Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book Review: "Lions" by Bonnie Nadzam

The small town of Lions, Colorado was envisioned to be a grand city, but it never amounted to much. Farming, mining, really nothing succeeded in Lions, and apart from a few small businesses—a diner, a bar, a thrift shop—little by little, the town is dying.

"There was no future in Lions. No matter how many stories you heard about years gone by, no matter how many plans you had stocked up for the future, you were confined to a never-ending present."

The Walker family has lived in Lions for several generations. John Walker is a talented welder who could easily have made quite a living if he and his family moved to Denver or another metropolis, but instead chose to keep his family's welding shop open despite the fact that there was barely any business to be had, and when there was, he usually undercharged his neighbors or let them pay for it in kind. Those left in the town never understood why he did the things he did, and although they thought he was a fine, upstanding man, they somehow saw his refusal to better his life as a character flaw.

"They never could understand John Walker or what seemed to be his lifetime of poor decision making. The backward code he seemed to live and work by—his entrepreneurial failure somehow as perpetual as it was absolute. It was as if each of the Walkers in his time was choosing again and again, every morning in his workshirt with his first cup of coffee, to fail."

One night, a mysterious man and his dog show up in town. He speaks very little, but the Walkers show him tremendous charity, providing him and his dog food, new clothes, even money. When the man visits the town bar, and tempers among the citizens of Lions flare for no reason, the man's appearance sets a chain of events in motion which leads to John Walker suddenly dying of a heart attack, among other things. But before John dies, he asks his teenage son, Gordon, to promise to continue a mysterious errand which generations of Walker men have handled, according to legend.

The death of his father and his mother's grief completely unravel Gordon, who in a short number of weeks was scheduled to leave town with his girlfriend Leigh, whom he has known since they were children, and go to college. Leigh dreams of nothing more than leaving Lions for good and having a life larger than she ever thought possible. She cannot understand why Gordon is suddenly having second thoughts, why anyone would want to stay in a town which is shedding people like a dog sheds its fur, when they have the chance to embrace so much possibility and potential.

Lions is a beautifully drawn portrait of life in a dying small town, and the people who call it home. The book is a little bit allegorical and a little bit mysterious, but it is really well-written and compelling. You could feel the tension these people had between staying where they've lived for most, if not all, of their lives, and the need to go to a more vibrant place. The characters were really well-drawn, and although Leigh seemed like a bit of a spoiled brat, you could understand her point of view as well.

I'd never read anything Bonnie Nadzam has written before, but I was really captivated by her storytelling ability. This is a book which seems simple on its surface, but is really a much more complex and moving story than I expected. Really well done.

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