three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
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0

A-Sing Them HomeStephanie Kallos worked in theater as an actress and a teacher for 20 years before writing her first novel, the best-selling Broken For You (2004). She has been fascinated by the mystery and intensity of tornados since she was a child.

The Story: Returning home after the death of their father, the three grown Jones children remain haunted by the fate of their mother, Hope, who was snatched away by the tornado that ravaged their hometown in 1978. Larken, the eldest, is a reclusive art history professor and compulsive overeater; Gaelan, a weatherman, copes with his grief by working out and womanizing; and the youngest, Bonnie, rides through town on her bicycle and collects odd bits of garbage, searching for clues to her mother’s disappearance. As the residents of Emlyn Springs, a small Midwestern town steeped in Welsh language and traditions, gather for the weeklong funeral, the rituals performed for the dead may well revive the living.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 560 pages. $25. ISBN: 0871139634

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"There are multiple storylines in this book, and while they are not equally compelling, the overall portrait of a small Midwestern town and the people who live and die there is deeply satisfying. Kallos’ skillful depiction of grief, love and healing contains moments of lyrical transcendence, which is only fitting in a novel about the power of song." Pat MacEnulty

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"You should know going in that there are elements of magic in this story, where the dead crowd the sky, murmuring over the living. But the whimsy is grounded by Kallos’ keenly empathetic description of life in a Midwestern small town. 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

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Sing Them Home is an ambitious novel, full of vivid characters and intriguing secrets. And the setting is unforgettable; Emlyn Springs is a small town trapped in Welsh tradition and flooded with ghosts. Kallos deftly slips between dream and reality, between the watchful dead and those they’ve left behind." Ashley Simpson Shires

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Not since the Wizard of Oz has a tornado been used to such potent literary effect. … Kallos performs ample wizardry in blending both tears and quirky humor in this tale of lost souls." Barbara Lloyd McMichael

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a welcome reminder that good contemporary writing can still move slowly. … Death, loss and remembering are integral parts of the story, and the language of the book can be, at times, wonderfully elegiac and ruminative, anchoring the slower and open-handed pace." Holly Silva

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Kallos] handles it all with grace, giving each character and plotline a satisfying finish, like chords resolving themselves. Some of the outcomes are telegraphed just a bit much, but those complaints are minor set against the scope of the novel." Shawna Seed

Columbus Dispatch 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Although she sets [her characters] up with real problems, she allows those problems to dissolve with typical romantic solutions, and that makes her novel less convincing than it would otherwise be. … Kallos is a gifted observer and an intriguing writer, but her fiction will be even better once she stops coddling her characters and lets them get more thoroughly into trouble." Margaret Quamme

Critical Summary

Returning to the expansive, multidimensional storytelling that characterized her first novel, Kallos moves effortlessly between narrators, interspersing their distinct voices with entries from Hope’s diary and employing the detached but ever-watchful dead as a Greek chorus. The combination of vivid characters, including the enchanting town of Emlyn Springs itself, results in a complex, captivating tale of love, grief, and healing, with elements of magic. Critics had a few complaints: Kallos’s plotlines are not uniformly interesting, sending readers racing through some sections while savoring others; the Jones children, so convincingly neurotic, can be tedious; and the ending seems a bit contrived. However, readers who appreciate a leisurely pace will enjoy time spent in Emlyn Springs.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

Guide by Barbara Putnam

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.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Grove Atlantic. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.