The last lines of “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” by Hannah Tinti are the greatest last lines I’ve read in ages, worth reading every day. I won’t tell you what they say because that would spoil it for you, but just know that every single page of this book, not just last few lines, is worth reading.
Tinti is a masterful storyteller whose first book, “The Good Thief,” was a 2008 New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She is also the co-founder and executive editor of the award-winning magazine One Story that publishes one short story every three weeks in a small journal. It took her nearly a decade to complete her second novel, a story of heroism and redemption — a story of second, third, and even 12th chances — but it’s worth the wait.
“The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” is a coming-of-age story about a girl named Loo (Lucinda) and her hit-man father Samuel Hawley. Hawley wants to turn his life around for the sake of his daughter, a feisty girl who knows how to shoot a gun and has spent most of her young life on the run. Loo has no memory of her mother Lilly who died when Loo was a baby, but she is surrounded by her mother’s presence.
As they move from one state to the next, the few items Hawley carries with them are mementos of her mother: a collection of photos, perfume and shampoo bottles. The year she turns 12, her father returns to Olympus, Mass., her mother’s hometown, so Loo can have a “normal” life.
Tinti weaves the voices of Loo and Hawley chapter by chapter. Hawley’s story is told according to the bullet holes on his body from “Bullet Number One” to “Bullet Number Twelve.” In previous interviews Tinti has said that she was interested in “this idea of how to tell the story of someone’s life through their physical body and how our bodies can in some ways be almost maps of our pasts and maps of our lives.” She was also inspired by the Greek myth of the “Twelve Labors of Hercules,” and if you read closely, you’ll find clues that connect the Labors and Lives.
We first see the map of Hawley’s scars when he participates in the Greasy Pole contest (an actual contest that Tinti, who grew up in Salem, MA, has witnessed), where men try to get across a greasy pole without falling into the water below.
“Across his body were rounded scars – bullet holes, healed over. One hole in his back, a second through his chest, a third near his stomach, a fourth in his left shoulder, another through his left foot. The scars were dark and puckered in places, as if the bullets that had entered Samuel Hawley had eaten their way through his flesh.” To his daughter these scars were “signs of previous damage that had impacted his life long before she was born.”
One of these scars came from a job on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Seattle. In “Bullet Number Three” Hawley and his partner Jove take the ferry to the island to recover a priceless, antique watch for their boss. Hawley is 29 years old at the time and “still carried the feeling he was not where he was supposed to be…. The bad luck had gone on for so long now he felt marked, like a smudge had been left on his forehead.”
Hawley and Jove find themselves battling skin peeling burns, a shoot-out, and a near death experience with a whale before they complete the job. But the jobs are never really over and Hawley is tired of looking over his shoulder.
As much as Hawley tries to make a new life for Loo, she’s his daughter and isn’t sure if she’ll ever be good. One of the hardest parts of growing up, especially, I think for fathers and daughters, is realizing your parents are regular people with faults and figuring out how to love them anyway. When Loo and Hawley return to Olympus, she is forced to confront the truth of her father’s past and has to decide if he’s good or bad, a hero, or a killer.
Love is a thread that runs through each story, but it’s love that’s closely linked with loss and violence. There is love between Hawley’s victims, love between Hawley and Lily, love between Loo and Marshall, whose kisses leave her with swollen lips and a face scratched raw from stubble. Marshall makes Loo feel “Ripped open. At times, she could barely stand it. The boy wanted to kiss her even though she had broken his bones.”
Over the course of the book Loo learns that no one is ever all good or all bad, but a little bit of both. She discovers that we are all searching and fighting for the same thing.