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Fifty-First State: Grief, Gratitude, and a Tumbleweed Lie

Despite the pace, I felt as if I had taken a satisfying walk along a sandbar.

The Accident is what Lisa Borders called the brief opening two pages of “The Fifty-First State.” The sounds that kept running through my head as I was reading were those of a three-part round such as “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” sung at break-neck speed. The visual might be of someone rapidly weaving a braid of lives that become entwined in flashes of words from the narrator taking us from parents in a doomed truck on Route 42 to their son in his high-school cafeteria wishing for the girl of his dreams to their daughter in a taxi stalled in traffic in New York’s Soho. It is a crisscross of lives that endure a tragedy that turns from grief to gratitude.

Once I opened the pages, I was compelled to keep reading. The pace of the beginning slowed to a tale that turned me into a cheerleader for each of the characters.

After the accident, the parents’ death, the story then evolves into a tenuous relationship of a brother and half-sister born years apart who become strangers alone in their parents’ home. The house holds a secret, the tumbleweed lie, at first designed to protect, but one that keeps rolling along. Despite the initial tragedy there are so many light-hearted and loving sections that I must confess to happy tears—the kind usually reserved for old-fashioned boy and his dog tales.

The emergence of gratitude

When I asked Lisa Borders, who teaches at Grub Street, Boston’s independent writing center, if any sense of gratitude emerged from the initial sadness within the book, these were her thoughts:

"I do think the book speaks (though perhaps somewhat indirectly) to gratitude, because it deals with grief. I see the state of grief as being in opposition to gratitude. It is difficult to feel grateful for anything when one is mourning a loss. And yet, those to whom gratitude comes more naturally navigate grief better, or with greater emotional ease, I think, than those for whom gratitude is a struggle.

I think this is illustrated well in the two narrators of my novel—half-siblings Hallie and Josh. Hallie's mother, who was depressed and dissatisfied with her life in a small, isolated town, died when Hallie was 11 years old. Hallie internalizes her mother's resentment of the town and general lack of gratitude for the good things she had in her life, in her family.

Hallie ends up living her mother's dream of an artist's life in New York, but when the book opens, she's not enjoying her life, and dwells on the negative rather than being grateful for the positive.

Hallie's half-brother, Josh, was raised by an upbeat, positive mother who felt gratitude for everything around her—her family, her home, the beautiful natural landscape of the region. As a result, Josh has that sense of gratitude for life, and for the people he loves who are in it. It is his core of gratitude and optimism, I think, that helps him cope with the devastating tragedy that opens the novel: the loss of his parents." The Fifty-First State - Lisa Borders

The tumbleweed lie

Two characters in the book bring different aspects of life and love to Josh and Hallie. There is a neighbor, Nancy, an older woman who in some ways could be a second mother to Josh. And Ram, the environmentalist, whose love for his work and his unsuspecting romance with Hallie adds hope to their story with an undercurrent of conflict.

Perhaps one of the tragic parts of the novel is Hallie’s reluctance to accept the tumbleweed lie and those who created it to protect her. To say more I would need to issue a spoiler alert.

Just one thing deterred me from gravitating to the book initially—the muddy cover—so perfect for this story. But I like light and pastels. And yet once inside the pages, there were dazzling shades of colorful characters.

In the end, it felt as if I had taken one of those satisfying long walks on the sandbar at the water where we grew up. I remember how we felt when our feet would fall into the dark mud which oozed between our toes. It was sacred mud to our Grandfather because it housed the succulent clams which we relished at dinner. This novel is one to relish.

Copyright 2014 Rita Watson