Books: A Song I Knew by Heart

An online friend told me about this modern adaptation of the story of Ruth and Naomi. A Song I Knew by Heart by Bret Lott explores Naomi’s grief after losing first her husband Eli, then her son Mahlon. When she decides to move from Massachusetts back to South Carolina where she had lived as a child, her daughter-in-law Ruth insists on going with her.

Unlike the story in the Old Testament, there is no other son and no Orpah who agrees to go back to her family. Ruth has no family to go back to, so going with Naomi is staying with the little family she does have – and acquiring a large new family when they get to South Carolina.

The Biblical “kinsman-redeemer,” who was Boaz in the book of Ruth, is here represented not only by Beau (Naomi’s step-nephew), but in a wider sense by the entire family. They eagerly embrace Naomi and Ruth, despite having had little connection to them previously beyond yearly Christmas cards.

The book emphasizes over and over the devastating grief that comes from loss of a family member, as well as – in the latter part of the book – how much healing comes to us through family members. In fact, it is perhaps too repetitive with these themes.

Reading through reader reviews on amazon.com, I see there are a number who find the book wonderful, but they are somewhat outnumbered by those who find the book slow and boring. I’m not sure I would say I found it boring, but I did have to push myself to pick up the book again, more than once.

I told myself that perhaps it was because I have not had the grief of losing a spouse or a child, so I could not relate that well to Naomi. (The only “close” family members I have lost are my parents, and I was not particularly close to them in an emotional sense.)

But also, it was because, for much of the novel, that’s all their seemed to be. Memories of the past, and grief in the present. At some point, sin and guilt get mixed in their also.

Some readers complain that Lott pushes his religious ideas too much, but if anything, I thought that faith seemed to play a surprisingly small role. While there is a memory of a revival service early in the book, God plays little role in the novel, outside of Naomi’s complaints that He has abandoned her.

Even at the end (no big spoiler here – the book is based on a well-known story), when the love of family members restores her to joy and to faith, it is not clear what that faith is in other than in family and some idea of “God” but nothing clear about what God is like or why one would believe in Him.

Humor is mostly absent in this novel. Perhaps that is an indication of the depth of Naomi’s grief. But it certainly makes her story harder to read, compared with those of people who are able to use humor to help them cope with all that life throws at them.

From reader reviews I read, it sounds like other books Bret Lott has written are better. Perhaps sometime I’ll try one of them.

3 Responses to Books: A Song I Knew by Heart

  1. Karen O says:

    It’s been several years since I read it, but I recall that I, too, noticed there wasn’t as much of a faith angle as I thought there would be. The part that affected me the most was when she cheated on her husband, & his gentle, gracious forgiveness of her.

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