For the first half of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley—a sweeping, perspective-jumping novel from Hannah Tinti—I struggled to find a way to relate to the main characters, Hawley and Loo. Having grown up in a household without guns, it was difficult for me to find common ground with the violent, fast-living, secretive existence of this scrappy father-daughter duo. By the book’s conclusion, however, I’d made the connection. Despite the fact that the world Tinti has created in Twelve Lives is vastly different than my own (and even, perhaps, any world in which I would choose to live), she has cleverly illustrated the tender relationship between a father and his little girl, the respect a daughter has for her dad, and the lengths that both of them will travel to protect one another.
Samuel Hawley is a single dad living with his daughter Loo in Massachusetts. As the new kid in school, Loo is initially ostracized by her classmates, thanks to her father’s public outburst after he discovers that other local fishermen are spreading rumors about the quality of his catch. Eventually Hawley redeems himself among the neighbors, making life more tolerable for his daughter, but Loo is still withdrawn. She is fascinated by the stars—a pastime inherited from her late mother—and with the artifacts her father has arranged in the bathroom as a sort of shrine. In every home in which they’ve lived, Hawley sets up a display of his wife’s things—lipstick, shampoo, perfume, photos, and even scraps of paper on which she once wrote.
For much of the book, we are given no information about Loo’s mother, though we get periodic glimpses into Hawley’s past in alternating chapters. In each of these installments, Tinti tells the story of one of the character’s twelve scars—each one a reminder of a bullet. Most of the scars are evidence of Hawley’s criminal dealings as younger man, but over time we begin to see that his tendency toward violence and adventure bleeds into his personal life, as well. Punctuating the contemporary plot with an account of each injury is a strong storytelling technique—it characterizes Hawley as a fundamentally good man who has seen the deeply damaging consequences of his decisions over many years, yet knows no other way to survive. Over time, Hawley’s dangerous lifestyle starts to feel romantic—particularly when, in one of the vignettes, we are introduced to Loo’s mother Lily, a darkly free-spirited woman who gets swept up in the shady affairs of the man she loves.
Much of Hawley’s past remains a mystery to Loo, even though she’s grown up seeing his scars. She seems to have full faith in him and in his ability to care for her, and Hawley seem to have moved past his violent ways, although he keeps his guns at the ready and his daughter well informed about how to shoot them.
Loo is more concerned about her budding relationship with Marshall—a classmate with whom she tussled as a child. Marshall has grown up to be a sensitive young man who supports his eccentric mother’s environmental crusades and draws the solar system on Loo’s skin. Loo also finds herself reconnecting with her maternal grandmother, Mabel. Because she disapproves of Hawley, Mabel once rejected Loo, but after stumbling upon her home on the outskirts of town, Loo finds that perhaps there is more to learn about her grandmother and the family they could have had together under other circumstances. As she develops relationships away from home, we see that Loo is beginning to nurture secrets outside of her father’s awareness—just as he has done for her entire life.
Secrets can’t keep forever, and Twelve Lives comes to its climax as Hawley and Loo each begin to learn more about the things the other has tried to hide. The beauty in this book comes to the surface in the face of real physical danger, as father and daughter demonstrate their love and trust for one another. There are few questions asked between, no judgments made—they simply do what’s necessary to stay together.
As readers, we come to forget Hawley’s past as we see the way he has reimagined his life into one he can share with his young daughter. Like any bona fide daddy’s girl, Loo can also ignore the twelve bullet scars that cover her father’s body, accepting her protector for who he is—and jumping without hesitation to protect him from a thirteenth.