Cynthia Rylant returns to her home state of West Virginia with this powerful and evocative collection of poems. In a heartbreaking narrative that flows like a novel, we follow Ludie from childhood to falling in love and getting married, through the birth of her own children, and on into old age. This is the story of one woman’s experiences in a hardscrabble coal-mining town, a story that brims with universal themes about life, love, and family—and all of the joy, laughter, heartache, and loss that accompany them.
Would she tell you that six children
were too many,
that some disappointed,
but that, all in all,
were too many
would have been just fine?
Would she tell you that she married
that boy at fifteen
not only because he was tall and kind
but also because
she needed a way out?
“A brilliant contribution to the growing collection of Appalachian literature that tells the story as honestly and purely as life in the mountains has always been and always will be.” —Teenreads
“A collection of Zen-like moments of self-discovery and serenity . . . A powerful read for young and old alike.” —Kirkus Reviews
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||287 KB|
|Age Range:||14 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Cynthia Rylant is a Newbery medalist and the author of many acclaimed books for young people. She's well known for her popular characters for early readers, including Mr. Putter & Tabby and Henry & Mudge. She lives in the Pacific Northwest. www.cynthiarylant.com.
Read an Excerpt
Would she tell you that six children were too many,
that some disappointed,
but that, all in all,
six were too many and one would have been just fine?
Would she tell you that she married that boy at fifteen not only because he was tall and kind but also because she needed a way out?
Her mother had died years before,
her father married again,
a woman with children of her own,
a woman who pushed Ludie away from the house,
away from the supper table.
Would she tell you that she stole food when she was eight,
stole food from the supper table and ran to the creek to eat it,
because had she waited for that woman to feed her,
there would have been only scraps?
Ludie was a beautiful girl,
saucy, some called her,
and she raised herself,
herself and her sister, Trula,
after their mother died.
They were living in Alabama,
it was the 1910s,
and there was a train to Birmingham,
a train that could take them out of that coal camp to Birmingham if only they'd had the money and the courage,
but the train to Birmingham always left without them.
They sat on the grassy hill with everyone else who had come to watch the train pull in and out,
not a nickel in their pockets,
owned by the mine that sent their fathers and sons to dark graves.
Not a nickel in their pockets.
Ludie's life then was happy and sad,
she would say.
There was no thought to what work she might do in her life.
Not a chance.
Not when you're stealing food off your own supper table.
Did Ludie's father love her?
Obviously not as much as the second woman he married.
This was not lost on Ludie.
So when that boy —
they called him "Rupe,"
and he was tall and kind —
walked her home from the train when she was fifteen,
their future was sealed and there would be six babies,
maybe five too many,
and sex would never be what it was that first night,
it would be instead one of those gifts you know you can't afford but you spend the money anyway,
sex would be instead one of those things you could have done without, maybe,
if you'd known the cost.
She spent the money anyway and there were six babies,
five too many,
and she'd be the rest of her life taking care of them in one way or another,
taking care of them until her last breath because that's the way it was,
people needed Ludie all the way to the end.
Never a time when she wasn't doing for somebody.
And did anyone know what she could have been?
Did that award for Sunday-school teacher,
that commemorative plate of The Last Supper
she received in her middle age,
did that tell them what she could have been?
Because she loved teaching.
She taught the Young People's Class,
teenagers without an interest, really,
they'd rather be playing ball or dancing,
she taught them the Bible and they quieted and listened and years later some would seek her out,
still living in that little house in the country,
both her and the house,
and, all grown up,
somebody would tell her what she'd done,
the difference she'd made in a teenager's life,
and isn't this what makes a person important,
that years later someone seeks you out to say thank you?
Did anyone know how Ludie loved teaching,
how she loved the language of the King James Bible and that those were her happiest years,
six children grown,
But she never forgot stealing those scraps off the dinner table and ever after,
all her life,
she would avoid anyone who had more than she,
who had bettered themselves,
anyone who was uppity.
Don't mention that so-and-so had accomplished this or that if it involved anything out of Ludie's reach.
Ludie never learned to drive,
lived half her life without indoor plumbing,
and knew the pain of being more than the world would ever see,
knew the pain of being bright and funny and even philosophical but without a brick house,
a college education.
She didn't want to be reminded,
so she stayed away from the funeral parlor if the dead relative had done well in life,
made a little money.
Ludie didn't want to show up and have to tolerate the distant cousins,
with nice suits and ties and better cars and houses in town,
treating her like the poor relation she was.
She stayed in the country and read the King James Bible,
where no one within a stone's throw was better than she.
Poverty is hardest on those intelligent enough to understand it.
"Poor but happy."
Ludie would hear it again and again in her life,
but she was never happy that way,
she was more than that,
so she stayed away from the funeral parlors where they might try to tell her who she wasn't.
When they were first married,
Ludie and Rupe lived with her father.
That didn't last long.
Rupe got a better job up in the West Virginia mines,
and they left Alabama for good.
Ludie never looked back.
Some of her relatives followed them.
Trula and her young husband.
Rupe's sister and her young husband.
They'd all stick together,
and no one would starve.
Someone else came up to West Virginia, too.
Rupe's crazy brother, Cal.
Cal was a man just teetering on the line between good and bad.
No one knew for sure if he was crazy or just plain mean.
This much is true:
Ludie feared him.
And he came to live with them,
with Ludie and Rupe,
in that camp house in West Virginia,
and when Rupe was away at the mine all day,
it was just Ludie and Cal there at the house, with the babies.
Ludie always kept her eye on the door.
Cal had good days and bad days,
and Ludie trusted him on none of them.
When she had to go to the basement to bathe,
she took the butcher knife.
Sometimes he'd go off hitchhiking and they'd wonder for weeks where he was,
then back home he'd come,
Cal got tuberculosis and he had to go live in the sanatorium in Beckley.
Ludie prayed to God to forgive her for being so happy.
She put the knife away and smiled and prayed to God.
When Cal finally got out, after a couple of years,
he was a changed man.
The grin had disappeared.
Ludie took pity on him.
She invited him to walk with her to the mailbox every day,
and they took the old beagle and sometimes the neighbor's mutt came along,
and on these walks they talked about Alabama,
what they remembered of it,
who they'd hated,
who they'd loved,
and speculated on how everybody had ended up.
Such things happen,
this reaching for someone who has known who you have been.
Ludie realized she preferred the company of her crazy brother-in-law to that of any of the perfectly sane Methodists living out on the hard road.
Cal was family,
he knew her,
and she was willing to be a little afraid of him,
in order to feel so safe.
Alabama was hot in summer,
warm in winter,
and the mosquitoes never left.
It was all Ludie had known,
she was used to this,
and each year undulated in its long, lazy haze.
Then she moved to West Virginia.
Did she think she was dreaming when she first saw the trees in October?
Did something like joy leap into her throat?
There is nothing so beautiful in Alabama as this,
she must have said,
gazing at the scarlet hills.
Then winter arrived one night,
when she wasn't expecting it.
Ludie rose and looked out her window.
A silent snow had drifted itself up to her door,
and, at one corner of the house,
all the way up to the eaves.
Rupe lay sleeping, unaware.
The babies slept, unaware.
Ludie looked out her window at this new world,
and in that moment she knew what it was to let go of oneself.
Understood, finally, the apostles who died for something as deeply quiet and certain as this,
her first snow.
Ludie loved the coal camp in Jonben.
There in the soft green mountains of West Virginia,
nestled between the ridges,
she settled into Jonben with Rupe and her babies and found out who she was.
Ludie was happy there and the world could carry on with its business,
its war and its money,
its pain and its suffering;
and she would instead remain here in the clean white-painted house with a front porch and a well out back,
enough room for a garden and chickens,
and sunrise out the window when she rose up with Rupe to make his breakfast,
filling his lunch pail before she nursed the baby and wiped the small faces of the other children,
warm and sweaty with sleep.
Ludie loved the coal camp in Jonben.
Her sister and sister-in-law were there and the children ran back and forth,
one house to another,
while the women cooked and mopped and sewed and mopped again.
Coal dust was always a problem,
coming in with the men.
But Ludie's house was clean,
she would not live like trash.
She still loved Rupe, even after all the babies,
and she waited up for him,
those nights when he needed to stay in the mine to load that last car with coal,
unable to come home until he'd met his quota.
He was losing his hair,
a balding thirty-year-old,
but she didn't mind.
He was still funny and strong.
He drank some on the weekends,
the way miners do,
but what could she say about that?
When she spent her days a mile below in three feet of cold water,
chipping away at rock,
then she could say something about that.
But they weren't the only casualties of coal-camp life.
Everything was precarious.
One little girl caught on fire in her house,
too close to the stove,
and ran, burning,
to the next house for help,
dead when she got there.
There were those who were careless with guns.
And those deliberate with them.
There was influenza and tuberculosis and emphysema.
Life was precarious.
But Ludie was happy.
Still pretty, in her loose cotton dresses,
soft long hair,
she knew who she was.
And she had this sense that this was beautiful,
this place and time.
She loved wash day because she could be outside,
a reason to be outside,
the smell of maple leaves and honeysuckle in the air,
a blue sky,
the freshness of soap,
and the satisfaction of crisp hot shirts on the line.
She was not trapped here.
She was not lost.
And did she ever wish to be someone else,
a woman in furs in New York City,
or, closer to home,
the mine owner's wife?
She knew who she was.
the babies, the washing,
waiting up for Rupe until two in the morning.
No, she never wanted anything but this.
She woke up every day and never wondered what she'd find to do with herself,
never wondered why she'd been born in the first place,
did not lie in bed and fret about the life she should have been living instead of this one.
She would grow older and her children and grandchildren would try on this job and that one,
this wife and that one,
a different town,
a different country,
never really sure about who they were and what they were meant for.
But until she was ninety,
sitting on a porch and no one stopping by,
Ludie would never doubt that she was worthy of life,
This was the rule in Ludie's house:
Do not sit on the beds.
Do NOT sit on the beds.
It was tempting.
Every child in the house wanted to sit on the beds.
But Ludie cared about the beauty of things.
What little she had,
she cared about.
And her small house,
the final one she lived in for over forty years,
It had been a one-room schoolhouse.
It was not meant to be a home.
But the man who'd owned it before had cut it up into the essential rooms for habitation:
a living room,
three tiny bedrooms.
A bathroom back then was not even a passing thought.
And to get to Ludie's kitchen from the living room,
a person had to walk through a bedroom.
There was no way around it.
One would make a left and walk through a bedroom.
Or make a right and walk through a bedroom.
But bypassing a bedroom was not an option to get to the kitchen.
Ludie thus cared how her beds looked.
People came through every day.
If the preacher stopped by,
he'd be squeezing past a bed,
just like anybody else.
So no one sat on the beds.
Ludie did not want even a hint of shabbiness in her home.
The beds were clean and smooth,
the dressing tables decorated with doilies,
even the Kleenex holders were crocheted.
Ludie loved this home,
the old wardrobe she and Rupe had bought at the company store,
the big RCA console TV,
her red swivel-rocker.
She loved the yellow refrigerator and the fancy wooden potato bin where she kept her cornflakes.
Ludie dusted everything in the house with lemon Pledge,
and she ran the sweeper every week,
and she never went to bed with a dirty dish in the sink.
in God's universe.
When Ludie was still having her babies,
doctors rode out on horses to handle the delivery,
and there was no hope of a hospital if something went wrong,
so everyone prayed to God it wouldn't while the poor woman moaned and the old women moved beside her like ghosts.
Ludie's other children were banished to a relative's house for the occasion,
where they were fed biscuits and molasses and told everything would be just fine.
They didn't believe it and now and then one would wonder what they should do,
should they pray,
should they beg for home.
These were children used to chores and responsibility and shouldn't they have a hand in this, they wondered.
But things continued on without them,
the camp doctor there in Ludie's house measuring the progress of events,
and asking her could she just push that baby a little harder,
he's almost here.
Ludie was a private person and did not like having to suffer aloud in the company of others,
she wanted to do this thing alone.
But every time,
she'd had to reveal herself to the camp doctor,
to the old women,
had to show them everything of herself, in her agony,
and ever after she would feel a small piece of her missing when she was in their presence.
They had seen her so wide open and helpless,
and while she was grateful to them and told them so,
there was a part of her wanting to just reach out and take back that missing piece,
just reach behind their eyes and take back that piece of her she'd given away as she lay there bloody and screaming while they watched,
the next day wondering again about the chance of rain.
There was land all around Ludie and Rupe's house in the country.
mornings would hum with the sound of tractors baling hay in the field next door.
Ludie would send one of the kids out across that field with an empty glass jug to buy buttermilk from the Halsteads, who kept cows.
And there were plenty of black snakes,
which liked to come out of the tall grass and sleep under Rupe's car.
But in the 1980s the Halsteads passed away,
and much of their land began passing, too.
Their children inherited it,
and by that time it was worth something,
so they began to sell it off to anyone with a notion to set up a house trailer or a tent.
The cow pastures were soon dotted with mobile homes and aluminum outbuildings.
Some people built small wooden houses with attached redwood decks,
plastic slicky-slides next to them.
The houses and trailers lay this way and that,
at odd angles to one another,
and property lines were nebulous.
All this was going on outside Ludie's living-room window,
and her children,
grown now and nostalgic for their old playing fields,
would stop by and complain about the new neighbors.
But Ludie was all right about it, she said.
The babies in those families deserve to grow up in the country, too, she said.
Ludie had not learned to be stingy about land,
one of those new neighbors —
Stella Sommers —
had crossed that field with a blueberry cobbler one morning and no cow had ever come calling with that.
Ludie liked John F. Kennedy.
Everybody in the family did.
People said West Virginia won him the election and who would have thought a bunch of hillbillies could do that.
But there was something about him they trusted.
Something about him made them think he wouldn't come asking for votes then turn around and make fun of them after he left.
Ludie liked him.
And after he died,
she kept that 11×14 picture she had of him up on the wall —
the one with the
"Ask not" quote —
for a good ten years before she finally took it down and hung up a thimble rack instead.
By that time his brother Bobby had died, too,
and one of Ludie's children had married,
of all things,
so Ludie took down that picture and faced the fact that things were changing now,
and this was a whole new world.
Ludie's youngest son went to Vietnam.
He'd joined the air force and was stationed in Africa for a time.
But he was still young, still a boy.
He'd been a basketball star at Grassy Meadows High,
he was tall like Rupe,
and people liked him because he moved and spoke in a peaceful way and seemed delighted by whatever the conversation was about.
He did not die in Vietnam.
That's the important thing to say about him right away.
He did not die.
When he was called,
Ludie and Rupe and the rest of the family still at home,
they all went to the county airport to see him off,
when he was called to Vietnam.
A little propeller plane there on that mountaintop,
waiting to send him out to Southeast Asia,
this boy who liked books and played ball and was good to his mother.
Ludie dressed up to send him off,
dressed as if for church,
or a funeral,
and she stood in her good coat and pumps and said good-bye there on the tarmac to her boy.
She had carried him on her hip years ago and still remembered his small face asleep.
Ludie said good-bye to him and gave him up,
let loose of him there,
for nothing could be done,
he was not her boy now that the government said it owned him,
insisted that he go to Vietnam or else.
It didn't matter who his mother was or that they still didn't have running water or that he'd had to hitchhike home from every basketball practice or that he idolized his father,
whom people called "Rupe."
Ludie gave him up and he didn't die,
but for years she'd wake up in the night and would think, think,
where was he,
and she'd remember that he didn't die,
but her heart still pounded and she was up for the day.
Excerpted from "Ludie's Life"
Copyright © 2006 Cynthia Rylant.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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