Big Stone Gap

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Overview

It's 1978, and Ave Maria Mulligan is the thirty-five-year-old self-proclaimed spinster of Big Stone Gap, a sleepy hamlet in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She's also the local pharmacist, the co-captain of the Rescue Squad, and the director of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the town's long-running Outdoor Drama. Ave Maria is content with her life of doing errands and negotiating small details-until she discovers a skeleton in her family's formerly tidy closet that completely unravels her quiet, ...

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Overview

It's 1978, and Ave Maria Mulligan is the thirty-five-year-old self-proclaimed spinster of Big Stone Gap, a sleepy hamlet in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She's also the local pharmacist, the co-captain of the Rescue Squad, and the director of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the town's long-running Outdoor Drama. Ave Maria is content with her life of doing errands and negotiating small details-until she discovers a skeleton in her family's formerly tidy closet that completely unravels her quiet, conventional life. Suddenly, she finds herself juggling two marriage proposals, conducting a no-holds-barred family feud, planning a life-changing journey to the Old Country, and helping her best friend, the high-school band director, design a halftime show to dazzle Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed Hollywood movie star who's coming through town on a campaign stump with her husband, senatorial candidate John Warner.

Filled with big-time eccentrics and small-town shenanigans, Big Stone Gap is a jewel box of original characters, including sexpot Bookmobile librarian Iva Lou Wade; Fleeta Mullins, the chain-smoking pharmacy cashier with a penchant for professional wrestling; the dashing visionary Theodore Tipton; Elmo Gaspar, the snake-handling preacher; Jack MacChesney, a coal-mining bachelor looking for true love; and Pearl Grimes, a shy mountain girl on the verge of a miraculous transformation.

Comic and compassionate, Big Stone Gap is is the story of a woman who thinks life has passed her by, only to learn that the best is yet to come.

About the Author:

Adriana Trigiani grew up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, in the 1970s. She has honed her storytelling abilities over a decade of writing and producing some of television's top-rated shows, including the groundbreaking Cosby Show. Trigiani is also an award-winning playwright and documentary filmmaker. She lives in New York City with her husband.

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Editorial Reviews

USA Today
Big Stone Gap is as comforting as a patchwork quilt, as charming as a country cottage. Readers would do well to fall into the nearest easy chair, cup of tea in hand, and savor the story of Ave Maria Mulligan. Big Stone Gap's strength lies in its characters, and Trigiani's debut novel holds no pretense. It's a story of simple people with complex emotions -- and no one is more complex than Ave Maria. Big Stone Gap is as mouthwatering as fried chicken and biscuits!
USA Today
BIG STONE GAP is as comforting as a patchwork quilt, as charming as a country cottage. Readers would do well to fall into the nearest easy chair, cup of tea in hand, and savor the story of Ave Maria Mulligan. BIG STONE GAP's strength lies in its characters, and Trigiani's debut novel holds no pretense. It's a story of simple people with complex emotions — and no one is more complex than Ave Maria. BIG STONE GAP is as mouthwatering as fried chicken and biscuits!
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Trigiani's story of a middle-aged spinster finding love and a sense of self in a small Virginia coal town is a lot like a cold soda on a hot summer day: light and refreshing, if just a little too sweet. Trigiani, a playwright, filmmaker and former writer for The Cosby Show, has a Southern voice that perfectly embodies her main character, the embattled Ave Maria Mulligan. Ave Maria, who's satisfied if not exactly happy in her role as the town pharmacist, begins questioning her quiet, country life after a posthumous letter from her mother reveals a jarring secret. Ave Maria soon faces a crisis of identity, the advances of a surprising suitor and the threat of her acerbic, money-grubbing Aunt Alice. From the suitor, who points out his brand-new pickup truck during a marriage proposal, to the town temptress, who dispenses romantic advice from her bookmobile, Trigiani brings the story alive with her flexible vocal inventions. Fans of true love stories and happy endings certainly won't be disappointed. Based on the Random hardcover (Forecasts, Jan. 31). (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Ave Maria's life in Big Stone Gap, VA, is essentially the same as it's been for all 35 years of her life, but after her mother's will reveals that the man Ave thought was her father isn't, she begins to lose hold of her routine. Before long, she's had two surprise marriage proposals, the clerk at her pharmacy has decided to quit, and her embittered aunt has decided to sue her. In between panic attacks and shouting matches, Ave tries to figure out what all these changes mean in her life. Trigiani's reading of her novel is superb, capturing not only Ave Maria's voice but the voices of the varied and eccentric residents of Big Stone Gap. The abridgment is not as smooth as it might be, leaving listeners with the occasional notion that they have missed something, and, in spite of a weak and somewhat lengthy ending, this isn't the type of book one wants to skim. Alas, no unabridged edition currently exists. Recommended for popular fiction collections.--Adrienne Furness, Maplewood Community Lib., Rochester, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Andrea Higbie
Big Stone Gap is as comforting as a mug of chamomile tea on a rainy Sunday served with Ave Maria's specialty: freshly baked oatmeal cookies.
The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
Praise for BIG STONE GAP
"Charming . . . Readers would do well to fall into the nearest easy chair and savor the story."
USA Today

"Delightfully quirky . . . chock-full of engaging, oddball characters and unexpected plot twists, this Gap is meant to be crossed."
People (Book of the Week)

"As comforting as a mug of chamomile tea on a rainy Sunday."
The New York Times Book Review

"A touching tale of a sleepy Southern town and a young woman on the brink of self-discovery and acceptance."
Southern Living

"Ave Maria's spunky attitude, sardonic wit, and extravagant generosity compel you into her fan club . . . . Delightfully entertaining."
Tampa Tribune

"A delightful tale of intimate community life [where] the characters are as real as the ones who live next door."
Sunday Oklahoman

"In a sassy Southern voice, [Trigiani] creates honest, endearingly original characters."
— Glamour

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345459206
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/1/2003
  • Series: Big Stone Gap Series , #1
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: 1 BALLANTINE
  • Pages: 306
  • Product dimensions: 4.22 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Adriana Trigiani

Adriana Trigiani grew up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, in the 1970s. She has honed her storytelling abilities over a decade of writing and producing some of television's top-rated shows, including the groundbreaking Cosby Show. Trigiani is also an award-winning playwright and documentary filmmaker. She lives in New York City with her husband.

Biography

As her squadrons of fans already know, Adriana Trigiani grew up in Big Stone Gap, a coal-mining town in southwest Virginia that became the setting for her first three novels. The Big Stone Gap books feature Southern storytelling with a twist: a heroine of Italian descent, like Trigiani, who attended St. Mary's College of Notre Dame, like Trigiani. But the series isn't autobiographical -- the narrator, Ave Maria Mulligan, is a generation older than Trigiani and, as the first book opens, has settled into small-town spinsterhood as the local pharmacist.

The author, by contrast, has lived most of her adult life in New York City. After graduating from college with a theater degree, she moved to the city and began writing and directing plays (her day jobs included cook, nanny, house cleaner and office temp). In 1988, she was tapped to write for the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, and spent the following decade working in television and film. When she presented her friend and agent Suzanne Gluck with a screenplay about Big Stone Gap, Gluck suggested she turn it into a novel.

The result was an instant bestseller that won praise from fellow writers along with kudos from celebrities (Whoopi Goldberg is a fan). It was followed by Big Cherry Holler and Milk Glass Moon, which chronicle the further adventures of Ave Maria through marriage and motherhood. People magazine called them "Delightfully quirky... chock full of engaging, oddball characters and unexpected plot twists."

Critics sometimes reach for food imagery to describe Trigiani's books, which have been called "mouthwatering as fried chicken and biscuits" (USA Today) and "comforting as a mug of tea on a rainy Sunday" (The New York Times Book Review). Food and cooking play a big role in the lives of Trigiani's heroines and their families: Lucia, Lucia, about a seamstress in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, and The Queen of the Big Time, set in an Italian-American community in Pennsylvania, both feature recipes from Trigiani's grandmothers. She and her sisters have even co-written a cookbook called, appropriately enough, Cooking With My Sisters: One Hundred Years of Family Recipes, from Bari to Big Stone Gap. It's peppered with anecdotes, photos and family history. What it doesn't have: low-carb recipes. "An Italian girl can only go so long without pasta," Trigiani quipped in an interview on GoTriCities.com.

Her heroines are also ardent readers, so it comes as no surprise that book groups love Adriana Trigiani. And she loves them right back. She's chatted with scores of them on the phone, and her Web site includes photos of women gathered together in living rooms and restaurants across the country, waving Italian flags and copies of Lucia, Lucia.

Trigiani, a disciplined writer whose schedule for writing her first novel included stints from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. each morning, is determined not to disappoint her fans. So far, she's produced a new novel each year since the publication of Big Stone Gap.

"I don't take any of it for granted, not for one second, because I know how hard this is to catch with your public," she said in an interview with The Independent. "I don't look at my public as a group; I look at them like individuals, so if a reader writes and says, 'I don't like this,' or, 'This bit stinks,' I take it to heart."

Good To Know

Some fascinating, funny outtakes from our interview with Trigiani:

"I appeared on the game show Kiddie Kollege on WCYB-TV in Bristol, Virginia, when I was in the third grade. I missed every question. It was humiliating."

"I have held the following jobs: office temp, ticket seller in movie theatre, cook in restaurant, nanny, and phone installer at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. In the writing world, I have been a playwright, television writer/producer, documentary writer/director, and now novelist."

"I love rhinestones, faux jewelry. I bought a pair of pearl studded clip on earrings from a blanket on the street when I first moved to New York for a dollar. They turned out to be a pair designed by Elsa Schiaparelli. Now, they are costume, but they are still Schiaps! Always shop in the street -- treasures aplenty."

"Dear readers, I like you. I am so grateful that you read and enjoy my books. I never forget that -- or you -- when I am working. I am also indebted to the booksellers who read the advanced reader's editions and write to me and say, "I'm gonna hand-sell this one." That always makes me jump for joy. I love the people at my publishing house. Smart. Funny, and I like it when they're slightly nervous because that means they care. The people I have met since I started writing books have been amazing on every level -- and why not? You're readers. And for someone to take reading seriously means that you are seeking knowledge. Yes, reading is fun, but it is also an indication of a serious-minded person who values imagination and ideas and, dare I say it, art. I never thought in a million years when I was growing up in Big Stone Gap that I would be writing this to you today. Books have always been sacred to me -- important, critical, fundamental -- and a celebration of language and words. And authors! When I was little, I didn't play Old Maid, I played authors. They had cards with the famous authors on them. Now, granted, they didn't look like movie stars, but I loved what they wrote and had to say. I can boil this all down to one thing: I love to tell stories -- and I love to hear them. I didn't think there was a job in the world where I would get to do both, and now thank God, I've found it."

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Read an Excerpt

This will be a good weekend for reading. I picked up a dozen of Vernie Crabtree's killer chocolate chip cookies at the French Club bake sale yesterday. (I don't know what she puts in them, but they're chewy and crispy at the same time.) Those, a pot of coffee, and a good book are all I will need for the rainy weekend rolling in. It's early September in our mountains, so it's warm during the day, but tonight will bring a cool mist to remind us that fall is right around the corner.

The Wise County Bookmobile is the one of the most beautiful sights in the world to me. When I see it lumbering down the mountain road like a tank, then turning wide and easing onto Shawnee Avenue, I flag it down like an old friend. I've waited on this corner every Friday since I can remember. The Bookmobile is just a government truck, but to me it's a glittering royal coach delivering stories and knowledge and life itself. I even love the smell of books. People have often told me that one of their strongest childhood memories is the scent of their grandmother's house. I never knew my grandmothers, but I could always count on the Bookmobile.

The most important thing I ever learned, I learned from books. Books have taught me how to size people up. The most useful book I ever read taught me how to read faces, an ancient Chinese art called siang mien, in which the size of the eyes, curve of the lip, and height of the forehead are important clues to a person's character. The placement of ears indicates intelligence. Chins that stick out reflect stubbornness. Deep-set eyes suggest a secretive nature. Eyebrows that grow together may answer the question Could that man kill me with his bare hands? (Hecould.) Even dimples have meaning. I have them, and according to face reading, something wonderful is supposed to happen to me when I turn thirty-five. (It's been four months since my birthday, and I'm still waiting.)

If you were to read my face, you would find me a comfortable person with brown eyes, good teeth, nice lips, and a nose that folks, when they are being kind, refer to as noble. It's a large nose, but at least it's straight. My eyebrows are thick, which indicates a practical nature. (I'm a pharmacistóhow much more practical can you get?) I have a womanly shape, known around here as a mountain girl's body, strong legs, and a flat behind. Jackets cover it quite nicely.

This morning the idea of living in Big Stone Gap for the rest of my life gives me a nervous feeling. I stop breathing, as I do whenever I think too hard. Not breathing is very bad for you, so I inhale slowly and deeply. I taste coal dust. I don't mind; it assures me that we still have an economy. Our town was supposed to become the "Pittsburgh of the South" and the "Coal Mining Capital of Virginia." That never happened, so we are forever at the whims of the big coal companies. When they tell us the coal is running out in these mountains, who are we to doubt them?

It's pretty here. Around six o'clock at night everything turns a rich Crayola midnight blue. You will never smell greenery so pungent. The Gap definitely has its romantic qualities. Even the train whistles are musical, sweet oboes in the dark. The place can fill you with longing.

The Bookmobile is at the stoplight. The librarian and driver is a good-time gal named Iva Lou Wade. She's in her forties, but she's yet to place the flag on her sexual peak. She's got being a woman down. If you painted her, she'd be sitting on a pink cloud with gold-leaf edges, showing a lot of leg. Her perfume is so loud that when I visit the Bookmobile, I wind up smelling like her for the bulk of the day. (It's a good thing I like Coty's Emeraude.) My father used to say that that's how a woman ought to be. "A man should know when there's a woman in the room. When Iva Lou comes in, there ain't no doubt." I'd just say nothing and roll my eyes.

Iva Lou's having a tough time parking. A mail truck has parked funny in front of the post office, taking up her usual spot, so she motions to me that she's pulling into the gas station. That's fine with the owner, Kent Vanhook. He likes Iva Lou a lot. What man doesn't? She pays real nice attention to each and every one. She examines men like eggs, perfect specimens created by God to nourish. And she hasn't met a man yet who doesn't appreciate it. Luring a man is a true talent, like playing the piano by ear. Not all of us are born prodigies, but women like Iva Lou have made it an art form.

The Bookmobile doors open with a whoosh. I can't believe what Iva Lou's wearing: Her ice-blue turtleneck is so tight it looks like she's wearing her bra on the outside. Her Mondrian-patterned pants, with squares of pale blue, yellow, and green, cling to her thighs like crisscross ribbons. Even sitting, Iva Lou has an unbelievable shape. But I wonder how much of it has to do with all the cinching. Could it be that her parts are so well-hoisted and suspended, she has transformed her real figure into a soft hourglass? Her face is childlike, with a small chin, big blue eyes, and a rosebud mouth. Her eyeteeth snaggle out over her front teeth, but on her they're demure. Her blond hair is like yellow Easter straw, arranged in an upsweep you can see through the set curls. She wears lots of Sarah Coventry jewelry, because she sells it on the side.

"I'll trade you. Shampoo for a best-seller." I give Iva Lou a sack of shampoo samples from my pharmacy, Mulligan's Mutual.
"You got a deal." Iva Lou grabs the sack and starts sorting through the samples. She indicates the shelf of new arrivals. "Ave Maria, honey, you have got to read The Captains and the Kings that just came out. I know you don't like historicals, but this one's got sex."
"How much more romance can you handle, Iva Lou? You've got half the men in Big Stone Gap tied up in knots."

She snickers. "Half? Oh well, I'm-a gonna take that as a compliment-o anyway." I'm half Italian, so Iva Lou insists on ending her words with vowels. I taught her some key phrases in Italian in case international romance was to present itself. It wasn't very funny when Iva Lou tried them out on my mother one day. I sure got in some Big Trouble over that.
Iva Lou has a goal. She wants to make love to an Italian man, so she can decide if they are indeed the world's greatest lovers. "Eye-talian men are my Matta-horn, honey," she declares. Too bad there aren't any in these parts. The people around here are mainly Scotch-Irish, or Melungeon (folks who are a mix of Turkish, French, African, Indian, and who knows what; they live up in the mountain hollers and stick to themselves). Zackie Wakin, owner of the town department store, is Lebanese. My mother and I were the only Italians; and then about five years ago we acquired one Jew, Lewis Eisenberg, a lawyer from Woodbury, New York.

"You always sit in the third snap stool. How come?" Iva Lou asks, not looking up as she flips through a new coffee-table book about travel photography.
"I like threes."
"Sweetie-o, let me tell you something." Iva Lou gets a faraway, mystical twinkle in her eye. Then her voice lowers to a throaty, sexy register. "When I get to blow this coal yard, and have my big adventure, I sure as hell won't waste my time taking pictures of the Circus Maximus. I am not interested in rocks 'n' ruins. I want to experience me some flesh and blood. Some magnificent, broad-shouldered hunk of a European man. Forget the points of interest, point me toward the men. Marble don't hug back, baby." Then she breathes deeply, "Whoo."

Iva Lou fixes herself a cup of Sanka and laughs. She's one of those people who are forever cracking themselves up. She always offers me a cup, and I always decline. I know that her one spare clean Styrofoam cup could be her entrÈe to a romantic rendezvous. Why waste it on me?

"I found you that book on wills you wanted. And here's the only one I could find on grief." Iva Lou holds up As Grief Exits as though she's modeling it. The pretty cover has rococo cherubs and clouds on it. The angels' smiles are instantly comforting. "How you been getting along?" I look at Iva Lou's face. Her innocent expression is just like the cherub's. She really wants to know how I am.

My mother died on August 2, 1978, exactly one month ago today. It was the worst day of my life. She had breast cancer. I never thought cancer would get both of my parents, but it did. Mama was fifty-two years old, which suddenly seems awfully young to me. She was only seventeen when she came to America. My father taught her English, but she always spoke with a thick accent. One of the things I miss most about her is the sound of her voice. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can hear her.

"You always sit in the third snap stool. How come?" Iva Lou asks, not looking up as she flips through a new coffee-table book about travel photography.

"I like threes."
"Sweetie-o, let me tell you something." Iva Lou gets a faraway, mystical twinkle in her eye. Then her voice lowers to a throaty, sexy register. "When I get to blow this coal yard, and have my big adventure, I sure as hell won't waste my time taking pictures of the Circus Maximus. I am not interested in rocks 'n' ruins. I want to experience me some flesh and blood. Some magnificent, broad-shouldered hunk of a European man. Forget the points of interest, point me toward the men. Marble don't hug back, baby." Then she breathes deeply, "Whoo."

Iva Lou fixes herself a cup of Sanka and laughs. She's one of those people who are forever cracking themselves up. She always offers me a cup, and I always decline. I know that her one spare clean Styrofoam cup could be her entrÈe to a romantic rendezvous. Why waste it on me?

"I found you that book on wills you wanted. And here's the only one I could find on grief." Iva Lou holds up As Grief Exits as though she's modeling it. The pretty cover has rococo cherubs and clouds on it. The angels' smiles are instantly comforting. "How you been getting along?" I look at Iva Lou's face. Her innocent expression is just like the cherub's. She really wants to know how I am.

My mother died on August 2, 1978, exactly one month ago today. It was the worst day of my life. She had breast cancer. I never thought cancer would get both of my parents, but it did. Mama was fifty-two years old, which suddenly seems awfully young to me. She was only seventeen when she came to America. My father taught her English, but she always spoke with a thick accent. One of the things I miss most about her is the sound of her voice. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can hear her.

Mama didn't want to die because she didn't want to leave me here alone. I have no brothers or sisters. The roots in the Mulligan family are strong, but at this point, the branches are mostly dead. My mother never spoke of her family over in Italy, so I assume they died in the war or something. The only relative I have left is my aunt, Alice Mulligan Lambert. She is a pill. Her husband, my Uncle Wayne, has spent his life trying not to make her angry, but he has failed. Aunt Alice has a small head and thin lips. (That's a terrible combination.)
"I'm gonna take a smoke, honey-o." Iva Lou climbs down the steps juggling two coffees and her smokes. In under fifteen seconds, Kent Vanhook comes out from the garage, wiping his hands on a rag. Iva Lou gives Kent the Styrofoam cup, which looks tiny in his big hands. They smoke and sip. Kent Vanhook is a good-looking man of fifty, a tall, easygoing cowboy type. He looks like the great Walter Pidgeon with less hair. As he laughs with Iva Lou, twenty years seem to melt off of his face. Kent's wife is a diabetic who stays at home and complains a lot. I know this because I drop off her insulin once a month. But with Iva Lou, all Kent does is laugh.

I like to be alone on the Bookmobile. It gives me a chance to really examine the new arrivals. I make a stack and then look through the old selections. I pick up my old standby, The Ancient Art of Chinese Face-Reading, and think of my father, Fred Mulligan. When he died thirteen years ago, I thought I would grieve, but to this day I haven't. We weren't close, but it wasn't from my lack of trying. From the time I can remember, he just looked through me, the way you would look through the thick glass of a jelly jar to see if there's any jelly left. Many nights when I was young I cried about him, and then one day I stopped expecting him to love me and the pain went away. I stuck by him when he got sick, though. All of a sudden, my father, who had always separated himself from people, had everything in common with the world. He was in pain and would inevitably die. The suffering gave him some humility. It's sad that my best memories of him are when he was sick. It was then that I first checked out this book on Chinese face reading.

I thought that if I read my father's face, I would be able to understand why he was so mean. It took a lot of study. Dad's face was square and full of angles: rectangular forehead, sharp jaw, pointy chin. He had small eyes (sign of a deceptive nature), a bulbous nose (sign of money in midlife, which he had from owning the Pharmacy), and no lips. Okay, he had two lips, but the set of the mouth was one tight gray lead-pencil line. That is a sign of cruelty. When you watch the news on television, look at the anchor's mouth. I will guaran-damn-tee you that none of them have upper lips. You don't get on the TV by being nice to people.

On and off for about four years straight the face-reading book was checked out in my name, and my name only. When I went up to Charlottesville on a buying trip for the Pharmacy, I tried to hunt down a copy to buy. It was out of print. Iva Lou has tried to give me the book outright many times. She said she would report it as lost. But I can't do that. I like knowing it's here, riding around with old Iva Lou.

I guess I'm staring out the windshield at them, because they're both looking at me. Iva Lou stomps out her cigarette with her pink Papagallo flat and heads back toward the Bookmobile. Kent watches her return, drinking her in like that last sip of rich, black Sanka.

"I'm sorry. Me and Kent got to talking, and well, you know."
"No problem."
"Face reading again? Don't you have this memorized by now? Lordy."
Iva stamps the books with her pinky up.

"See you next week." I wave to Kent casually, just to make him feel that there is absolutely nothing wrong with talking to single, available, willing Iva Lou and sharing a smoke. He smiles at me, a little relieved. I think most folks in Big Stone Gap know their secrets are safe with me. (God knows I don't get any pleasure in knowing that the town manager performs self-colonics).

I have a delivery to make. I promised Mrs. MacóMacChesney is the full surnameóthat I would bring her a new prescription to tame her high blood pressure. She is known around here as "Apple Butter Nan" because nobody cans it better. Her house is way up in Cracker's Neck Holler. There are lots of twists and turns to get there, and I sort of fly around the curves like Mario Andretti (another great Eye-talian). There's an element of danger in mountain roadsóthere are no guardrails, so it's you and your rack-and-pinion steering. If you lose your concentration, you could go over the mountain. One foggy night the Brightwell brothers lost control of their truck and drove off the cliff.

Luckily, the trees broke their fall. A state cop found the boys hanging in the branches like fresh laundry the following morning. They lost their truck, though. On impact, it fell off of them like pants. Now it rests at the bottom of Powell Valley Lake.


The Gap, or "down in town" as the holler folks call it, is in the valley. The hollers are little communities nestled in the sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I couldn't give you directions to places up in the mountains, but I could take you there. There are no signs anywhere; you have to know your way. When you climb to the highest peak around here, you are standing on the borders of five states: Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. You can't actually see the divider lines of course; you just know that you're standing in five states because there's a plaque that says so and because we were taught that in school. Tiny Miss Callahan, my fourth-grade teacher, would be very happy that I retained this information and shared it.

Each holler has its own name and singular history. Families found pockets that suited them in these hills and never left. Where people settle tells a lot about them. This is the only place I've ever lived, except for college. I went away to school, all the way up to South Bend, Indiana, to Saint Mary's, a small women's college. It was just big enough for me. When I got my B.S., I came home and took over management of the Pharmacy. I was needed here. My father had gotten sick and had to quit, and Mama couldn't handle it alone. It wasn't that she was a weak woman; she just couldn't handle change.

I've made it up to Cracker's Neck in record time. The MacChesney homestead sits in a clearing. It's a square stone house with four chimneys. Hearth fires smell better in stone houses, and Mrs. Mac always has one going. I park and wait for the dogs to circle. We have hundreds of wild dogs in the mountains, and they travel in packs. Most aren't rabid, and when they are, they get shot. I count six thin dogs sniffing my wheels. Buying time, I unzip my window and toss out the sign that identifies me to customers. It's a white plastic square that says: the medicine dropper. (I sprung for the extra artwork, a silhouette of a nurse in a rush.)

I usually find the guts to get out of the Jeep when I see Mrs. Mac peeking out of her window. The last thing I want to appear to customers is chicken. Truth is, I appreciate her watching out for me as I open the door and swing my legs out. Ever so casually I pull myself to a rigid standing position and walk confidently through the yard to the front door, like Maureen O'Hara in every movie she ever made with John Wayne. Maureen O'Hara is short-waisted like me. She is my inspiration in wardrobe and courage. I've even taken to wearing my hair like herósimple and long in a neat braid. I pack less punch though; my hair is brown, hers lustrous red.

The porch is freshly painted gray without a speck of dirt anywhere. The firewood is stacked neatly to the side of the house in a long row, in a lattice design. I try not to have favorites, but Mrs. Mac and her orderly home definitely top my list.

"Took you long enough!" Mrs. Mac exclaims as she snaps open the screen door.
"Iva Lou and I were chatting."
"I done figured that." Mrs. Mac points to the fire. "Is that a good un, or is that a good un?" The flames lick the grid in hungry yellow bursts.
"That is the best fire I have ever seen." And I mean it.
"Come on back. I made corn bread."

I follow Mrs. Mac to the kitchen, a sunny, spacious room with exposed oak beams on the ceiling. I hear a noise behind me. Praying that it's not another dog, I slowly turn and look, first low, then eye level. It's not a dog. It's a man. Mrs. Mac's son, Jack MacChesney, in his underwear, a faded-to-pink union suit that sticks to him like a leotard. We look at each other, and both our faces turn the color of his underwear before it fadedóblood red.
"Jesus Christmas, Jack. Put some clothes on," Mrs. Mac demands.

"Yes, ma'am," he says to his mother, as if on automatic. "Good morning, Ave Maria," he says to me, and goes. I can't help it, I watch the man go. He has a fine, high rear end. I wish I did. I pull my belted CPO jacket down over my flat behind and follow Mrs. Mac into the kitchen.

Mrs. Mac and I cross the kitchen to the big table by the windows, where she pours me a cup of hot black coffee that smells like heaven. She serves me fresh cream and snow-white sugar, which I dump into the mug. "So what's happening in town?" Mrs. Mac asks. She has a mountain-girl faceóa fine nose you could draw with a compass, shiny green button eyes, Cupid bow lips, smooth cheeks. You can tell that she was a great beauty in her youth, and she still is.

"Is ëNan' short for anything?" I ask her.
"What? You mean my name?" Mrs. Mac cuts the corn bread in the iron skillet into neat triangles. "My mamaw's name was Nan. My middle name is Bluebell because that field was covered with 'em when I got born." She points out the window with her spatula to indicate the field in the back.
"Nan Bluebell. Pretty. What was your maiden name?"
"God-a-mighty, you got a lot of questions this here morning. Gilliam. Nan Bluebell Gilliam."

"I like it," I say as I sip my coffee.

Jack stands in the doorway. He lingers there for a moment, as if to assess the situation. Or maybe he doesn't want to interrupt our conversation. In town he is known as Jack Mac. He's a little over six feet but seems shorter because he's all neck and torso. His face is round and soft, with a determined chin. He has thin, straight eyebrows and hazel eyes. He has even lipsóthe top and bottom one match (very rare)óand a nose that suits his faceóit's a strong nose, one that doesn't break where it's connected between his eyes but shoots out like a clean wedge. He has a defined jawline, which means he goes after what he wants in life and gets it. Jack Mac is dressed now, in a flannel shirt and old blue jeans. His hair is slicked down wet; in the sunlight it is gray and going. Jack Mac and I are the same age, but he looks a lot older than me. I don't think he said two words in four years of high school; he's one of those quiet types.

Mrs. Mac pours her son coffee. "Sit down youngun," she says to him with great affection. "I was just asking Miss Ave here about the goings-on in town."
"Jack Mac ought to know more than me. After all, musicians get all the dirt."
"We do, eh?" Jack Mac says and laughs. "You're the big director, you're in charge of the flow of information."

Jack Mac is referring to my "job" (volunteer, of course) as director of our musical Outdoor Drama The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. A mountain love story, or so the poster says. The Drama was put together sixteen summers ago. There's a lot of dramatic and musical talent in the area, so local leaders decided to capitalize on it. We figure tourism will be a good business alternative if the coal mining dries up. The Outdoor Drama draws audiences from all over the mid-South.
"Hi-dee, Ave Maria," she barks.
"Nice do, Fleetsie," and I mean it; she just had her hair put up.
"I copied Jeanne Pruett's upsweep." Fleeta pats the spit curls gently. "I wish I could sing like her, too."
"Singing isn't the be-all. I bet she can't name all the wrestlers on the world-federation roster."
"You got you a point there."
"Busy morning." I clear the register.

"I need to declare me some sort of moratorium on these damn fund-raising jars," Fleeta complains. "I can't hardly ring up a sale without flippin' one over."
She's right. Our counter is overrun with homemade jars that have coin slots cut into their lids. Kids bring them by from school to raise money for all sorts of things. They glue their school pictures to the front of the jar with their names and a handwritten slogan to solicit funds. Right now the competition is heating up for Halloween prince and princess at the grade school, and I don't like to play favorites, so anybody who makes a jar can leave one. Teena Lee Ball, a cute second-grader, stands by the register. Teena Lee looks at Fleeta and thinks better of asking her for a favor, so she turns to me.

"Miss Mulligan, my mamaw said you'd put my jar on the counter 'cause we trade here."
"Your mamaw is a smart woman, and she's got a point. It's called ëturnabout fair trade.' You put your jar on the counter. Maybe we'll raise a million dollars for your campaign!"
Teena Lee smiles and shows the space where her front teeth should be. She scoots the jar in front of the others and goes.

"You're too much of a soft touch. Let me handle them kids that come in here. If it wasn't for me, people'd run all over you all day long. I'll tell them damn kids to take their jars to the Piggly Wiggly. We ain't got the room; they do. They got three register lanes over there. We've only got the one."

I lift a jar off the counter. "Did that Coomer boy ever get his kidney?"
"I think it was in the paper that he did."
I unscrew the Coomer boy's jar and pour the coins into the March of Dimes canister.
"Lew Eisenberg wants you to come see him over to his office. And I'm quitting."
"You're kidding."
"Ave, honey, I'm sick of people. I want to set home and watch me some TV. Portly has his Black Lung comin' through. It's time to enjoy life."
Obviously, Fleeta hasn't let herself make the connection that in order to collect Black Lung benefits from the coal company, her husband has to be sick. This isn't exactly the time for celebration.
"I don't want you to go." I sound pitiful, not like a boss at all.
"You'll get over it. I ain't met nobody yet who ain't replaceable."
"It won't be the same."
"It's time for a change is all," Fleeta announces like a Greek philosopher. Change. Why does that word send a chill through me?

Lew Eisenberg's office is next door to the Pharmacy on Main Street. I sort of dread going in there, the place is so cluttered. Inez, Lew's wife, is also his secretary. They met when Lew came down to do some legal work for Westmoreland Coal Company. Inez had just graduated high school. They had a romance and she got pregnant. Lew did the right thing and married her. (Well, the right thing for Inez, that is).

"He's inside," Inez says without looking up. Inez still has a pretty face, but she has gained about a hundred pounds since they married. It's been frustrating for her, since she was known for her gorgeous figure when she was a cheerleader. Now she's always on a diet. She's tried Metracal shakes, AYDS, the reducing-plan candy, and Figurine Wafers (I carry all flavors)ónothing has done the trick.

Lew sits behind his desk, smoking a cigarette. His round pumpkin head looks large atop his thin frame. He has small brown eyes behind thick glasses and a space between his front teeth (the Chinese call these lucky teeth). I haven't seen the space recently; Lew rarely smiles.

"Coffee or tea or something?" Lew asks. He always sounds agitated, but it doesn't make him unpleasant. You can see he's a sweetie underneath.
"No thanks." Lew looks relieved that I don't want anything; the less contact with Inez, the better. He closes the door and sits in the chair next to me. He has never done that. "We need to talk." He is quiet for a few seconds, but it seems much longer. He stands and paces. "I finished up your mother's paperwork. Her will. The house, the Pharmacy, the life insuranceóall that goes to you. Essentially, my job is done. Except for one thing." He stands at the window, flicking the blinds.

A floorboard creaks outside the office door, sounding like two hundred tiptoeing pounds. We look at each other. Lew turns on the radio for privacyóInez has a reputation for snoopingóand sits down next to me again. "There's a letter."

Lew gives me a large manila envelope. It is addressed to me in care of Lewis Eisenberg. In the upper left-hand corner it says, "From Fiametta Vilminore Mulligan." I'm one of those folks who opens her mail as she stands at the mailbox, so I rip into the envelope immediately and unfold the letter. I see my mother's handwriting. (The letter is written in English; I assume it's because Lew would have needed to read it, too.)

My dear Ave Maria,

When you read this letter, I will have left you. There are things I could never tell you about myself. Many times, I tried. But then, I would think better of unburdening myself and stay quiet. The first thing I want you to know is that you are the best thing that ever happened to me.

At this point, my heart is pounding so hard it's moving the buttons on my shirt. I look over at Lew, who is now lying down on the floor, smoking and staring up at the ceiling.
"Did you read this, Lew?"
"Yup. Don't mind me, my back's out."

When I was seventeen, I was a very happy girl. I worked as a seamstress in my father's shop in Bergamo. My mother was beautiful, and my father a very respected man. A boy used to stop by the shop, his name was Mario Barbari. He came from a good family from Schilpario, a small town in the mountains. He was quite handsome and made me laugh. One time, my father had business in Schilpario. I begged him to let me ride along. I hoped I would see Mario, and as luck would have it, I did. Once he took care of business, Papa decided to stay in Schilpario and play cards. Mario offered to show me the town. He showed me the church, the waterwheel, the school. I felt like I had known him all of my life. I fell in love with him that day.

"May I have some water, please?" I swallow hard. Inez enters with water. Lew and I look at each other. Inez goes.

Mario came down to Bergamo to see me. My father found out about our friendship and forbade me to see him because I was too young to court. I did what no good daughter would do: I defied him and would sneak out to see Mario. I was so happy whenever I was with him. We shared such good, happy times. I knew I wanted to spend my life with him. We made a plan to run away together. He was to meet me at the Bergamo station and we would take the first train to Milan. I waited and waited but he never came. A courier arrived with a letter from him explaining that he could not meet me that day. I was going to tell Mario that I was expecting you so we could marry immediately. I am sure that he was not suspicious of my condition or he would have kept our appointment.

I knew that I must leave my home or the shame of what I had done would never be resolved. I remembered that we had a cousin in Lake Maggiore. I bought a ticket to go there, hopeful she would take me in. When I arrived in Lake Maggiore, I could not find my cousin. I had no place to go. My heart was broken. But I thought of you. I had to take care of you. Then, something very lucky happened to me. I returned to the train station.

Everyone rushing around, having somewhere to go, comforted me. I sat alone on a bench. I fell asleep. When I woke up, a beautiful lady was sitting next to me. I will never forget what she looked like. She was tall, slim, and wore a blue coat. The buttons were blue jewels. And on her head was a hat, exquisite blue velvet with peacock feathers and tiny blue stars. Her face was creamy pink; she smelled like garden flowers. She offered me a sweet roll. I was so hungry, I took it. She said, "Now, my dear, what shall we do?" "I have no place to go," I said to her. "But of course you do. You're coming with me. I am going to America. You will stay with me. And when we get there, we will find you a position." I was so afraid. But this woman smiled at me and I knew we would be all right.
I am crying. Lew stands and stretches. He comes over to me, puts a limp hand on one of my shoulders, and pats me like an old dog.

I asked the beautiful lady what her name was. She said, "Ave Maria Albricci." I told her that she had a beautiful name and she laughed. She thought it too ornate. I told her when I had my baby I would name her Ave Maria. She laughed again. She asked me how I knew I was going to have a girl. I told her I just knew. The ride on the ship was lovely. Ave Maria had a beautiful cabin. Servants laid our clothes out. The food was plentiful, even with the war on; I felt you healthy and happy inside of me. Four weeks passed and we arrived in New York City. Ave Maria's relatives greeted us at the port. We took the train to Hoboken, New Jersey. Ave Maria bought the Italia Oggi, the newspaper. We read the want ads. In those days, immigrants were cheap labor and would work in exchange for room and board. "What is Virginia?" I asked the Albriccis. They laughed. I responded to the ad:

"SEAMSTRESS WANTED: MINING TOWN: BIG STONE GAP, VIRGINIA. GOOD PAY."

Mama had taped the actual ad to the back of the letter to verify her story.
I knew this job was a good opportunity. I wrote a letter. The gentleman that placed the ad owned a dress shop in the town. He hired me immediately based upon my letter. By chance, his friend, a merchant from Big Stone Gap, was in New York City on a buying trip. His name was Fred Mulligan, of the Mutual Pharmacy. Would I like an escort on the trip to Virginia? I was so happy. Fred Mulligan took the train to meet me. I was surprised. He was young, like me. He understood Italian, having studied it at the University of Virginia. I liked him. He told me later that for him it was love at first sight. In truth, he suspected my condition and knew it would be easier on me if I was married. I agreed to marry him. It was an arranged marriage; I arranged it.
I never heard from Ave Maria Albricci again. I sent many letters to her family in Hoboken through the years; all were returned. I prayed for her every day of my life, though, never forgetting her kindness. Whenever I spoke your name, I thought of her and how she helped me. She was an angel.

I felt you should know the truth. I hope I made the right decision in telling you this. I asked Mr. Eisenberg to be present with you. I love you, my darling girl.

Mama

I turn the envelope upside down and shake it to make sure I haven't missed anything. A small, square lace-edged black-and-white photograph falls into my lap. In gold letters it says, "Ti Amo, Mario." On the back, in my mother's handwriting, "Mario da Schilpario Italia 1942." The picture fits in my palm. The man in the picture looks to be about seventeen. He has black hair and a trim physique. He is laughing. This is my father.
Inez stands in the doorway. "Ave, they need you up to the school. There's been an incident." The floorboards creak as Inez ambles toward me.

"Ave, you need to get up to the school. Principal called." Lew's voice brings me back to earth. "They need the Rescue Squad."

Besides being a pharmacist, I am chief of the Rescue Squad. Doc Daugherty roped me into the job a couple of years back. We're a volunteer emergency-response teamóthe team is the fire chief, Spec Broadwater, and me. We handle everything from car wrecks to removing buttons from kids' noses, and once we even resuscitated Faith Cox's cat.

"Spec's outside waiting fer you," Inez says, a touch too impatiently.
Spec is wedged into the driver's seat of Rescue Squad Unit One, a white station wagon with bright orange trim. I don't know why he's called Spec; he is the opposite of a speck, he's a giant, the tallest man in the Gap, at six feet seven. I climb into the car. Fleeta runs out of the Pharmacy and hands me my emergency kit through the window. Spec steps on the gas so fast, Fleeta practically loses her hand. I hear her curse at Spec in the distance as we pull away. Spec shoves a blue siren onto the roof of the car through the driver's-side window.

"Problem up to the school." Spec offers me a cigarette. I must look like I need one. My face is puffy from crying.
"It's bad for you, Spec."
"Self-medication. When they come up with a healthy way for me to calm my nerves, I'll quit."
Powell Valley High School is a stylish, brand-new red brick structure that sits back off the main road, in a wide field. It is the jewel of this town, built with monies from the War on Poverty of the late 1960s. Spec ignores all traffic laws and careens up the circular driveway in the wrong direction.
"Problem's in the West Wing," he explains.

The principal, Dale Herron, meets us in front of the school. The kids call him Lurch. I sort of see whyóhe's slope-shouldered and his head juts forward. Lurch leads us inside to a rest room marked boys. The building is dead quiet.
"Where are the students?" I ask.
"In the auditorium," the principal says. "Miss Mulligan, I think you ought to wait out here."
"I'll handle it," Spec says, patting me like a Pekinese.

The men disappear into the rest room. A few moments pass. I hear mumbling from the lavatory. Finally, the two men emerge.
"Let's go," Lurch says, pointing toward the assembly down the hall.
We follow the angry principal into the auditorium. Every seat is filled. The teachers line the side aisles like guards. There are some whispers but not many. Onstage is a lectern and two students squirming in chairs: the student-body president, a young man with a long Renaissance curl, and the chaplain, a pudgy girl with thick glasses. Lurch takes the stage.
"Good afternoon, students. That greeting right there is for the ninety-eight percent of you who are law-abiding kids. I'll get to the remaining two percent here in a minute. I have called this emergency assembly to alert y'all that there is a sicko among us. There is a sign outside this door which reads, united we stand, divided we fall. The hijinks and shenanigans of a small percentage of us will cause the whole to suffer. To fall. Mike. Brownie. Bring up the evidence."

Two young men rise from their front-row seats and disappear backstage. They enter sheepishly from the wings. Mike is a small platinum blonde. I recognize him as the point guard on our championship basketball team. The other kid is mousy; his diminutive name suits him. They carry a large tarp between them.

"Dump it," the principal barks.
The boys dump the contents of the tarp. White ceramic chunks hit the stage with a clatter, making a cloud of dust. An intact toilet seat tumbles out, confirming my suspicions.
"This is what someone setting right here in this auditorium has done. Destroyed school property. Committed a crime with evil intent. How? By rigging a sophisticated round of cherry bombs to a ter-let in the boys' rest room in the West Wing."

A few nervous giggles escape the student body.
"This is no joke, people." Lurch searches the audience for the gigglers. Then he pauses. He pounds the podium. "Some unfortunate young man might have been sitting on that ter-let when it blew to high heaven. I ask you, what would have happened then?"
"Jesus," Spec says under his breath.
"Anybody actually injured?" I whisper.
Spec ignores me.
"I'm scared," a familiar deep voice says behind me.
"You should be," I whisper back. "The teacher's lounge is next."
"Dinner tonight? After the show?"
"I'd love to."

The deep voice, and now my date for the evening, is my best friend, the band and choral director of Powell Valley High School, Theodore Tipton, formerly of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Every once in a while the mines or the school will hire someone from the outside world. Inevitably, they move in and shake things up. Theodore brought our band back to life and simultaneously goosed the libidos of all the women in town. ("He's a humdinger," Iva Lou says with relish every time she sees him. "The man makes a pair of Levis sing.") Theodore also stars as Preacher Red Fox in the Outdoor Drama. We became friends when he auditioned nine years ago and I cast him on the first round. I had to. His face reading told me that he was loyal and true and fiercely protective. I knew if I cast him we would spend lots of time together, and we have. His face is square-shaped, with a defined jaw. He has a firm chin with a dimple in it. He can look strong, like an Irish pirate, or intellectual, like a preoccupied poet. He is tall, with blue eyes and a red beard. Even though all the available women in town chase him (and a few married ones, too), he spends all of his spare time with me. We're "feriners"óeven though I was born here, I'm considered a feriner because my mother was oneóbut that's just the start of what we have in common.

The principal wraps up the assembly with a couple more threats for the student body. If the guilty party doesn't fess up, he promises to suspend the smoking areas outside. This brings a groan from the students. The chaplain places a shoe box marked anonymous on the podium. Lurch tells the kids it will be placed in the gym so anyone with tips regarding the toilet incident can leave them in there. He dismisses the assembly. The student body rises. As the kids exit in an orderly fashion, most of them acknowledge Theodore. He is popular and respected, the perfect reputation for a teacher.

Only one student stops to speak to me: Pearl Grimes, fifteen years old, a sweet mountain girl with a weight problem. She often window-shops at the Mutual. I walk down the hall with my arm around her.

"My skin's done broke out agin." Pearl hangs her head sadly.
"I got something for that. Come by the Mutual and see me."
"All right." She shrugs. She doesn't believe me.
"Don't you know the more pimples you got now, the less wrinkles you'll have later?"
Finally, Pearl smiles. Her face, heart-shaped, with a high forehead, tells me that she is emotional yet fair. Her nose is small and turns up slightly. Her cheeks are full and roundóthe cheeks of a monarchówhich means she can handle power.
Pearl blends off into the sea of students. Theodore takes my arm.
"I'll walk you to your car."

"Sure."
"What's new?"
"I'm a bastard."
Theodore laughs, which gets me laughing too. "Did you bust a shoplifter or something?"
"No. I didn't behave like a bastard. I mean the literal definition."
"What?"

"I settled Mama's will today. She left me a letter. Fred Mulligan wasn't my father." Theodore is surprised but remains cool for my benefit. He knows everything about Fred Mulligan and me. When I shared all those stories, Theodore always got a look like he'd kill anyone who hurt me. This new information surprises him.

Theodore leads me out the front entrance to the car. Spec sits behind the wheel.
"Get in, Ave," Spec grumbles, lighting a cigarette. "That was a waste of my time."
"See you tonight," Theodore says as he closes the door. He touches my cheek. I look up to the second-floor science lab. Pearl Grimes stands in the window, watching us. From here, in the mellow afternoon light, she has a regal countenance, like a queen looking down on her subjects. I give her a quick wave good-bye. She smiles.


From the Audio Cassette edition.

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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

This will be a good weekend for reading. I picked up a dozen of Vernie Crabtree's killer chocolate chip cookies at the French Club bake sale yesterday. (I don't know what she puts in them, but they're chewy and crispy at the same time.) Those, a pot of coffee, and a good book are all I will need for the rainy weekend rolling in. It's early September in our mountains, so it's warm during the day, but tonight will bring a cool mist to remind us that fall is right around the corner.

The Wise County Bookmobile is the one of the most beautiful sights in the world to me. When I see it lumbering down the mountain road like a tank, then turning wide and easing onto Shawnee Avenue, I flag it down like an old friend. I've waited on this corner every Friday since I can remember. The Bookmobile is just a government truck, but to me it's a glittering royal coach delivering stories and knowledge and life itself. I even love the smell of books. People have often told me that one of their strongest childhood memories is the scent of their grandmother's house. I never knew my grandmothers, but I could always count on the Bookmobile.

The most important thing I ever learned, I learned from books. Books have taught me how to size people up. The most useful book I ever read taught me how to read faces, an ancient Chinese art called siang mien, in which the size of the eyes, curve of the lip, and height of the forehead are important clues to a person's character. The placement of ears indicates intelligence. Chins that stick out reflect stubbornness. Deep-set eyes suggest a secretive nature. Eyebrows that grow together may answer the question Could that man kill me with his bare hands? (He could.) Even dimples have meaning. I have them, and according to face reading, something wonderful is supposed to happen to me when I turn thirty-five. (It's been four months since my birthday, and I'm still waiting.)

If you were to read my face, you would find me a comfortable person with brown eyes, good teeth, nice lips, and a nose that folks, when they are being kind, refer to as noble. It's a large nose, but at least it's straight. My eyebrows are thick, which indicates a practical nature. (I'm a pharmacistóhow much more practical can you get?) I have a womanly shape, known around here as a mountain girl's body, strong legs, and a flat behind. Jackets cover it quite nicely.

This morning the idea of living in Big Stone Gap for the rest of my life gives me a nervous feeling. I stop breathing, as I do whenever I think too hard. Not breathing is very bad for you, so I inhale slowly and deeply. I taste coal dust. I don't mind; it assures me that we still have an economy. Our town was supposed to become the "Pittsburgh of the South" and the "Coal Mining Capital of Virginia." That never happened, so we are forever at the whims of the big coal companies. When they tell us the coal is running out in these mountains, who are we to doubt them?

It's pretty here. Around six o'clock at night everything turns a rich Crayola midnight blue. You will never smell greenery so pungent. The Gap definitely has its romantic qualities. Even the train whistles are musical, sweet oboes in the dark. The place can fill you with longing.

The Bookmobile is at the stoplight. The librarian and driver is a good-time gal named Iva Lou Wade. She's in her forties, but she's yet to place the flag on her sexual peak. She's got being a woman down. If you painted her, she'd be sitting on a pink cloud with gold-leaf edges, showing a lot of leg. Her perfume is so loud that when I visit the Bookmobile, I wind up smelling like her for the bulk of the day. (It's a good thing I like Coty's Emeraude.) My father used to say that that's how a woman ought to be. "A man should know when there's a woman in the room. When Iva Lou comes in, there ain't no doubt." I'd just say nothing and roll my eyes.

Iva Lou's having a tough time parking. A mail truck has parked funny in front of the post office, taking up her usual spot, so she motions to me that she's pulling into the gas station. That's fine with the owner, Kent Vanhook. He likes Iva Lou a lot. What man doesn't? She pays real nice attention to each and every one. She examines men like eggs, perfect specimens created by God to nourish. And she hasn't met a man yet who doesn't appreciate it. Luring a man is a true talent, like playing the piano by ear. Not all of us are born prodigies, but women like Iva Lou have made it an art form.

The Bookmobile doors open with a whoosh. I can't believe what Iva Lou's wearing: Her ice-blue turtleneck is so tight it looks like she's wearing her bra on the outside. Her Mondrian-patterned pants, with squares of pale blue, yellow, and green, cling to her thighs like crisscross ribbons. Even sitting, Iva Lou has an unbelievable shape. But I wonder how much of it has to do with all the cinching. Could it be that her parts are so well-hoisted and suspended, she has transformed her real figure into a soft hourglass? Her face is childlike, with a small chin, big blue eyes, and a rosebud mouth. Her eyeteeth snaggle out over her front teeth, but on her they're demure. Her blond hair is like yellow Easter straw, arranged in an upsweep you can see through the set curls. She wears lots of Sarah Coventry jewelry, because she sells it on the side.

"I'll trade you. Shampoo for a best-seller." I give Iva Lou a sack of shampoo samples from my pharmacy, Mulligan's Mutual.

"You got a deal." Iva Lou grabs the sack and starts sorting through the samples. She indicates the shelf of new arrivals. "Ave Maria, honey, you have got to read The Captains and the Kings that just came out. I know you don't like historicals, but this one's got sex."

"How much more romance can you handle, Iva Lou? You've got half the men in Big Stone Gap tied up in knots."

She snickers. "Half? Oh well, I'm-a gonna take that as a compliment-o anyway." I'm half Italian, so Iva Lou insists on ending her words with vowels. I taught her some key phrases in Italian in case international romance was to present itself. It wasn't very funny when Iva Lou tried them out on my mother one day. I sure got in some Big Trouble over that.

Iva Lou has a goal. She wants to make love to an Italian man, so she can decide if they are indeed the world's greatest lovers. "Eye-talian men are my Matta-horn, honey," she declares. Too bad there aren't any in these parts. The people around here are mainly Scotch-Irish, or Melungeon (folks who are a mix of Turkish, French, African, Indian, and who knows what; they live up in the mountain hollers and stick to themselves). Zackie Wakin, owner of the town department store, is Lebanese. My mother and I were the only Italians; and then about five years ago we acquired one Jew, Lewis Eisenberg, a lawyer from Woodbury, New York.

"You always sit in the third snap stool. How come?" Iva Lou asks, not looking up as she flips through a new coffee-table book about travel photography.

"I like threes."

"Sweetie-o, let me tell you something." Iva Lou gets a faraway, mystical twinkle in her eye. Then her voice lowers to a throaty, sexy register. "When I get to blow this coal yard, and have my big adventure, I sure as hell won't waste my time taking pictures of the Circus Maximus. I am not interested in rocks 'n' ruins. I want to experience me some flesh and blood. Some magnificent, broad-shouldered hunk of a European man. Forget the points of interest, point me toward the men. Marble don't hug back, baby." Then she breathes deeply, "Whoo."

Iva Lou fixes herself a cup of Sanka and laughs. She's one of those people who are forever cracking themselves up. She always offers me a cup, and I always decline. I know that her one spare clean Styrofoam cup could be her entree to a romantic rendezvous. Why waste it on me?

"I found you that book on wills you wanted. And here's the only one I could find on grief." Iva Lou holds up As Grief Exits as though she's modeling it. The pretty cover has rococo cherubs and clouds on it. The angels' smiles are instantly comforting. "How you been getting along?" I look at Iva Lou's face. Her innocent expression is just like the cherub's. She really wants to know how I am.

My mother died on August 2, 1978, exactly one month ago today. It was the worst day of my life. She had breast cancer. I never thought cancer would get both of my parents, but it did. Mama was fifty-two years old, which suddenly seems awfully young to me. She was only seventeen when she came to America. My father taught her English, but she always spoke with a thick accent. One of the things I miss most about her is the sound of her voice. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can hear her.



Copyright 2000 by Adriana Trigiani

Read More Show Less

Foreword

1. Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion


Why do you think the author set Big Stone Gap during the late 1970s instead of today?

2. The coal mines are the site of danger and oppressiveness, while the caverns Ave Maria and Theodore visit reveal the beauty hidden deep in the earth. How does this dichotomy reflect Ave Maria?s inner world during her yearlong crisis?

3. As the novel progresses and Ave Maria learns more about herself and her past, her feelings for Big Stone Gap change from contentment to disassociation to joy. Have your feelings for your hometown changed as you?ve changed? How?

4. Ave Maria refers to herself as a ?ferriner,? but when she visits Italy she realizes that her home is in Big Stone Gap. What other works have you read in which the hero or heroine must travel to find his or her home in the world?

5. Ave Maria?s description of some events, such as kissing Theodore after the Drama and Jack Mac?s reaction to her gratitude for bringing over her Italian family, differs from other people?s perspectives. Do you believe Ave Maria?s interpretations? Why or why not?

6. Theodore and Ave Maria have romantic feelings for each other, but never at the same time. If their feelings had been more coordinated, do you think they would have entered a lasting marriage? Do you think their ?best friend? relationship will endure after Ave Maria and Jack Mac?s wedding?

7. When did you suspect that Ave Maria would fall in love with Jack Mac? What were the clues that the author left?

8. Jack Mac tells Ave Maria, ?Stop thinking.? Is Jack Mac correct? Does too much thinking lead Ave Mariainto making the wrong choices? Are her emotions a trustier guide or equally unreliable?

9. A common theme in literature is that the heroine (e.g., Snow White, Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Nancy Drew) must lose a parent or parents before she is free to discover who she really is. Is this merely a literary convention or does it have roots in real life? Does it apply to male characters as well? How much significance does Mrs. Mac?s death have to Jack Mac?s personal development?

10. Ave Maria feels relief and not much surprise when she learns Fred Mulligan is not her father, and later she recognizes aspects of herself in Mario. Though Fred is not her blood kin, what traits did he pass on to Ave Maria while he raised her? How much of Ave Maria?s personality was shaped by nature and how much by nurture?

11. When describing her friend Iva Lou, the majorette Tayloe, and Sweet Sue, Ave Maria focuses on the power of beauty and desirability, but she also cautions Pearl that beauty fades while character endures. How does Pearl synthesize the importance of character with the force of beauty?

12. Both Ave Maria and Worley discover their fathers aren?t who they thought they were, but Worley learns of his true parentage when his father is still alive. Do you think Ave Maria?s expectations of love and marriage would have been affected if she had learned the truth about Mario before her mother died? How?

13. Ave Maria is named for the mysterious woman who took Ave Maria?s mother under her wing. Do you see another meaning in Ave Maria?s name? Does it tie in with her developing belief in destiny and faith?

14. Big Cherry Holler, Adriana Trigiani?s next novel about the people of Big Stone Gap, jumps forward eight years into Ave Maria and Jack Mac?s marriage. Knowing these two characters as you do, do you expect the path of true to love run smooth for them? What quirks do Ave Maria and Jack Mac bring to the relationship that could cause bumps or, conversely, even out the way?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the tiny town of Big Stone Gap is home to some of the most charming eccentrics in the state. Ave Maria Mulligan is the town's self-proclaimed spinster, a thirty-five year old pharmacist with a "mountain girl's body and a flat behind." She lives an amiable life with good friends and lots of hobbies until the fateful day in 1978 when she suddenly discovers that she's not who she always thought she was. Before she can blink, Ave's fielding marriage proposals, fighting off greedy family members, organizing a celebration for visiting celebrities, and planning the trip of a lifetime—a trip that could change her view of the world and her own place in it forever. Brimming with humor and wise notions of small-town life, Big Stone Gap is a gem of a book with a giant heart. . . .

From the Trade Paperback edition.

1. Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion

Why do you think the author set Big Stone Gap during the late 1970s instead of today?

2. The coal mines are the site of danger and oppressiveness, while the caverns Ave Maria and Theodore visit reveal the beauty hidden deep in the earth. How does this dichotomy reflect Ave Maria's inner world during her yearlong crisis?

3. As the novel progresses and Ave Maria learns more about herself and her past, her feelings for Big Stone Gap change from contentment to disassociation to joy. Have your feelings for your hometown changed as you've changed? How?

4. Ave Maria refers to herself as a 'ferriner,' but when she visits Italy she realizes that her home is in Big Stone Gap. What other works have you read in which the hero or heroine musttravel to find his or her home in the world?

5. Ave Maria's description of some events, such as kissing Theodore after the Drama and Jack Mac's reaction to her gratitude for bringing over her Italian family, differs from other people's perspectives. Do you believe Ave Maria's interpretations? Why or why not?

6. Theodore and Ave Maria have romantic feelings for each other, but never at the same time. If their feelings had been more coordinated, do you think they would have entered a lasting marriage? Do you think their 'best friend' relationship will endure after Ave Maria and Jack Mac's wedding?

7. When did you suspect that Ave Maria would fall in love with Jack Mac? What were the clues that the author left?

8. Jack Mac tells Ave Maria, 'Stop thinking.' Is Jack Mac correct? Does too much thinking lead Ave Maria into making the wrong choices? Are her emotions a trustier guide or equally unreliable?

9. A common theme in literature is that the heroine (e.g., Snow White, Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Nancy Drew) must lose a parent or parents before she is free to discover who she really is. Is this merely a literary convention or does it have roots in real life? Does it apply to male characters as well? How much significance does Mrs. Mac's death have to Jack Mac's personal development?

10. Ave Maria feels relief and not much surprise when she learns Fred Mulligan is not her father, and later she recognizes aspects of herself in Mario. Though Fred is not her blood kin, what traits did he pass on to Ave Maria while he raised her? How much of Ave Maria's personality was shaped by nature and how much by nurture?

11. When describing her friend Iva Lou, the majorette Tayloe, and Sweet Sue, Ave Maria focuses on the power of beauty and desirability, but she also cautions Pearl that beauty fades while character endures. How does Pearl synthesize the importance of character with the force of beauty?

12. Both Ave Maria and Worley discover their fathers aren't who they thought they were, but Worley learns of his true parentage when his father is still alive. Do you think Ave Maria's expectations of love and marriage would have been affected if she had learned the truth about Mario before her mother died? How?

13. Ave Maria is named for the mysterious woman who took Ave Maria's mother under her wing. Do you see another meaning in Ave Maria's name? Does it tie in with her developing belief in destiny and faith?

14. Big Cherry Holler, Adriana Trigiani's next novel about the people of Big Stone Gap, jumps forward eight years into Ave Maria and Jack Mac's marriage. Knowing these two characters as you do, do you expect the path of true to love run smooth for them? What quirks do Ave Maria and Jack Mac bring to the relationship that could cause bumps or, conversely, even out the way?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 166 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(79)

4 Star

(46)

3 Star

(22)

2 Star

(10)

1 Star

(9)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 166 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 8, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    It was good enough to finish, but far from fabulous.

    I thought this book was okay, but it definitely is not great. The plot was predictable most of the time, except for the places where it was just weird. The twists were never clever, but mostly strange. I didn't like the characters at all. Sure they were different, and a few were possible to relate to, but for the most part it felt like she was trying to hard too create quirky characters and in the end she made a bunch of crazy, unrealistic people. And the romance? Awkward. Even though Trigiani was setting it up through the whole book, it felt weird. I kept hoping for someone new to come along and steal Ave Maria's heart so that she wouldn't be with Jack. All in all, not great. The best thing that I can say for this book is that I was able to finish it.

    13 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2006

    Not so impressed

    The 'plot twists and turns' were absurd and did not relate to REAL life. I found many of them to be completely ridiculous and annoying and ruined the story. It was an okay book, but not anything to knock your socks off or write home about.

    9 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2012

    A classic of introspection that exposes the subtle influences of

    A classic of introspection that exposes the subtle influences of one's upbringing. Easy-flowing 1st person narrative that sometimes broke my heart while inviting me to consider my own life: my relationship with my father, my husband, my daughter, my life as a single. Secrets intended to spare those we love, secrets kept out of shame, and the healing power of truth and honesty are the underlying themes.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2013

    Recommended but not highly

    Story of an unmarried lady in a Southern Virginia town who eventually works through her background and foreground problems. This seems to have cleared the air to allow her to love a friend of 30 years.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2012

    Great!

    This book was very good. The plot was interesting which made me just want to keep reading! I cant wait to read the other books!

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2010

    One of my favorite books

    I have reread this book at least three times. It is like an old friend that you love to visit from time to time. This book is funny yet poignant. Adriana Trignani really knows how to convey feelings through her prose.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2009

    wonderful book

    I loved this book. One really feels they know the characters and can relate to them.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2008

    First time reading her work - LOVED IT.

    I never read any of her books this was my first. My friend gave me a author signed copy from a luncheon I missed her speaking at. After the first chapter I was hooked. When I finished the book I couldn't wait to get the next one in the series. Hopefully, she will continue writing about this town and the people it in it!

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2007

    Held my interest

    It took me a little while to get into this book for some reason, but I eventually found myself really hooked to each character and situation. The southern dialect did annoy me at some parts, but it really just made a better impression of how the characters lived. Ave Maria is a great character that stands up for herself and knows how to take a chance. This is a really good book.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2013

    Help

    How do u delete a book from ur library?

    2 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2000

    I want to move to Big Stone Gap, VA!

    Big Stone Gap is a close knit town, where all the players are familiar with each other. The narator, Ave Maria, feels as though she is a plain woman, who does not stand out in the town - the town spinster. Throughout the novel, Ave Maria, and the reader, come to learn what effect she has on the other town members. She learns how significant she actually is. This is a heartwarming read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys a beautifully written story, and likes to read about wacky small town characters.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2013

    Not for me

    This just didn't do it for me. Didn't really like the characters in the story that seemed to drag on about nothing. Unfortunatly I bought the 2 other sequels. Will NOT be reading them.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2013

    Witty and insightful

    This is my first Adriana Trigiani book and it won't be my last! I laughed at the wry, witty social observations of small town life, spoken with a bit of self deprication. I cried at the hard learned lessons of love, family and self. It is engaging from start to finish. Big Stone Gap is a heartfelt glimpse into small town USA. I'm glad I had the chance to visit.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2013

    The first book I read by Adriana. Great read!

    This novel was beautifully written and heartwarming. The characters were well-developed and realistic. I was skeptical when my Mom encouraged me to put down my mystery novels and read this book. I thought I would be bored and would not complete it, but that certainly was not the case. I flew through this novel and read the other 2 in the set as well. Ms. Trigiani is an amazing writer with the ability to make the reader cry and laugh all within the same paragraph. I was completely impressed with the details regarding location descriptions, as well.

    Do not miss out on this wonderful novel. Ms. Trigiani is a breathe of fresh air...and if you get the chance to see her in person, it is a real treat!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 22, 2012

    Fat woman's pity party. Nothing interesting about the main chara

    Fat woman's pity party. Nothing interesting about the main character, Ave Maria, just spite and bitterness.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2012

    Good

    But predictable

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2011

    Fabulous Book, Fabulous Series!

    A must-read for married women in their mid-life or those who want to understand us!! Love her writing style and her character development. AWESOME!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 16, 2009

    Talented Trigiani

    I found this book on a whim and I just requested all of Trigiani's books from my library after I finished it today. I absolutely love the quaint characters and their town. Ave Maria's character is so real. You can really relate to her, especially in the area of not appreciating all of your blessings that have been in front of you all along. I had to hold my hand over my mouth while my kids were napping because I was laughing so hard at certain passages!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2006

    Wonderfully warm...

    I love this book. It pulled me in right from the start. The characters are comfortable and familiar, and the story has restored my faith in good old-fashioned romance. I just started Big Cherry Holler, and it seems promising.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2003

    The Big Stone Gap Pulls You In!

    Adrianna Triganni weaves a wonderful story with realistic characters. I found myself an onlooker in the lives of the small town. I have read the two sequels- and enjoyed them all! The light, realistic stories are a pleasure to read.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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