If you've read the Bible, you know the story of the book of Ruth. Bret Lott takes that timeless tale as the basis of his lyrical new novel, A Song I Knew By Heart.
In Lott's modern version, Naomi leaves the land of her birth (South Carolina) to set up a new life with her husband Eli in a foreign land (New Hampshire). Their only son, Mahlon, marries Ruth, a local girl, and the family is happy. When both men die before their time, Naomi's joy turns to bitterness, and she decides to return to her beloved South, where light fell on the pine straw in "bright broken pieces" like "so many perfect gifts of warmth." Ruth insists on going with her, and the result is a warm-hearted story suggesting that in many ways, though times have changed, people have not.
Lott's eight previous books, including the Oprah's Book Club selection Jewel, have often included dysfunctional situations. However, aside from a specific issue of guilt that Naomi struggles with, this is one functional family. The story is simple, almost na•ve in the present literary atmosphere, and a great relief for readers eternally braced for the emergence of unpleasant characters and dismaying plot turns.
Much of the action here is psychological, wrapped up in Naomi's stifling sense of loss, not only of her loved ones, but also of her religious faith. Life is full of spiteful "God trick[s]" in this world in which forgiveness can become an unintended act of revenge. The most ordinary existence touches on suffering, and Naomi's own homely Southern voice pins pain to the page with stark, colloquial prose.
And the "song I knew by heart?" "Cold and sad" at the start, it has changed pitch by the end. It hits a note of healing, and the novel's hopeful conclusion asserts that you can go home again. There you may learn, if you're lucky, that joy and sorrow are "a gift from the same God who'd made them both." Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.