Sometimes a quick, straight-forward book hits the right nerve. Lords of St. Thomas can easily be finished in two or three sittings, but author Jackson Ellis’s simple prose is evocative. It makes an impact in the short time one spends with it. This book is written as a piece of historical fiction based on the real town of St. Thomas, Nev. which existed from the 1860s in the Mojave Desert’s Moapa Valley up until the 1930s when the construction of the Hoover Dam eventually covered the town with Lake Mead. The plot centers around the Lord family—whose story is told in a flashback by the youngest member “Little” Henry Lord. Henry is in his mid-seventies and going back to his hometown during one of the periodic dry periods when Lake Mead has retreated enough to expose the remains of the town’s streets and foundations. He has not been back to the town site since the day in 1938 when he and his Grandpa, the elder Henry Lord, loaded up a boat from the family home’s front porch and burned down the house on their way out of town.
The elder Henry, a mechanic in St. Thomas, is based on the real final resident of St. Thomas. In the book he is the patriarch to a family that includes his son Thomas, Thomas’s wife Ellen, and the younger Henry. Grandpa Henry is a reserved, caring man, but also intensely stubborn and resistant to change. The submersion of St. Thomas was not a quick event, but rather a gradual death that began in the 1920s when the first surveys and land purchases began to occur for the eventual dam. Many of the events that play out in the novel stem from Henry’s refusal to acknowledge the impending change in his family’s life the rising lake will bring, regardless of his protestations and willful denial. While Henry’s stubbornness in the face of the inevitable forces of nature, time, and the government does have a bit of admirable underdog scrappiness in its Quixotic nature, the willful blindness and unyielding nature he goes about battling the (literal and figurative) tides of change, unfortunately ripples out in ways that fatally affect his family.
Ellis crafts a story that often brings to mind parts of To Kill a Mockingbird. Both stories focus on child characters who are living out their last days of idyllic innocence under the pall of a force bigger than themselves, soon to settle on their lives and change them irrevocably. Although this is a book marked by heavy loss, it is nonetheless still a refreshing read. –Adrian Salas (Green Writers Press, 139 Main St., Suite 501, Brattleboro, VT, 05301)