I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this story of guns and violence but its author Hannah Tinti wrote The Good Thief, one of my favorites, and in her interview for National Public Radio (NPR) she compared her main character in The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley to Hercules and his twelve Labors. The first lines – “When Loo was twelve years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun. He had a case full of them in his room, others hidden in boxes around the house” – sounded like an ad for the National Rifle Association, but I persevered and found a moving story of a young vulnerable girl and the father who would protect her.
The story unfolds in layers, moving back and forth to reveal Samuel’s life and the cause of each of his scars – bullet holes marking major events, hurdles he overcomes. Samuel is a crook but not a villain. He makes his living moving merchandise for other criminals as well as stealing cars and money. His circle of friends include only one who is true, Jove, another comrade in arms, and he moves constantly from place to place to avoid the law.
When he meets Lily, he finds true love and his reason for living, but after her death by accidental drowning, he is left with Loo, not yet one year old, and the responsibility for her life. The story is as much about Loo as it is about Samuel. Feisty and determined, Loo knows about her father’s guns, his drinking, his nefarious way of life, and accompanies him from motel to motel, wondering what it would be like to stay in a school longer than a year. When Loo becomes a teenager, Samuel decides to try to give her a steady life in the town where her mother grew up. He stashes his substantial savings in a licorice jar hidden in the toilet and becomes a fisherman.
Lily’s mother lives in the town and knows all about Samuel. At first, she rejects Loo, but as the story unfolds, reasons for her attitude become clearer – more than the obvious one of her daughter marrying a crook. The author never gives too much away, holding back information, teasing the narrative, until slamming an event into the reader’s head – where did that come from?
As Loo grows into a woman, the author uses the coming of age theme as a way to understand those around her. Loo’s boyfriend, Marshall, may not be the hero Loo imagines, but she tries to help him and win the approval of his bitter mother by forging signatures on a petition for saving the shore from overfishing. The specter of a whale emerges, literally, in the story, a few times – marking another possible allusion to the author’s penchant for myths. It would be easy to connect mythological heroes and villains to each of Tinti’s characters, given her admission of Hercules as her inspiration, but the tale stands on its own as a forthright modern saga of guns and roses. Book clubs would find so many possibilities for discussion but my favorite might be Samuel’s first aid kit, complete with stapler.
The story has a wonderful and powerful ending, but getting there is just as much fun. Following the trail of Samuel Hawley and Loo is like watching a spaghetti western – thrilling, suspenseful, poignant – with lots of guns.