Legacies and Folklore – Ghosts of the Past (Colorado Eastern Plains, present-day): Poetic. That’s the first word that comes to mind reading Lions. Eloquent, melancholy, atmospheric prose that even makes welding sound beautiful. It pulls you in at the opening sentence: “If you’ve ever loved anyone, you know there’s a ghost in everything.” Actually, many ghosts haunt this mesmerizing novel about broken dreams and promises, grief and loneliness, in a “living ghost town.”
Even the town’s name is mythical, passed down through generations of pioneers who settled in the high desert plains of eastern Colorado:
“A name meant to stand in for disappointment with the wild invention and unreasonable hope by which it has been first imagined … There were never any lions. In fact there is nothing more to the place now than a hard rind of shimmering dirt and grass … Flat as hell’s basement and empty as the boundless sky above it.”
That sky is colored “heartbreak blue.” For this is a novel about all sorts of heartbreak in a ghostly landscape, with a one street downtown and a handful of businesses: garage, diner, bar, gas/grocer, and junk shop.
Still, 117 souls hung on in Lions. Why have they stayed?
Chief among those enduring souls – characters who’ll touch your heart and are at the heart of this soulful novel – are:
- John Walker, 55, “wizard” welder, Georgianna his wife of more than twenty years, and their very serious, reserved eighteen-year-old son, Gordon, deeply attached to his father; and
- Leigh Ransom, Gordon’s girlfriend/best friend/neighbor/the only person in Lions his age and his going-off-to-the-same-college partner in the fall; and her mother May who owns the Lucy Graves diner (named after a fabled, reclusive 1870 homesteader) where Leigh works.
Lucy Graves is one of the ghostly tales woven around the main plot. “People say they want the truth but they don’t. They want a story.” A story you get. Many, actually. Some real, some the stuff of legends. That’s because Lions is an allegorical place.
Lions could be someplace near Longmont or Ft. Collins, sites of the first sugar beet factories in the eastern part of the State built in the early 1900s when sugar was Colorado’s economic driver. I’m guessing this based on literary scenes of an abandoned sugar beet factory and the author’s acknowledgements hinting at that.
Hundreds of ghost towns are scattered throughout the West, echoes of the immigrants, Easterners, and dreamers who came westward “looking for paradise.” Some hit gold. This region’s version is the sugar beet, dubbed “white gold”. That term speaks volumes for a bountiful ecosystem, when Lions sat on the “westernmost edge of fertile prairie grassland.” Googling, I learned there are only a few places in the world that have the ideal growing conditions to sustain the sugar beet crop. Lions once did. Its soil was so loamy it was “the consistency of dense chocolate cake.” Now it’s “pale dirt so hard and dry it was no more fertile than moon rock.” The loss of this complex, precious ecosphere is a different type of heartbreak.
Leigh’s heartache is the emotional kind. “You could have called it despair, or panic, or desperation to get out.” She speaks often about an “unbearable light” that’s “refracted, diffused, reflected, and smashed and split apart.” When she gazes out her window all she sees is “a place of air and light and rock.” The allusive prose helps us imagine that sense of burning, boundless isolation.
A “photographer of isolation,” Dave Heath, recently passed away. His photographs made me realize that the only thing missing from this soaring novel are pictures of the faces of the really good souls who inhabit Lions. Are years and years of dashed hopes and barrenness etched on their faces? What does toughness and resilience look like? “Staying power,” the author calls it.
This is a way of life that’s “genius born of necessity.” Groceries, for example, arrive only monthly. So, at the diner, May serves odd concoctions of sandwiches like ham and grape jelly.
The greatest genius is the welder John Walker. The novel opens when a mysterious stranger and his dog show up one “record-breaking hot summer.” That’s 106 degrees in June, when welding means John covers his body in his sweltering garage to protect himself from the scorching blowtorch. With “myopic ceremony” he toils for hours because “people’s lives depend on a good weld.” Where does that kind of decency come from?
The stranger’s visit sets off a cascade of tragic events. The first, saddest, most consequential is John’s death. What will happen to his “first-class weld servicing facility”? Will Gordon takeover, thereby forfeit Leigh’s escape hatch and plans of going to college with him? Leigh has lost a father figure. Will she lose Gordon too? Can Gordon leave his mother, Georgie, dreamy and fragile? Much of the moody prose feels dream-like.
And yet it also conveys deep respect for something as real as metalworking – “agricultural equipment innovators and repairmen.” Thus, the novel pays tribute to our early frontier ancestors who weren’t cowboys or ranchers or farmers or miners or hunters or trappers. John’s work ethic puzzled the denizens the most. “Could have made six figures in Denver easy. Aerospace. Military. Hell. Lots of natural gas pipeline getting started in Wyoming.”
In the case of the Walker family, welding traces back more than a century, which means Lions is a novel illuminating “patterns to things.” Will Gordon feel the tug of responsibility and duty to carry on that familial tradition, or be the one to finally break it? Leigh, on the other hand, is counting the days and her savings until she can fly. “She wants the world.” Does she get it?
The townspeople believe the town is cursed. After John’s death, there’s an ugly, strange death, people get sick from the water, and then flee in numbers. (“Goodbyes didn’t come singly.”) Gordon begins disappearing for days on end, on a mysterious errand up North his father asked him to carry on before he died, the same deed John had been performing for thirty-five years. At some point, you may asking yourself if John really did play some divine role in “holding the town together by keeping the demon out.”
Whatever you believe about the events and stories supposed in Lions, one truth I’m pretty sure you’re nostalgic for is the old-fashioned code of simple human kindness represented. Nothing simple about it when times are tough. Which is why Lions move us so much. It represents the best in us.