Sing Them Home (Hardcover)

By Stephanie Kallos

Atlantic Monthly Press, 9780871139634, 560pp.

Publication Date: January 1, 2009

January 2009 Indie Next List

“When a tornado dips into Emlyn Springs, Nebraska, it swoops up Hope Jones and never sets her down. Decades later, her grown children are still looking ... for the lives left incomplete. This epic moves expertly between the pre- and post-tornado years, and among the three siblings and the townspeople. As in her debut novel, Broken For You, Stephanie Kallos carefully weaves a complex tale featuring quirky, sympathetic characters.”
— Cheryl McKeon, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA
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Description

Sing Them Home is a moving portrait of three siblings who have lived in the shadow of unresolved grief since their mother’s disappearance when they were children. Everyone in Emlyn Springs 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 preoccupied father, and with Viney, their mother’s spitfire best friend, is no match for Hope’s absence. Larken, the eldest, is now an art history professor who seeks in food an answer to a less tangible hunger; Gaelan, the son, is a telegenic weatherman who devotes his life to predicting the unpredictable; and the youngest, Bonnie, is a self-proclaimed archivist who combs roadsides for clues to her mother’s legacy, and permission to move on. When they’re summoned home after their father’s death, each sibling is forced to revisit the childhood tragedy that has defined their lives. With breathtaking lyricism, wisdom, and humor, Kallos explores the consequences of protecting those we love. Sing Them Home is a magnificent tapestry of lives connected and undone by tragedy, lives poised—unbeknownst to the characters—for redemption.



About the Author

Stephanie Kallos spent twenty years in the theater as an actress and teacher, and her short fiction has been nominated for both a Raymond Carver Award and a Pushcart Prize. She is the author of the highly-acclaimed novel, Broken for You, which won the 2005 Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association Award and was selected by Sue Monk Kidd for Today's Book Club, going on to become a national best-seller.


Praise For Sing Them Home

Sing Them Home constantly surprises, changing voices, viewpoints, and tempos, mixing humor and pathos, and introducing a big cast of vividly portrayed characters, major and minor. Readers who admired Kallos’s first novel, Broken for You, will likely embrace Sing Them Home, and it will embrace them in return. It’s that sort of book.”--Diane White, Boston Globe

“[Sing Them Home] is a book written for cold winter nights by the fire. . . . Kallos excels at teasing out the emotional damage wrought by [the Jones siblings’] absent mother and remote father. . . . [She] is working in a vast landscape here, both emotional and physical [and] she handles it all with grace, giving each character and plotline a satisfying finish, like chords resolving themselves.”—Shawna Seed, The Dallas Morning News

"With empathy and wit, Kallos weaves together the stories of the living and the dead, creating a world in which love trumps loss and faith can summon redemption. The result is a magical novel that even cynics will close with a smile."—Michelle Green, People (3½ out of 4 stars)

“[Sing Them Home] is a welcome reminder that good contemporary writing can still move slowly. . . . The reader is left with a feeling that the author, the story and the characters have somehow been uncommonly generous in their presentation. . . . Death, loss and remembering are integral parts of the story, and the language of the book can be, at times, wonderfully elegiac and ruminative. . . . [Kallos’s] own genuine emotion infuses and drives the story.”—Holly Silva, St. Louis Dispatch

“Fans of Ann Patchett and Haven Kimmel should dive onto the sofa one wintry weekend with Stephanie Kallos’s wonderfully transportive second novel, Sing Them Home. . . . [A] keenly empathetic description of life in . . . . Emlyn Springs, one of those all-too-rare small towns in literature, rich in personality but mercifully free of broad, condescending cliché. . . . As the novel floats back and forth from past to present, Kallos patiently reveals the hurt and longing that’s pounding beneath the surface . . . [and] the ending may leave you feeling so wistful for these strange, sad people that you find yourself fantasizing about a trip to Nebraska.”—Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly (A-)

“Not since the Wizard of Oz has a tornado been used to such potent literary effect. . . . Dorothy may have thought that there’s no place like home, but what happens when there’s no house left at the old address, and no real parent figure to go home to? The Jones siblings take a further step down the road to enlightenment: They learn that home is where the heart is. . . . Kallos performs ample wizardry in blending both tears and quirky humor in this tale of lost souls.”—Barbara Lloyd McMichael, Seattle Times

“A compelling portrait of three adult siblings struggling to come to terms with their father’s sudden death. . . . Kallos writes with sympathetic insight into the quirks of each of the survivors, bringing her readers a family saga tinged with mysticism, humor and pathos, and peopled with characters not soon forgotten.”—Deborah Donovan, Bookpage

Sing Them Home ushers us into small-town life, with all its distinctive cultural nuances, eccentric personalities, and homegrown secrets. With the same beauty and lyricism of her first novel, Broken for You, Kallos stitches together a colorful patchwork of memories and images, creating a rich narrative fabric that develops and changes as it passes through each character’s hands.”—Heather Paulson, Booklist

“[A] fresh, invigorating novel . . . Kallos tenderly shows us [her characters’] failings as they stumble, in a realistic and satisfying manner, toward better selves. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“Kallos’s enthralling second novel takes the reader by storm. . . . [Sing Them Home] will find a welcome audience in anyone who has experienced grief, struggled with family ties or, most importantly, appreciates blossoming talent.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Brilliant . . . A richly textured, deeply satisfying, and enduring read—a whirlwind of aching sadness, secret histories, sex that’s by turns empty and angry and sloppy and transformative, moments of great sweetness and joy that are never saccharine, and ultimately, resolution and redemption that are well-earned and in no way false or forced. Before Sing Them Home, Kallos was already, arguably, the best first-novelist of the Aughts; now it’s abundantly clear that she’s becoming quite a bit more than that.”—Stephan Nathans-Kelly, First Look Books



Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com

  1. Tornados frame this whirlwind of a book, those of 1978 and 2004 in Nebraska. How are these events both apocalyptic and miraculous? See pages 531-533 for a dizzying tornado experience.
  2. What does the title mean? How is the Welsh singing a lifeline for Emlyn Springs? Are music and tornados linked in some kind of magic realism? Look at pages 162-163: a whole town sings to a stranded child in a wind-carried, upside down cedar tree.
  3. After she is miraculously rescued, still on her bicycle seat, Bonnie believes she has seen her mother swirled into the atmosphere into the arms of an angel. "The event shaped Bonnie Jones to believe in the improbable, that's sure, and in magic" (p. 163). Is Bonnie's oblique angle on life a curse or a gift for her?
  4. "It's grotesque, Hope. . . . It's part Irish wake, part Jerusalem wailing wall, and entirely morbid" (p. 131). Is Llewellyn's view of "singing them home" accurate? "In Emlyn Springs, no one is said to be truly dead until they've been sung to in this manner" (p. 139), in chorus, in shifts, for seventy-two hours. Is this a stunningly appropriate ceremony for the passing of a human life?
  5. What kind of person is Llewellyn Jones? How soon does Hope see their marriage as a mismatch? Do we credit her early opinion that he was closed and incommunicative? (Does he seem to be the same person with Viney?) How is he as a father? What does Hope see as his treacheries? How much does she care about his infidelity? How do Dr. Jones's medical ethics come into question?
  6. Another natural disaster is the lightning bolt that strikes Llewellyn down. Do you accept Viney's theory that he was complicit in his own death? That he was bringing a judgment on himself? "He wanted to die. He was not hers. They never really belonged to each other" (p. 72). Yet the children assure Viney that their father and she had made a marriage together.
  7. What are some of the interpolated stories that might at first seem diversions but actually give insight into central concerns of the book?
  8. Both Gaelan and Larken achieve success in their careers. How do both suffer humiliation and debacle?
  9. What can we say about the nature of friendship in the book? Hope and Viney? Larken and Jon and Esme? Bonnie and Blind Tom? Others? What is suggested about relationships that begin in friendship and end in romance?
  10. How do hate and love coexist in friendship, love affairs, and marriage in this book?
  11. Were you surprised by the Hope that emerged in her diary? Does this Hope seem different from what you expected? Does she continue to reveal new facets as the story goes on? Does this repeated device of the diary bring the past to life again? "I have the disease to thank for this clearsightedness" (p. 500).
  12. How much do the characters know about each other? Larken's secret vices must be obvious from her shape, but can anyone in her department or family understand the magnitude of her addiction? Gaelan, too, displays outwardly his workout obsession, but who really assesses his promiscuity before he is investigated? Does Bethan take his measure? How does the quilt work both for and against him?
  13. "Unique to midwesterners, Larken has observed over the years, is an uncanny ability to make a statement of absolution insinuate blame and incite guilt" (p. 112). Is it unique to midwesterners? (Some who read Joy Luck Club thought, yes, it's Chinese mothers, but also Texas mothers, Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, etc.). Here it's Viney, with all her virtues, turning the screw.
  14. "Hope makes a few quick notes in her diary, characterizing her children: Larken: Heavy, judgmental, fraudulent, afraid. Gaelan: Closed, disconnected, libidinous, un-self-aware. Bonnie: Imprisoned, silent, obsessed. Liars, all of them. And so humorless!" (p. 68). Are these evaluations just?
  15. Why do we care about these people? What is it that makes us curious about their motives and their fates? As neurotic and demon-driven as the three siblings are, how are they also sublimely human and happily inconsistent? Although they are unlikely heroic material, each has moments of real contribution to other people. Give examples.
  16. Some of the most dazzling writing in Sing Them Home shows us the pathological addictions of Gaelan and Larken. Find examples of compelling portraits of a weight-lifting serial seducer and a frantic compulsive eater. Is there hope at the end for the three driven characters, Larken, Gaelan, and Bonnie? Any sense of liberation from their demons?
  17. "The witch remains firmly affixed to her seat, feigning frailty and trying to simulate a compassionate expression. She must be ninety if she's a day, Larken reflects. Why do the mean ones always live the longest? 'Hello, Miss Axthelm'" (p. 113). Where else does Kallos give us this kind of refreshing malice?
  18. "Even Blind Tom knows that his eccentricities put him at the fringes of normalcy. How lucky that he landed here, in this small, benevolent, provincial place insulated by geography and human will, where such eccentricities are more than accepted: They are ignored" (p. 332). Describe Emlyn Springs. In some small towns, we recognize people from afar by their walk or the pet on a leash or a favorite baseball cap. In this Nebraska town, people are identified by the quality of their voices, their singing parts, bass, alto, tenor, soprano. Does it seem a protective atmosphere or a claustrophobic one? "There's a special kind of pretending that goes on in small towns. It involves neither willful ignorance nor blindness. It is the opposite of gossip: a pretense of not knowing" (p. 408).
  19. "The gift of bones is a profound comfort to the living—little else satisfies . . . Their mother went up. She never came down" (p. 3). Does this explain why Larken feels more gratitude than grief when she views her father's body? How was Viney's grief about her dead son protracted (some bones and teeth) and yet still somehow better than the anguish of mothers of MIA soldiers in Vietnam?
  20. There are numerous personal symbols in the novel, e.g. Larken studies the symbols of the Merode; Gaelan uses symbols in his forecasting; Bethan refers to the symbolism of the Welsh love spoon she gives Gaelan. What purpose do symbols serve in the lives of these characters? Do you have any personal symbols in your own life?
  21. How is the image of the Merode used as a template throughout the book? Larken talks about weaving the stories of the six characters in the Merode: how does this apply to Larken's personal life? What roles does each character take on at various times in the book? (i.e. Who plays the Gatekeeper? The Virgin? etc.) Are there any images in the novel that reflect particular aspects of the Merode painting?
  22. How do signs, whether literal or metaphorical, influence the lives of the main characters, particularly Bonnie and Larken? Are you a person who looks for signs when making significant decisions? Do you believe in such things? What "signs" have you encountered in your own life?
  23. How does the idea of sight factor into the novel? In what way do unseen elements of the story affect observable events and actions? Name some examples of how characters view the past, present, and future, and what serves to hinder some from seeing what's right in front of them.
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