Nebraska. A place where every child knows the rules regarding thunderstorms, tornadoes, and blizzards. Where the weatherman’s report is listened to as if it were a message from God. Where the Farmer’s Almanac is a second Bible.
Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos was a great addition to my challenge list! I’m reading my way across the USA–3 to 5 books set in each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character, and books that help me learn about some aspect–geography, history, people–of that state. Sing Them Home is set in the fictional town of Emlyn Springs, Nebraska, a Welsh community in the southeastern corner of the state.
I really enjoyed the research Kallos did into Welsh culture and pockets of Welsh immigrants in America. From what I could find in a quick web search, there are no currently existing Welsh American towns that take their Welsh heritage to the extremes that Emlyn Springs does in Sing Them Home. So Kallos is totally extrapolating on how a small town might adapt over time and become “more Welsh than the Welsh,” and she does so brilliantly and in great detail! Certain aspects, like the gymanfa ganu, are seen at scattered Welsh heritage celebrations that take place around the United States, while others, like the use of language, particularly as part of church services, are typical ways of preserving an ethnic background. But Emlyn Springs residents also participate in a Welsh language spelling bee, and routinely sing the Welsh national anthem. The names they give their children are not, generally speaking, “American” names, or even American-sounding Welsh names (Bonnie being the exception), but extremely Welsh names like Gaelan, Llewellyn, Larken, and Rhys. The famous Welsh love of singing is taken to extremes in odd ways–“They sit erectly, for all children in Emlyn Springs know the importance of posture as it relates to breath support.” Kallos has the townspeople incorporate these aspects of Welshness into their daily lives, and then adds that little edge of fanaticism that makes the town really come to life for us.
And yet, the town is also absolutely set in Nebraska, and weather is no small part of that. Weather impacts the entire storyline, from the mother who is swept up in a tornado and never comes down, to the father who is killed by a lightning strike, to their 3 children–the television weatherman, the art historian who can’t fly due to panic attacks, and the Flying Girl who somehow landed in a treetop during the tornado that carried off her mother. Tornadoes are part of the local knowledge, taken for granted. So are thunderstorms and their related safety rules. So are blizzards. Both Sing Them Home and The Echo Maker mention the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard of 1888 (and the event is depicted in a mural made of glass at the Nebraska State Capital Building). But there are other signs we are in Nebraska. One of the characters in the books is named Wauneeta, which can only be the Nebraskan phonetic version of Juanita, and made me laugh out loud. Kitchen gardens are ubiquitous, “You can’t call yourself a Nebraska woman unless you grow beefsteak tomatoes and sweet corn.” The townspeople have their own unique version of the Nebraska Cornhusker’s Fight Song, (“sung slowly, a cappella, in Welsh, and in four-part harmony. O nid oes unman yn debyg i Nebraska … This arrangement is not transcribed anywhere, nor is it accredited”) melding their Nebraska sports affiliation with their ethnic fanaticism.
The lightning strike scene was unusual. Kallos obligingly reiterates the rules to follow during a thunderstorm for her readers. It’s well done, and adds to the dramatic tension building in the scene–we know what’s going to happen, we know Llewellyn is being foolish and/or obstinate, and we cringe with every additional rule that he breaks. There was a small part of me that wondered cynically if Kallos’ editor had insisted that she somehow make it very clear to the reader that Llewellyn was “breaking the rules”–as a legal maneuver to reduce the publisher’s (and author’s) liability. But as I said, it fits into the narrative, and provides a spotlight for one of the main instances of magical realism–the dead fathers of Emlyn Springs.
Honestly, I was a little disappointed that the magical realism was such a small part of the book, though it does turn out to be a key part. Perhaps it is a conceit of the living that we think the dead should be more interested in our actions, but Kallos’ dead are, for the most part, supremely uninterested. They have their own on-going research projects, but, except in rare moments, don’t pay any attention to those they’ve left behind. And that’s pretty much it for the magical realism. Gabriel Garcia Marquez it’s not. But that’s ok–Kallos is a good writer and Sing Them Home was a very enjoyable read. (And I will be adding Broken For You to my Washington list.)
Although this “dead fathers” aspect of the novel could be considered morbid, Kallos gives it a bit of quirky humor. This description of the farmers of Emlyn Springs starts out as a description of the dead fathers, but turns into more of a lampoon of the living ones:
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.
I also love the little foibles Kallos gives her characters, like Viney’s determination to learn new vocabulary words, which she then insists on using and mispronouncing. “It certainly has been an allergic week,” Viney says, trying to use the word “elegiac,” which means “mournful or sad.”
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?
Or the bits about Blind Tom, talking about piano tuners and ivory:
Blind Tom imagines that the deathbed confessions of piano technicians often involve the location of secret stashes of contraband ivory.
Hilarious, but probably true! There are other truths as well.
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. This pretending is what allows small-town people to continue living in such close proximity.
In a twist similar to ones we’ve seen before (Meri’s ectopic pregnancy in The Atomic Weight of Love, and Sophie’s condition in To the Bright Edge of the World), Llewellyn Jones keeps his wife’s medical condition secret from her in some misguided attempt to protect her. She later uses this deception as leverage for what becomes an integral part of the central mystery of the whole novel.
There are a few birds, though no new ones: meadowlarks, snow geese, pied-billed grebes, and cardinals.
Mostly, though, this is a funny, poignant story about grief–its many forms, reasons, and outcomes–and how humans deal with it. It’s not an action-packed book. But it was perfect for our reading challenge and for helping me get to know Nebraska better.
Along with Wales. I know a bit of Welsh now. Actually, no, I don’t. I loved Kallos’ bit about pronouncing the language–this sums up perfectly how I feel about the Welsh language!
The Welsh people will tell you by way of encouragement—for they are a kind and encouraging people—that their native tongue is not difficult to speak, not at all. Every sound is pronounced, they will tell you… There are rules as to which sound the y takes, but nobody knows them… Some advice, then: nonspeakers would do well to simply enjoy the visual anarchy of Welsh, the startling way familiar letters have nestled up to new companions.
Hwyl fawr am nawr! (Goodbye for now!)