Books

Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Grove Press

Sing Them Home

by Stephanie Kallos

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

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 560
  • Publication Date September 08, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4413-3
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.95
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 560
  • Publication Date January 12, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3963-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date January 01, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4658-9
  • US List Price $14.95

About The Book

Greeted with unanimous critical praise, and reprinted within its first month of publication, Sing Them Home is the triumphant second novel by Stephanie Kallos, the author of the national best seller and Today Show Book Club selection, Broken For You. Now in paperback, Kallos’s rich, transporting story of three siblings who have lived in the shadow of unresolved grief since their mother’s disappearance when they were children, is well-positioned to become a book club favorite.

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. When the Jones siblings—Larken, Gaelen, and Bonnie—are summoned home from their varied adult lives 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 themselves—for redemption.

Tags Literary

Praise

“Enthralling . . . [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)

“[A] fresh, invigorating novel . . . Kallos doesn’t rip her characters apart, just tenderly shows us their failings as they stumble, in a realistic and satisfying manner, toward better selves. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“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 (3″ out of 4 stars)

“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-)

Sing Them Home is simply wonderful. It’s a welcome tonic to those of us who look back with great longing to Anne Tyler’s early novels. . . . That is, those of us hungry for books with quirky, flawed, yet realistic and beloved characters who leap off the page into our arms and refuse to leave. I didn’t want Sing Them Home ever to end.” —Nancy Pearl, KUOW/NPR online

“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

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

“Deeply satisfying . . . Kallos’s 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, Charlotte Observer

“Beautiful . . . multidimensional, complex, and fascinating . . . [Sing Them Home is] an ambitious novel, full of vivid characters and intriguing secrets. And the setting is unforgettable. . . . Kallos deftly slips between dream and reality, between the watchful dead and those they’ve left behind.” —Ashley Simpson Shires, The Rocky Mountain News

“[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

“[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

“This novel about three siblings and the loss of their mother in a tornado twenty-five years ago is a sublime exploration of family ties and secrets. Sing Them Home is a book you’ll never want to finish.” —Marilyn Dahl, Shelf-Awareness, “Pick of the Year”

“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

“Kallos has a remarkable vocabulary and a gift of defining things and situations efficiently, often in very few words. . . . We learn to love [the Jones siblings] and to hope that they stumble toward their better selves and receive redemption. I read the closing pages twice and closed the book with a satisfied smile. She sang them home.” —Phil Heckman, The Lincoln Journal Star

“Stephanie Kallos’s second novel is a complex, haunting story of a family shaped by tragedy. . . . Kallos nimbly moves from character to character, filling in the past and hinting at what’s to come without being obvious or overbearing. Her beautifully written story weaves together lives, places and emotions, and resonates with tiny details that only later show their significance.” —Lisa McLendon, The Wichita Eagle

“In Sing Them Home . . . [Kallos] returns to her themes of family conflict, long-held secrets, and the changes wrought by death, while broadening her scope to explore these themes in the context of a truly unique fictional town, Emlyn Springs, Nebraska. . . . Sing Them Home is a sensitive, deeply perceptive portrayal of a family in transition. Kallos has a keenly observant eye, which she uses to comment obliquely on academia, celebrity culture, and small-town politics. She also seems to have a genuine affection for and understanding of small towns like Emlyn Springs. . . . Kallos serves as a wry but knowledgeable tour guide to the world she has created. By the last page, readers will feel like they’ve become not only honorary members of the Jones family but also vital members of the Emlyn Springs community.” —Norah Piehl, BOOKREPORTER.com

“In the dense tapestry of Sing Them Home, Kallos has landed on her feet . . . dodging the dreaded sophomore jinx of the second novel. . . She’s still poking at the open wounds of abandonment, loss, and grief, and yes, there’s another strong dose of magic realism, but now there’s also heft and an edge of darkness. . . . Kallos writes uncommonly good novels. There’s the nuance and close focus of the short story, where a plot hinges on a single detail, but there’s also the sweep and wide horizon of a saga. Kallos may be a bit . . . fond of the happy ending, less god of her universe than fairy godmother, but in this rocky moment in our uncertain world, it’s hard to find fault with that.” —Veronique de Turenne, bn.com

“Stephanie Kallos introduces us to a family that defines the heartland of America. In the small town of Emlyn Springs, Nebraska the restless spirit of Hope Jones still lingers in the lives of her three grown children. With their mother lost to a tornado, Larken, Gaelan, and Bonnie Jones have scattered across the land. Years later, the death of their father brings the trio back home. Old feelings, mysteries and secrets hang in the air, and there is a sense of electricity in every chapter. Storms are often powerful, but in the wake of fierce and dramatic experiences come miracles of life and redemption. Sing Them Home is gloriously uplifting.” —Geoffrey B. Jennings, Rainy Day Books, Inc., Fairway, KS

“Stephanie Kallos has a rare gift for identifying that which is common to us all and portraying it in ways which prove each of us special and unique. Her characters are vividly human, flawed and unpredictable at the same time that they’re mercurial, lovable and familiar. Her setting is perhaps foreign, but somehow has the ring of home. Her story is at once quixotic and wholly believable.” —Jill Miner, Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, MI

Sing Them Home has a wonderful modern fairy tale feel to it. . . . I don’t like to compare books with other books . . . but The Lovely Bones and The Secret Life of Bees do come to mind.” —Leslie Reiner, Inkwood Books (Tampa, FL)

“A powerful story of loss, hope, faith, redemption, and love. I fell in love with Kallos’s writing all over again.” —Patti Morrison, Barnes & Noble (Mt. Pleasant, SC)

“A new masterfully crafted family saga. I thought about the characters while walking to work, I worried about them while eating my lunch. . . . By the end of this novel, I felt a part of the community, wishing I were singing them home.” —Elizabeth G. Plante, Water Street Bookstore, Inc. (Exeter, NH)

“I have goose bumps just thinking of how much I loved Sing Them Home. Stephanie Kallos is an original, brilliant storyteller of the highest ranking. Watch out Tyler, Irving, and Russo, ’cause the competition has arrived. More, please!” —Sally Brewster, Park Road Books (Charlotte, NC)

“Like Hope, swept away in the 1978 Nebraska tornado that left her three children motherless, I was transported by Stephanie Kallos’ second novel. As adults the Jones children choose paths impacted by their unique childhood, not acknowledging the unresolved pain of their mother’s disappearance yet unable to leave the area and the memories. Quirky, humorous, poignant—all the attributes of Broken For You are here, in satisfying, page-turning prose.” —Cheryl McKeon, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA

“One more bit of applause for Stephanie Kallos and her new book Sing Them Home. I saved reading [this novel] until the latter part of the summer and am so glad that I did. I saved the best for last. Stephanie Kallos has given us a bushel basket of wonderful characters to worry about, love and cheer on. Quirkiness abounds as does constancy and kindness. Tornados, lightning bolts, and perfect pitch in one book just cannot be ignored! Who knew the Welsh loved singing so much? I certainly do now. I am crazy about this book and will have a wonderful time selling it.” —Julie Norcross, Mclean and Eakin Booksellers (Petoskey, MI)

Broken for You was a personal favorite of mine back in 2004 when it first came out, and I fell similarly in love with the characters, place and story of Sing Them Home.” —Andy Lillich, University of Oregon Bookstore (Eugene, OR)

“This morning I made a smoothie and, well, thought about tornados, shook the blender just the way the book described and wanted to go right back to the couch and finish Sing Them Home . . . back to the whirl of Kallos’s talent.” —Sarah Bagby, Watermark Books & Café, Wichita, KS

Awards

An Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year
Selected as a January ’09 Indie Next List title
Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers Bestseller List (hardcover)
Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers Bestseller List (paperback)
A Heartland Independent Bestseller 2008

Excerpt

Part One
The Tornado
Debris Project

People who say cemeteries are peaceful probably have no means of reception for the powerful static of rushing voices that throb there. I don’t believe all cemetery visits can be fruitful because there is no reason why, once having discarded the body, the soul should haunt its remains. My belief is that simply as a matter of tact and convenience some souls make an effort from time to time to be present at a common meeting place.
—from Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother’s Life in Mine by Rodger Kamenetz

Chapter 1
The Mayor Ignores the Rules

For someone born and bred right here in the rainwater basin of the central great plains, Llewellyn Jones—the mayor and presumptive leader of Emlyn Springs, Nebraska—is showing a sad lack of common sense. His ladyfriend and bedfellow for the past twenty-five years, Alvina Closs, is flummoxed.

“Can’t you wait an hour?” she is saying.

“You can still get in nine holes—maybe even eighteen—after it blows over.”

“I’ve got a tee time reserved,” he answers. “I’m expected.”

“We don’t live in Miami!” Alvina counters, shrilly. “It’s not as if there’s a crowd of people waiting to play. Why can’t you wait?”
“I’m going now, Viney,” he says. Just like that. No explanation. No compromise.

“You and your goddamned golf.”

He gives her a level, noncommittal look. “I’ll be home by happy hour,” he says. Then he turns around and walks up the stairs and toward the bedroom, his posture erect, his gait processional. If he thinks I’m going to follow him up there, Viney says to herself, molars clenched, he’s got another thing coming.

Plenty of others share Viney’s agitation. The smallest and least civilized townsfolk are the most distraught: the babies, all of them, even the easy ones, are confounding their mothers with uncharacteristic, colicky behavior. The babies have been fed and changed and burped and read to and sung to and walked and held but still they are out of sorts. They are determined to cry, naptime be damned. There are grumpy toddlers, too, throwing tantrums, caterwauling in unison. Family pets all over town are nervous and misbehaving—fluttering, howling, hissing, gnawing, mauling lace curtains, and mangling good leather shoes even though they know better. Premenstrual girls are arguing with their mothers, moping in front of the television, or daydreaming on polyester bedspreads behind violently slammed doors. Teenage boys contemplate their troubled complexions with dismay. Afternoon trysts are not going well. Noses tickle without relief. The carpenters in town curse and measure again, cut again, curse again, measure again. At the Williamses’ mansion, Miss Hazel’s most promising student strikes a C-sharp. Hazel cringes in the parlor; in the kitchen, her younger sister, Wauneeta, cringes, too. Downtown at the piano hospital, Blind Tom experiences a sudden unaccounted-for burst of tinnitus as he applies a cotton swab saturated with milk to a stained bit of ivory he found last week by the side of the road near Hallam. Next to the old train depot, the aged citizens encamped at the St. David’s Home for the Elderly are experiencing intestinal problems; not a one of them, not even Mr. Eustace Craven, whose bowels have emptied like clockwork for every one of his ninety-eight years, has had a decent BM all day.

And in the living room of the house that has been Llewellyn Jones’s primary place of residence for a quarter of a century, Viney turns her back on the mayor and plants herself at the picture window—arms folded, mouth adamantly stitched shut, brows lowering, wearing an expression that no one but her dearest friend has ever seen.

Viney rarely frowns. She does five minutes of facial exercises and acupressure every morning and makes an effort to keep her countenance (a word she routinely mispronounces as continence) relaxed and neutral. Time needn’t be the enemy. A person doesn’t have to spend a fortune on face-lifts and creams. Alvina Closs is seventy-four years old, almost seventy-five, but she looks at least ten years younger. Maybe even fifteen.

She scrutinizes the ballooning clouds advancing from the south. The baby-blanket blue of the sky is darkening, graying. She can hear Llewellyn banging around in the bedroom, opening and closing bureau drawers. He must be changing into his shorts.

Viney can’t for the life of her imagine what’s gotten into him. The mayor is usually so easygoing, a model of the compromising spirit. It’s one of the many reasons they’ve stayed together for so long.

Many positive things could be said of Viney’s late husband, Waldo, but a flexible nature was not one of them. They had sex in the same position their entire married life, and Waldo required some form of red meat at every meal. He’d choke down a slice of turkey at Thanksgiving, but that was the extent of it. Chicken? “Dirty birds,” he’d say, although that didn’t keep him from eating eggs fried in butter eight days a week. Fish? Forget it, even when his friends brought home fresh perch from the Big Blue. It was meat, meat, meat with Waldo, which is why—Viney knows this for a fact—he dropped dead of a massive heart attack when he was only thirty-two years old, leaving her a young widow with four kids. He had a beautiful body. She’s still mad at him.

The window needs cleaning. They haven’t had a good rain for days—although Viney’s oldest daughter said it sprinkled up in Omaha yesterday. The topsoil is parched, the wind has been relentless. There’s dust on everything. Viney takes up yesterday’s newspaper and her spray bottle of water and Coke and gets to it.

The picture window is a relatively new addition. Waldo installed it back in 1962, not long before he collapsed in the parking lot of the Surf’n’turf, where they’d gone to celebrate their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Waldo was handy, that was one of his attributes. He made a lot of improvements to the house when he was alive. Up and down ladders, hammering, hoisting, sawing, drilling. All those comforting male noises.

Alvina Closs has been a widow longer than she was married. She’s been an adulteress longer than she’s been a wife. She would have dried up for sure, grown shut down there—and in her mind and heart, too—if it hadn’t been for Llewellyn Dewey Jones, and Hope.
Welly comes back downstairs and goes out through the kitchen door, not exactly slamming it but giving the action just enough oomph to set the door harp clanging overenergetically. What’s wrong with him?

Viney hears him out in the backyard, thumping his shoes together, clearing off the dirt between the spikes. She pictures great bricks of dense sod being flung about the yard, and then falling into a serene, elliptical orbit with Welly at the center: a small angry god in argyle socks, giving birth to a new solar system in which the terrain of every planet is an immense, impeccably groomed PGA golf course.

Viney resumes window-cleaning. She does a few nasolabial stretches and waits for Welly to reappear. Surely he won’t leave without patching things up.

Viney’s house is one of the oldest in town, if not the finest or fanciest: a whitewashed two-story saltbox built back in 1910 by her great-grandfather as a wedding present for her grandparents. Her mother, aunts, and uncles were born here, as was Viney, as were Viney’s four children. She keeps her house, and Welly keeps his, even though they’ve been sleeping together since the nation’s bicentennial.
In part, it’s for appearances’ sake—but it’s also because the house provides Alvina Closs with a sense of personal and historical continuity. Frankly, she’s never cared a good goddamn what people think of her and Llewellyn and their unusual arrangement, and she’s always deeply regretted the fact that Welly and the children didn’t move in here after Hope went up.

But that’s a sore subject and another story entirely.

Welly is in the attached garage now—another of Waldo’s contributions—opening the garage door with the remote. Maybe he won’t come back inside to say good-bye after all.

The phrase friable earth voices itself in Viney’s mind suddenly. Where has she heard that expression? What does it mean? She goes to look it up.

In 1966, Viney replaced the family Bible on the lectern with a massive Webster’s International Collegiate Dictionary. She makes a point of learning a new word every day and then using it in conversation. Staying mentally agile is crucial as one ages. There is no reason why a person should stop learning. Yesterday’s word was sangfroid.

And then she remembers: One of her granddaughters—the one who’s having so much trouble getting pregnant—told her recently that she was diagnosed as having a friable uterus. Viney was a registered nurse for over thirty years and maintains a keen interest in the medical field; nevertheless this expression was unfamiliar. She didn’t have the heart to ask what it meant at the time, and a good thing, too:

Friable, she reads. Brittle. Readily crumbled. Pulverable.

How in the world does a uterus crumble?
Viney looks up. Llewellyn has backed out of the garage and is loading his clubs into the trunk of his Marquis. He’s going then, without a word. His expression—normally so benign and handsome—bears a sour residue, the result, she supposes, of their recent spat.

The sex in the beginning was very good, probably because it felt illicit, even though their adultery was completely sanctioned—more than that, encouraged—by Llewellyn’s wife, Hope.
Viney and Welly still have sex, at least once a month, after lunch. Welly is an improviser, a person who bends, goes with the flow. They have their routines, of course, but overall their life together has been one of freedom, quiet adventure, and discovery—both in and out of the bedroom. Viney has kept them on a semivegetarian lacto-ovo diet since 1980—relying heavily on Fresh Vegetable and Fruit Juices: What’s Missing from Your Body? and The Vegetarian Guide to Diet and Salad by N. W. Walker. She credits this with their physical health, mental acuity, and active love life. Viney pictures the two of them engaged in stimulating conversation over glasses of beet juice until they are well into their hundreds. Dr. Walker himself lived to be 110. No one has yet found any reason whatsoever why the human body should die.
All those years ago, when she charged through the front door of McKeever’s Funeral Home, and, ignoring staff urgings to be reasonable (“State law my ass!” she proclaimed), stormed down to the basement prep room to see Waldo’s pre-embalmed remains—such a strange word in that context, remains, because at that point Wally was still all there—she noticed a protrusion, something like a tent pole, midway down the sheet.

“What’s that?” she’d asked, even though she had a pretty good idea. She was thinking about the fact that it was her fifteenth wedding anniversary, her husband was dead, and never once had they had sex with her on top.
Malwyn McKeever repositioned himself so that she no longer had a view of Waldo’s nether regions. “It’s a reflex,” Mal said, clearly embarrassed by the question. “A common postmortem reflex.”

“That figures,” Viney muttered. She had stopped crying and was starting to feel the undertow of a fierce, angry grief. She was young and foolish enough back then to believe that the worst thing in the world had just happened to her. She didn’t know anything.

She was curious to hear about how embalmers deal with postmortem stiffies—imagining this almost made her laugh—but Mal’s face was as pink as a medium-rare steak. So she picked out a coffin, signed the papers, and (vowing to never put herself through the experience of laying eyes on him again) bid farewell to her beautiful dead husband’s erect remains.

She could never in a million years have gotten Waldo to drink carrot-ginger juice on a daily basis or sit through a program on educational television.

Why, just last night she and Welly were watching one of those science shows on PBS about stem cell research and a whole new branch of study called regenerative medicine. There’s a group of doctors now who believe that people with spinal cord injuries can walk again. They’ve done things like remove stem cells from people’s noses and pack them into the spinal cords of people who’ve broken their backs or necks or are suffering from some other kind of damage to their nervous systems. Lo and behold, those cells start regenerating. People who’ve never been able to do so much as wiggle a toe have started flexing their feet! They’ve even done this with a person’s heart, a young boy whose idiot friend was playing around with a nail gun and shot him right through the left ventricle. Nobody believed it was possible to regenerate heart tissue, but sure enough, they’ve done it!

Viney tried to engage Welly in a conversation about the TV show when they were getting ready for bed, but for some reason he was unusually quiet (possibly the subject matter was upsetting given their shared history, the wheelchair-bound, and so forth) so she didn’t push him.

Even though they have never officially tied the knot, they are bound together in all the ways that matter—through the rituals of everyday living, dependability, courtesy, and an innate sense of when to talk and when to keep still.

All the emphasis on honesty these days is, in Viney’s opinion, a bad idea. Living with another human being is a stormy enough proposition without stirring up trouble over this and that and every last little thing. As far as she can tell, this obsession with talking and listening, sharing feelings and so on, hasn’t done one blessed thing for the institution of marriage. Just look at the statistics. Viney’s own children are example enough of the state of things: one divorced, one separated, one in counseling. None of Welly’s kids have ever even gotten married. Viney has always felt sad for them—and for Welly, too, with no grandbabies—but maybe it’s for the best. Cohabitation is not for the faint of heart.

Viney regrets getting snippy. She shouldn’t have made a fuss, pushed him like that. It’s one of those men things, a matter of pride, and there’s nothing she can do now to stop him. She watches him slam the trunk closed and walk around to the driver’s side door. He could use some new golf shoes. She got him that pair a couple of Christmases ago. It’s not like he hasn’t gotten good use out of them.

A wind kicks up. The bamboo chimes shudder; the whirligig in the rose bed spins madly. Welly starts the car. A cloud of exhaust is instantly dissipated.

It’s August! Viney thinks with sudden clarity. That’s what it is, that explains everything. The Joneses always get owly in late August. Criminy, the whole town does for that matter, it’s not as if what happened to them didn’t happen to the rest of us.

Welly’s children must be feeling it, too—Bonnie a few blocks away, Larken and Gaelan up in Lincoln. Poor kids. None of them are happy, none of them have ever really settled down. Viney glances at the photographs of Llewellyn and Hope’s children, prominently displayed on the fireplace mantle along with the pictures of her own blood kin.

Feeling a burst of sympathy and contrition, Viney hurriedly pushes open the screen door and scurries out to the curb to wave good-bye, but it’s too late. Welly is already turning the car onto Bridge Street. He doesn’t see her.

Viney sighs. That man does love to whack things with a stick. Funny. He’s not even very good at it.

She gives an assessing look to the accumulating clouds off to the southwest, checks the thermometer on the garage, and sniffs the air. The wind is high now, and cooling. The thick humid air that’s hovered over town for the past few days is being pushed aside.

Viney goes in. She changes into footless tights and a leotard. She’ll do her exercise video and then figure out something for dinner.

Maybe he’ll get to the club and run into Alan or Glen. They’ll have a drink. That’s probably what he’ll do. He won’t tee off when it’s sure to storm soon.

Viney shoves Young at Heart Yoga into the VCR and pushes the Play button.

While the FBI reminds her of the penalties associated with video piracy, she unrolls her mat, sits down in lotus, and closes her eyes.
It’s Friday. They’ll have frozen lemon pepper filets and that new Stouffer’s Spinach Souffle. She’ll whip up a salad from Dr. Walker’s cookbook. She’ll make a fresh lime and celery juice tonic and mix it with spring water.

The music begins. The steady, sangfroid voice of the yoga instructor encourages her to relax, relax. Breathe.

And for dessert, they’ll have big dishes of that fat-free rocky road that Welly likes so much.

The living aren’t the only ones unsettled. The dead—especially the fathers—are also perturbed by the mayor’s behavior.

There he goes, they’re thinking: kicking up dust with that gas guzzler he drives, hell-bent to engage in his favorite form of outdoor recreation, putting himself in the path of what any fool could see is a developing thunder cell, and at the worst possible hour of the day.

Idiot.

The dead fathers of Emlyn Springs are obstinate homebodies. They value routine. They keep close to their caskets.

This rootedness isn’t entirely owed to the fact that they’ve been planted in the landscape. For the farmers, it’s a matter of habit. They spent their lives knee-deep in loess, spring water, and manure; laying drain tile; planting, tending, and harvesting crops. A shackled vigilance to the soil and to the moods of the provincial sky was essential. It was possible to leave, but for a few hours at most, and only for the most pressing of reasons: a drive into town twice a year without fail to go to church; up to Beatrice to pick up a new transmission for the tractor; over to Branson, Missouri, to see traveling magicians, lion tamers, Up with People, or some other cultural event that the mother of their children arranged, and at which their presence, however grudging, was mandated. Ever black about the face and hands, pungent, abidingly crumby with dirt no matter how much they scrubbed, their bodies over time became so embedded with earth—and most of them lived long—that their skin evolved, adapted, developing a subdermal stratum composed of equal parts skin and soil. For the farmers, the transition to being dead and buried was hardly noticeable.

But even the nonfarmers are perfectly happy staying put. There may not be anything spectacular about the landscape in this part of Nebraska, but it’s home. If you leave, you’re gonna cry is what they’ve always said, but not everyone listens.

The most compelling reason behind their constant presence, however, is this: The dead are often called into service as what for lack of a better term could be called outfielders, catching those disquieted souls who die unwillingly, with rude, terrifying suddenness (victims of car accidents, gun blasts, natural disasters, and the like) and conveying them home. These kinds of deaths aren’t common in Emlyn Springs, but the dead fathers maintain a proud readiness.

In the meantime, they are not idle. Far from it.

Several of them are plein air painters. Being submerged in the landscape has given them a new appreciation for it. Their awareness of color is deeper and more refined; after all, they themselves provide at least some of those colors: the robust burgundy of milo seed heads, the eerily dense green of emerging soybeans. Many are engaged in ongoing scientific experiments. Others are linguists.

To label their pursuits as hobbies would be misleading. The dead fathers of Emlyn Springs are not dilettantes. They work long and hard. They postulate formulas and equations with assiduity and then set about the long, slow, solitary business of proof. This makes them very happy. Eternally happy.

Meet some of them. Observe their labors. Tread lightly.

Mr. Merle Funk, farmer (1874-1930), is preoccupied with subtle differences in grasshopper physiology. Waldo Closs, insurance salesman (1930-1962), studies the fragile nervous system of the four-leaf clover. Obediah Purdy, pharmacist and bicycle enthusiast (1826-1899), transcribes dialectical variations in bee-speak. And leading the landscape artists is Dr. Gerallt Williams (1902-2000), family physician and specialty carpenter.

When it comes to the animal kingdom, their studies are focused exclusively on native birds. They’re done with cattle and hogs. They’re fed up with chickens. Ezra “the Egg King” Krivosha (1888-1982)—who put Emlyn Springs on the map by promoting it as the Fancy Egg capital of the world—no longer cares one whit about the inner lives of exotic laying hens, but he’s fascinated by the social interactions of snow geese. And since his death a hundred years ago, Fritz Bybee, Esq., has been recording the genealogical history of a single family of pied-billed grebes.

Other dead fathers are engaged in researching the impact of weather upon the underbelly of the Nebraska landscape—and, by extension, upon all remains that are there interred: Mr. Roy Klump, owner of Roy’s Roofing (1930-1998), records the varying sound waves produced by different sizes of hail and notes their effect upon postmortem hair growth. Myron Mutter (1898-1982), pastor, observes the way that electrical currents passing through the earth in advance of a thunderstorm affect hearing loss. And Mr. Ellis Cockeram, podiatrist and choir-master (1903-1979), is devising a means of measuring tornado-force winds by observing the escalating sensations that occur in his left fourth metatarsal.

The dead are just as certain as the living that a storm is on its way today, and soon—not by observing the sky, but through a particular chemical agitation in the soil, along with various corresponding skeletal anxieties. (Thankfully, Mr. Cockeram’s toes are unaffected.) Their softer remains are growing incrementally more acidic, and the earthworms, preferring a sweeter cuisine, are burrowing away.

Dead fathers don’t ask for much: solitude and quiet and detachment from the emotional vicissitudes of the living. They don’t thrill to demonstrative mourners. They can’t abide recklessness. And nothing upsets them more than willful stupidity.

Ergo, as far as they’re concerned, Llewellyn Jones deserves whatever he gets for behaving with such reckless disregard for the rules of storm safety, rules that each and every one of them can tick off in their sleep.

And now the mayor is at the country club, parking his ’89 Marquis next to Bud Humphries’ ’84 F-150, shouldering his bag and heading directly for the first hole tee-off.

What the hell is he thinking?

Decoding the motivating forces behind human behavior is the academic province of dead mothers. In contrast to their male counterparts (those curmudgeons, digging in their fleshless heels, barking out rules with a catechismal self-importance), dead mothers—ah!—they travel.

They would insist, somewhat defensively, that travel is a requisite of their studies in cross-cultural behavioral psychology. But truth be told, it’s mainly because they are weight-sensitive. When grounded, the dead mothers feel every footstep of every human being all over the world.

It was something like this when they were pregnant. Their children’s feet trounced around inside them like so many mischievous elfin sprites. Bubbly, they were. Effervescent when they quickened, like soda pop in the gut. That was how they made their presence known. So lightly.

But now! The heaviness of all of them. The pitter-patter of little feet has become a nonstop cacophony of stones.

The dead mothers’ travels are interrupted when something of significance is about to happen, something involving a living child, for example, or a spouse. At such times, they are called back from wherever they are, whether it’s across the state or on the other side of the ocean. They come willingly, without resentment.

One among them is being called back now: Aneira Hope Jones (1940-1978). She is halfway around the world, visiting the town of Pwllheli on the Lln Peninsula of North Wales. Among the dead mothers of Emlyn Springs, Hope tends to travel farther and stay away longer; but then, she’s always been different.

Hope knows this much: Her presence is required, and so she sets out, returning to the land and the people with whom she was once one flesh.

Llewellyn Jones is teeing off. The dead are paying attention.

Rule Number One! Merle Funk barks out. Don’t go under a large tree that stands alone!
Lightning illuminates the sky. The dead fathers start counting:

One cornhusker, two cornhuskers, three cornhuskers . . .

Llewellyn is in the rough. Hope arrives—her unexpected appearance is barely noticed by her comrades—and she watches with the rest of them.

Rule Number Two! Fritz Bybee chimes in. Don’t stay in a place where you are taller than your surroundings!

He’s certainly played better, muses Roy Klump. He used to beat me on that hole every time.
Llewellyn’s wedge shot—into the pond—corresponds with the next thunderbolt, as if he himself were summoning the elements.

The air inside the clouds a mile to the southwest is becoming agitated. Groggy humidity is being dragged up from the earth.

Llewellyn is standing knee-deep in water.
Rule Number Three! the fathers cry together, Don’t fish from a boat or stand on a hilltop or in an open field!

To which Ellis Cockeram adds, Lightning kills more people than all other kinds of storms put together!

A tunnel of supercooled air is gearing up to jettison downward.

Llewellyn crests the hill to the green. He sinks the putt. More thunder.

The dead mothers join the fathers, chanting One cornhusker, two cornhuskers . . .

Picking up his ball, Llewellyn hurries to the number five tee-off, the highest point of the Emlyn Springs golf course. From here he can see miles in all directions—over to his family’s land, long ago vacated by them, not sold, but turned over to more capable and less sorrowful hands. He can see the cemetery where a cenotaph marks the place his wife, Hope, would be buried, if only they could find her. To the north are his two oldest children, out of harm’s way, he hopes, out of the danger zone. He imagines seeing his youngest, Bonnie, on one of the back roads, pedaling her bicycle in the furious way she’s had since she was small. But no. Whatever else her siblings think of her, Bonnie has a good head on her shoulders. She wouldn’t be out on her bike in weather like this.

Here he goes. Burying the tee. Settling into his stance.

What is the fool thinking? wonders Alvina’s dead husband, Waldo.

Rule Number Four! warns Pastor Myron Mutter, desperately. Never hold on to or be near anything made of metal!

Mayor Jones—whose first name is pronounced with a sound not found in the English language, a palatal push of air—breathes in the sight of his homeland, and then—Llewellyn—Hope whispers, sending her breath into the double l’s the Welsh way, giving his name the sound of a reticent breeze.

He looks down, prepares, still as granite. Suddenly he swings: his club arcs up—forcefully, theatrically, with intent—and then down, slamming into the ball as the thunder roars again, swinging through, cutting a semicircular swath through space and then freezing momentarily, long enough to form with his club a straight vertical line, a perfect conduit between earth and sky, and then there is a crack and a sizzle and a sword of light.

The motion of the ball outlasts the living force behind it; it hurtles skyward with a marvelous ease, and even after the mayor’s heart is stunned into stillness by ten million volts of electrical current, the ball sails onward, upward, disappearing into the roiling clouds, moving in opposition to the hail that is now beginning to fall.

In the clubhouse cocktail lounge—where there’s a good view of the fifth-hole tee—the mayor’s friends are temporarily confused. They cannot see that the single hailstone that seems to be rising miraculously in resistance to the laws of gravity is really an ordinary pockmarked Titleist 100.

Then their eyes, losing sight of the ball, trace a line earthward and land upon the stilled form of Llewellyn Dewey Jones (1934-2003), physician, baritone, four-term mayor of Emlyn Springs, Nebraska, and now-dead father.

Hail is bludgeoning the clubhouse roof. Bud Humphries, the country club bartender, town council chairman, and volunteer paramedic, snatches up the defibrillator and rushes outside. Hail, obedient, downward-falling hail, pummels his shoulders; he will be sore tomorrow and for weeks to come. This soreness will be fought with numerous applications of Bengay, which he will purchase from the town’s only drugstore, Lloyd’s Drugs, and here is Owen Lloyd now, pharmacist, war veteran, knocking over his martini glass in his haste to get down from the bar stool and call the fire station. The two other men in the clubhouse, Alan Everett Jones (no relation) and Glen Rhys Thomas, leave their peanuts and pitcher of beer and follow Bud outside, even though the storm is still directly, dangerously overhead. They go because they are men of Llewellyn’s generation, few in number, men who have stayed put as their sons and daughters moved away in all four directions, to bigger towns and even bigger cities.

They reach him, their fallen friend. Bud performs CPR, knowing that the mayor is gone, and yet still here, and so deserving of their best efforts. Llewellyn would have done the same for any of them. They could all tell a different story about a time they watched Dr. Jones labor over the body of some poor soul who had clearly passed on—and saw the look on his face when he couldn’t postpone that passage.

Owen Lloyd has finished his phone call and hurries outside—as best he can, with one good leg and one prosthetic one. He has remembered to bring a blanket.

These living men, fathers all, cover their friend, standing guard over him in the pelting hail, the pouring rain. They stand: waiting, witnessing. From town comes the sound of the firehouse siren. The volunteer firefighters, who they’ve known for years, known by their first and middle and last names, are on the way.

The storm subsides, passes. The air is cooling. Bud stops giving CPR. They might as well carry Llewellyn inside.

The babies fall into a tear-stained slumber, so exhausted that they may even bless their frazzled mothers by sleeping through the night. In the bodies of the teenage girls who are not yet mothers the blood arrives. One native son sneezes, another has an orgasm. A teenage boy pops a pimple. A toenail falls off. The carpenter slides the board into place. In Miss Hazel Williams’s parlor, the piano student strikes a B-natural. At St. David’s, Eustace Craven finally succeeds in moving his bowels.

The dead sigh and look to the place where Llewellyn will be buried, right over there, next to the unoccupied bit of earth that has been reserved for his wife. Cenotaphs are such a waste of real estate.

The rain comes and soaks the ground. Cool and clean, it is a great relief to all concerned. The dead get back to work. They barely registered Hope’s presence, so few of them notice that she has already, once again, gone missing.

And above the field that has been in Llewellyn Dewey Jones’s family for over a century, three birds, all native to Nebraska but of disparate species, are traveling earthward on a cold downdraft. After uttering a few words to one another—too quickly for the dead ornithologist fathers to translate—they fly off in different directions.

No one notices Llewellyn’s Titleist 100, bearing a crescent-shaped cut on one side, looking like a partially peeled exotic fruit. It continues to arc up into the sky until it disappears.

It does not come down.

Reading Group 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.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion; Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self by Frances Kuffel; Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman; The Face of a Naked Lady: An Omaha Family Mystery by Michael Rips; Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother’s Life in Mine by Rodger Kamenetz; A World Turned Over: A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever by Lorian Hemingway; The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold; Ironweed by William Kennedy; How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn; The Corn Is Green by Emlyn Williams; The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin; Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison by Ted Kooser; A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis