Last week I read, and loved, Tommy Hays’ latest novel, What I Came to Tell You.
This is a book about living in the presence of death. A brother and sister, twelve and ten, lose their mother in a freak accident. In the shadow of this loss, they find refuge in one another, in friends, in memories of their mother, in their father (when he is available), in the streets and stores of Asheville, in the bamboo forest next door and, in Grover’s case, in the creating of art. In frames made from bamboo, and eventually in the bamboo stalks themselves, Grover weaves tapestries made of sticks, leaves, and the limbs of fallen trees. Another loss looms, the sale of the lot next door and the destruction of the bamboo forest, and Grover and Sudie live with grief and threat as I hope I would – sometimes gracefully, sometimes not, always authentically.
Here are five things I like about this book: (1) From the very first chapter, the book asks “where was God” in this tragedy. The question does not dominate the book, but it is a recurring motif, and the characters grapple with this question honestly and without shame. (2) The bamboo frames that hold Grover’s tapestries are a great metaphor. Like good parents, good religion, and good art, they are strong and flexible enough to hold whatever we create with our lives. (3) There are tributes to Asheville and Asheville people throughout: the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Riverside cemetery, the late, great Beanstreets coffee shop, the bridge from Montford into downtown, a bookseller named Byron, a Buddhist priest named Nancy, Mr. Godleski and Buncombe Turnpike. I could feel Tommy’s love for his home. (4) A minor though wise character, an artist, says to Grover, “The world needs our art whether it knows it or not!” and these strike me as pretty good words to live by: trust that who you are and what you do will make a difference for good, even if others are slow to understand or approve. (5) Last but not least, my own kids spent some time playing with the Hays kids in the bamboo forest on Edgemont. How could I not love this book?
Thanks Tommy for another story sweet with truth.