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November 8, 2018

Helen Klein Ross's Playlist for Her Novel "The Latecomers"

The Latecomers

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Helen Klein Ross's novel The Latecomers is an engrossing multi-generational saga of family and secrets.

In her own words, here is Helen Klein Ross's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Latecomers:

The Latecomers is a multi-generational story that spans an American century. It’s set mostly in an ancestral house in New England called Hollingwood where the Hollingworth family and people who work for them live, separated by time. Events in the story range from 1899 to present day. Some of these songs I imagined heard at Hollingwood on a gramophone, others streamed into its restored parlors on Spotify.

The story starts at the turn of the (other) century. The Hollingworth family has wed and bred in the old house for decades. They hire a young Irish immigrant Bridey Molloy as a live-in maid. It’s before World War 1, when technologies like electric lights and rotary telephones are emerging, women’s roles are changing, and Bridey, who has just given up a child born out of wedlock, is emboldened by the promise of a fresh start. She cares for the Hollingworth family as if it were her own, until a mysterious death changes Bridey and the household forever. The truth behind the mystery remains buried until present day when the youngest Hollingworth inadvertently brings it to light.

Channeling The Latecomers through music made me realize that the book can almost be shuffle-played. The timelines are interweaved so that the story works no matter which chapter you read first. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or bad.

‘Ar Éireann Ní Neosainn Cé hÍ’, The High Kings

I chose this Celtic folk song not only because it’s gorgeous and haunting, but because it’s about a lover vanishing, which is what happens to Bridey. She’s a 16 year old Irish girl who runs away from home in 1908 with the boy she means to marry—but soon finds herself alone on Ellis Island and expecting a child.

‘The Paris Match’, The Style Council

In pre-WW1 America (and Ireland), French women were thought to be savviest about not only fashion, but sex. At first Bridey doesn’t believe she is pregnant because “you couldn’t conceive the first time you did it”, a fact confirmed by a friend “who’d been to France and knew everything.” Later in the book, when a Frenchwoman visits the house in New England where Bridey is employed, Madame shocks the householders with foreign notions like a new form of calisthenics called yoga, pastel-colored straw hats and the exotic practice of sending postal cards overseas to her dog.

‘Sequence: Virgines’, Anonymous 4

When Bridey first comes to New York, she finds refuge at the Holy Rosary Home for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls, an invention based on a similarly named Catholic mission that actually existed in Lower Manhattan. The Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls took in nearly one third of the 307,823 Irish girls who passed through the Port of New York between 1883 and 1908. Chapter 7 begins on the Feast of the Assumption which celebrates the Virgin Mary’s bodily ascension into heaven. It is a “holy day of obligation” for Catholics, meaning they must go to Mass. I imagine this was one of the hymns that Bridey and her friend Mary hear that morning at 6 AM Mass before taking an omnibus uptown to work. It’s also the day when the nuns discover that Bridey is pregnant, which results in her being expelled from the Home.

‘The Empire State of Mind (Part 2) Broken Down’, Alicia Keys

The "Empire State of Mind" was first performed by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys at a benefit concert which paid tribute to the police officers and firefighters who died responding to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Latecomers begins with a prologue set in New York City on September 11, 2001. Emma is a teenager whose father works at Morgan Stanley in the North Tower. Standing in a crowd on an uptown sidewalk, she watches multiple screens in an electronics store window show the North Tower (Tower 2) going down, again and again, but can’t process the possibility that her father is gone.

‘Munchkinland’, the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz

I still recall the amazement I felt watching this scene for the first time on our console television which was black and white. I didn’t know that color came in at this point, until told by friends whose houses “had color” which began my campaign at home for one.

The book introduces Sarah Hollingworth as she is reading aloud from The Wizard of Oz, a book so new, she’s first to check it out of the library. The lyrics remind me of a later scene in the book, in which upstanding Sarah meets “fallen” Bridey at The Home for Fallen and Wayward Girls:

the young lady who fell from a star
She fell from the sky, she fell very far

I played this list while making dinner last night and others in the kitchen begged me to omit this one as they found it too grating. I won’t be offended if you skip it—even though shared stats will tell me you did, heh.

‘Stop This Train’, John Mayer

The Latecomers begins in an era when train travel was still a modern marvel to most Americans, with its lounges, smoking cars, dining cars, sleeping cars, and railroad timetables predictable enough to let business travelers begin to schedule meetings in distant cities for the next day.

Many of the characters in this novel wish to get off the train, metaphorically speaking. Like Mayer, they discover that they “can’t take the speed it’s moving in.”

‘Seothín Seó {Irish shoheen sho}’, Caera

This is an ancient Celtic lullaby that Bridey sings to her baby before giving him up for adoption. It tells a story based on an old Irish superstition that babies are likely to be carried off by “wee folk” who are stolen children themselves. Some are adults whose children were stolen from them. In this song, a “wee woman” warns a washerwoman on a riverbank that her child might be taken, while hushing the stolen baby in her care, regretting that her own child remains lost to her forever.

Hush-a-by baby, babe not mine,
Shoheen sho, ulolo,
Shoheen sho, strange baby O!
You’re not my own sweet baby O!

It’s an unlikely scenario for a lullaby, isn’t’ it?—But then, so is our Rock-a-by-Baby that tells about a cradle with a baby in it falling out of a tree.

‘Anything Goes’, Harper’s Bizarre

Cole Porter wrote 'Anything Goes' in the 1930s, a song that includes references to the financial woes of “old money” when fortunes declined during the Depression, which is what happens to the Hollingworths. In the 1930s, they can no longer depend on their eponymous brass works manufacturing firm to keep them afloat. Vincent is the first son in generations who must seek employment outside the firm. He goes into advertising, which is also referenced in the song. “So Missus R. with all her trimmings/can broadcast abed from Simmons” is a stab at President Roosevelt who supposedly braced himself each week to hear what his wife Eleanor would say on her weekly radio show sponsored by a mattress company.

‘Mercedes Benz’, Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin recorded this song in 1970, all in one take. Three days later, she died. I was in tenth grade, and like most of my classmates, devastated. How could someone so young and so vibrant die? We went to an all-girls Catholic school and probably for this reason, we were thrilled by the audacity of those lyrics. Ask the Lord to prove his love by buying you a big fancy car? Dig it!

My character Ruth is the same age I was in 1970. In a scene that opens Chapter 53, she turns up her car radio to hear Jimmy Hendrix, then Janis Joplin, glad that “Casey Kesem was playing their songs constantly now, as they’d both just tragically died.” Readers who came of age when I did will remember what a big deal announcer Casey Kesem was in those days. He made the “Top 40” a thing for my generation and it was usually his station blaring from our transistor radios swinging from wrist straps.

‘Toot, Toot, Tootsie’, Al Jolson

This song is from the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, the first full-length “talkie.” My character Vincent goes with friends to see its premiere at Radio City Music Hall. What surprised me was how little talking there was in the film, which featured only about two minutes of spoken dialogue. In my research, I discovered that people in Hollywood were slow to embrace the idea of “talkies.” Studio heads were skeptical, unconvinced that people who went to see movies, would also want to hear them. For several years, both silent and “talkie” versions of each film were made until it became clear that, yes, the new technology would catch on.

‘Bonjour Tristesse’, Juliette Greco

Before this was a song, it was a French novel of the same title, published in 1954. Its author Françoise Sagan was only 18. Even more impressive to me than her diminutive age was that she achieved best-seller fame with just 30,000 words, less than half the word count of most novels. Otto Preminger brought the book to film in 1958. This is a song from its soundtrack and I include it because its lyrics mourn the loss of a lover, as my character Mr. Hollingworth mourns the loss of his beloved Madame Brassard.

‘Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral, from Lohengrin’, The Marine Band

The Latecomers features two weddings, one that takes place in 1910, the other in 2016. Both brides wear the same family veil and process up the aisle to the same music: the Bridal Chorus from Wagner's Lohengrin (opera, 1850) The piece most people know as “Here Comes the Bride” skyrocketed to popularity with church organists after 1858 when it was chosen by the daughter of Queen Victoria for her nuptials. I chose this version because it’s an unusual band transcription.

"Jenny Wren," Baptiste Trotignon

Paul McCartney wrote this in 2005, inspired by a Charles Dickens character of the same name in Our Mutual Friend. A wren appears early on in my novel, when animal-loving Hannah Hollingworth coaxes a wren into the house, afraid it will freeze. She won’t put it out until she is told that “a bird in the house meant someone was going to die”—a prediction that plays out before the end of the book. Because the story unfolds in non-linear timelines, the death foretold has already occurred in the first chapter.

Helen Klein Ross and The Latecomers links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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