In her debut novel, Songbirds & Stray Dogs, Meagan Lucas introduces a cast of broken, yet powerfully resilient, characters. This tale of misstep and consequence carries with it heavy baggage. The weight of sacrifice and redemption are born by characters you will want to warn, protect, and mourn. Each character’s familiar, yet unique, voice resonates, especially, with the Southern ear. Lucas spans Carolina in characters, food, accent, and in importance of place. Most importantly, however, Lucas weaves together the lives of her characters in an inextricable tapestry of sorrow and salvation.
Songbirds & Stray Dogs is a heartbreakingly paralytic piece, which most readers (by which I mean non-Southern readers) could, and probably should, only tackle once. Only a Southern reader, I expect, could manage the journey more than once with Lucas and find its true beauty. Corn in a jar is better than no corn at all and the stench of low tide reminds you of high tide’s glory and danger – these are the lessons Southerners learn early. Lucas, through talented character development, reminds us to rejoice and embrace small moments and be grateful.
Lucas pairs time and perspective the way she spans Carolina. Set in the early 1980’s, Jolene is a “reluctant ringmaster” trying to manage…well, life. Through a series of challenges and decisions, any one of which would have broken a mere mortal, Jolene moves forward and upward. Or, at least, up the mountain. Struggling in a childhood at the mercy of a strung-out shell of a mother, Jolene lands on her Aunt Rachel’s front step Beaufort. While Aunt Rachel believes in Jesus, she does not believe in compassion or forgiveness. A master of loss, disappointment, and adaption, Jolene is the embodiment of independent resilience – but she is not alone. In the true spirit of Southern Appalachia, Chuck exhibits honor. For everything else he’s done wrong and tried to patch, repair, or tolerate, Chuck holds out a hand to Jolene. In search of redemption, in search of love and family, he finally finds, in Jolene, a reason. It is together in their brokenness, Jolene, Chuck, and Cash have the possibility of hope – the possibility of family.
Just giving a voice to your struggles didn’t solve them. Sometimes it made them more real.Songbirds & Stray Dogs, 193
Just as these characters begin to settle and develop a routine, Lucas underscores what it means to be Southern. Her work is dependent on place, people, and voice. Though victims of absurd circumstance, breeding heartbreak and retribution throughout this fast-paced read, Lucas develops a determined cast of survivors. Lucas’ characters and their stories revive the vision of Southern Appalachia, its beauty, its danger, and its binding thread, loss.
Read Songbirds & Stray Dogs more than once. I dare you. I promise you will adore its tapestry with more awe and adoration on the second pass, but it, just as the first reading, will break you. You will marvel at the fibers, their delicate, yet brilliant, nature and, bound together, their strength. Read it more than once. I dare you. Lucas’ work, hauntingly reminiscent of Tim McLaurin, reminds us of Southern literature’s strength, much like the threads she has pieced together to weave this achingly beautiful story, and reality. Read it more than once. I dare you. Lucas’ characters, their journeys, and their losses, will haunt you. You’ll be all the better for it.
Meagan Lucas is always working. For updates about her readings, publications, and home plumbing dramas (she is, after all, human too), follow her on Twitter at @mgnlcs.