Children's Literature - Dawna Lisa Buchanan
Lydia Hawkins is growing up poor in Appalachia (West Virginia) in 1953. Her dad and little brother are dead, her mother is in jail, and she is living with an aunt and uncle who have not had children before and are awkward at understanding her emotions. Told in Lydia's dialect, readers learn that her father, while hard working and kind when he was sober, could be mean when he was drinking. We discover that her beloved little brother had cystic fibrosis and the only way the family could afford treatment was to allow him to enter a "research" program. There is trouble when the mother learns that she has signed away all her rights to decisions regarding her son's medical treatment and "steals" him from the hospital to bring him home to die. She is arrested for murder. During the course of the story we learn some important secrets. The uncle's first wife died giving birth to Lydia, who was then adopted by the mother she grew up with and loved. The uncle's second wife has no idea of the connection. A female lawyer wins the case to free Lydia's mother who is reunited with her daughter. The story is engaging, full of round characters and the rich language of Appalachia. The historical aspects will hold interest for readers, as will the social justice issue of prejudice against people who do not speak "standard" English. Good for independent reading, but also offers potential for lively discussion in classrooms. Reviewer: Dawna Lisa Buchanan
School Library Journal
Gr 5–7—"Child killer's daughter." Ever since her mother's incarceration after the death of her younger brother, Lydia has had to face the ridicule and disdain of classmates and neighbors in her small West Virginia town. Sent to live with her flighty aunt and taciturn uncle, the sixth grader misses her mother and brother, who died from cystic fibrosis, and wants to clear her mother's name. But how? Lydia's regionally accurate and spirited voice tells the story of her family's joys and pain through flashbacks of warm scenes with her mother and brother that contrast with her present life with her aunt and uncle. The slow unraveling of the story makes this affecting novel compelling; the final revelations of the accusations against Lydia's mother are particularly heartbreaking. The cold, clinical, and condescending treatment of hospitalized children and their families in the 1950s is accurately portrayed. Christianity is important to this family, and, depending on the characters, it is represented as sometimes stern and sometimes loving. A surprise twist feels sudden, but believable for the times. Some historical facts and courtroom terms are not incorporated smoothly, which slows the fluidity of the story. An author's note provides relevant West Virginia history. Despite some rough edges, this is a sensitive novel about a smart, authentic, proud, and appealing Appalachian girl on the cusp of maturity.—Jennifer Schultz, Fauquier County Public Library, Warrenton, VA
VOYA - Dianna Geers
Lydia lost her grandmother, her little brother, and then her mother. Death was the reason for the first two losses, but the loss of her mother was due to the legal system that failed her family. Lydia knows her mother did not murder her little brother, BJ, yet she is powerless to do anything about that. Now being raised by her aunt and uncle, Lydia has also lost her home. At her new school, Lydia faces ridicule from her peers, but her teacher, Mr. Hinkle, sees beauty in her writing and brings in his fiance, Miss Parker, to meet her. Miss Parker may be able to help Lydia. Although the dialect in this story may be distracting at first, it does not take long to fall into the rhythmic pattern. The author used her love and expertise for her native dialect to craft this book that transports readers into the remote Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. As the story moves forward, the deeply-layered plot is revealed through engrossing back story. This debut novel is written in such a way that as it is read, readers will be so engrossed in well-developed characters and intrigue that they may forget that Child of the Mountains is historical fiction. This book will be a welcome read for adolescents who like stories about struggling characters who show resilience. Reviewer: Dianna Geers
While hoping for her jailed, single mother's appeal in 1953, an Appalachian Mountain girl from West Virginia finds her identity in this promising debut. "My mama's in jail. It ain't right. Leastwise, I don't think so," begins sixth-grader Lydia's spiral notebook, bought to help her sort through recent, tragic events. Her first-person narration, which unfolds in pitch-perfect, regional dialect, alternates present and past. In the former, she lives with her particular aunt and uncle and deals with the bullies at school who call her mother a murderer. In the past, she reveals that her little brother, BJ, has "Sissy Fie Broke It" and recounts both BJ's special treatments at a research hospital (which claims all rights to him) in Ohio and the family's decision to "kidnap" BJ to let him die from his cystic fibrosis at home. Complicating Lydia's already-stressful life are her passage into womanhood and a family secret about her relationship with the mother she's fighting to free. Her story occasionally makes a didactic dip, especially when relating court terminology and commenting on segregation of the time. Nevertheless, Lydia's comparisons to spunky Anne of Green Gables, unwavering faith, strong family ties and growing appreciation of her Appalachian heritage will secure middle-grade readers. For fans of Ruth White's and Kerry Madden's Appalachian-inspired fiction. (map, author's note) (Historical fiction. 9- 12)
Read an Excerpt
It’s about my problem.
Wednesday, October 28, 1953
My mama’s in jail. It ain’t right. Leastwise, I don’t think so. Them folks that put her there just don’t understand our family. My mama’s the best mama in the whole wide world. Everbody used to say so afore the awful stuff happened. Even Uncle William. And he don’t say much nice about nobody.
I got to get her out. But how? Even when they’s wrong, once grown-ups make up their minds about something, a kid like me don’t stand much of a chance of changing it. Poor Mama. I know she hates being caged up like a rabbit, and it’s all my fault.
I feel like my heart done shattered in tiny pieces, like Gran’s vase that me and BJ broke playing tag one time. And I ain’t got nobody to help me put them pieces back together.
That’s why I stopped by the company store after school yesterday and bought me the biggest spiral notebook they had. Maybe writing everthing down will help me sort it all out.
“Lydia, when you came to be, you was my only star in a dark, dark sky,” Mama always said. When I lived in Paradise, Mama and Gran always made me and BJ both feel like we was right special to them.
But sometimes a body can feel all alone, even when other people live in the same house. That’s how I feel living with Uncle William and Aunt Ethel Mae here in Confidence, West Virginia. They be nice enough people, but they ain’t got nary a clue about what to do with me.
The bad stuff commenced like this: My brother, BJ, was borned awful sick, but we didn’t know it at first. When Mama birthed me, Gran said I didn’t cause Mama no trouble at all. Daddy was at work, so Gran hollered to a neighbor across the road that I was a-coming soon. The neighbor got in his car and went to fetch old Doc Smythson.
When Doc Smythson comed to help Mama, Gran told him she could manage things just fine, but he said he would be awful obliged iffen she let him help because it was his doctoring duty. So Gran figured it would be okay. But Gran told me that she really done most of the work, after Mama, of course. Gran midwifed most of the women around these parts. She fixed Mama blue cohosh tea to sip and tickled her nose with a feather.
Gran said, “When your mama sneezed, you whizzed out of her like a pellet from a shotgun. All Doc Smythson had to do was hold out his hands to catch you.” Gran shook her head. “Ain’t like you have to go to some fancy school to learn how to do that!”
But things sure turned out different with BJ. I recollect the whole thing. I was four years old at the time. Gramps and Daddy lived in Heaven by then. Me and Mama and Gran lived in Gramps’ cabin all by ourselves.
When BJ was about to come, Mama started bleeding real bad, and she screamed like a hound dog a-howling at the moon. Nothing Gran mixed from her herb bottles helped none. Gran sent me running to the neighbors’ house to have them find Doc Smythson.
Doc took one look at Mama and told Gran he had to fetch her to the hospital in Charleston straight away. But we didn’t have no ambulance close by where we lived. Sometimes the men from the funeral home took folks to the hospital in their hearse. But they couldn’t get to our house soon enough for my mama, tucked way back up in the mountains as we are.
So Gran wrapped Mama up in blankets, and Doc carried her like a sack of taters to his jeep. Her eyes was closed like she was asleep. I cried out to her, “Take me with you, Mama! Take me with you!”
She opened her eyes just a little and looked at me. Her lips said, “I love you,” but no sound come out at all. Doc sped off with her to the big hospital in Charleston.
Tears commenced to roll down my cheeks when I watched them drive away. Gran smoothed the hair back from my face with her hands, rough as a cat’s tongue. “Your mama needs us to stay here and look after things for her, pumpkin,” she said.
When me and Gran went back inside, Gran pulled Mama’s bloody sheets offen the bed and took them to the washtub. I couldn’t bear to watch the water take Mama’s blood away, thinking that was all I had left of her. So I runned under the kitchen table and curled up like a woolly worm that somebody poked with a stick.
After Gran got done a-scrubbing and a-hanging out the sheets to dry, she leaned under the table and took my hand. “Come on, child,” she said. “Your mama needs us to be strong for her. Besides, I ain’t got the bones for bending down like this. You ain’t helping your mama none by hiding under the table. Let’s fix up the cabin all nice for her and the baby to come home to.” I crawled out, and Gran handed me a little broom Daddy made for me afore he died.
I got myself busy sweeping the floors ever day Mama stayed at the hospital. Gran said, “Lydia, I declare, you’re going to wear holes in the floor clean through to Chiny iffen you keep that up.” But I wanted them floors to be spanking clean for my mama.
Mama finally comed back and brought my new baby brother with her. Gran folded up a blanket and laid it in a dresser drawer on Mama’s bed for him to sleep in. It made me think of Baby Jesus in the manger to see him lying there all cozied up.
Mama named my brother Benjamin for my grandpa on Daddy’s side and James for my gramps on Mama’s side. But he looked just too little to be Benjamin James. I wanted to call him Ben Jim, but Gran said, “Mercy, pumpkin, that sounds more like the name of a tonic than a fitting name for a boy. I can hear it on the radio now. ‘Ben Jim heals your soul and heart, mends your body and makes you smart, keeps you strong and cures the farts.’ ”
So we took to calling him BJ instead.
BJ looked as cute as a speckled steamboat on a spotted river, as Gran used to say, even iffen he was as skinny as a straight pin. He had big blue eyes the color of our pond when it froze over. Them eyes looked clean through you, right inside to your very soul. His hair was the color of a ripe ear of corn. I used to hold him on my lap and tell him stories--about our daddy, about living up here on the mountain, and about how much we all loved him. He’d look at me and grin, and this little dimple would creep up like an extra smile.
Sometimes I’d think he sure lucked out being that cute. All I got was plain brown hair, plain brown eyes, and a plain face. And a bunch of awful freckles. I asked Mama, “How come I didn’t get blue eyes like BJ?” She said, “You got soft, gentle doe eyes instead, Lydia. Eyes just like your heart.” I felt better after that.
BJ was so tiny he made me come to think of Tom Thumb--a story Gran used to tell me about a little boy the size of his daddy’s thumb. BJ mewed like one of our old cat Hessie’s kittens when he wanted a drink from Mama’s breast. His sucking sounded like purring almost. Sometimes I wished that I could curl up with Mama like that--all safe and warm. But I thought I was too big because Mama was so weak. Feeding BJ seemed about all she could manage. So I didn’t ask. Besides, I had to help Gran with the cooking and other chores. I didn’t mind so much. I pretended I was all growed up and a real important person.
One day while Mama slept, Gran let me hold BJ for the very first time. I had to sit in the rocking chair and be real careful. His neck still flopped about like my rag doll. I curled my arm around him when Gran laid him in my lap. He didn’t weigh much more than a mess of green beans. I looked down at his big eyes, and he looked up at me. “Looky there,” Gran said. “He’s a-smiling at you.”
I smiled back at him. I knew right then and there that I was somebody special to my baby brother. “I will always take good care of you, BJ,” I promised in a whisper only he could hear. “Always and forever. I won’t let nothing bad happen to my BJ.”
I tried real hard to keep that promise, but I couldn’t. Gran always reminded us when something bad happened that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. The rain that Gran talked about sure poured down mighty hard on our family.