A young girl comes to terms with the father she thought didn't love her.
"Your daddy isn't a bad man," Aunty Rose said. "He just doesn't have anything to do with us. So why do you keep asking?"
It seems like everything eleven-year-old Willa Mae wants to know just isn't proper material for her curiosity. But some mysteries have a way of unraveling on their own. When her long-absent father returns after the war and sets about laying claim, Willa Mae finds her quiet country life suddenly stirred into a mix of buried secrets. Why does Grandpa despise her daddy, and what does it have to do with Mama's death? But before Willa Mae can find the answers to these questions, she is pulled away from her rural Illinois home to begin a new life with her father across the river in Oklahoma. As pleased as Willa Mae is to finally have her daddy back, she misses her home and wants desperately to return. Will she be forced to choose one side of the family over the other?
In this beautifully written novel set in the late 1940s, Sharelle Byars Moranville explores a critical time in a young girl's life, as Willa Mae comes to accept her parents, her sense of home, and especially what it means to be loved.
|Publisher:||Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)|
|File size:||294 KB|
|Age Range:||10 - 14 Years|
About the Author
Sharelle Byars Moranville is a professor of literature and the author of the middle-grade novel Over the River, which Booklist said was “beautifully written” in a starred review. She lives in West Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
Over the River
By Sharelle Byars Moranville
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2002 Sharelle Byars Moranville
All rights reserved.
"I see the angel's wings," I called out, but Nana and Aunty Rose didn't answer.
They were puffing from carrying the sloshing washtub full of peonies and lilacs. I hugged an armful of empty quart jars against my chest.
As we walked up the hill, Mama's angel showed more and more of herself, rising up against the blue Memorial Day sky.
Panther Fork was turned out to decorate graves.
Wren Roberts, small and neat as the bird she got her name from, stood up from Lonnie Dale's grave, brushing dirt off her hands.
"That's a fine bunch of lilacs you've got there, Mae," she said to Nana.
Nana motioned Aunty Rose to set down the washtub.
"They grow on the south side," Nana observed, flexing her hand. "Don't Lonnie Dale's grave look nice?"
Wren turned to where Nana was looking. Lonnie Dale's monument, a column of gray granite carved like the stump of a tree, was ringed with red and yellow tulips.
"Seems like yesterday he was pestering me about this and that," Wren said, her mouth twisting.
Two years ago, Lonnie Dale Roberts got killed by a piano. He was helping his daddy move it into the back of a pickup when the rope broke, and the piano rolled out of the truck bed and mashed Lonnie Dale right into the ground.
Lonnie Dale had been only fourteen, and folks couldn't seem to get over the fact that one so young had died in such a bad way. Getting killed by a piano seemed worse than dying of appendicitis or even getting struck by lightning.
"Well, I guess it's part of living." Wren shook her head. "We all got folks here." And she looked up the hill at Mama's angel, which was far and away the grandest monument in the cemetery.
I never thought of Mama when I looked at the angel. I thought of God Himself, grand and pure and white.
Nana and Wren nodded at the sureness of death, then Nana and Aunty Rose picked up the washtub again, and I led the way on up the hill.
Water slopped out of the tub, turning Nana's canvas shoes dark, as she and Aunty Rose lowered the flowers by Mama's grave.
"Careful," Nana said to Aunty Rose. "Don't slop. It's all the water we got. You can just set the mason jars down over there, Willa Mae," she said to me, pointing to a spot off to the side where the spring grass grew in thick clumps.
"I want to walk around," Aunty Rose said, her feet, in neatly polished saddle oxfords, practically dancing. She smoothed the front of her new blue weskit and practiced her dimples right there in broad daylight before she looked over and waved at Joe Keifer.
Poor Joe Keifer. He would get his hopes up, only to find Aunty Rose could flirt with a garden hoe.
Nana shook her head, trying not to smile. But it was hard, because Aunty Rose just naturally made people smile.
"Walk around and look at the graves," Nana told her. "Go see if Retus's family has decorated the folks' grave yet."
The folks were Grandpa's parents, Great-grandma and Great-grandpa Shannon, and Retus was Grandpa's oldest brother.
"Willa Mae and I'll fix the flowers here," Nana said, dropping to her knees at the base of Mama's monument.
Aunty Rose went off, and Nana began dunking the empty mason jars in water.
"Want to fix the lilacs?" she asked me, handing me a jar.
I took the big wobbly stems of lilacs out of the washtub and arranged them in the jars, brushing away a bee that kept pestering.
"You ought to pull the leaves off that go under the water," Nana said, watching me. "The flowers will stay nicer that way."
She took each of the jars and settled them into the dirt that she had loosened with her trowel.
After a while, I put my hands to my shoulders. "Feel the sun, Nana," I said.
Nana's hand was cool, the calluses nicely rough, like a kitten's tongue. "You should have worn a sun hat," she said.
Nana's broad-brimmed straw hat, tied under her chin, threw her face and shoulders into shadow.
"Aunty Rose didn't wear one," I said. "She told me it made her look like a fat China woman."
"If Rose jumped in the lake, would you jump too?"
"Maybe," I said. Aunty Rose was sixteen and knew about things.
Nana dipped her hands in the water and patted my shoulders, letting the cool water trickle down my arms.
"We're about done," she said. "Just let me finish settling the peonies in."
Mama's angel was standing on a cloud of pink and purple flowers, her marble toes, straight and cool, barely touching the blossoms. She seemed like she was about to ascend straight to heaven with Jesus and Elijah.
"Hey, Willa Mae."
The voice came from over by the big thorny locust, where Petey Tyler and his brother Thomas were poking a stick at something in the weeds.
Petey motioned to me.
Petey Tyler had freckles and thin lips that curved halfway back to his ears. He couldn't help it, but he looked like a frog. Aunty Rose said he just needed to find the right girl to kiss him and he'd turn into a prince. For Petey's sake, I hoped he found the right girl soon.
I bet the boys had a terrapin. I waved back, but I didn't go over. It didn't seem respectful by my very own mama's grave to go tearing off to play with a terrapin while Nana was still arranging the flowers.
I ran my fingers along the grooves cut into the base of the marble angel.
TREVA LORRAINE CLARK
MARCH 11, 1917–NOVEMBER 25, 1941
Mama? I said, and waited, listening hard.
After a while, I decided the only thing I heard was a plane droning, a bunch of birds, and people talking.
Mama almost never answered anymore. She'd gone on to busy herself with heavenly stuff, figuring I was eleven years old now, almost twelve, and in Grandpa's and Nana's good hands.
Aunty Rose waved from the low sandstone fence that outlined the cemetery. She was sitting there, swinging her legs, her bobby socks white as the angel's wings in the sunlight, her arm touching Joe's, who looked like he'd been set afire.
"There," Nana said, standing up and stepping back to look. "Don't that look nice."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, noticing that Nana never really looked at the angel. I don't think she thought about Mama when we decorated the grave, either. I think she saved those thoughts for times when she was alone and could let her face twist up the way I'd found her one day when I caught her looking through a box of old pictures.
The washtub without the water was light, and we carried it back to the road where Aunty Rose had parked. Cars lined the grassy ditch.
Everybody we met coming into the cemetery said, "Morning, Mae. Morning, Willa Mae." If Grandpa hadn't had to stay home and work on the disc, they'd have said, "Morning, Will. Morning, Mae. Morning, Willa Mae."
Having Grandpa's and Nana's names was like being hugged by two arms every time somebody spoke to me.
People were starting to forget that my mama had died six years ago and that I had a daddy who never did come home from the navy — and here the war was over for two whole years. People mainly remembered that I belonged to Will and Mae Shannon.
We put the washtub in the trunk of the old Packard and walked back to the cemetery.
The small military flags on the servicemen's graves snapped in the breeze, and Mama's angel seemed to preside over the whole Memorial Day doings.
Nana hugged me to her, then patted me on the rear end.
"I aim to walk around," she said. "You can come along, or you can be with the kids. Whatever you want."
I didn't care a thing about the terrapin, and I knew Aunty Rose might tease me about kissing a frog if I got too close to Petey Tyler, so I tagged along after Nana.
Uncle Retus's family had made Great-grandma and Great-grandpa Shannon's grave look real nice with a grapevine wreath and some daisies and lilies of the valley woven into it.
"It won't last past noon," Nana said, "the flowers not being in water." Then I guess she remembered what she was always telling me about how if you can't say something nice, don't say anything, because she added, "It sure looks pretty now, though."
The Millers, the whole lot of them, the nine kids stair-stepped from Mike, who was Aunty Rose's age, to the baby in his mama's arms, were visiting Mr. Miller's grave, all sunk in from the casket still settling. Last Valentine's Day, when he was in the barn milking, something had ruptured in Mr. Miller's head and he had bled to death inside.
Mrs. Miller had gotten a job with the telephone company in Huxley last month, which folks said was scandalous, leaving all those little ones at home to look after each other. But Mrs. Miller said if they weren't going to end up in the poorhouse, she had to work to put food on the table.
"Morning, Moira," Nana said. Then she spoke to each of the kids in turn, naming them off as if they were our own kin.
Nana knew their names and ages and sizes and was putting together a box of nice used clothing for the family.
"People don't like to take charity," she'd said to me last week as she folded some sweaters that would fit the two girls who were about my age. "But a family of ten can't live on telephone company wages. And ain't anybody likely to marry a widow with nine youngsters. Not even if she is still pretty."
Mrs. Miller held the baby over her shoulder, patting him. Little Mickey was bald as an onion and wore a white bonnet to keep off the sun.
One of the older Miller boys was turning up the earth for a rosebush that lay beside the small, square marker with Mr. Miller's name and dates.
"We dug the rose up from the home place," Mrs. Miller said to Nana and me. "We thought Matthew would like that."
Since the funeral, Mrs. Miller's hair had gone from a pretty chestnut color to snow white.
"Do you want to walk around?" I asked Marilee and Mattie. Marilee was in my grade at school, and Mattie was a year behind. "Until your mama's ready?"
Mrs. Miller nodded that it was okay, and we took off.
"Let's go see Lizzie Mason's grave," I said.
We ran as fast as it was acceptable to run in a cemetery to the small white pillar under the cedar tree. Clear back in 1902, Lizzie Mason had eaten green apples one evening and been dead before morning. After Nana told me that story, I'd been very careful. I ate peaches, cherries, and even gooseberries — sour as they were — rather than take a chance on apples.
"I like the grave of the girl who died of hydrophobia better," Marilee said after we'd stood around Lizzie Mason's tilting monument for a while, acting solemn.
"Where is it?" I asked, giving Marilee and Mattie a chance to show me something, though everybody knew the story of Nora Gently and the mad dog.
Marilee and Mattie led me over the hill, past Mama's angel and the old thorn tree where the Tyler boys had found the terrapin earlier. At the edge of the cemetery, the little grave was covered with snowy blossoms from the crab apple tree that shaded it.
"Nora Gently," Marilee read, though the letters were so worn, you had to know what they said. "Born 1897, died 1907."
"A mad dog chased her," Mattie said, telling the story as if anybody living in Billings Township hadn't already heard it a hundred times. "And his teeth caught her skirt, then she ran in the house and slammed the door. Later her daddy shot the dog, but that night when Nora Gently was mending her torn skirt, she bit off the thread that she had sewed with."
"And," Marilee said, "she got the hydrophobia from the thread that went through the skirt material the mad dog had slobbered on."
"And the next thing they knew," Mattie said, "she took sick and started foaming at the mouth, then she went insane and died."
I shivered. When I thought about dying, I didn't much want to do it. Mainly because it would grieve Nana and Grandpa and Aunty Rose. But I didn't want them to die and leave me, either. That would be a whole lot worse. I often put my head in Nana's lap and prayed that we could all just go together when the time came.
Marilee, Mattie, and I were still standing there at Nora Gently's grave when my other grandmother, Grandmother Clark, came over. I just looked up and there she was, holding a big basket of flowers.
"Who's this pretty girl?" she said, smiling at me.
When she set the basket down and reached out to put her hand on my head, I didn't know what to do. Then I remembered that Grandpa had stayed home to repair the harrow, so I could talk to Grandmother Clark without starting up World War II all over again.
"Hello, Grandmother Clark," I said. "Nice day for decorating the cemetery."
"It surely is," she said. "I'm just going over to put these flowers on my parents' grave."
I hadn't talked to Grandmother Clark since back in the winter, when Aunty Rose and I saw her at Lorrimer's General Store.
"We don't see enough of you. Are your folks doing well?"
"Yes, ma'am," I answered. "Nana's here. And Aunty Rose. Grandpa stayed home."
Her shoulders relaxed a little at the news Grandpa wasn't around.
"I've got a letter that might interest you," she said. "I've got it right here in my pocketbook. It's from your daddy."
She snapped open her black purse.
"Would you like to hear some of it?" she asked.
I nodded but wondered why I'd never gotten a letter from him myself. I guess he didn't think much about me — which was okay because I didn't think much about him anymore, either.
Grandmother Clark rustled through the pages until nearly the end. "This is the part for you," she said, adjusting her glasses. "'If you happen to see Mae Bug,'" she read, "'tell her I've been thinking about her extra hard. Sometimes I get mighty tired of this man's navy.'"
"Wouldn't it be fine if Harold came home?" Grandmother Clark asked, her eyes shining.
"Yes, ma'am," I said, just to be polite. "I bet you'd be glad to see him."
The light in Grandmother Clark's expression wavered as she put the letter away.
"Will you ask Will and Mae if you can come down and visit us someday?" she said. "We'd like that."
I swallowed. I wouldn't dare ask Grandpa if I could go visit the Clarks. But I hated to hurt Grandmother Clark's feelings.
"That would be nice," I said. "We'll have to see."
We'll have to see. That was what Nana said when something wasn't going to happen, but she didn't want to fuss about it.
"Well, you girls enjoy your day," Grandmother Clark said, suddenly including Marilee and Mattie in her conversation. "Willa Mae, it was sure good talking to you."
When Grandmother Clark had passed out of earshot, Marilee whispered, "I didn't know you had a daddy. Where's he been all this time?"
"In the navy. Fighting for his country," I said, not wanting her to think bad of him for some reason. "I expect he'll be home soon now they can spare him."
"So will you live with him?" Mattie asked.
"Of course not," I said.
I saw Nana coming toward us. She was stepping along like she was ready to go home. I wondered if she'd seen me talking to Grandmother Clark.
"Your mama needs you, girls," she said to Marilee and Mattie.
"Bye, Willa Mae," they said.
"See you in Sunday school," Marilee called over her shoulder.
"Let's find Rose and go," Nana said. "Your grandpa will be wondering where his dinner's at."
I took Nana's hand as we followed the sandstone fence. Aunty Rose said it was babyish the way I hung on to Nana. But I think she was just jealous.
We walked right by the mystery grave, close enough I could have reached out and touched the little white marker shaped like one of Moses' clay tablets.
I'd discovered the mystery grave one night when I was helping Grandpa and Nana mow the cemetery. I was chasing lightning bugs and nearly fell right over it.
BORN AND DIED NOVEMBER 23, 1941
That was almost the same time my mama died. But I didn't remember a baby. And if it was Mama's baby, why would it be stuck way over by the fence all by itself without even a name? The mystery baby was how I'd come to think of her.
A name would have helped with that part.
"Nana, was Baby Clark a her or a him?"
The words came out of my mouth without me giving them permission. They just marched right out, naked in the sunshine.
I looked across the cemetery to Mama's angel, wondering if I'd be turned to stone for asking.
Nana stopped with a jolt, like she'd bumped into an invisible wall. Finally she said, "Baby Clark died," and then she went on walking, leading me by the hand as if we were in a big hurry.
"Yes, ma'am," I said. "That's why he or she has been buried in the cemetery."
Nana shut her eyes, and I felt bad for being smart. But probably everybody knew except me.
Sometimes I hated being wrapped up in a cotton candy cocoon, with people standing around waiting for me to turn into a beautiful butterfly like my mama.
Excerpted from Over the River by Sharelle Byars Moranville. Copyright © 2002 Sharelle Byars Moranville. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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