At several points in the novel “A Song I Knew by Heart,” author Bret Lott refers to a character straining under the sheer effort of putting a feeling into a few words — “the work of it,” he writes. The story, which is a modern retelling of the biblical Ruth and Naomi narrative, might as well be called “the work of it,” because of its focus on the painful but purposeful process of grieving.
The novel has the bare bones of the biblical story: Naomi’s husband has died in the home they established, far from where they were born. As the novel opens, her son, Mahlon, also has just died, leaving her daughter-in-law Ruth a widow. When Naomi decides to return to the land of her birth — in this case, the American South — Ruth follows her. But unlike the biblical version, which dispatches with the deaths in a matter of sentences, the novel is a full meditation on loss, with grief treated like something that rolls out slowly, like the long journey home that Ruth and Naomi bravely make together.
The story is about rebuilding and redemption, both literally and figuratively. Curiously — though Naomi is a life-long, if struggling, Christian — the novel does not mention any consciousness of the Book of Ruth in its many religious references. In Lott’s world, the emptiness that Naomi faces is reflected even in the absence of a biblical story that might have provided her some comfort. Luckily — and to the surprise of Naomi and Ruth — comfort, and even God, will find them and bring them both home.