Lamb (Do as I Say and Not as I Do, 2013, etc.) charts rifts and bonds in American families across four centuries in this novella.
The five stories presented here tell of the Collings, Flournoy, Landis, and Atkins families, beginning in the early 1800s and ending in the early 2100s. Each story is linked to the previous one by blood ties (all laid out in a family tree at the beginning of the novella). The opening tale introduces John Collings, a 13-year-old boy whose father, Richard, is away fighting the British. It becomes his responsibility to take care of the livestock on his parents’ farm, yet as he struggles to fit the mold of manhood, his relationship with his mother deteriorates. The young boy’s rapid coming-of-age in the wilderness is engaging and psychologically detailed, yet the story is disappointingly cut short with an open-ended conclusion. This is the novella’s standout tale, however, and it showcases the author’s skill as a master of suspense; the accelerated breath of fear is almost audible in Lamb’s writing: “As the sounds came closer they did not resemble any animal he recognized. Within seconds a man passed through the dense undergrowth about twenty feet to the left of John, paused for a moment, and then fell forward on a cluster of elderberry plants as heavily as a drunk collapsing onto his bed.” Other stories recount a shotgun wedding, a family’s relationship with an African-American servant, and the complex and fraught relationship among a father, his son, and his Native American foster child. Each story shows that the author possesses the necessary tools to engage and hold his audience, but he also struggles to conclude his narratives. As a result, four stories here seem more like promising beginnings to tales that are yet untold. The fifth, set at the beginning of the 22nd century, approaches the concept of memory augmentation and tells of a mother receiving treatment to erase painful recollections of her dead son. It’s a short, abstract, and undeveloped vignette tacked on seemingly as an afterthought in order to stretch out the narrative timeline.
An ambitious but ultimately unsatisfying set of loosely interconnected tales, each of which require further embellishment to make them feel whole.