Every year, the day after school let out for summer, Samuel and Willadee would load up their kids and take off for south Arkansas. Willadee already had freckles everywhere the sun had ever touched, but she would always roll the window down and hang her arm out, and God would give her more. Her boisterous, sand-colored hair would fly in the breeze, tossing and tangling, and eventually she would laugh out loud, just because home made her feel so free.
Willadee loved this ritual. This once-a-year road trip, when she was snugged into the car with her good, healthy family – all of them fairly vibrating with anticipation. This was her time for thinking about where they’d been and where they might be going and how well the kids were growing in to their names – the names she’d given them as blessings when they were born. The first boy, she’d called Noble. Her clear call to the universe to infuse him with courage and honor. The younger son was Bienville. A good city, or as Willadee thought of it, a peaceful place. The girl, she had named Swan. Not because a swan is beautiful but because it is powerful. A girl needs power that she doesn’t have to borrow from anyone else, Willadee had thought. So far her blessings seemed to be working.
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake has been sitting on my shelves for a long time. I’ve picked it up on occasion, reading the first chapter, but it always goes back. I don’t know what was different this time, but this novel and I just clicked. We had a right-book-right-person-right-time moment.
The language is the kind that you want to read out loud in a drawl and it felt lush and beautiful. This is a novel that oscillates between the happy and the sad, the small pains and joys of day to day life, and the bigger tragedies that mark each family’s trajectory in this world. I feel like I used the exact same sentence in my Quotes & Notes on Someone by Alice McDermott and maybe there is just something about this kind of novel that is speaking to me right now.
There are some horrible things that happen in this novel, truly horrible. I admit I was frustrated by the ending, when something life-altering happens in the last 20 pages, enough to write an entire second novel on how the characters dealt with the horror of it. Even with the ending, it’s a novel that I am happy I read and that I wanted to return to. It helps, too, that much of the novel takes place on a farm in the summertime and there was no better antidote to the endless days of snow.
I won a copy of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake in a contest held by the publisher.