Synopsis: In the 1930s, during construction of the Hoover Dam, the U.S. government began buying out the residents of St. Thomas, Nevada. Yet the hardheaded Henry Lord, believing the waters of the newly created Lake Mead would never reach his home, refused to sell or vacate his property. It was a mistake that would cost him dearly.
Lords of St. Thomas details the tragedies and conflicts endured by a family fighting a futile battle, and their hectic and terrifying escape from the flood waters that finally surge across the threshold of their front door. Surprisingly, it also shows that, sometimes, you can go home again.
Genre: Modernism (if you count that as a genre…I think it is), Historical Fiction: mostly 1930s, Literary Fiction
Lords of St. Thomas is impressively deep. If you’re a fan of Cormac McCarthy, or if you want to be a fan but cannot quite get through the density of his works, then you will enjoy this book. I was not prepared for the adept investigation of a dramatic situation from one person who develops into himself over time; I thought the book would incorporate multiple perspectives, but I did not expect them all to come from the same person.
Some background information: the story starts with eleven-year-old Henry and his grandfather fleeing their house as it is being swallowed up by newly-created Lake Mead. Throughout the bulk of the book we learn about Henry’s childhood, and witness firsthand the ways imminent domain affects people. Before there was Lake Mead, St. Thomas was an oasis in the Nevada desert. Due to a combination of stubbornness and tragedy, Henry’s family refuses to accept the government’s money when Hoover Dam is constructed. They stay in the doomed town until the literal last minute.
Henry does not have a typical childhood in many ways, which makes his story intensely interesting. In other ways, his life is the very essence of normal, which makes it easy to relate to him. In fact, all of the Lord family are very well-crafted characters. Each displays strong emotions or holds tight to particular beliefs which could easily wash them out into a fairly flat, uninteresting character. Instead, Ellis builds on this foundation to bring out the soul of each individual. Through frustration, tragedy, success, and everything else that makes up life, lifelike personalities are revealed
There are several layers to this story. There is the story of Henry growing up, the story of Lake Mead slowly and then suddenly destroying St. Thomas, the story of his parents’ marriage, and the story of Henry as an the old man who lives through it all. Everything coalesces into something very touching and subtle, which I appreciate greatly. Yes, you can simply read the story and pass time. Or, you can digest what is going on and process what is not being said by what is being said. Themes of family, government, dealing with loss, and time are examined with interest and care.
I can’t quite pinpoint why this work reminds me so strongly of Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps the desert landscape reminds me of The Road, or maybe it is the portrayal of the grandfather-grandson relationship. I’m not really sure, and granted I have only read two of McCarthy’s works (The Road and All the Pretty Horses). I simply cannot shake the haunting similarity.
Again, this isn’t exactly a “fun” book, although it is far less depressing than some I’ve added that disclaimer to. It is an exploration of so many things: put together, it is an examination of life. It makes you think about what really matters through wrestling with questions such as: what role should things like property take in comparison to family, and how do you handle breaking a promise that is impossible to keep?
Finally, the readability of Lords of St. Thomas is fitting. If I had the time, I easily could have read it all in one sitting. Despite dealing with so many topics which could be considered heavy, the tone is nonchalant. Surprisingly, there were a few words I did not know, which simultaneously impresses and annoys me.
For fans of literary fiction, modernism, and fiction that examines family, the place of government, and priorities, Lords of St. Thomas is sure to be a hit. You can read more about it on Goodreads or visit the author’s website.
Until the next chapter,