Lisa A. Sturm’s debut novel, Echoed in My Bones, does not avoid the hard and complicated aspects of adoption, the foster care system, and dealing with past trauma. However, Sturm also manages to pull a thread of hope and love throughout the novel. At its core of Echoed in My Bones is about the decisions people make in order to survive and how those decisions echo through life. The novel highlights the difficult choices people make in order to survive, being caught up in the foster care system, growing up with an absent or drug-addicted parent, a child facing a cancer diagnosis, and the longing for knowledge of one’s birth family as an adoptee.
Lakisha, whose own mother was absent and addicted to drugs, surrenders her biracial twins, Jasmine and Tessa, when she gives birth to them at sixteen. Jasmine, who looks black, and Tessa, who looks white, are raised in neighboring New Jersey towns. Jasmine ends up in the foster care system while Tessa is adopted at birth by a white family. The novel follows Lakisha and the twins, beginning when the twins are finishing up high school, and each of them is faced with uncovering the past as they head into an uncertain future.
The description of the novel almost gives away too much information, which zaps some of the tension out of the story. However, even when knowing where the story is going, the novel stays interesting because of the vibrant characters. Sturm’s characters are realistic and grounded and do not fall back on stereotypes—each character has a complex backstory.
Jasmine’s story is strongest, and when read against the very different path of Tessa’s life, it shows how much treatment can differ based on race. Jasmine’s story is also a tribute to the adults who try desperately to make a difference for these kids. There is the foster mom who takes Jasmine in after it is uncovered that Jasmine’s foster father is sexually abusing her.
“The world could go to hell in a handbasket on the street, but inside my house, no one’ll hurt you” (45).
The foster mom tells Jasmine, and she means it. Even if this home represents only a brief respite in Jasmine’s troubled life, these are the small kernels of hope that Sturm focuses on as this story progresses. But it still seems very much like a thing of luck to be able to gain a foothold to a better life, especially for older children in foster care who are bounced from home to home, essentially being asked to live with strangers. Jasmine, when in a new foster home with other kids, wishes for something else.
She just wanted a quiet life away from the drama of those who came into this world unwanted or were abandoned by those they loved, a life where she could help others instead of always being helped, a life free from therapists, case workers, and foster parents who populated her life up until now. Jasmine wanted privacy (135).
Interspersed throughout the novel is the poetry that Lakisha and Jasmine write. The title, Echoed in My Bones, is mentioned multiple times. Lakisha, who writes poetry and participates in spoken word events, mentions writing and reading her poetry to give wings to the hurt that echoes through her bones. Jasmine also writes poetry to work through her complicated feelings and deal with the pain in her life.
“What color are you?” His head cocked quizzical.
I thought on it—scanned past and present;
Things that scorched my blood,
Things that still echoed in my bones.
I touched my skin, nodded.
I am the color of life and the color of loss,
I am the color of promise and the color of pain,
I am the color of denial and the color of faith,
I am the color of God’s tears
And the color of love (195).
Sturm’s work as a clinical social worker in the inner-city inspires the novel. She comes from a genuine place and a desire to give voice to the stories she has encountered in her work. Echoed in My Bones seems to be Sturm’s way to imagine that the people she has counseled can move past the pain and trauma and find a future that also contains some peace and love.
While Lakisha, Jasmine, and Tessa’s stories each have their trauma and pain, Sturm manages to also put joy, hope, and peace on the page too. At times, it can feel unrealistic how everything comes together, but the story is still grounded in reality. Stories like this are necessary so that we can imagine a reality where joy and hope win out and honor those who try to make that happen even while we recognize that it is not always the way the story ends. Echoed in My Bones focuses on faith, hope, and family—a longing for connection and an appeal for us to be mindful of how we can connect and save each other.
Echoed in My Bones by Lisa A. Sturm
Twisted Road Publications, 2019, $19.95 (paper)
Emily Webber has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Split Lip Magazine, Brevity, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. You can read more at www.emilyannwebber.com.