Bookinashoe – Reading “The Homecoming of Samuel Lake”

What greater pleasure is there than a good book? Maybe, a good book shared. 

I hadn’t made time to read a work of fiction for more than a year when I picked up “The Homecoming of Samuel Lake” and was amazed by how quickly it gripped me. I loved meeting the Lake and the Moses families. The simple abundance of their lives, the elastic and permeable boundaries of the Moses family home, Samuel Lake’s uncomplicated faith, their stoicism in the face of challenge and even family tragedy; all these qualities draw a reader in. 

But a novel that opens with the line: “John Moses couldn’t have chosen a worse day, or a worse way to die, if he’d planned it for a lifetime.” must surely have more darkness in store. And so it unfolds. 

Always, in a story where there’s a sense that something rotten lurks beneath the sunnier, lighter episodes, the greatest sense of foreboding attaches itself to children. Their generally untroubled enjoyment of the world is a clean canvass on which the story-telling can drop blots and splodges, and eventually bloody spatters. When the central character is an 11 year old girl, described as “formidable”, it’s a narrative essential for that formidability to be ruthlessly challenged. 

For a reader with a social work sensibility, this is a book densely packed with signs and signifiers, behaviours to evaluate, hypotheses to explore, archetypes to deconstruct. Faced with the same set of circumstances unfolding in a community we work in, for a family we work with or a child we are focused on, what would our assessment be? What are the family’s strengths? How does the family and community protect its children, and it’s vulnerable adults? How does that same community collude with its villains and conceal its injustices?

Over a few weeks Tweetmates interested in @swbookgroup read and digested “The Homecoming of Samuel Lake” and their tweets as they read suggested they were finding the book as compelling and moving as I had. Then on the evening of 2 September, we held an online book group chat for an hour, using the hashtag #bookinashoe with me tweeting and gently shepherding the chat from the @swbookgroup account. 

In the end I asked just 4 questions to prompt the discussion (and I could probably have got away with asking just one). Those questions were: 

  • Would you describe the Moses / Lake family resilient? Why? 
  • How would you assess the male characters in this book as fathers? 
  • Will Swan (the main character) be all right after her ordeal? How do you know?
  • Was justice done in the end?

There were so many other themes we could have explored. 

  • The women characters were fascinating; they had many strengths. Much of the family resilience was their creation.
  • The role of religion (especially organised religion) and the extent to which the novel critiqued it. Whether miracles do happen? 
  • Childhood idylls – how they are complicated by family tragedy, but may never be completely obliterated. 
  • How families (big extended families especially) do “acceptance” of each other’s foibles and failings. 
  • How people deal with guilt, shame, stigma, especially around bereavement, suicide, domestic abuse, child abuse, alcoholism, infidelity and sexual violence. 
  • How (and whether) traumatised children settle in substitute families. How children respond as “carers”. 
  • What it means to be “honest” (and is that always “the best policy”?)
  • Whether killing can ever be justified, and if not, what does that say about a killer?
  • Social work concepts such as post traumatic growth, whole family / systemic approaches, scapegoating of particular children, use of self as a social worker.
  • Social work practice skills, such as observing the unsaid, using genograms to map family narratives, knowing when talking is or isn’t useful to someone coping with trauma.

As you can see, there was more than enough material in this book for many hours of social work-themed (or non-themed) chat, and great delight in picking it over with so many interesting and interested minds. Even if you missed the chat, don’t miss the book. Whether or not you have a chance to share the experience with other readers, there’s so much in this story to thrill, scare, stun and to enjoy. 

“The Homecoming of Samuel Lake” – @swbookgroup Recommended.