Set in a world where women of the KKK betray their neighbors, where horrors of unscrupulous foundling homes come to light, and buried mysteries are not all that hidden. It’s Georgia 1921. Mute since birth, fifteen-year-old Willow Stewart has one task to complete—to leave her Appalachian homestead and find a traveling preacher and her brother, Briar. When a peddler kidnaps her, she escapes only to face an unjust arrest and penal servitude. The laws are not on her side. Or her brother’s.
Briar is serving time on a chain gang with four months left. When an immigrant boy asks him for help, Briar must decide if he should jeopardize his freedom to help the penniless boy.
Soon Willow and Briar become ensnared in a world of cruel secrets, savage truths, deceitful practices, and desperate predicaments. This is a powerful tale of family, a celebration of decency, and the heartbreak of society’s injustices then that rings true today.
This novel delves into the gut and sinew of fairness, probing often inexplicable questions, as old and persistent as the forest itself.
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What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was researching the KKK and discovered that women also joined in droves. I'd never read anything about that so I decided to write a novel that included it. I have always wanted to write a story about Appalachia so the setting was easy to come up with. Add to that information about the practice of baby farming and I was off to the races.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I wanted the main character to be different so I made her mute but filled with beautiful thoughts and strengths. The main KKK woman was easy after reading a few books on their philosophies and practices. The story of the chain gang needed a strong male and I found a conflicted young man to fill that part in my head.
Stewart Mountain, Georgia. May 1921
Our ancient rooster, Cockle, splits the morning calm with his scratchy crowing and rips me from an eddy of a daydream I prayed I could hold on to. That bird has been irritating since he hatched, but today he sounds worse than a metal scoop scraping the insides of an empty cookpot. I’m fully awake now, reality reaching into my chest and squeezing my heart. I fight my bucking chin, trying to hold back tears, although I know they have a mind of their own and can’t be intimidated. I was dreaming of Mama. She wore her playful smile, and her bubbly laugh filled my ears. Then Cockle ruined it all. My insides and outsides hurt as if I’ve been tumbled in a rockslide, though nothing the likes of that happened. But the notion that death isn’t fully done hunting my family is pounding me from all sides.
I’ve a long day before me, heading off our mountaintop to find a traveling preacher. The baby’s birth went bad, and Mama is laid up inside, doing poorly. On this sad morning, I’m angry at the birds for singing their fresh tunes, for welcoming the spill of warm sun across our rocky peak.
My one wish is to hear Mama say my name again. Soft, like a breeze through tree boughs. Willow. People’s voices create colors in my mind, and Mama’s is creamy peach. I want her to tell me everything will be fine, that she is just worn out and resting. Sorrowfully, she stopped talking hours ago.
My sister Ruthy, to be married after she turns eighteen in three months, enters the kitchen from the parlor. The blue of her eyes stands out against the bloodshot white, whether from the constant irritation of crying or the long sleepless nights. She has our Poppy’s brown hair, but it’s a messy bird’s nest this morning. I inherited Mama’s Scottish red mane and managed it into a braid last night or I’d look the same mess. She catches me staring at her hair and runs her fingers through it.
Ruthy reaches for my hand and gives it a quick squeeze. “You go sit with Mama, Willow.”
I nod. Born mute, I sign my question to her. “Has she talked again?”
“She’s still unconscious”—she straightens her flowered shift—“but breathing regular.”
My heart thuds as I push into the sitting room where we spend most evenings in the fall and winter. The oil-fired heaters that will warm the room again wait in the barn for the first cold snap. They’ve barely been packed away. Two windows are open. A spring breeze sweeps in the smooth lemony fragrance of magnolias mingling with drying mud and the biting scent of newly sawn wood. The neighbor men worked through the night building the coffin in case it’s necessary. It waits alongside the cabin, next to another smaller one. I used to love fresh-cut pine scent but now it’s ruined. I jump ahead in my mind and see Mama’s burying box, decades from now under the cover of moss, rotting there, never needed. I pray God is listening to our prayers and deciding that fate for the box. That we won’t need it. Calling home one Stewart kin member this day is pain enough.
In the center of the room, Mama lies on a single bed. A ray of sun strikes the ornate oil lamp hanging from the center beam above her. It casts a rosy glow through its hand-painted floral glass shade. Mama looks at peace, her folded arms rising and falling on the white sheet covering her. Her pale hands like two sleeping doves.
The menfolk moved great-grandmother’s Colonial-style cedar chest from the center of the room to the far wall next to Mama’s favorite padded chair and sewing stand. The stitching hoop still holds the last of the pillowcases she’s embroidering for Ruthy’s wedding to Leeman Castlelaw.
I sit in the spindle chair next to her bed and hope Mama knows it’s me. Her “silent gift” as she calls me. When it was clear as moonshine I’d never speak, she and I created a hand signaling language that works well. My older brother Briar caught on and was often my translator, especially if we ever found ourselves in unfamiliar company. But that was a rare event due to how far up in the hollow we live. Poppy, Ruthy, and my little brother, Billy Leo, understand me sometimes—but only basic ideas. If my thoughts are simple enough, like following water skeeters across a pond’s surface, they understand me. But for my below-the-surface opinions, I need Mama or Briar.
My eyes move to the three-shelf bookcase below the window. The top shelf holds one of Mama’s favorite books, Black Beauty. A tale about a horse’s early years and what his doting mother teaches him. The binding is worn from all the times she read it to us. When I recite the whole story in my head, word for word, it’s my mother’s voice I hear. I’m lucky that way. Most folks must hear their own voice when they think or have an inside-the-head conversation. Since I’ve never made even a squeak, I have mama’s speech tone in there, especially when I’m reading.
I study her hands and picture her fingers flying over the piano keys, my Poppy slapping his knee and saying, “Della Rae, you play like an angel in a vaudeville show.”
Those fingers. They braid my unruly red hair and tickle the backs of my legs. And Mama is a hand-holder. She always says holding hands is a promise between two people, a way to speak without words.
Reaching for her now, I wedge my fingers under her palm. The coolness surprises me and races straight to my throat, threatening to stop my breath. Why have I not held her hand more often? Spent more time in the house with her and less time in the forest? I’m sorry, Mama, I scream in my head. I’ll be around more. Just as soon as I get back from fetching a preacher. And trying to coax Briar home. I sob and choke and cry some more. My stomach tightens, and silence twists through the room, snakelike, burrowing through my fifteen years of happiness. If Mama passes, I wouldn’t care if I follow her into the next world because I don’t know if anything can fill the holes if I remain behind.
Ruthy enters with my youngest brother, Billy Leo, twelve, groggy and clinging to her side. She’s going to marry in a few months. Appears to me Ruthy doesn’t mind that Leeman reeks of the wild onion sulfur-like stink from digging the rare bulbs he sells to lowlanders at the Broken Fork Country Store. I know for sure I’ll be giving any future husband a good sniff before I ever agree to marry. That is if anyone will have me. At fifteen, it’s looking mighty doubtful.
“You best get going, Willow. I packed you a food parcel by the door. Poppy’s waiting on you outside.”
When I lean closer and kiss Mama, my tears splash her cool, dry cheek. I’ll be back tomorrow. Please be here when I get home. I wipe the moisture from her face, then turn to my sister, wrap my arms around her for a hard squeeze, and accept her kiss atop my head. Billy Leo lets me run my hand through his messy hair. The smile I try to form jitters around on my lips. Seems I know I’ve failed at offering a spark of optimism.
I leave the room, but Ruthy’s voice, with its scarlet-red cheeriness, pokes at my heart as she tells Mama that Billy Leo has come to sit a spell. When Ruthy marries off, I’ll be Mama and Poppy’s main helper, cooking and tending the gardens, working the old mule with Poppy in the fields. Ruthy won’t be but five miles away, though in the dark surrender of winter’s reach, distance increases tenfold.
I open the screen door and cut my eyes to the left.
Lucille and Everett Tate sit in rockers on our wide porch, sipping sassafras tea. The soft blue-green color of the porch ceiling reflects onto Everett’s white shirt. Although the paint color keeps the evil haint spirits from crossing our threshold, it can’t shoo away folks like these two. Mama and Poppy welcome everyone to our house, but some folks they’re less enthused about. The Tates are kinfolk. Cousins on Poppy’s side. But so far removed it would take exploring the family Bible back to when his relations first reached these mountains to figure how they fit in with our Scottish kin. Poppy likes to say if Everett ever had the notion to work his own crops, that notion would die of loneliness. Instead of being self-reliant farmers like the rest of the folks in our community, the Tates pester the circuit preacher to point them toward the next deathwatch or funeral where food is abundant, and gossip, singing, and a secret mug of liquor fill an evening.
“Sorry about your baby brother, Willow.” Lucille Tate is taller than her husband with a scowl between her eyebrows that ofttimes smooths out when her hair is pulled into a tight bun. Today is a loose-hair day, and her scowl’s so deep it looks likely to sing if handed a hymnal.
“We attended the four-county revival meeting just last week,” Missus Tate goes on to mention. Her voice swirls like gray ashes in my mind. “Reverend Cox done a bold meeting. Dozens of folks walked the aisle and was saved.”
The Tates believe they praise God’s glory more than the rest of us. Poppy says truth be told, they do seem busy in the eyes of the Lord, following His word to every pic-a-nic and church supper they catch wind of.
“We did an altar call in your name, Willow, asking the Lord to heal your affliction.” Lucille smiles. “You just wait, child. One day, He will answer.”
I sign, “Thank you,” but feel like a traitor, and heat flares in my neck. There are more important prayers that need to be sent heavenward than that of me talking someday.
My hand is clenched on the wooden railing. I release it and exhale as I walk down the three steps to stand by Poppy. He’s tall and solid, with bushy eyebrows, the left one cocked higher than the right, as if to say he is wise to the ways of the world. His fair skin, permanently seamed with wrinkles and laugh lines, will be bronze by summer’s end. He generally wears his whiskers only in the winter, but a two-days’ growth now spikes his chin and cheeks.
“They’re here,” he says, his usual hazel-blue voice a threadbare version of itself, worn thin from greeting everyone while under such strain. He points a knuckled finger toward our last kinfolk to arrive on our side of the Stewart mountain. Uncle Virgil with his crooked leg from the world war, and Auntie Effie with plum-size eyes that say she is stuffed full of more sadness than she knows what to do with.
They are my favorite relations.
Auntie and Uncle lead their horses to the crowded corral. I study the yard full of folks gathered round the makeshift tables of old wooden doors set across sawhorses. An hour ago, Ruthy and I served up fried rabbit and squirrel with wild horseradish pulp and early lettuce from the garden. Thirty-eight people have arrived for Mama’s deathwatch. Pans of cornbread drizzled with bacon grease and honey disappeared in one passing.
Poppy reaches for my hand.
“C’mere, Pumpkin.” He pulls me closer, then slowly rubs my arm, wrist to elbow and back. He wasn’t a hugger, but his calming way of smoothing out the wild side in our livestock works on us children too. Affection from him is rare. He’s done become a hardened man these past few years. Tragedy has nearabout wrung the happiness out of him.
My nervous insides feel as if they might burst out like a bottle of shook-up pop. I lean into his warm hands and enjoy the moment.
“You’ll soon be on your way, Willow.” His voice sounds full of tiny river pebbles, stonier today than usual. He returned from the war with a lower, crackling voice, surviving a mustard-gas attack that killed many a soldier. Now, like the rest of us, he hasn’t slept since Baby Luther died yesterday. “Just to the church in Helen and back. You remember my directions?”
I nod. The church is the easy part of my trip. Finding my twenty-year-old brother, Briar, might take me longer. He needs to come home. Fifteen months is long enough to heal old wounds.
Cornhusk mattresses and extra chairs cover our grassy yard. Past that is the corral where my horse Jacca, a ten-year-old red roan with black points, mingles with the guests’ horses. His name means God’s Gift. Poppy bought him off the local Cherokee chief two years ago for a handmade chest of drawers. My pa is a right good furniture maker and Briar was taking an interest before he left home. The chief said Jacca was terrible for hunting because he was the talkingest horse they ever heard. Nickering and snorting, always trying to get his way. I smile. He’s at it again in the enclosure, trying to push his way around a huge draft horse to make eye contact and beg oats from the big guy. It surely is a gift from God that a mute girl should own a horse that’s pert and pushy.
Set in a world where women of the KKK betray their neighbors, where horrors of unscrupulous foundling homes come to light, and buried mysteries are not all that hidden. It's Georgia 1921. Mute since birth, fifteen-year-old Willow Stewart has one task to complete—to leave her Appalachian homestead and find a traveling preacher and her brother, Briar.
"A haunting tale of family, friendship, injustice, resilience, and hope…In her evocative latest, the award-winning Jay takes a fascinating look at the interplay of social upheavals in Georgia in the early 1920s as she tells the story of a young girl's struggles to reunite with her family. Jay remarkably depicts everyday life in the Appalachians, women's roles in the KKK, and discrimination… but perhaps best of all is her vivid portrayal of the remarkable Georgia setting. Lovers of women's fiction and historical fiction won't want to miss this page-turner." ~ Prairies Book Review 5 STARS
'An inspiring story of injustice and family loyalty set in turbulent 1920s Georgia. Powerfully written and totally unputdownable!…If you happen to be a fan of Laura Frantz's Uncommon Woman or The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, this novel is for you. Enjoy! This book's a gem!' ~ Wishing Shelf 5 STARS
Karla M. Jay is the award-winning author of When We Were Brave and It Happened in Silence. When she's not writing, she's reading, gardening, playing with her dog, or traveling to new places to try to find a story that has never been told.
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