‘Our Homesick Songs’ By Emma Hooper Book Review: Music & Folklore Enrich A Tale About Family
Author Emma Hooper has published her second novel, Our Homesick Songs, three years after her debut novel Etta and Otto and Rusell and James. Our Homesick Songs tells the story of Martha and Aiden Connor, who live in Big Running, New Foundland with their two children, Finn and Cora. Once a booming fishing village, Big Running is all but abandoned now, families leaving in droves as the fish disappeared. In a story that spans two generations, Hooper’s novel explores all of the ways that family and community fall apart and come back together against a backdrop of music and folklore.
When Martha and Aiden were growing up in the 1970s, the towns of Big Running and Little Running were small fishing villages full of life and community. The people were poor, but they had everything they needed as long as the sea was forgiving. By 1992, 14-year-old Cora and 11-year-old Finn have watched both the fish and town population disappear. Little Running has one resident left, and the Connors are one of six families still living in Big Running.
In a fishing village with no fish, Martha and Aiden decide to travel west to Alberta for work — alternating each month between them — in a last ditch effort to save their home. While Finn and Cora will see each parent for a month at a time, Martha and Aiden will only spend a few minutes together each month before taking the other’s place. As the distance puts a strain on Martha and Aiden’s relationship, Finn and Cora find creative ways to entertain themselves. Finn is optimistic that Big Running will return to the way it was, but Cora believes that there is nothing left there. The two siblings diverge paths to explore these possibilities in a way that will leave both of them changed.
In addition to being an author and an academic, Hooper is a musician and her experience shines through the book. The prose is incredibly lyrical, with repetition and natural cadences throughout that make for a very specific rhythm. Our Homesick Songs is both a novel and an ode, reminiscent of the shifting waves of the deep and the sea shanties inspired by it. This musical quality creates a melancholy tone and the novel definitely lives up to its title of homesick songs. Music lends itself to the plot as well, weaved into the story in a way that is as natural for the characters as breathing. Finn and Cora play the accordion and violin respectively and are constantly reminded that they need to keep playing their music. Aiden sings to entertain and comfort himself, and it is his songs that first bring him and Martha together. Finn uses music multiple times throughout the book in his attempts to bring his community together and to unite humanity with nature.
Folklore plays a prevalent part of the story as well. Everyone in town believes in mermaids and the tales influence the characters. Teenage Martha is looking for mermaids when she finds Aiden, and it is this story — as recounted by Finn — that begins the book. Finn’s accordion teacher, Mrs. Callaghan, always has a story to tell him. She tells him the mythology of New Foundland as truth, always stating that she was present. Her stories fill Finn with wonder and hope that the fish and the people will return to Big Running and that he can save his home. Mrs. Callaghan also tells Finn the story of how his parents met and fell in love when he can’t sleep. The folktales and family histories weave together to form a uniquely human experience.
Our Homesick Songs is a story of home and family and what we leave behind. Hooper’s use of music and folklore weave together to give readers a dreamy and nostalgic feel while still telling an original story. Hooper managed to make me homesick for a place I’ve never been to, while also giving me hope that life goes on elsewhere. Our Homesick Songs left me feeling both melancholy and fulfilled in a way that’s reminiscent of starting a new chapter of life. You’re sad to see something go, but ready to let something new wash over you, like the tide.