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In 1958, Mendy puts herself in danger when she discovers that the Ku Klux Klan is planning to bomb the Highlander Folk School in order to disrupt a visit from Mendy's hero, Eleanor Roosevelt.
MENDY'S TAJ MAHAL
Mendy rode hard, her horse's mane flying in the wind, the sting of the air upon her cheeks. Zoom, boom, crash. The sounds echoed as horse and rider thundered through the thick forest. Branches snapped, leaves quivered overhead, and the lush-leafed forest yielded to their stampede as twelve-year-old Mendy Thompson rode to her secret hideout.
"Whoa, boy. Whoa," Mendy said when they reached the edge of the clearing. She dismounted her make-believe horse, then bent over and placed her hands on her knees to catch her breath. There was no getting around it—Mendy loved racing through the woods, her heart pumping furiously, the blur of greens, yellows, and browns passing by her like a moving picture.
Mendy breathed deeply. The smell of pine and honeysuckle filled her nose. She took a few more deep breaths and then strolled to the center of the clearing.
There Mendy stood still, her hands on her hips, and surveyed the entire expanse of her land. She was tall, lean, and fierce. A smile quickly embraced her oval, pecan-colored face. There was no doubt in her mind that this forest—and especially this clearing—was the most beautiful place in the whole wide world. There was no place like Mendy's secret clearing.
Well, if the truth were told, this was her land only in her mind. But according to her grandma, all of Tennessee was hers.
Middle Tennessee had been home to a long line of Thompsons. And just like her grandparents before her, Mendy loved its virgin hardwood forests, hills rich with coal, and mineral-laden fields; she loved the nearby town of Cowan, which lay snug in the valley of the Cumberland Plateau. And now, here in this clearing, Mendy had her own piece of land staked out. Like the Chickasaw and Cherokee Indians before her, Mendy felt at home on this land, fair and square.
Just then, Mendy spotted Mr. Hare hopping into the clearing. "Hello, little friend," she said, kneeling in the cool grass and holding out her hand. The furry brown cotton-tail bounded to her, and Mendy picked him up. She hugged him and cuddled him to her cheek. Then she tickled his plump tummy, making his paws curl under and his ears wiggle. He looked so funny that she laughed.
As she settled Mr. Hare in her arms, she remembered the day, only a few months before, when she'd saved him from a hunter's trap—her own father's trap, in fact. Now Mr. Hare was healthy and tame. Yes, Mendy thought proudly, when she grew up she would be a "life-giver," just like her grandma had been. Life-giver—that's what the old folks called midwives, the women who helped birth babies and had healing in their hands. Everyone knew that the hands of Mendy's grandma, Lucy Thompson, had burned with healing.
Mendy was glad neither Mama nor Daddy knew where Mr. Hare was now, though. Until recently, Mr. Hare had lived at home with Mendy and even slept in bed with her at night. But then, against Mendy's loud and adamant protest, her daddy told her to let him go free. He said Mendy ought to let Mr. Hare live wild as he was meant to. Mendy was supposed to take him to the woods at the edge of their property, where the locust trees stood, and send him away. But she feared hunters might shoot him, so she had brought him here.
No one hunted in these woods—in fact, no one came here at all, as far as Mendy knew— because mean old Mr. Connor owned the land, and he didn't want anyone on it. That made it the safest place Mendy could think of for Mr. Hare. Everyone knew old Mr. Connor never came out to these woods anymore.
And when she brought Mr. Hare out here that first time, Mendy had discovered the most wonderful, exciting surprise—this clearing right in the center of Mr. Connor's woods. The spot was nestled so deep in the forest that no one could see it from the road. A stream ran near it and caves dotted the surrounding land, making the whole place the perfect hideaway. Since that day the clearing had been Mendy's own secret place. She named it after the Taj Mahal, a glorious marble palace in India. She'd only told one other person about the clearing—her best friend, Jeffrey. Well, at least she hoped he was her best friend. Mendy wasn't so sure about Jeffrey lately.
Mendy sat down on the tree stump near the center of the clearing and stroked Mr. Hare's soft fur. They watched the shadows lengthen as the sun lowered itself to sleep on the other side of the mountain ridge. Mendy felt safe and protected in the cool stillness of the Taj Mahal. Finally, Mr. Hare broke Mendy's spell by jumping down and scooting off to nibble at a clump of purple wildflowers.
Mendy sighed. It was time to go home anyway.
Mendy scooped Mr. Hare into her arms again. "I'll see you tomorrow, just like always. Now be good, you hear?" Mr. Hare purred loudly. She set the rabbit down and patted his head.
"And don't leave the Taj Mahal. It ain't safe in the other parts of this forest."
A hoot owl sounded in the distance, and Mendy reluctantly rose to go. She hated the dusky dark that forced her to head home. With seven kids in the family, there were usually way too many people in their three-bedroom house. Yet now that all her brothers and sisters except Li'l Ben were gone for the summer, the house seemed too empty, and Mama was after her all the time.
Mendy took a few steps toward the edge of the clearing, but Mr. Hare hopped behind her. She whipped around and said loudly, "Stay." Mr. Hare hopped closer. Mendy shook her head at him. She took a few more steps and turned around. Mr. Hare was still at her heels. "Didn't I tell you to stay in the Taj Mahal? Come on," Mendy said, picking up the rabbit by the scruff of his neck. She marched back to the purple flowers. "Stay, now. Don't follow me," Mendy said. "I mean it. Stay." She smiled as Mr. Hare began to nibble the flowers again. Good. It had taken her forever to teach him to stay in the Taj Mahal. Even now, he could be so hardheaded sometimes.
Mendy left the clearing, glancing back only once to see if Mr. Hare was following. He wasn't. Mendy continued down the forest path, wondering if Mama would be mad at her for staying out so long. Then she felt something cold and hard under her bare foot. What on earth was that?
Mendy knelt down to look. Suppose she'd found something valuable, like diamonds? Didn't diamonds come from coal? This was coal country, after all. Mendy used a stick to push the forest litter away. When she saw what lay exposed, her breath caught in her throat. It was a burnt cigar, one end dark and mushy-looking, and a plain dime-store lighter. Mendy stabbed at the cigar with a finger to see if the end was as wet as it looked, Yuck—it was damp, and it smelled awful.
Mendy stood up and quickly checked the nearby woods for other signs of a trespasser, but she spotted nothing unusual. Still, she knew now that someone had been in the Taj Mahal—and suddenly she realized that whoever it was might be coming back. The thought settled on her mind for only a second before she took off running from the woods.
When Mendy sneaked into the house, it was quiet. Usually this time of evening, Mendy's seventeen-year-old sister Clara would be setting the table. Tonight, the kitchen was empty. The older kids—John, Clara, and Morris—had all gone to pick peaches in Georgia with Uncle Phillip, and the eleven-year-old twins, Lilly and Sam, were off staying with Aunt Beulah in Chattanooga so they could go to Bible school.
Mendy opened a cabinet door, careful not to make any noise, and chose a drinking glass. She was sipping the last bit of water and thinking about the ugly, mushy-topped cigar when Mama walked into the kitchen, tying on her apron.
"Where have you been, girl?" Mama demanded. "You been gone for hours. Li'l Ben and I already ate. If Morris was home, I would have sent him looking for you."
A frown sprang up on Mendy's face. She didn't want to tell Mama where she'd been. She was lucky her fifteen-year-old brother Morris wasn't home, because he surely would have blabbed if he'd found her in Mr. Connor's woods; the boy thought he was the smartest person on the planet, but his real claim to fame was being a tattle-tale. Mendy didn't answer Mama's question. Instead, she let the empty glass slip from her fingers and crash to the floor. Shards of crystal blue flowers flew across the room.
Mendy's five-year-old brother raced into the kitchen. "Li'l Ben!" Mama yelled. "Stop right there!" Then she looked at Mendy. "What on earth has gotten into you? Why did you drop that glass like that?"
"It slipped out of my hand," Mendy responded quickly as she knelt to pick up the pieces. The glass had been one of Mama's favorites, but breaking it was Mendy's only out.
Mama shook her head. "Get up and go to the living room," she said. "I'll pick it up. Go on, and take Li'l Ben with you."
Mendy took Li'l Ben's hand and led him out of the room, careful to avoid the broken glass.
"You're squeezing my hand too tight," Li'l Ben said.
"Stop whining," Mendy answered. She took him to the couch. "Sit here and I'll read to you." She switched on the lamp and handed him a Bible storybook.
"You in trouble," Li'l Ben said, poking out his lips. "Mama say she gon' tie you to her apron."
"So?" Mendy hissed. "It's none of your business." Usually the other kids took care of Ben.
Before Mendy had even gotten settled on the couch next to him, Mama marched into the living room. "Get washed for supper, Mendy. And you're still gonna practice the piano before you go to bed."
Mendy headed down the hall and slammed the bathroom door. She heard Mama's warning voice calling, "You better not slam that door again," but Mendy ignored her.
It wasn't fair. Mama wanted her to practice the piano all summer so she'd be good enough to play for church. Once Mama had realized that Mendy could play by ear, none of the other kids was forced to practice. Mama just focused on Mendy. Because of Mendy's dumb old musical talent, the piano was no longer fun. It was a chore, like gathering up kindling for the fire, shucking corn, or hoeing the vegetable garden. Mendy hated that Mama was so religious. All Mama thought about was church, church, and church. Why couldn't Mendy have gone away with the other kids?
At the dinner table, Mendy was very quiet. She wished Daddy were home so she'd have someone to talk to. But Daddy was away working. It was times like these, when Mendy was alone with Mama, that she missed Grandma the most. It didn't seem like a year had passed since Grandma died and left them. Now there was no one to take up for Mendy if Daddy wasn't home.
Mendy picked at the food on her plate and watched Mama clean up the supper dishes. Li'l Ben had been put to bed. With each stab of her fork, Mendy thought about the cigar and who had left it so close to the Taj Mahal. Had Jeb Connor come out to check his property? No, that cigar could have set the woods on fire; Mr. Connor wouldn't be that careless with his own property. Whoever the trespasser was, Mendy wished she could stop him from coming out there. Scare him off, maybe.
"Mendy," Mama said, interrupting Mendy's thoughts, "first off, stop stabbing that fork on your plate so hard. And second, tomorrow I want you to stay home and help me. Now that the other kids are gone, you're gonna have to help me more with chores."
Mendy wanted to jump up and shout, "Why am I the one being punished all summer?" But instead she silently cleaned off the table.
After piano practice, Mendy sat in her bedroom waiting for her daddy to come home. The room seemed empty without her sisters and Grandma in it. She opened her dresser drawer and took out the scrapbook Grandma had made for her years ago. She looked at the inside cover where her name was printed: Mendy Anna Thompson.
Mendy had been given her middle name in honor of Mrs. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady of the United States. Outside of Mendy, Mrs. Roosevelt had been Grandma's favorite person. Grandma loved to tell Mendy stories about Mrs. Roosevelt. She even wrote some of Mrs. Roosevelt's sayings inside Mendy's scrapbook. When Grandma was still living, Mendy would memorize them and recite them to Grandma like they were Bible verses. Grandma's favorite was on the first page:
Intelligence cannot be judged by whether you are able to read or write; in many cases, this is only a question of whether you have had the opportunity to learn.
Grandma said she didn't have the opportunity to learn to read and write until she was grown. "Reading and writing is like bread to your soul," Grandma would say. "If you can't read and write, you might as well settle to starve to death."
One day, Grandma had given Mendy an article cut from a newspaper. It was one of Mrs. Roosevelt's "My Day" columns where she told about things that happened to her. Mendy read that Mrs. Roosevelt had always wanted to go to India and see the Taj Mahal, and in 1952 she finally made it.
Later, Daddy gave Mendy a picture of the Taj Mahal to put in her scrapbook. Mendy thought it was the most beautiful place she'd ever seen, with its domed towers glowing in the sunlight. She often dreamed of going to India with Grandma to see the Taj Mahal, riding on the back of an elephant alongside her namesake, Mrs. Roosevelt. Daddy told Mendy that the Taj Mahal had been built for an empress by her husband. The empress had been a brave woman and had traveled with her husband when he went to war. That's why, when Mendy saw the clearing, she had named it the Taj Mahal: it was as if someone had cleared that spot just for Mendy.
Now Mendy wrote on a clean page of the scrapbook:
My Summer in Cowan, 1958
by Mendy Anna Thompson
Today I was lonesome. There was no one to play with but Li'l Ben. I really miss Jeffrey. Sometimes I think he doesn't care that we can't play together no more like we used to. I really miss him coming to the Taj.
Mendy paused. She erased the word Taj and replaced it with woods. She didn't want to describe the clearing too much in the scrapbook. Suppose Mama read it? Mendy's thoughts went to her Taj Mahal. When had the trespasser been out there? It had to be last night or early this morning; otherwise the end of that cigar would have dried out. Mendy thought, Ain't nobody got no business out there but me or Jeffrey. Tomorrow I'm going back to see what I can find out. Then she remembered what Mama had said about helping her around the house.
Well, even if she couldn't get back to the clearing, at least she and Jeffrey had made plans to meet tomorrow. It sure will be good to see him again, Mendy thought. And I can't wait to tell him about the cigar and lighter.
Mendy stretched out on her bunk bed. Why would anybody be out there in Mr. Connor's woods in the first place? No answer came to her, and soon she drifted off to sleep.
The coon dogs yelping outside woke Mendy up. That had to mean Daddy was home. Mendy wiped sleep from her eyes and tiptoed to the door of her room. She listened to the front door squeak open, the dogs' yaps suddenly grow louder and then fall silent. She tiptoed down the hallway toward the dark living room.
Daddy sat in the rocker pulling off his brogans.
Mendy whispered, "Hey, Daddy."
"Hey, Wild Trapper," he said, groaning as he stood up and stretched. Daddy called Mendy that because they went hunting and trapping together in the woods. "What is it? I know something's wrong 'cause you whispering. Spill it on out."
"Mama says I have to stay home tomorrow. It ain't fair. I want to go off and play."
Her daddy groaned again and slumped down on the couch. "Sit," he said, motioning to her.
Mendy sat down close to him.
"Listen, you know how your mama is," he said, patting Mendy's hand. "She thinks you need more time with her. That's part why she's sent all the other kids away. So you and her can spend more time together. She wants you to grow up to be a fine lady, like her."
"I don't want to stay here alone, Daddy. She's always after me about something."
"Yeah. That's 'cause she cares about your future. She just wants you to act more ladylike. It won't be so bad. If you stop raising Cain about it and just let your mama have her way, I'll take you out with me some this summer."
A huge grin spread on Mendy's face. "For real, Daddy, you will? You promise?"
Daddy crossed his heart just as Mama called to him from the bedroom. He gave Mendy a hug and said, "Go on to bed now. Count them rabbits and fall asleep."
As Mendy snuggled back into bed, she was filled with thoughts of where she and Daddy would go together. Would they go to their old fishing hole or some new place? Her last thought was that maybe Daddy would take her swimming at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle. The Highlander School was a place where all kinds of people from all over the world came to study. They were mostly grown people, though. What Mendy liked was that Highlander had the best swimming hole for miles around.
Mendy slept soundly until the morning light warmed her face through the window. She washed up quickly and got dressed while she listened to the woodpecker drill holes in the grove nearby. The sound echoed in the valley like hammer hits. Mendy loved the sounds of morning.
"Mendy?" Mama called.
Excerpted from Circle of Fire by Evelyn Coleman. Copyright © 2009 Evelyn Coleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted June 30, 2010
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This book was wonderful! yes it is very sad but also very true. Including Mendy's mother trying to keep things from her to protect her. You might think to not allow youe child to read this book because of the issues it deals with and that would make you like Mendy's mother. Meaning no harm of course but sometimes knowing is half the battle and when things are bad it is good for even little kids to know. Mendy is a loveable character and fun to follow as she takes you into her world. I'm a tom boy myself so I enjoyed reading about a character who loved to do the things I love. I recomend this book for all ages!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 2, 2008
The ¿circle of Fire¿ was a scary book. It made me feel sad for the girl named Mendy too. It seemed like she had a lot of tough times. This book was scary because of the things that are happening in Mendy¿s life. That is why this book is scary! This book is about a girl named Mendy. Mendy has a secret place that she likes very much. But then she finds out there are people that come to her secret place. Now she needs to stop these people before they do something terrible! This was a good book and I think you should read it!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 21, 2004
I think this is a great book, even though a lot of tragic things happen. It really helps people understand how it felt to be an African-American girl growing up in the 1950's.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 26, 2004
For those of you who didn't really like this book, is probably because you thought it was sad and unhappy. I have news for you-this happens to people everyday. So if you're looking for this book for your 10 or 11 year old daughter-get it. This adventure of Mandy and Jeffery is one they will never forget.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 15, 2003
After reading the last few books in the series this one was more excitng than if I were to read after a book such as The Night Flyers or Under Copp's Hill. It was well written and full of suspence. The reason I give four stars is because there wasn't much of mystery to it. If you knew about this time period and the stuff going on in the area then you would probably figure things out wicked fast. This book was a little creepy, especially if your like me with your own freaky nieghbors. Because of some of the stuff in this book I would onlyrecomand it for middle schoolers, some of the stuff could freak out a young reader.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.