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April 13, 2018

Jackson Ellis's Playlist for His Novel "Lords of St. Thomas"

Lords of St. Thomas

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Winner of the 2017 Howard Frank Mosher First Novel Prize, Jackson Ellis's Lords of St. Thomas is an impressive debut.

New England Review of Books wrote of the book:

"A thrilling story where readers measure how much they value their rights and how far they're willing to fight for them... Ellis does a compelling job of showing the Lord family's hopelessness in their fight to change a fait accompli, without capitulating to sentimentality. This tragic note gives a particular, Steinbeckian vividness to the familiar templates of multigenerational family tale (the story of the Lords) and the American coming-of-age narrative (the story of Little Henry)."

In his own words, here is Jackson Ellis's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Lords of St. Thomas:

In my debut novel, Lords of St. Thomas, the members of the Lord family must face their worst nightmare: the loss of their home, land, and livelihood. The desert town in which they live, St. Thomas, Nevada, is doomed to destruction via flooding by Lake Mead, which is to be created upon completion of the Hoover Dam. The federal government offers to buy out the Lords, but the family, torn apart by conflicting ideals, declines the offer and stays put. Caught in the turmoil is the central character and youngest member of the family, "Little" Henry Lord (who is also the narrator). Many early readers have commented upon the historic and familial aspects of the Lords of St. Thomas, but to me, it is the lonely life that Little Henry is born into and how it shapes his worldview that is most powerful. A number of these songs reflect that desolate perspective.

Money, by Embrace

It is Little Henry's grandfather, Henry Lord (for whom his grandson is named), who ultimately decides to stay in St. Thomas, refusing the federal government's offer to purchase his property. Though the conversation he has with the government official is slightly more civil, in essence, his words echo Ian MacKaye's opening lyrics: "I can truly say I don't give a fuck about your money."

Lungs, by Townes Van Zandt

This is one of my favorite songs by Townes Van Zandt, and it features the line, "Seal the river at its mouth, take the water prisoner/Fill the skies with screams and cries, bathe in fiery answers." Van Zandt wrote the song while suffering from pneumonia, but his metaphorical lyrics, when taken literally, apply quite well to the fates of the Lords and the personal hell they found in Lake Mead.

Desert Sea, by Jawbox

"Half-submerged in the desert sea, an ex-paradise/Keepsakes down there for me" -- I would not be surprised if it were, in fact, Lake Mead that inspired J. Robbins to write the lyrics to this song. The ruins of the real-life town of St. Thomas were submerged below up to 70 feet of water for more than six decades, finally exposed in 2002 after a lengthy (and ongoing) drought. When I first visited, I was amazed at how intact parts of the village remained -- you can stroll down Main Street; you can walk around in the foundation of the St. Thomas School and see where dozens of homes sat. It was, to many, an "ex-paradise" they were forced to leave -- and I wondered, if someone were to actually leave a keepsake behind as a child that could be retrieved decades later (after sitting underwater for so long), what would it be? That is what I set out to discover when I wrote this story.

Things Could Turn Around, by fIREHOSE

This is a beautiful track by a very underrated band. Ed Crawford's vocal delivery is perfect, but the lyrics were actually written by Kira Roessler, the former Black Flag bassist who was, at the time, married to fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt. Despite the track's title, Roessler's lyrics do not inspire much hope that things could actually turn around -- and, given the inevitability of St. Thomas's fate back in the early 1930s, I do not believe any of the town's holdouts truly believed that things would get any better.

The Boat Dreams From the Hill, by Jawbreaker

When I lived in Nevada, I never became completely accustomed to seeing civilization in such a brutally inhospitable climate. Strangest to me, though, was when I went out exploring in the desert and stumbled upon random signs of civilization miles from Las Vegas or the nearest outpost: pickup tailgates, couches, empty laundry detergent bottles; you name it, you can probably find it littered somewhere out in the middle of the desert, devoid of context. And because of Lake Mead, I saw lots of boats everywhere -- and many, like the boat described in this song, had not touched water in years and years. There is something strikingly depressing about seeing an object created for joy not just abandoned, but abandoned in a place completely antithetical to the environment for which it was created. I felt this same pang of sadness walking through St. Thomas. It is littered not only with the remnants of a past thriving civilization, but also with the remnants of a lake that long ago receded: mussel shells and boat anchors lie scattered across the ruins. It is both a ghost town and a ghost lake in a scorching desert suited to neither.

Rowboat, by Beck

On the whole, I don't particularly care for Stereopathetic Soulmanure, but it does contain my all-time favorite Beck song, "Rowboat." A rowboat features prominently in Lords of St. Thomas (note the cover art by my Verbicide co-publisher Nate Pollard), and the sad, lo-fi country twang of this track fits well with the book --for a time, I even considered titling it Rowboat. (I'm glad to have reconsidered.)

Let Me Drown, by Soundgarden

I wrote my book between 2013 and 2014, but the final round of editing was completed in 2017. During this process, Chris Cornell committed suicide. It hit me especially hard, because when I was an adolescent, confronted for the first time by death, rejection, and loneliness, I often leaned on music to get by, and Cornell's lyrics -- especially in the elegiac yet oddly upbeat Temple of the Dog album -- became very important to me. Upon Cornell's death, I revisited much of his music, and found this song to be quite appropriate, as I was reworking a book about a town that literally was allowed to drown. "I'm going to the lonely place," Cornell wails toward the song's end. The real-life ghost town of St. Thomas is indeed one of the loneliest places anyone could ever find.

Humming, by Portishead

If I could give each character a theme song, this would be the one for Little Henry's mother, Ellen Lord. "Unresolved," "unredeemed," "so wrong" -- she is a woman who lives a life that is marred by tragedy year upon year. Like Little Henry's grandfather, the elder Henry Lord, Ellen too wishes to stay on in St. Thomas -- but her reasoning for staying is less rooted in obstinacy than in the fear that she could lose the very last things that have not yet been taken from her by force or by cruel fate.

Remember the Mountain Bed, by Billy Bragg and Wilco, written by Woody Guthrie

The titular "mountain bed" that Guthrie wrote about in this poem-turned-song by Billy Bragg and Wilco couldn't be further from the harsh desert landscape in Nevada where Lords of St. Thomas is set. Still, in this song, a man returns to an idealized place from his past to reflect on the course his life has taken -- much like Little Henry returning to St. Thomas as an old man.

Father to a Sister of Thought, by Pavement

Everything eventually meets its end: towns, civilizations, and the lives of every human/plant/animal. The older you grow and the closer you come to meeting your own fate, the harder it is to put this thought out of your mind. The alt-country-western style of this song, atypical to Pavement's usual output, perfectly fits the tone of the book as it comes to a close, as do Stephen Malkmus's penultimate lyrics: "I know I'm leaning in to the end."

Jackson Ellis and Lords of St. Thomas links:

the author's website

New England Review of Books review
Newfound review
Seven Days review

Linda's Book Bag interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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