Friday, August 16, 2013

Love and Lament by John Milliken Thompson

This novel got my attention because it's about a young woman growing up in the post-Civil War South and follows her life into  a new century and World War I.  I didn't realize quite how much I would connect with Mary Bet Hartsoe until the very end of the novel, when this very moving sentence had me reaching for the tissues:

"It would have to be enough, then, to know, as her father did, that grief lasts as long as memory, though the tissue of life grow around it like a wound protected from the world and shielded from the heart.  Grief and love are the only things that endure."

Oh Mary Bet, I understand completely.  She's a wonderful character:  honest, strong, and independent.  She comes from a family of 9 children, and as she reaches the age of 15, most of her siblings are dead.  I come from a family of 10 kids; a brother and a sister passed on years before I was even a thought; they've been gone since the 1950's--what seems like so long ago.  Only my oldest brother and sister remember Kim and Mark.  

Mary Bet  finds herself and her brother Siler the only remaining siblings; Siler is older and attends a school for the deaf 150 miles away.  He's always been extremely talented in fixing things up around their home; they have a way of using their hands to speak to each other--their own sign language.  He's a smart young man, but tormented by the idea that he may end up losing his mind like their father and grandfather.  Does grief affect their minds, or is it really mental illness?  How do you know?

Siler's decision to take a walk on railroad tracks one day haunts Mary Bet for years afterwards.  Why did he do that?  What was he thinking?  Did he deliberately not feel the train coming, or was he so lost in thoughts that he was caught off guard? Was it an impulsive decision, or long thought out?  She feels guilty, like she missed a sign from Siler.  When my sister Patti passed away last October, so suddenly, so heartbreaking,  with so many unanswered questions, I didn't think I would ever know peace about it.  And maybe I still don't--maybe that road is still unfolding, and the journey I need to take is not over.  I get Mary Bet.  I'm sorry if I spoiled a bit of the story for you, but Siler's  story so resonated with me that I had to share that with my readers.  It is a crucial turning point in the novel and connects you to Mary Bet's grief and love.

This novel came at a good time for me.  I don't think I could have read it a few months ago without putting it down and not returning to finish it.  It was at times painful to read--how does someone keep moving on with all that sorrow? I've never wanted to think about losing any of my siblings, but it did happen sooner than any of us expected.  While I have always held a spot in my heart for my brother and sister born and died so long ago, long before I was born, losing Patti was painful on a level I had never experienced before.  I do not want to experience that again.  I plan on all my brothers and sisters staying healthy and vital until we're each in our 90's.  

So.  I did love this novel.  It was a bit healing for me to read about Mary Bet, her family, and her life in North Carolina.  At the end, she is hopeful. And really, that is all we can ask for sometimes.  I would recommend this for anyone who loves to read about the South, young women finding their voices in the early 20th century, and a well written, sweetly sad story.

Rating:  7/10 for wonderful characters--especially Mary Bet and her father; a quick pace, and a peek into life as a single woman in the early 1900's.  

Available in paperback and e-book.


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