By Andra Watkins
Word Hermit Press, $11.99, 305 pages
To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis is a genre-busting novel encompassing Historical Adventure, Young Adult, Thriller, Fantasy, and Contemporary Fiction. This is a courageous endeavor from the get-go and Andra Watkins, somehow, pulls it off.
The story follows Emmaline, a precocious nine-year-old, as she escapes late-seventies New Orleans, running from her madam of a mother and the clutches of the judge who awarded her sole-custody of Emmaline, forbidding any contact at all with her beloved musician of a daddy. Emmaline’s focus throughout the story is to somehow get to Nashville and reunite with her father. The judge has his own designs on the child for reasons that become darkly clear as the novel progresses.
We meet Meriwether Lewis in a bar in Nowhere, a place where restless spirits wait for chances to help the living navigate trouble. It is a bleak place not for the faint of heart. Watkins makes it seem real enough and opens questions about who we are and where we go when our time among the living is done.
“The door slammed, and it was like a clock stopped. Like I would never be older than that moment. Everything would always be ‘Before Daddy’ and ‘After Daddy.'”
The mystery of how and why Meriwether Lewis died at thirty-five on the Natchez Trace in 1809 Tennessee is one of the lynchpins that holds the story together and propels it forward. In a wonderful leap of imagination, Watkins pits two adversarial figures straight out of American history against each other for one last deadly confrontation, with the winner gaining redemption and the loser falling into the eternal abyss.
The character of Emmaline is the fulcrum upon which these two ancient enemies must gain their balance. She is carefully drawn and well-crafted. Shirley Temple she’s not. She is delightfully human and it is a pleasure to watch her discover that there is much more to life than her own little world and her notions of who people are. The repartee between Emmaline and Lewis reads true. It both softens and hardens them as they realize a mutual dependence that each of them must trust in order to survive.
The action follows the Natchez Trace, which runs from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. It is an arduous road through both geography and history. Watkins depicts it as a Southern and American treasure, populated with men and women who could arise from any time during the last few hundred years. We can include Ms. Watkins in that mix. To promote the book, she recently walked the entire four hundred forty-four mile length of the Trace, from Natchez to Nashville.
To Live Forever is a compelling read. Pages turn on their own volition. The ending is satisfying and opens the door to speculation about how Emmaline’s life will change and grow after we catch our last glimpse of her. It is a tale wonderfully told and I hope there is more to come from Andra Watkins.
Reviewed by J. R. Stewart