Before I read Steven Clark’s The Saint Louisans, most of what I knew about the city of St. Louis comes from playing The Oregon Trail and learning about Lewis and Clark back in elementary school. As it tells the story of a hospice nurse whose life is turning upside down, The Saint Louisans relates details about the city’s lost history and architecture. More than anything else, I think, this book is a lament for history that was destroyed, built over, and destroyed once more.
Lee Bridger helps her patients to find peace before they die from various terminal ailments. At the beginning of The Saint Louisans, she has just accepted a position with Margot Desouche. Margot is the matriarch of a broken old French family. She has only a few months left to live and is using the time to try and set her affairs in order. Her children are already positioning themselves for the posthumous legal and financial wrangling. Meanwhile, developers and community activists are angling to have the Desouche mansion torn down to build a new housing development.
Margot is very interested in Lee’s life and we learn a lot of about the nurse’s meandering life (interwoven with Saint Louis history, ethnography, and even linguistics). Their relationship is a little strange until a revelation partway through the novel changes everything. By the end of the book, there are even more mysteries and secrets that are uncovered. Things get a little muddled, plotwise, before settling down for the denouement. In fact, The Saint Louisans could have used a little pruning in terms of sub-plots and tertiary characters.
The only other problems I had with The Saint Lousians had to do with dialog. Lee drops a few odd Britishisms that I’ve never heard an American say (usually having to do with “to have” contractions that we just don’t use here). The African American speech in the book had me cringing a few times. Even if it is authentic dialect (which I have my doubts about), it was just too heavy handed and out of place.
Before the book becomes completely overstuffed, I was hooked by Lee. I loved how she was able to apply her learning and insights to her life and work. She’s made mistakes, but they have only made her stronger. Working with death every day has helped her ease her patients’s fear as they pass on. I was also intrigued by the history Clark presented; this, weirdly enough, never seemed like too much. More editing could have made this a more believable, enjoyable book.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 30 August 2016.