In his earlier novels, Bret Lott has focused on ordinary working-class people searching for the courage that will enable them to face difficult situations. In Jewel (1991), for example, the members of a Mississippi family tried to balance their own survival against the needs of a Down’s Syndrome child. In A Song I Knew by Heart, it is the loss of those they love that initially plunges the two main characters into despair.
A Song I Knew by Heart is based on the Old Testament story in which Ruth, a young widow, follows her mother-in-law, Naomi, to an alien land. In his novel, Lott keeps the same given names for his two widows, Naomi and Ruth Robinson, but he retains only the broad outlines of the biblical account.
The story begins in Massachusetts, where the widowed Naomi’s only son, Mahlon, has been killed in a car accident. Mahlon’s wife Ruth is even more alone in the world than her mother-in-law, for at least Naomi has her quilting circle, who have shared each other’s joys and sorrows for decades. Her friends cannot understand why Naomi has decided to return to her childhood home in coastal South Carolina, for the only person she knows in the area is a stepbrother she barely remembers.
However, Naomi’s decision proves to be a wise one. The stepbrother and his large family welcome the two women, help them get settled, and even find Ruth a job. Just as in the biblical account, in time Ruth meets a good man who wants to marry her, and Naomi finds her own fulfillment in loving her daughter-in-law enough to let her go free. Thus though A Song I Knew by Heart recognizes the heartbreak of loss, it ends with the triumph of love.