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 Fiction Review    



A Song I Knew By Heart
By Bret Lott
Random House, 2004
Hardback, $24.95 (320 pages)
ISBN: 0-375-50377-3

A modern-day reworking of the story from the Book of Ruth in the Bible, this novel is about Ruth and Naomi, whose husbands have recently passed away.  The mother-in-law, Naomi, decides to leave her home and friends in Massachusetts, where it is cold and dead, to seek the ‘light’ of her childhood in South Carolina. 

Ruth, whose husband, Mahlon was Naomi’s son, begs to be taken there also.  She has no ties, no kin, so Naomi agrees and the two resolve to find a new life in the South.  They sell everything they own and go.  When they arrive, it is into the welcoming hands of Naomi’s family, who she has not seen in many decades—only kept up with by correspondence.  

With such an outline, one might think the book limited in scope.  However, there are several turns that keep the reader guessing.   One such turn is the whole matter of Naomi’s ‘sin,’ which she tries to come to grips with, as she is leading around Ruth in her new surroundings.  With sin, of course, comes guilt.  So, here is Naomi, who has to balance her inadequacy due to her feelings of guilt with her responsibility towards Ruth, to be her guide in this New World they find themselves in.  

Symbols of faith, love and hope abound: There is a locket with no filigree to it, which Eli, Naomi’s husband, had given her early in their marriage.  It represents commitment, but later comes to painfully reflect Naomi’s sin back to her.  The circle quilt given to her by her friends, is a metaphor of their undying friendship to her. 

The biscuits that Naomi makes from scratch, are now made by Ruth/ the biscuits represent the generational handing-down of family traditions, and cutouts in the shape of human hands-reaching, which is presented to Naomi by the children in the family are pictures of acceptance by family. 

The language is neutral, sometimes depressing, (as one would expect in a book following the demise of the two husbands of the women), and reflective.  By the end of the story, however, the two women are encouraged, supported and loved by their newly found family members and not only merely survive their ordeals, but flower in spite of them.  It is this renewing of the mind and spirit that is the whole story here—the power to come back after incredible loss and still find purpose in life.  This is the power of A Song I Knew by Heart.


Robert L. Hall 
Southern Scribe Reviews

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