"A girl comes of age against the knife."
So begins the story of Betty Carpenter. Born in a bathtub in 1954 to a white mother and a Cherokee father, Betty is the sixth of eight siblings. The world they inhabit in the rural town of Breathed, Ohio, is one of poverty and violenceboth from outside the family and, devastatingly, from within. The lush landscape, rich with birdsong, wild fruit, and blazing stars, becomes a kind of refuge for Betty, but when her family's darkest secrets are brought to light, she has no choice but to reckon with the brutal history hiding in the hills, as well as the heart-wrenching cruelties and incredible characters she encounters.
Despite the hardships she faces, Betty is resilient. Her curiosity about the natural world, her fierce love for her sisters, and her father's brilliant stories are kindling for the fire of her own imagination, and in the face of all to which she bears witness, Betty discovers an escape: she begins to write. She recounts the horrors of her family's past and present with pen and paper and buries them deep in the dirtmoments that have stung her so deeply she could not tell them, until now.
Inspired by generations of her family, Tiffany McDaniel sets out to free the past by delivering this heartbreaking yet magical storya remarkable novel that establishes her as one of the most important voices in American fiction.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)|
About the Author
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Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden.
—Song of Solomon 4:16
Ozark, Arkansas. A place of deep green wilderness on the edge of mountains. It is where I was born and where we returned to after Lint came into the world. We lived in a small house Dad had partially built on a concrete foundation. The walls were not yet up, so the insulation showed while tarp hung from the unfinished roof. In between building the house, Dad sold moonshine and worked underground like a mole along with the other coal miners.
The only one of us kids not living at home was Leland. He was twenty by then and had already been gone two years after enlisting in the army at eighteen. He was currently stationed in Korea. He would write letters to Mom and Dad. Leland never wrote about anything related to the army or the reasons he was stationed in any particular place. He would write about things that made it seem like he was on a trip.
I did some fishing the other day, he wrote. I used a Korean fishing pole. It’s called a gyeonji. Caught a fish that looked like one of the bass back home.
In his own letters, Dad would update Leland on where we were.
In Arkansas now, Dad wrote in his sideways cursive. Lots of blue sage and coneflowers. I don’t see much of it. Underground, there is only rock and crust. That’s what I get for being a miner.
The mines were not near to our house, so Dad would take the train and stay in a tent outside to save on expense. Days would go by before we’d hear from him again.
The afternoon he called, I was on my belly on the plywood floor. Scattered around me were crayons Dad had molded out of beeswax and tinted with things like coffee or blackberries. When the phone started to ring, I picked up the red crayon and continued writing.
“Jesus Crimson. Get the goddamn phone, Betty.” Mom’s voice came from the kitchen.
I grabbed the receiver.
“I was writin’,” I said to whoever was on the line before I even said hello. “You’ve interrupted me.”
“Oh, hi, Dad. I’m writin’ a story about a cat. The cat has a tail made of violets. I’ve made the violets red because you never remember they’re purple. It’s the tail that eats the mice, not the cat itself. Ain’t that somethin’? I’ve never seen a cat’s tail eat mice. It’s always the mouth, but I don’t see why it can’t be the tail that eats the mice as long as the tail has teeth.”
When I stopped to take a breath, Dad took the opportunity to ask where Mom was.
“She’s in the kitchen with Lint,” I said.
“Go get her. I need her to come pick me up from the mines.” His voice was unusually tight, like wound-up wire.
“Why ain’tcha ridin’ the train back?” I asked.
“It’s not runnin’ until late tonight. Now go get your momma. They’re about to let the mine monster out. You don’t want the monster to eat your dear ol’ dad, do ya?”
I hollered to Mom that Dad was on the phone. Once I heard her coming, I slipped the red crayon into my pocket and ran outside.
Trustin and Flossie were in the backyard using sticks as guns to shoot one another, while Fraya sat on the grass chewing on a dandelion.
Pretending I would turn to stone if any of them saw me, I snuck out to our Rambler station wagon parked in the yard. I made sure to slap the raccoon tail hanging from the car’s antenna like I did every time for luck.
Quietly, I climbed up on the bumper and crawled through the open tailgate window. I hid beneath some blankets and waited. I didn’t make a sound as Mom came out of the house, letting the screen door slam after her. She had her tatty frame purse open under her arm and was using her free hands to undo a bobby pin to hold the blondest side of her hair back.
“Fraya?” Mom’s voice was a harsh shout.
Fraya quickly got up and ran around to the front. She stopped halfway up the porch steps, her bare feet overlapping.
“Yes, Mom?” Fraya asked.
“Watch Lint.” Mom pulled her purse out from under her arm and snapped it shut. “He’s in the kitchen. If he starts cryin’, show ’im a rock. I have to go pick up your father. Jesus Crimson. If it’s not one thing with him, it’s another.”
Fraya walked sideways up the steps, giving Mom room to pass.
“Now, I don’t wanna come back and hear Lint callin’ you Momma again,” Mom told Fraya. “Understand me, girl?”
“He does it on his own.” Fraya looked down. “I don’t teach ’im to say it or nothin’.”
“Don’t you act all innocent with me. I know what you been doin’. The way you cradle ’im and call ’im baby. You best straighten up and start actin’ like a damn sister. Y’hear me, girl? You’re fifteen now and I still gotta keep after you like you was four.”
Fraya kept her eyes down as she nodded and walked up the rest of the stairs.
“I might as well count this day ruined,” Mom said as she got into the car.
She tossed her purse to the dash and rubbed her hands before putting the key into the ignition. After three tries, the engine started. Mom took a sharp turn in the yard to pull out onto the dirt road.
“The man don’t think I got anything else to do,” she spoke aloud to herself, gripping the steering wheel with one hand, only to slap it with her other. “Never mind the wash and the dishes and the raisin’ of his children. Naaaaw. I got all the time in the world to be on the road.”
She turned on the radio. About midway through a song, she started to sing along. Hers was a voice that if you heard it you would say, “Gee, I bet she’s a swell mother.”
As we got closer to the mines, I covered my ears from the noise of the trucks rolling past. Mom turned off the radio and slowed the car as she made the turn into the office lot. I planned to pop out and surprise Dad, but when I peeked from beneath the blankets to look out the window, I was frightened by what I saw approaching.
“The mine monster,” I whispered to myself.
His skin was black from coal dust. He was limping, dragging his right leg behind him. I knew he was in pain from the way he leaned forward, his arm resting against his stomach as if his ribs were done in. His bottom lip was cut open and there was a deep gash above his left brow. Though the injuries were fresh, it was hard to believe the blood and hurt weren’t things he’d always been.
I wondered why he was coming toward us, but as he got closer, I could see his eyes. I realized the bent man was not the mine monster. He was my father.
“What in the world?” Mom put the car in neutral and engaged the emergency brake with a quick jerk.
She was about to open her door, but Dad waved for her to stay inside.
“C’mon, Landon.” Her eyes darted around her, reminding me of a deer in an open field.
Dad cradled his stomach as he lurched forward. I could tell his ribs hurt. I had seen my father blackened by coal before, but this time, the color seemed to be layered. There were streaks on his left cheek where the layers had been smeared. I looked at his forehead. Someone had dragged a wet finger through the coal and written a word. I’d heard others call my father that word before. I mouthed it at the same time Mom said it aloud in a hushed whisper as she, too, stared at his forehead.
I sank my teeth into the blanket so I wouldn’t scream.
How dare they do this to him, I thought. Didn’t they know who my dad was?
He was a man who knew to plant a seed as deep as the second knuckle on your finger. And he knew never to stand corn so close.
“Makes for weaker stalks,” he’d say. “The ears will be smaller. The kernels not as full.”
Didn’t they know this about him? That he was the wisest man in the whole damn county? Possibly the whole world?
I hid deeper beneath the blankets and listened to Dad groan as he lowered himself onto the front seat, keeping his right leg out.
“They smashed my knee like it was glass,” he said as he lifted his leg into the car.
Mom was trying to get him to close his door faster.
“C’mon,” she said. “Hurry up before they come to finish the job.”
Once he was inside the car, she quickly put it in gear. She drove a stick better than most, but her nerves caused her to pop the clutch. The car lunged forward, pressing me up against the back of the seat as the engine stalled.
“Easy now, Alka. Easy.” Dad tried to keep his voice from shaking. “We’re okay. Start her up again.”
“Oh, Jesus Crimson, lock your door.” Her voice came out high-pitched as she turned the key, praying for the engine to start. When it did, she thanked God. She forced herself to lift her foot slowly from the clutch.
“Thatta girl.” Dad looked out his window at the men staring at us. The men were black from the coal, too, but when they removed their goggles, I could see the white skin around their eyes.
“Let’s leave this empty place,” Dad said.
Mom drove fast, stirring up dust with our wheels. When she made the turn onto the main road, she took it so sharply, I thought we were going to flip over.
“Not so fast, Alka.” Dad looked at the speedometer. “If we get stopped by the law, it’ll only make things worse.”
When she was going the legal limit, she looked over at him and asked what the hell had happened.
“I’d rather just go home and not talk about it,” he said.
He saw coal dust on the car door. He became aware of how dirty he was. He leaned forward as if trying to save the seat.
“I wanna know what the hell happened,” she said.
“Ain’t nothin’ new, Alka. Same old shit.”
He told about how, from his first day at the mines, the other men would not call him Landon. They named him things like Tonto and Featherhead.
“Other names, too,” he said, looking up toward his forehead.
He spoke more about how the men refused to ride in the shaft elevator with him.
“Get inside with ol’ Landon Carpenter and you’ll get yourself scalped.”
He described how they hooted and slapped their mouths in an Indian war cry they had most likely seen in a western movie of studio tepees and scripted culture.
“You would think that down in the mines,” he said, “where each man is blackened by the coal, that there would be no separation among us. That we would work together.”
“You’ll never be one of them.” Mom kept her eyes on the road. “All they need is soap and water to be better than you.”
“Is that what you think?” he asked.
“It’s what the world thinks, Landon. Don’t you understand? You can’t wash it off.”
“I don’t want to,” he said. “I just want to be able to work in peace and without fear.”
Dad kept his face toward the window.
“They held me down until I couldn’t move. One of ’em, the fella who laughed the most, spit on my cheek. He just spit on my cheek like I was nothin’. Then he used the spit to write on my forehead. Write what they all said was my true name.”
Dad carefully touched the word written on his forehead as if it were something that was cut into his flesh. My heart whispered to my soul, and my soul whispered back, Help him. But I could not move. I was frightened by the story he was telling. By the way his voice got quieter as he spoke more of the men’s laughter and of how their grips had tightened on his arms.
“You ever been pinned down before, Alka?” he asked. “Can’t stop what somebody is doin’ to ya? That ever happen to ya?”
Her jaw tightened as she drove in silence before pulling off to the side of the road. Dad put his hand on the door handle. He must have thought he was supposed to get out of the car.
“Stay put,” Mom told him as she opened her purse.
She pulled out a clean white hankie. She spit on the end of it before dabbing it against his cheek. He jerked away.
“You’ll ruin your pretty things,” he said.
She pulled his face back to her and rubbed his cheek harder, wiping the coal and blood f rom his face. She looked up at the word on his forehead. Rolling down her window, she banged the handkerchief against the outside of the car. Much of the coal was ingrained, but the top layer of dust shook off. Then she wiped his forehead until the word was gone. Afterward, she stretched the handkerchief out before her. She frowned as if she could see the letters of the word on its fabric.
“I never much cared for this silly ol’ thing anyways.” She tossed it out the window before putting the car in gear and turning back onto the road.
I slid my hand into my pocket. Squeezing the red crayon, I pulled it out and used it to write on the metal bed of the tailgate. I wrote about my father slaying the cave monster with a thousand arrowheads pulsating from his forehead. I wrote until the crayon was so short, I had to hold it pinched between my two fingers, pressing it until I was able to write the happy ending I wanted to give him. Then I closed my eyes, knowing my birthplace was a bitter chapter in the story of my father.
For the next two years, we wandered across America. We learned history from the mouths of old-timers and foreign languages from the mouths of drunks. There was the hitchhiker we picked up in Colorado. She taught us science lessons on Newton and his apple. We met an ex-con at a diner in Arizona who taught us the laws of the world and the laws of prison. Most of all, we learned the names of states by looking at cars.
“I call Alaska,” Fraya said.
“Idaho.” Flossie spotted a red Ford. “I bet the trunk is full of potatoes.”
Lint looked to see for himself.
“It’s Texas.” Trustin waved to the car. They did not wave back.
“There’s home.” Mom gestured to the Ohio license plate of a black Ford Thunderbird speeding past. “I wanna go home, Landon.”