Reviewed by Lindsay Denninger -

The Fifty-First State - by Lisa Borders

           Engine Books - forthcoming October 2013
           ISBN 978-1938126208, 304 pages

Many books that open with a tragedy lack a spirit of hopefulness toward the work’s end, but The Fifty-First State is not that book. Lisa Borders' second novel (the first was Cloud Cuckoo Land – River City Publishing, 2002) begins with a car accident that kills Hallie and Josh Corson’s father and stepmother and parents, respectively. Suddenly, Hallie is ripped from her life in New York City and forced to come home to Southern New Jersey to care for her long-estranged brother, a high-school senior.

Tough questions arise: What will be done with the Corsons' tomato farm? Where will Josh finish high school? Hallie, who fled South Jersey years prior to get away from her stubborn father, fears she will now have to stay forever. Though the hamlet to which she returns is fertile, Hallie is barren and frozen, avoiding feeling anything as often as possible. As Hallie and Josh thaw toward each other and Hallie toward the town she felt the need to escape so many years before, the two begin to tackle the problems left in the wake of their parents’ deaths, as well as in the relationship between them.

The Fifty-First State captures so intelligently human emotion and the slow, stinging feeling that is grief. An also appreciated aspect of the tale is that it lacks saccharine: as the siblings’ relationship with one another improves, there are no after-school special “aw”s needed from the studio audience, nor is there an emotionless aura to the story. Borders' work admits that mourning is messy, relationships with people you love are always complicated, and that’s just fine: it can and does get better.

Given that it is the title of the novel, the love that Borders feels for her own birthplace of Southern New Jersey truly adds something special to the work; it’s as if the “state” is its own character. The Fifty-First State beats any thought of a sophomore slump by Borders out of the way: it’s a richly emotional tale of life, death, and how to make a family, from blood relations and the people you grew up with to the people you choose to let in as an adult.