family problems a specialty.]

Leave a message at 372-1891. Payment negotiable.

She had to work double shifts at the restaurant to pay for the cards and the answering machine, but she said it was just part of her responsibilities now. "I have a calling in life," she told me, "and I've got to act like it."

I wish I'd saved one of those cards, but I wasn't there the night she buried them at the bottom of the garbage can. It was after Ben left, and after I discovered she'd lied to me about my father. It was when the trouble with Holly Kramer was just beginning, and I still thought — like most of the town — that her talent was undeniable.

Some people even claimed she had to be psychic. After all, no one else knew that Rose was in trouble except Mary Beth; no one even suspected that Rose would take Clyde's car on that sun-blind Saturday morning and drive it right over the sidewalk and through the glass wall of his News and Tobacco Mart except my sister, who told Rose two months before that she'd better stop seeing Clyde. From the song chart, Mary Beth knew Clyde had to be bad news. She shook her head when Rose got stuck on "Lucille" for five weeks and warned her a life can't hold this much sadness for long. When Rose started humming "Hungry Heart," Mary Beth knew the lid was about to blow off Rose and Clyde's relationship. But she didn't tell Rose I told you so when we went with Rose's mother to bail her out of jail. She wasn't that way with her advice, not at all.

My sister kept file cards on her customers, "song charts" neatly alphabetized in a large green Rubbermaid box in the corner of our kitchen. On Saturdays she would meet with new customers in the little room downstairs our landlady Agnes had donated to the cause — as long as Mary Beth kept the room clean and didn't disturb Agnes's husband's sketches and charcoal pencils still sitting on the desk exactly as he left them when he died eighteen years before. Sometimes she gave advice at these first meetings, but usually she waited until she'd kept the chart for at least a few weeks before she gave them a reading.

They were instructed to call twice each week, on Sunday and Wednesday, and leave a short message telling her the songs and the particularly important lines they had hummed for the last few days. She had to rewind the cassette on the Phonemate back to the beginning to fit all the messages that would come in. I helped her update the charts. (It was a lot of work, especially when they reported country and western songs, which I hated.) I wrote down the titles and lines exactly as they said, even if they got it wrong, for what's important, Mary Beth said, is how they hear the words. But if they were off on the lines, we would make a little star on their chart since Mary Beth said they might be hearing them wrong for a reason. We also made an "S" if they'd sung the lines on the machine, and a "C" if they'd sounded like they were crying or struggling not to.

Mary Beth was proud of this organized system. It allowed her to just glance at an entry and know quite a bit. For example, one of the entries on Dorothea Lanigan's chart was the last two lines of "Yesterday." Dorothea had changed only a word and a tense, but Mary Beth had nodded when she looked at the chart later that night and said, "Well, that's that."

Even I thought this one was obvious. After all, the song was about lost love, wasn't it? "It's too bad Dorothea and Wayne are splitting," I said. "She must be miserable."

Mary Beth looked up at me from the floor where she was sitting surrounded by charts and burst out in a laugh. "Leeann, they are going to be engaged by the end of the month. You mark my words." And of course, it turned out to be true. They had their wedding the next summer. Mary Beth was the maid of honor, since Dorothea said it was all thanks to her.

It was a gift, everybody said so. Sometimes I wished I had the gift, too, but I knew I didn't; I'd tried and failed too many times with my friends to believe otherwise. I asked them about their music and I gave them my theories, but I was always way off, and Mary Beth finally told me I was dangerous. "You can't mess around with something like this. What if somebody believes you?"

I knew, though, there was little chance of that. Mary Beth was the kind of person you take seriously; I had never been. Only my sister saw me as the thoughtful, intense person I felt I really was; my friends and acquaintances looked at me as a sweet, happy-go-lucky, go-along-with-anything kind of person. And I knew that was a side of me, too, but I was more comfortable at home, always had been, even though I didn't have parents.

Sure, we were a small family after Mom died, but it wasn't lonely. We had the endless stream of my sister's customers and of course the music. Every day, all day, our stereo would play and Mary Beth would talk about the lyrics, what they really meant. Even when we got Tommy, she kept it up, because she said babies could adjust to noise just fine, as long as you gave them the chance.

When Tommy first came to us, Mary Beth wasn't even all that surprised. She was only twenty-three, but she'd wanted a child as long as she could remember, and she was a big believer in things working out, no matter how improbable the odds. "It was meant to be," she concluded. "It's a sign that I've waited long enough."

At first, I didn't see it that way. I was eleven then; I knew you couldn't just hand over a living, breathing baby as payment for services rendered. Of course Mary Beth insisted Tommy wasn't payment, but I didn't see the distinction. After all, a customer had given him to my sister after the song reading was over, the same way they gave her cakes and stews and afghans and even cash occasionally.

Her name was Linda, but she called herself Chamomile, like the tea. She had a garden of red and purple flowers tattooed on her back, a string of boyfriends back in Los Angeles, and a fourteen-month-old son with big black eyes and curly black hair that she hadn't even bothered to name.

She called him the blob, because she was so sure he was retarded. He couldn't walk or crawl; he didn't talk or coo or even cry much. Nobody wanted that baby: not Linda, not her parents, and not any of the families on Missouri's waiting list for perfect, white infants. Mary Beth took this as another sign that she was supposed to have him. She didn't care if his daddy was black or brown or from Mars, because the first time she picked him up, he held on to her hair with his fist like he was afraid she'd disappear. When she curled up next to him at night, he breathed a fluttering little sigh of what she swore was pure happiness.

Linda was back in Los Angeles and the adoption was already final when the doctor confirmed what Mary Beth had been saying all along: the only thing wrong with Tommy was the way Linda had been treating him. He turned into a chubby-legged toddler who giggled as he followed us all over the apartment. He called me "E-ann" in the sweetest little voice. He called Mary Beth, Mama.

Sometimes I thought Mary Beth's gift would bring us everything.

My sister Mary Beth was a song reader. Nobody else in the whole world can say that, as far as I know. And even after everything that happened, I still find myself wishing I could go back to when the music was like a spirit moving through our town, giving words to what we felt, connecting us all.

Copyright © 2003 by Lisa Tucker

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First Chapter

The Song Reader

It started when we tried to find our father, once, a long time ago. Mom had just died and we were reeling from the loss of our normal life.

Tracking him down was my idea, although I thought it was the obvious thing to do under the circumstances. My sister didn't agree. At Mom's funeral, when people asked if we were going to contact our father now, she stared right through them. Later she said she couldn't believe such a rude question. How could it matter after this? How could anything matter after this?

Mom had been on her way home from the July sale at Venture department store when she pulled out in front of an eighteen wheeler on Highway 61. Her car was cut in two, but when the insurance adjuster pried open the trunk, the bag from the sale was still intact. A green and pink striped bath towel, two packages of girls' size 10 underwear for me, and the album Plastic Letters for Mary Beth. Mom didn't know anything about Debby Harry or punk, but she'd always called Mary Beth her "blondie."

What I remember about that time is how tired I was. I would go to bed so sleepy that I felt like I'd be out for hours, only to startle awake and realize again what had happened. Mary Beth had the same problem, but when the doctor at the hospital had offered her sleeping pills, she'd said no. "Doctors try to cure everything with pills," she told me, "even feelings."

I would have gladly taken them but nobody offered. I was just a kid.

We waited weeks to clean out Mom's bedroom. We bagged up the clothes first, to give to the needy. It was what Mom would have wanted. Mary Beth was almost six-feet-tall; Mom had been five-three at best, and I had no immediate plans to wear polyester pants suits and stiff-collared shirt-dresses.

Dad had been gone five years by then, and the room seemed like it had always been only Mom's. There was no after-shave stain on the dresser, no tie collecting dust in the bottom of the closet, no flattened, laceless wing tip under the bed. It was just luck that I found his ring under Mom's cedar chest-luck in the form of an old vacuum cleaner that balked and spit the silver circle back at my ankle hard enough to make me bend down and take a look.

It took me a minute to realize that the ring must have been Dad's. It was engraved with his initials, HN, Henry Norris, but it was so small it fit me. I found out later that he'd worn it as a little boy, a gift from his mother. Dad adored his mother. This was one of the few facts I had about him.

He grew up in Tennessee. His father died when he fell off a train, drunk, when Dad was seven. His mother had to support them with her sewing, "piece-work" they called it, since she was paid only when she finished a piece of clothing, getting nothing if she was too sick or tired to turn in anything at the end of a day. But when Dad was seventeen, she too died suddenly. She had a stroke of some kind, quite rare for as young as she was, and I'd heard whispers between cousins I barely knew about Dad's reaction: how he had a kind of nervous-breakdown and great-aunt somebody had to take him to her house to recover, and how after that he, the brightest-smartest-could-have-made-something -of-himself boy you ever saw, never even finished high school.

Mary Beth told me once it takes guts to go nuts, and he must have had guts. "Most people," she said, "ignore the wound, put a Band-Aid on it, and forget it. Only the gutsy ones can look right at the blood, stare into the pain, and risk losing their minds to know what's what."

I didn't think she was talking about Dad though. She almost never did.

I wore the ring for several weeks, thinking it would tell me something about him. I'd had a dream he was standing on a boat wearing a skipper's cap, holding a compass, issuing directions to unseen sailors. Later I realized I'd seen a picture of him on a boat, taken when he and Mom were on their honeymoon at the Lake of the Ozarks, but this didn't shake my feeling that he had crossed the sea and was thousands of miles from Tainer, Missouri.

When Mary Beth saw the ring on my finger, she said, "How cute," as though I was a little kid playing dress-up, as though this ring was as meaningless to me as the ones that shot out in colorful plastic orbs from the gumball machine.

She knew I didn't really remember Dad. I was five when he left us; she was seventeen. One of the only discussions we'd ever had about him was when she realized I was making up things, telling my friends whatever came to mind, from a secret government assignment that called him to Venezuela, to a job in Hollywood, behind the camera for Eight is Enough.

I think she felt sorry for me, because she gave me two true stories instead. When he worked for Hedley's Auto Parts and Tires, she said, he made a jungle gym out of junk parts and old tires that had a 10 foot tall hide-out that was the favorite of all the kids in the neighborhood. And once, he won a contest at the civic club downtown. It was like Name That Tune and he could name them faster than anyone. He always loved music, especially shows like Oklahoma and Carousel and classical stuff.

Neither of these things helped. The jungle gym had nothing to do with me; I'd never even seen it. (We'd moved into our apartment on the second floor of Agnes' house when I was just a baby; Mary Beth said the gym would have been impossible to move even if we'd had the yard space.) And the contest business was just another connection between Dad and my sister that I didn't share. She was the musical one, the one who'd had the largest record collection in the senior class.

Maybe I wanted to know something about him that she didn't. Maybe that's why I started writing to his relatives to locate him, without mentioning what I was doing to her or anyone.

Mom had kept some of their addresses in her blue phone book. I began with the N page, for Norris, and just kept going, writing one a day, every afternoon, before Mary Beth came home from her waitress job. I knew it was a long shot, but Mom always said hard work would pay off in the long run.

And it turned out to be true. After a few months of writing, I got the information I was waiting for. Joseph Morgan, from Kansas City, a second cousin of Dad's whom I'd met only once long ago at a family reunion in Boonville, had seen Dad. His letter went on for two pages, updating me about people and things I'd never heard of, but it ended with the news that Dad had given him an address. No phone, not even an unlisted one, but a street and an apartment number and even a zip code.

I folded the letter carefully and stuck it in my dresser, under my pajamas. I intended to keep it a secret from Mary Beth for at least a few days, but I barely lasted through dinner.

She didn't speak for a full minute after reading the letter. I thought for sure she was upset, but then she smiled. "You did it, honey. Good for you."

It crossed my mind that she'd known all along I'd been trying to find him, but I was too happy to care. When I told her I was going to write him that night, she nodded. "Of course you are."

It wasn't a long letter. I told him we were doing fine, that I was in the fifth grade and my favorite subject was history. In the last paragraph, I told him about Mom. I almost didn't, figuring it would come as such a shock, but I worried that if I didn't, he might not write back. I signed my letter, "All my love. Your daughter, Leeann."

I circled the date I mailed the letter on the calendar, Tuesday, December 5, and calculated how long I would have to wait for a response. I figured for sure I would hear something by the fifteenth, but when the fifteenth came and went, I decided he hadn't written because he was going to just show up for the holidays and surprise us. I wished I'd asked him what he wanted for Christ as. I had to get him something, but I didn't know what he liked or his size or even his favorite color. I settled on a one-size-fits-all acrylic sweater from The Men's Place in bright blue and violet stripes. My favorite color was blue, Mary Beth's was violet. I figured our father had to like one of those colors at least a little.

Mary Beth knew I was buying Dad a present and she didn't try to talk me out of it. "It's sweet of you. If he doesn't come here for Christmas, we can always mail it to him. But what's really important is what you want for Christmas. You haven't told me yet, you know." She sighed. "I want to make this holiday as normal as possible. I think it's what Mom would want for us."

I didn't really care about presents, but I made a short list. On Christmas morning, it was all there: a pair of jeans, a Sony portable radio, and a set of fancy drawing pencils. But Dad didn't come. Of course. His sweater, wrapped in green and yellow snowmen, stayed under the tree in the back, almost out of sight, until New Year's Day when Mary Beth and I packed up the ornaments and put the tree out in the street with the trash.

I stuffed the present under my bed, where it was safe, and where I wouldn't have to see it everyday. I stopped thinking about Dad. I knew I'd have to keep trying, but I didn't know where to begin. But about a month and a half later, I came up with a plan. I would go to Kansas City to deliver the sweater myself.

This time when I told my sister there was no smile. She was watching One Day at a Time and filing her nails. She said it wasn't a good idea, and turned up the volume on the TV.

"Come on, Mary Beth," I said. "I'm sure we could get there in a few hours. It's not that far."

"It takes about five hours, but that's not the problem." Her voice was flat; she was concentrating on the edge of her thumb. "Think about it. He knows exactly where we are, and he hasn't ever come back to see us. There has to be a reason for that."

When I pressured her to tell me what that reason could be, she shook her head. "I'm not up to discussing this right now. Please, Leeann, just leave it alone."

But I couldn't do that. Every night that week after she got home from work, I begged her to change her mind, and every night, she told me to drop the subject. I tried everything, from promises of good behavior to persuading her latest boyfriend, Nick, to take my side. Nothing helped. My promises were sweet, she said, but they didn't change the situation. And Nick's advice was meaningless. What would he know about her family and her life?

He wasn't the first guy to hear that from my sister, and he wasn't the first (or last) to be dumped when he tried to interfere. She told him not to call anymore after she found out that he'd offered to take me to Kansas City himself one Sunday when she had to work. I felt bad for him, but I had to tell her. I knew it would be just the thing to make her realize she had no choice in the matter.

I didn't want to go with Nick; I wanted to go with her.

And it worked. She said we could leave in a few weeks, as soon as she could arrange a weekend off. I hugged her and thanked her. I said it would be an adventure, a real life long-lost-loved-one kind of meeting like the ones in the movies.

"Maybe," was all she said.

When the Friday evening finally arrived, I packed up the present and my nicest skirt and knitted beige sweater while Mary Beth threw together some of her stuff. The drive took almost exactly five hours, and I was so tired when she pulled into a Travel Lodge motel in Independence that I fell asleep immediately, with my clothes still on, when I lay down on the stiff motel bed.

The next morning we had to get our bearings in Kansas City and find the downtown area, and then go south, like the map Mary Beth bought at the motel told us to do. When we finally got close to Dad's, however, Mary Beth decided we couldn't go yet since we hadn't had lunch, so we headed further south, to the Plaza. I complained a little but I really didn't mind. Just seeing his neighborhood had made my throat go dry and itchy.

We ate, and hung out at the Plaza, looking in store windows, trying on clothes we couldn't afford. Finally, Mary Beth said we better get going, and we headed back up to Harrison Street.

We found the address quickly. It was a three story, dark-red-brick apartment building, run-down looking, with an overflowing dumpster on the side, and two yellowing plastic chairs sitting on the front lawn. We opened the door, and I swallowed hard when I saw Henry Norris printed neatly on a white card above the middle of the six buzzers.

Mary Beth rang the buzzer. No one answered so she rang again. Still no answer, so she rang the buzzer on the left, underneath the card that said Landlord.

A woman in a purple housecoat and silver-sequined slippers opened the door. She looked us over without any expression. "Who're you looking for?"

Mary Beth said, "Henry Norris. I see his name here, but he doesn't answer his buzzer. Do you have any idea when he might return? We're sorry to bother you, but we've come a long way, and we can't wait too long."

"I wish I knew. He let out of here two weeks ago without so much as a goodbye. He didn't owe me no back rent, but he left the place in an awful state. My nephew came over last week and took one look and told me he'd have to give it at least two coats of paint before I can advertise. In the meantime, I'm losing money, and I can barely make ends meet as it is. So I'm not real happy with Henry Norris right now. Are you related?"

"Yes," Mary Beth said. "We're his daughters."

She looked us up and down again, but she didn't say anything. I figured she was waiting for us to go, but I wasn't about to do that. This was as close as I'd come to him for five years.

"I want to see the apartment," I said quickly.

The landlady shrugged, but Mary Beth shook her head.

"Come on," I said, grabbing my sister's arm. "Maybe there's a new address or something. It'll only take a minute. Please. We can't just leave without trying."

"Okay, okay." She turned to the landlady. "If it's not too much trouble."

The woman shrugged again. "Maybe you can figure something out from the mess he left behind."

We walked up one flight of narrow, creaking stairs. "It's up here," the landlady said, pulling a ring of keys from her housecoat pocket. "Be careful," she added, looking at me. "This place ain't no playground."

She opened the door. "I'll be downstairs. Let me know when you've finished so I can lock up."

It was a one-room apartment. Over on the left was the living room area, with a small green couch, an old TV with bent-rabbit-ears antenna, and a wobbly, wood-veneer coffee table. The kitchen area was in the back corner, with a plastic-top-table and two metal chairs with sticky-brown-rubber cushions. The bedroom area was by the window and was the smallest of all, just a three-drawer dresser and a twin bed that came out of a closet. The landlady was right, it was a mess, but I hardly noticed the trash even though a couple of times I had to kick away crumpled paper and old cans. I didn't really pay attention to the smell either, although it reeked of spoiled food. It was the walls I noticed. They were covered with words, filled with big square letters. Someone-it took me a minute to realize it must have been Dad-had actually written on almost every available inch of the walls with a thick black pen. On the wall behind the couch, he'd written EVERY MORNING in large print, and then underneath a list numbered from one to fifteen. Many of the words we e smeared and illegible, but I made out:

Brush Teeth
Wash Face
Bowl of Cereal Juice Coffee
Bus #9 leaves from corner at 7:42
Pack lunch FIRST!
Get three quarters from drawer for bus there, three quarters more for bus home: total of six quarters needed.
Coat! KEYS!!!
Lock apartment door

Lists like this covered every wall in the place. There was a list for every evening over by the pullout bed, with instructions like "eat dinner," "lock the door," "wash out underwear for the next day." There was a list for each day of the week: Tuesday's list, in the bathroom, included taking the trash to the dumpster outside; Saturday's longer list, by the kitchen table, included going to the Laundromat and the corner grocery store. There was another list right by the refrigerator of things to buy at the store (which seemed senseless to me until I decided he must have copied this one down on paper before he went to do his shopping). There were even reminders for specific days over by the door, such as "December 17th: Library Books Due. Library Closes at exactly 7:30," and "November 8th, 10:30 A.M., plant physical. Shower in morning first."

There were so many words, so many lists, and I moved from wall to wall like a spider, taking it all in. I couldn't stop reading, even though my mind was becoming numb and my eyes were aching from the strain of trying to read as the room grew shadowy in the early dusk of February. I kept looking for something that would make sense of it, something that would explain the why of all these words. Only after more than an hour, when I'd seen all the walls and read every legible word, did I finally fall back, bone-tired, on the couch by Mary Beth.

Her eyes were closed, and her head was lying back, but I knew she wasn't asleep because her teeth were pressed down, biting her bottom lip. I told her I was ready, and she stood up without saying anything and walked downstairs.

The landlady was cooking spaghetti when we knocked on the door. The garlic smell was so heavy it made me feel a little sick to my stomach. When she opened the door, she asked us if we'd found what we were looking for and Mary Beth nodded. Then Mary Beth opened her purse and pulled out two twenty dollar bills. "It's not much, but it'll help pay for the paint at least. I'm really sorry about your trouble, and thanks again for letting us go up there."

The woman smiled warmly for the first time. "That's awfully good of you. It's just too bad you didn't catch him. Hold on. I've got something for the little girl."

She brought out a bruised apple and put it in my hand. "You're probably hungry by now. You all take care of yourselves. If I see Henry Norris again, I'll be sure and tell him you were here."

© Lisa Tucker 2003

Read More Show Less

Introduction

The Song Reader

Questions for Discussion

1. Mary Beth was keenly aware of people's thoughts and feelings, yet she wasn't always able to transfer this knowledge to deal with her own situations with her sister, father, Ben, and even herself. Leeann, a teen with a reputation for being lighthearted and carefree, seems better able to address feelings and memories on a personal level. Mary Beth's secrets haunt her, her inability to deal with her own memories tortures her. How does this shape their lives? Leeann offered Mary Beth several opportunities to reveal the truth about the past. How would things have been different had Mary Beth been honest? Could she have avoided the breakdown?

2. Tommy, like Leeann and Mary Beth's mother, is an orphan. Why is Mary Beth inclined to take in an abandoned child? What void does Tommy fill in Mary Beth's life? Why does Leeann think Tommy will be able to heal and ground Mary Beth at the end of the book, when he was unable to do so when she first got sick?

3. Leeann's quest to find her father is an important part of the book. Knowing what she does about how ill her father is, why does she call on him for help? Does Leeann ever really find her father? If so, at what point in the story does she find him? Describe what you feel for Leeann's father.

4. Mary Beth is strong and has endured much. Why does the incident with Holly completely break her down? What really caused Mary Beth to shut down? Why do music, Tommy, and her father fail to bring her back? Do you feel differently about Mary Beth before, during and after her breakdown? Explain.

5. What qualities does Mary Beth share with her mother? What qualitiesdoes Mary Beth share with her father? What qualities does Leeann share with each of her parents? How do these qualities affect how the sisters relate to each other and how they see their circumstances? How does the sisters' past manifest itself in the relationships they have with Juanita, Ben, Kyle, Mike, Holly and other secondary characters?

6. Early in the book, the author gives the reader some insight about the circumstances surrounding the death of Mary Beth and Leeann's mother. After learning about how unhappy Mom truly was, do you accept the notion that her death was an accident?

7. The '80s have been characterized as a time when people began to talk openly about family problems and examine how their past influenced their present. The author artfully takes us back to the decade through pop culture references-the records, the record players, letters and the popular songs. How would this novel have worked differently had it been set in the today's culture of CDs, MP3s, e-mail, music videos and Oprah?

8. In several instances, walls play an important part in the story-when the sisters discover their dad's lists written on walls, when Mary Beth recreates her surroundings in the apartment after Leeann's accident and when Juanita reveals Mary Beth's first painting project in the basement of the old family home. What message is the author writing on the walls?

9. Where do you see each of the characters in five years? Do they relocate? Does Mary Beth take up song reading again? Does Leeann try to song read? How is Tommy's life influenced by his past? Does Dad leave again? Is Ben in the picture? How does Mary Beth and Leeann's relationship evolve?

10. Do you hope there will be a sequel to The Song Reader?

Lisa Tucker is the author of The Song Reader and Shout Down the Moon; she has also published short work in Seventeen, Pages, and The Oxford American. She has advanced degrees in English and math, and has taught creative writing at the Taos Conference and UCLA. Lisa lives in Pennsylvania and New Mexico with her husband and son. Visit her website at www.lisatucker.com.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

The Song Reader

Questions for Discussion

1. Mary Beth was keenly aware of people's thoughts and feelings, yet she wasn't always able to transfer this knowledge to deal with her own situations with her sister, father, Ben, and even herself. Leeann, a teen with a reputation for being lighthearted and carefree, seems better able to address feelings and memories on a personal level. Mary Beth's secrets haunt her, her inability to deal with her own memories tortures her. How does this shape their lives? Leeann offered Mary Beth several opportunities to reveal the truth about the past. How would things have been different had Mary Beth been honest? Could she have avoided the breakdown?

2. Tommy, like Leeann and Mary Beth's mother, is an orphan. Why is Mary Beth inclined to take in an abandoned child? What void does Tommy fill in Mary Beth's life? Why does Leeann think Tommy will be able to heal and ground Mary Beth at the end of the book, when he was unable to do so when she first got sick?

3. Leeann's quest to find her father is an important part of the book. Knowing what she does about how ill her father is, why does she call on him for help? Does Leeann ever really find her father? If so, at what point in the story does she find him? Describe what you feel for Leeann's father.

4. Mary Beth is strong and has endured much. Why does the incident with Holly completely break her down? What really caused Mary Beth to shut down? Why do music, Tommy, and her father fail to bring her back? Do you feel differently about Mary Beth before, during and after her breakdown? Explain.

5. What qualities does Mary Beth share with her mother? What qualities does Mary Beth share with her father? What qualities does Leeann share with each of her parents? How do these qualities affect how the sisters relate to each other and how they see their circumstances? How does the sisters' past manifest itself in the relationships they have with Juanita, Ben, Kyle, Mike, Holly and other secondary characters?

6. Early in the book, the author gives the reader some insight about the circumstances surrounding the death of Mary Beth and Leeann's mother. After learning about how unhappy Mom truly was, do you accept the notion that her death was an accident?

7. The '80s have been characterized as a time when people began to talk openly about family problems and examine how their past influenced their present. The author artfully takes us back to the decade through pop culture references-the records, the record players, letters and the popular songs. How would this novel have worked differently had it been set in the today's culture of CDs, MP3s, e-mail, music videos and Oprah?

8. In several instances, walls play an important part in the story-when the sisters discover their dad's lists written on walls, when Mary Beth recreates her surroundings in the apartment after Leeann's accident and when Juanita reveals Mary Beth's first painting project in the basement of the old family home. What message is the author writing on the walls?

9. Where do you see each of the characters in five years? Do they relocate? Does Mary Beth take up song reading again? Does Leeann try to song read? How is Tommy's life influenced by his past? Does Dad leave again? Is Ben in the picture? How does Mary Beth and Leeann's relationship evolve?

10. Do you hope there will be a sequel to The Song Reader?

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2010

    Heartwarming book

    I could not put it down. Read while traveling through Wyoming for the first time and hope I didn't miss to much scenery.

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  • Posted February 21, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Don't Bother

    While the premise is interesting, the story gets lost among all the different sub-plots.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2006

    Can we be THE 'perfect' family

    A new concept in learning about people's lives, and an interesting title for a beautifully old fashioned story about family and friends. THE SONG READER by Lisa Tucker goes down a sentimental journey of old song favorites from the 70's to tell the story of two sisters and the love, loyalty, friendship, and trials that bond them as they grow. There is a mystery element about the telling of these girls lives that also makes the reader want to keep reading and reading. This story will relate to every woman who is a 'fixer' in people's lives. Those women who have time for everyone's problems but their own. The 'people pleaser' who everyone turns too, but who often neglect themselves, and sometimes finds themselves neglecting their family also. Then there is the 'family secret' idea. Are we protecting our loved ones or are we just leaving them in a limbo of wondering 'why' people and events are not quite right as they are happening. This story is not at all maudlin as it might be because of the subject matter. Interestingly, it shows the strengths and abilities of people to deal with what comes up in their lives when they are using their own abilities and the strength that they gain from the support of family and friends. It also shows that family can cause each other pain and mystery just because they feel the need to 'protect' one another. Eventually, 'truth' comes out at the conclusion of this story. What a lovely and emotionally satisfying tale of the human spirit to survive and thrive.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2003

    Song Reader

    Anyone who loves music will love this book! But you don't have to love music to enjoy it. The story about two sisters and their search for their father is a page-turner right until the very end. I loved this book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2003

    Not what I thought it would be

    In the beginning I found the book inspiriring (like everyone else seems to think), but towards the middle it got very boring. The storyline was too dragged out and slow-moving for it's own good. Towards the end, I had to force myself to finish reading.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    A beautiful story

    In Missouri, a car accident kills the mother of the Norris sisters leaving them with only each other as their father has not been around forever. The older sibling, Mary Beth uses her uncanny ability to know people's desires by 'reading' the songs that stay and play inside their heads to earn money and prestige. As a song reader she has helped the townsfolk, who cherish her. By being her sibling, her preadolescent sister Leeann too has received some of the accolades. People heed the advice of the older sister when it came to marriage, divorce, and just about any other affair of the heart relationship choices.<P> However, the heroine quickly falls off the pedestal when her advice turns tragic. Not only are some of her former worshippers down on her, but Mary Beth cannot cope with the subsequent disaster. She retreats inside her own world, leaving it to Leeann to face the truth and search for their lost father even while struggling with the collapse of her too human champion.<P> THE SONG READER is a delightful look at a family already in trouble when a new crisis nearly debilitates the breadwinner. Lisa Tucker avoids soap opera clichés with her powerful portrayal of the two sisters, whose relationship with one another and with townsfolk dramatically turns on one event. Readers fortunate to read this insightful character study will sing the praise of Ms. Tucker for this unusual tale.<P> Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2003

    Song Reader

    The Song Reader is the best book I've read in a long time! Mary Beth & Leeann are so real they feel like friends. The story is beautifully written, in addition to being impossible to put down. Our book club has picked it for May and I can't wait to discuss it with my friends. The end was fantastic: unexpected and yet exactly right, a rare combination in fiction. This book has heart and soul and intelligence. I absolutely loved it, what else can I say?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2003

    Impossible-to-put-down page-turner!

    I hate to compare such an original voice as Lisa Tucker's to other authors, but there fans of LOVELY BONES and DEEP END OF THE OCEAN will pounce on this debut novel. This is the kind of book that becomes a huge word-of-mouth hit because whiule you're reading it, you'll want to read passages aloud to friends and when you're nearing the finish, you'll be biting your tongue to stop yourself from revealingthe secrets and plot twists to friends who havent read it yet. Once you've finished it, you'll want to recommend it to everyone you know just so you can talk about it and enjoy it all over again. The idea of reading people's future (and past and present) via the songs that are stuck in their heads, is a wonderful invention. It's a clever and thought-provoking idea. But the novel is much more than just that idea: it's a compelling and moving (and funny) tale of family secrets, grief, sacrifice and salvation. You won't forget this novel!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2003

    Beautifully written and a great read

    I love this book! Mary Beth and Lee Ann have inhabited my soul. Their story is beautifully written by Tucker, but the book is also a great read. I found myself stopping to treasure a lyrical phrase or a challenging idea and then wanting to race ahead to find out how Lee Ann (or if Lee Ann) is able to pull herself and her family out of the situation that they find themselves in. I won't say more because I am encouraging every person I know to read this wonderful work as soon as it is available. The Song Reader will live in my heart and in my head for a long, long, time.

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    Posted December 18, 2008

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    Posted August 5, 2011

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    Posted January 15, 2011

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    Posted July 17, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2010

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