- Lords of St. Thomas by Jackson Ellis, Green Writers Press, 184 pages. $19.95.
Reading Lords of St. Thomas, one might be forgiven for imagining that Burlington author Jackson Ellis is in his seventh or eighth decade. Narrated by a native Nevadan born in 1926, the novel has a distinctly memoiristic feel, like a piece of vintage Americana.
A little research reveals that Ellis, founder and copublisher of the online magazine Verbicide, is actually a native Vermonter born in 1980. But the misconception testifies to the ring of authenticity he gives to this simple story about the inhabitants of a town — itself very real — that spent decades submerged in the depths of Lake Mead.
Settled by Mormons in the late 19th century, the desert burg of St. Thomas, Nev., became a ghost town during the construction of the Boulder Dam, which would cause the Colorado River to flood the area. The government bought out the town's homeowners, but one man, Hugh Lord, refused to leave.
In Ellis' fictionalized rendering, Hugh Lord becomes Henry Lord; the novel's narrator, who bears the same name, is his grandson. In a framing story set in 2002, the younger Henry learns that drought has left the town of St. Thomas high and dry for the first time since 1938.
A newspaper photo of Henry's former home revives the memories that form the bulk of his narrative. It also puts him on the trail of something he left behind in that house when his grandfather finally gave up and abandoned it to the rising waves.
Henry spent his childhood in the shadow of the 1928 congressional dam bill that made St. Thomas a "dead town walking." Much of Ellis' short novel evokes the habits and rituals that made this small Depression-era town a home: throwing a baseball in the schoolyard, fishing in the river, getting ice cream at the general store.
The juxtaposition of these folksy motifs with the town's growing desolation gives the novel its bite. As residents move to higher ground, sometimes transporting their dwellings with them, the desert reclaims the settlement: "Houses and trees were disappearing from the streets like water evaporating from sand," Ellis writes. The dam drives a wedge between Henry's grandfather and his father, who takes a job on the construction crew. As the waves inexorably approach, the family will suffer its own forms of desolation.
Ellis was the inaugural winner of Green Writers Press' annual Howard Frank Mosher First Novel and Short Stories Prize, which honors authors who write about Vermont and/or "nature, small-town stories, love, friendship, forgiveness," according to the publisher's website. While it's hard to imagine a world superficially less like Mosher's Vermont than the parched landscapes of Nevada, the common thematic threads aren't so elusive.
Like Mosher's characters, the Lords are intimately connected to the land. The modern gospel of physical and economic mobility is anathema to Henry's grandfather, whom Henry describes as "like a man seated at the base of a rumbling volcano, preferring to be engulfed by lava and flames than to acquiesce to the inevitable and vacate."
Is such stubbornness noble or rooted in a pathological fear of change? Ellis offers no easy answers to that question, but the anguished cry of Henry's mother has universal resonance: "If we leave, we'll give up everything. It will be just like we never even existed. What part of our past are we leaving for the future?"
Read in the context of this lament, the aged Henry's story becomes a form of witnessing, of ensuring that the ghosts of St. Thomas endure into the 21st century. But can he salvage something concrete from that past, or only use his words to bring it to future generations? The answers lie in his ruined home for readers of this sparsely eloquent, elegiac novel to discover.