Monday, July 8, 2024

River Sing Me Home

River Sing Me Home
Title:
  River Sing Me Home
Author:  Eleanor Shearer
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2023. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0593548043 / 978-0593548042

Rating:   ★★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The soil on the island was fertile, but everything laid down shallow roots."

Favorite Quote:  "Mary Grace lifted her eyes to the sky, perhaps to where she felt her God would be. Rachel did the same, even though she did not believe in a sky-god. She felt that if any god or gods existed, they would be diffused throughout everything and everyone on earth, neither benevolent nor malign, but simply existing, drawing everything together, living and dead."

The Emancipation Act of 1834 has come into being in Barbados. On that day, the master of the plantation announces that though, they may no longer be slaves, all the former slaves are now apprentices. They must must work for him for another six years to pay for their freedom before they can leave. "Freedom is just another name for the life they have always lived."

Rachel is a slave on the Providence plantation. One by one, her children either died or were sold away. Rachel is a mother. What comes next for her? Apprenticeship? Continuation of life as it has always been, just with a different title? Rachel runs, the call of freedom and the glimmer of hope driving her while fear follows her every decision. "She shielded herself from the world as best she could. Every time she saw white skin, her hands would tremble. This was the read power of slavery, the long shadow it could cast after its formal end - that even with all this distance between her and Providence, Rachel still lived in fear."

Freedom, hope, and fear are the themes of the book, not just for Rachel for all whom she encounters and all that she discovers about the lives of her children:
  • "Every freedom had its price."
  • "This is why me don't like to do it... Think about the past. The memories too painful. The hope hurt. All I want to do is live the life in front of me, because it's a miracle me make it here."
  • "Hope hurts."
  • "Hope led you to dream things that could not be, like freedom wrestled from the white man's unwilling hands, or a family reunited."
  • "Freedom mean something different to me. The search, that is freedom."
Rachel travels far in her search. To some extent, her story and the fate of each of her children becomes symbolic of the experiences of so many - those who died or were killed, those who found safety, those who made unthinkable compromises to survive, and those who continue the search.

Reading this story as that of one family cause me to ponder the connections and convenient segways that allow Rachel the path she follows. However, reading it as symbolic allows me to put aside the coincidences and rather focus on the different paths each individual story takes and the immense loss and tragedy. Ultimately, this is story of a mother's love and the lengths to what that love will go and sacrifice to protect and save her children.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, July 1, 2024

In the Hours of Crows

In the Hour of Crows by Dana Elmendorf
Title:
  In the Hour of Crows
Author:  Dana Elmendorf
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2024. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0778310493 / 978-0778310495

Rating:   ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I was born in the woods in the hour of crows, when the day is no longer but the night is not yet."

Favorite Quote:  "She doesn't deserve your kindness... No... She does not deserve my kindness, you're right. But it's not about what she deserves. It about who I am as a person."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Review

This story of seeking justice is a story set in Appalachia with a decidedly gothic feel.

Weatherly Wilder, an orphan being raised by her grandmother is a Death Talker. As explained in the book, she has a gift (curse?) that she can talk death out of someone dying. The side product of that is something called Sin Eater Oil, a product that has magical properties all its. Weatherly is successful most of them. The cases in which she isn't are the ones that haunt her. Why does she fail? What boundaries and restrictions does her gift have?

Her cousin Adaire can see the future except, it seems, in one case. Adaire is killed while out on a bicycle. An accident? Or something more sinister?

Tied up in Weatherly's story are her grandmother, the stories of her parents, her friends who seem to love and accept her for who she is, and Rook - a creature who is at times boy and at times a crow. Weatherly's story and Rook's are inextricably linked.

The crux of the book is Adaire's death and Weatherly's refusal to believe that it is an accident. The story brings in the past and brings in the powerbrokers of the town, who have their own history with the Wilder family.

The gothic story has an interesting setting in rural, Appalachian Georgia. The setting of the book, however, fades into the background as this book is very much about the characters and the magic of death talker, future teller, shape shifters, and more. The book is also about family - the one we want or choose and the one that does not want us. The setting is almost irrelevant other than being a small town where everyone knows everyone and everyone is connected to everyone.

What I find most fascinating about the book is the relationship between Weatherly and her grandmother and the revelation of the decisions that her grandmother makes. I wish the book revealed more of the story of the grandmother and developed more of her character. For as vital a role as she plays in the book, her character remains relatively one dimensional - Weatherly's mean grandmother.

The solution to Adaire's death, as you might expect lies in the past. However, given the small cast of characters and given the clues revealed about Weatherly's gift, the connections of the past are not a surprise when the big reveal does come. I wish for a twist but there is none in that regard. Nevertheless, it is an interesting, dark, gothic tale.

About the Book

An engrossing and atmospheric debut that follows young Weatherly Wilder as she uses her unique gift to solve her cousin’s mysterious murder and prove her own innocence, set in the beautiful wilds of Appalachia and imbued with magic realism.

In a small town in rural Georgia, Appalachian roots and traditions still run deep. Folks paint their houses blue to keep the spirits way. Black ferns grow, it’s said, where death will follow. And Weatherly Wilder’s grandmother is a local Granny Witch, relied on for help delivering babies, making herbal remedies, tending to the sick—and sometimes serving up a fatal dose of revenge when she deems it worthy. Hyper-religious, she rules Weatherly with an iron fist; because Weatherly has a rare and covetable gift: she’s a Death Talker. Weatherly, when called upon, can talk the death out of the dying; only once, never twice. But in her short twenty years on this Earth this gift has taken a toll, rooting her to the small town that only wants her around when they need her and resents her backwater ways when they don’t—and how could she ever leave, if it meant someone could die while she was gone?

Weatherly’s best friend and cousin, Adaire, also has a gift: she’s a Scryer; she can see the future reflected back in a dark surface, usually her scrying pan. Right before she’s hit and in a bicycle accident, Adaire saw something unnerving in the pan, that much Weatherly knows, and she is certain this is why the mayor killed her cousin—she doesn’t believe for a moment that it was an accident. But when the mayor’s son lays dying and Weatherly, for the first time, is unable to talk the death of him, the whole town suspects she was out for revenge, that she wouldn’t save him. Weatherly, with the help of Adaire’s spirit, sets out to prove her own innocence and find Adaire’s killer, no matter what it takes.

About the Author

Dana Elmendorf was born and raised in small town in Tennessee. She now lives in Southern California with her husband, two boys and two dogs. When she isn’t exercising, she can be found geeking out with Mother Nature. After four years of college and an assortment of jobs, she wrote a contemporarty YA novel. This is her adult debut.

Excerpt

Excerpted from IN THE HOUR OF CROWS by Dana Elmendorf. Copyright © 2024 by Dana Elmendorf. Published by MIRA Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

PROLOGUE

I was born in the woods in the hour of crows, when the day is no longer but the night is not yet. Grandmama Agnes brought me into this world with her bare hands. Just as her mother had taught her to do. Just as the mother before her taught. Just as she would teach me. Midwife, herbalist, superstitionist—all the practices of her Appalachian roots passed down for generations.

And a few new tricks picked up along the way.

Before Papaw died, he warned me Grandmama Agnes was wicked. He was wrong. It wasn’t just Grandmama who was wicked; so was I.

I knew it was true the night those twin babies died.

“Weatherly,” Grandmama’s sleep-weary voice woke me that night long ago. “Get your clothes on. Don’t forget your drawers.”

My Winnie the Pooh nightgown, ragged and thin, was something pillaged from the free-clothes bin at church. Laundry was hard to do often when water came from a well and washing powders cost money. So we saved our underwear for the daytime.

My ten-year-old bones ached from the death I talked out of the Bodine sisters earlier that day, the mucus still lodged in my throat. I barked a wet cough to bring it up.

“Here.” Grandmama handed me a blue perfume bottle with a stopper that did not match. I spat the death inside the bottle like always. The thick ooze slipped down the curved lip and blobbed at the bottom. A black dollop ready for someone else to swallow.

It smelled of rotting flesh and tasted like fear.

Sin Eater Oil, Grandmama called it, was like a truth serum for the soul. A few drops baked into a pie, you could find out if your neighbor stole your garden vegetables. Mixed with certain herbs, it enhanced their potency and enlivened the superstitious charms from Grandmama’s magic recipe box.

On a few occasions—no more than a handful of times—when consumed in full, its power was lethal.

Out in front of our cabin sat a shiny new Corvette with hubcaps that shimmered in the moonlight. Pacing on the porch, a shadow of a man. It wasn’t until he stepped into the light did I catch his face. Stone Rutledge. He was taller and thinner and snakier back then.

Bone Layer, a large hardened man who got his name from digging graves for the cemetery, dropped a pine box no longer than me into the back of our truck. He drove us everywhere we needed to be—seeing how Grandmama couldn’t see too good and I was only ten. The three of us followed Stone as his low-slung car dragged and scrapped the dirt road to a farmhouse deep in the woods.

An oil-lit lamp flickered inside. Cries of a woman in labor pushed out into the humid night. Georgia’s summer air was always thick. Suffocating, unbearable nights teeming with insects hell-bent on fighting porch lights.

A woman at the edge of panic for being left in charge greeted us at the door. Pearls draped her neck. Polish shined her perfect nails as she pulled and worked the strand. Her heels click-clacked as she paced the linoleum floor.

Grandmama didn’t bother with pleasantries. She shoved on past with her asphidity bag full of her herbs and midwife supplies and my Sin Eater Oil and went straight for the woman who was screaming. Bone Layer grabbed his shovel and disappeared into the woods.

In the house, I gathered the sheets and the clean towels and boiled the water. I’d never seen this kitchen before, but most things can be found in just about the same place as any other home.

“Why is that child here?” the rich woman, not too good at whispering, asked Stone. Her frightened eyes watched as I tasked out my duties.

“Doing her job. Drink this.” Stone shoved a glass of whiskey at her. She knocked it back with a swift tilt of her head, like tossing medicine down her throat, and handed back the glass for another.

Tiptoeing into the bedroom, I quietly poured the steaming water into the washbasin. The drugged moans of the lady spilled to the floor like a sad melody. A breeze snuck in through the inch of open window and licked the gauzy curtain that draped the bed.

When I turned to hand Grandmama the towels, I eyed the slick black blood that dripped down the sheets.

We weren’t here for a birthing.

We were called to assist with a misbirth.

Fear iced over me when I looked upon the mother.

Then, I saw on the dresser next to where Grandmama stood, two tiny swaddles, unmoving. A potato box sat on the floor. Grandmama slowly turned around at the sound of my sobbing—I hadn’t realized I’d started to cry. Her milky white eyes found mine like always, despite her part-blindness.

Swift and sharp she snatched me by my elbow. Her fingers dug into my flesh as she ushered me over to the dresser to see what I had caused.

“You’ve soured their souls,” she said in a low growl. I looked away, not wanting to see their underdeveloped bodies. Her bony hand grabbed my face. Her grip crushing my jaw as she forced me to look upon them. Black veins of my Sin Eater Oil streaked across their gnarled lifeless bodies. “This is your doing, child. There’ll be a price to pay for y’all going behind my back.” For me, and Aunt Violet.

Aunt Violet took some of my Sin Eater Oil weeks ago. I assumed it was for an ailing grandparent who was ready for Jesus; she never said who. She said not to tell. She said Grandmama wouldn’t even notice it was missing.

So I kept quiet. Told the thing in my gut that said it was wrong to shut up. But she gave my Sin Eater Oil to the woman writhing in pain in front of me, so she could kill her babies. Shame welled up inside me.

Desperately, I looked up to Grandmama. “Don’t let the Devil take me.”

Grandmama beamed, pleased with my fear. “There’s only one way to protect you, child.” The glint in her eyes sent a chill up my spine.

No. I shook my head. Not that—her promise of punishment, if ever I misused my gift. Tears slivered down my cheeks.

“It wasn’t me!” I choked out, but she only shook her head.

“We must cleanse your soul from this sin and free you from the Devil’s grasp. You must atone.” Grandmama rummaged through her bag and drew out two items: the match hissed to life as she set fire to a single crow claw. I closed my eyes and turned away, unable to watch. That didn’t stop me from knowing.

The mother’s head lolled over at the sound of my crying. Her red-rimmed eyes gazed my way. “You!” she snarled sloppily at me. Her hair, wild, stuck to the sweat on her face. The black veins of my Sin Eater Oil spiderwebbed across her belly, a permanent tattoo that matched that of her babies. “The Devil’s Seed Child,” the lady slurred from her vicious mouth. The breeze whipped the curtains in anger. Oh, that hate in her eyes. Hate for me.

Grandmama shoved me into the hall, where I was to stay put. The rich woman pushed in. The door opened once more, and that wooden potato box slid out.

The mother wailed as the rich lady cooed promises that things would be better someday. The door closed tight behind us, cries echoing off the walls.

I shared the dark with the slit of the light and wondered if she’d ever get her someday.

Quick as lightning, my eyes flitted to the box, then back to the ugly wallpaper dating the hallway. My curiosity poked me. It gnawed until I peeked inside.

There on their tiny bodies, the mark of a sinner. A crow’s claw burned on their chest. Same as the Death Talker birthmark over my heart. Grandmama branded them so Jesus would know I was to blame.

That woman was right—I was the Devil’s Seed Child.

So I ran.

I ran out the door and down the road.

I ran until my feet grew sore and then ran some more.

I ran until the salt dried on my face and the tears stopped coming.

I was rotten, always rotten. As long as my body made the Sin Eater Oil, I’d always be rotten. Exhausted, I fell to my knees. From my pocket, I pulled out the raggedy crow feather I now kept with me. I curled up on the side of the road between a tree and a stump, praying my wishes onto that feather.

Devil’s Seed Child, I whispered, and repeated in my mind.

It was comforting to own it, what I was. The rightful name for someone who could kill the most innocent among us.

I blew my wish on the feather and set it free in the wind.

A tiny object tumbled in front of my face. Shiny as the hubcaps on Stone’s car. A small gold ring with something scrolled on the flat front. I quirked my head sideways to straighten my view. A fancy script initial R.

“Don’t cry,” a young voice spoke. Perched on the rotting stump above, a boy, just a pinch older than I. Shorn dark hair and clothes of all black.

I smiled up at him, a thank-you for the gift.

“Weatherly!” A loud bark that could scare the night caused me to jump. Bone Layer had a voice that did that to people, though he didn’t use it often.

Over my head, a black wisp flew toward the star-filled sky, and the boy was gone. I snatched up the ring and buried it in my pocket as Bone Layer came to retrieve me. He scooped me up as easy as a doll. His shirt smelled of sweat and earth and bad things to come.

Grandmama’s punishment was meant to save me; I leaned into that comfort. Through the Lord’s work, she’d keep me safe. Protect me. If I strayed from her, I might lose my soul.

Grandmama was right; I must atone.

The truck headlights pierced the woods as Bone Layer walked deeper within them. Grandmama waited at the hole in the ground with the Bible in her hand and the potato box at her feet.

Stone and the rich woman watched curiously as they ushered the mother into their car. The wind howled through the trees. They exchanged horrid looks and hurried words, then fled back into the house, quick as thieves.

Bone Layer gently laid me in the pine box already lowered into the shallow hole he done dug. Deep enough to cover, not enough for forever.

“Will they go to Heaven?” I asked from the coffin, as Grandmama handed me one bundle, then the other. I nestled them into my chest. I had never seen something so little. Light as air in my arms. Tiny things. Things that never had a chance in this world. They smelled sickly sweet; a scent that made me want to retch.

Grandmama tucked my little Bible between my hands. I loved that Bible. Pale blue with crinkles in the spine from so much discovery. On the front, a picture of Jesus, telling a story to two little kids.

“Will they go to Heaven?” I asked again, panicked when she didn’t answer. Fear rose up in my throat, and I choked on my tears. Fear I would be held responsible if their souls were not saved.

Grandmama’s face was flat as she spoke the heartless truth. “They are born from sin, just like you. They were not wanted. They are not loved.” Her words stung like always.

“What if I love them? Will they go to Heaven if I love them?”

Her wrinkled lips tightened across her yellow and cracked teeth, insidious. “You must atone,” she answered instead. Then smiled, not with empathy but with pleasure; she was happy to deliver this punishment, glad of the chance to remind me of her power.

“I love them, Grandmama. I love them,” I professed with fierceness. I hoped it would be enough. To save their souls. To save my own. “I love them, Grandmama,” I proclaimed with all my earnest heart. To prove it, I smothered the tops of their heads with kisses. “I love them, Grandmama.” I kept repeating this. Kept kissing them as Bone Layer grabbed the lid to my pine box. He held it in his large hands, waiting for Grandmama to move out of his way.

“You believe me, don’t you?” I asked her. Fear and prayer filled every ounce of my body. If I loved them enough, they’d go to Heaven. If I atoned, maybe I would, too. I squeezed my eyes tight and swore my love over and over and over.

She frowned down on me. “I believe you, child. For sin always enjoys its own company.”

She promptly stood. Her black dress swished across the ground as she moved out of the way. Then Bone Layer shut out the light, fastening the lid to my box.

Muffled sounds of dirt scattered across the top as he buried me alive.
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