Whenever I finish a good book, one that has the power to pull me into a world of its author's making, I cannot immediately take up another story. First there is a sadness that takes hold, a sense of loss of knowing the characters and their world. And then there is a sense of betrayal, of disloyalty, if I begin on a new book directly. I have to lament the passing, even the death of one world before entering another. Thus, I am in mourning since finishing Bret Lott's beautiful tale of loss and regained faith and hope, his 2004 book entitled A Song I Knew By Heart.
Author of the acclaimed Jewel, a bestseller (particularly after Oprah gave it her seal of approval), Lott has written a modern day story which draws inspiration from the biblical narrative of Naomi and Ruth. Aging Naomi, a transplant from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina to New England, and her daughter-in-law Ruth, both struggling with the loss of their husbands, decide to return to Naomi's childhood home in the South. Naomi believes in God and yet suffers under the hand of a God who would allow such loss. In addition, she carries a dark secret which she cannot come to grips with. Her hope is to return home, to the light coming through the pine trees that she remembers, and to what distant family she has, in the hope that she can be healed there. She is, as is Ruth, and yet not in the way she thinks.
The light Naomi dreams of is a metaphor for hope, one that resurfaces throughout her journey. This is how Lott writes of it:
Light, and the way when I was a girl it fell through the pine and live oak I grew up in a thousand miles away from 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.
Lott writes well, as if he knows the place (and he should, as he lives in Mount Pleasant). He describes the surroundings, the loss Naomi experiences on discovering the change to her homeplace, the family she comes to know again, and the range of emotions experienced by someone who is dealing with loss and regret as only one who knows something of it can. Though there is much sadness here, there is ultimately hope, just like in the biblical narrative. There is, finally, a Naomi that is not empty, but filled.
I encourage the reading of this book, particularly if you want to understand and empathize with those who have experienced loss, who struggle with secrets they have difficulty surrendering to God, and to feel vicariously if not in a real way what family at its best means. Read it. You won't forget it. Put it on the shelf, look at it now and then, and remember that you lived there once, for a time.