Wow! I just found another author/book to add to my list of Semicolon’s 100 Best Fiction Authors Ever (a list which only had 68 authors on it, now 69). I read A Song I Knew By Heart by Bret Lott a little over a year ago, and I thought it was OK. I read it because I had heard that Lott wrote Christian-influenced fiction and because the book was based on the book of Ruth from the Bible. I thought that sounded interesting, and it was.
When I wrote about A Song I Knew By Heart I said that “the plot wasn’t much.” Well, Jewel isn’t about plot either. A Mississippi woman named Jewel grows up poor, marries, has five children, the last of whom is a girl with Down’s Syndrome. The family lives in Mississippi, moves to California, moves back to Mississippi and then back to LA. No thriller here. However, it doesn’t matter how much or how little happens externally in the book; the action is inside the characters. The reader gets to see inside a marriage– that of Jewel and her husband Leston. At the same time we get to see the unfolding relationship of a mother to her children, especially that of a mother and her child with special needs, Brenda Kay. The doctors call Brenda Kay a Mongolian Idiot when she is born; those same doctors tell Jewel to put her daughter away in an institution and forget about her. The attitude of unthinking cruelty and dismissal that most of society has toward Brenda Kay, toward all mentally handicapped individuals in the 1940’s is mirrored in the unthinking and racist attitude that Jewel herself has toward the black people that live all around her. She freely uses the n-word to refer to black people and expects them to wait on her, to defer to her because she is white. Jewel knows that she and her family are nothing but crackers, poor white trash. She calls them that herself. The attitude is captured so well. In Mississippi in the 1940’s black people are servants and children with Down’s Syndrome are freaks. In California, Jewel’s “promised land”, these attitudes begin to break down and change.
In fact, that contrast between California and Mississippi is the only thing in the book that I would argue about with the author. In Jewel Mississippi is a backwoods place; nothing ever changes there. No one has any idea of justice for black people nor of education for the mentally handicapped. And by 1962, nothing has changed for the better. California, on the other hand, is a paradise of racial harmony and opportunity for the mentally handicapped. It’s a story, so I guess the author can make the places the way he wants. But I don’t believe that one place was all good and the other completely dark and full of ignorance.
The language and the images in this book are beautiful. The details of a mother’s thoughts and feelings, of what it’s like to live in poverty, of what it’s like to care for a mentally handicapped child, of what it means to balance the needs of one family member against those of another–all these descriptions and more are drawn artfully and engagingly. The characters in the novel remind me of people I know. Leston is a little like my daddy. Jewel reminds me of my great-grandmother and of my grandmother. I’ve known her sons, Wilmer and Burton, poor, working class and moving up.
In this interview, Bret Lott says that what he writes about is family:
I don�t know what else to write about, that�s the bottom line. I don�t know what else there is to write about. I�m not saying that to be glib or a quick answer. Family, that�s basically everybody�s story. Whether you are writing away from the family or trying to extract from the family or trying to get hold of the family, or the family�s dying or being born, or are you meeting your soul mate or your lover or whatever; it�s all about the family. So, when I�m writing, I�m not thinking about trying to say something so much as to write clearly and in love�what I love and what I hold dear. I know that�s kind of a vague answer, but I don�t want you to think I�m trying to instruct or preach or anything.
If the only thing I know about is family, then what I�m trying to say is that family is all that matters; but that comes out of the fact that that�s all I know what to write about, for better or worse again.
If you like Southern fiction or novels about the inner workings of families, not “dysfunctional” families, just ordinary hard-working folks who are trying to make things work the best they can, Jewel is a masterpiece. I’m definitely going to read some more books by Bret Lott.