May 20, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.
How we deal with loss is at the center of Kate Maloy's novel Every Last Cuckoo. After Sarah Lucas's husband passes away, she begins to take people into her home, and we learn not only of Lucas's past, but also her present and future. Each of the book's cast of characters is well-drawn and interesting, and Maloy weaves their lives into a warm, heartfelt, and authentic read.
Sarah Lucas's strong, enduring marriage ends when her husband, Charles, dies after a fall in their Vermont woods. It happens in deep winter, and Sarah enters a period of frozen grief that numbs her to everything and everyone. When the snows recede, and icebound streams and rivers start to thaw, Sarah's blood begins to stir again as well. The warming effects bring agony at first, but before long they revive her and compel her to put sorrow to work.
At 75, Sarah is no frail, fussy, or inconsequential old woman. She is a resourceful, unsentimental Yankee, whose habits of hard work and caretaking run as deep as her loneliness. She takes in a small parade of people in search of shelter or escape. Like her parents during the Great Depression, she offers refuge. In return, the people who soon fill her house offer friendship and singular forms of courage.
The music I've chosen for this novel ranges across centuries—even millennia (see number 4). I've assigned various pieces to various (but not all) characters, mainly because the songs suit them, but also because I really like those songs myself. Most of the music belongs to Sarah, though, for she is the one who composes herself and many of those close to her.
"For All We Know (We May Never Meet Again)." This poignant song from the WWII era applies through all of Sarah's years with Charles. They first meet just after that war, but, because of his wounds, might never have met at all. Later, she nearly loses him during the “black hole” in their long marriage, a time in which their children are young and Sarah, perennially exhausted, unwittingly shuts Charles out of her heart. In the end, she is lucky not to lose him until old age, yet the pain she experiences then may be deepest of all, given their long intimacy and the trust they have built together.
Two songs by Leonard Cohen are fitting for Sarah in old age. The first, "Sisters of Mercy," suggests the spirit in which she provides haven for the wayward: “If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn, / they will bind you with love that's as graceful and green as a stem.” Like many of Cohen's songs, this one uses religious imagery to convey a universal human longing that is older and truer than dogma.
Then there's Cohen's "Anthem," which captures the grace that emerges when grief channels the love for one who is gone to others who remain: “Ring the bell that still can ring. / Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack, a crack in everything. / That's how the light gets in.”
For Mordechai Luz, an Israeli scholar on sabbatical in Vermont, I've found an old peace song based on I Kings 4:25. “And everyone ‘neath his vine and fig tree / shall live in peace and unafraid. / And into plowshares beat their swords; / nations shall study war no more.” Long before the novel opens, Mordechai's wife and son die in childbirth, and he takes his grief into battle against the Palestinians. But when he finds himself aiming his Uzi at a boy with a rock, and realizes suddenly that the boy is someone else's son, his enemies become human and war becomes a lie he never again believes.
Sarah's fifteen-year-old granddaughter, Lottie, is devastated by the loss of her grandfather, whom she calls Papa. For her I have rejected standard versions of "O My Papa," a song that nearly always drips with the kind of sentimentality that sugar-coats true emotion. Instead I have chosen O Pabbi Minn, the same song, the same melody, but sung with authentic feeling by Icelandic jazz artist Bjork in her native language. I think it is no accident that Bjork is from a land that knows both numbing cold and the hot springs that lie beneath it.
Lottie, raised in tiny, nearly all-white Vermont and suffering under her mother's scrutiny and control, can't wait to break the constraints that surround her. She would love Jacob Miller's "Tenement Yard." Though Miller complains of a grittier confinement than hers, she would fall right into the spirit of his refrain: “Too much sus-sus-sus-sus-sus-sus, too much watchy, watchy, wah.”
All three of Charles's children mourn him differently, but "O Mio Babbino Caro," a gorgeous, aching solo from Puccini's opera Gianni Schicchi, might equally well touch Stephie's open, uncomplicated weeping, Charlotte's tamped-down devastation, and David's heartbroken regret over a long alienation from his father. There are countless renditions, but I especially like this one, by Lucia Popp.
Charles had a long-running argument with his friend Amos Brand, whose faith contrasted with Charles's pained but persistent unbelief. So here is Aaron Neville's "I Bid You Goodnight" to soothe Amos's sorrow. Only a stone heart can fail to be pierced by Neville's falsetto.
Finally, as a last song for Sarah, I've chosen Adam Covey's "Awake in a Forest." The title entirely fits her newly fearless state of mind, and the song itself—both meditative and vibrant—captures something of the peace she finds by the end of the novel. Her new condition bears her grief along on a commitment to love; it rings the bell that still can ring. (For more of Covey's music see http://poiesis.lsdxm.com/.)
Kate Maloy and Every Last Cuckoo links:
Armchair Interviews review
Boston Globe review
Devourer of Books review
Library Journal review
The Oregonian review
Pop Goes Fiction review
She Is Too Fond Of Books... review
The Barre Montpelier Times Argus profile of the author
The Book Show interview with the author
KBOO Between the Covers interview with the author
Loaded Questions interview with the author
Sound Authors interview with the author
WMRW On the Page interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy: