Crazy Ladies

( 13 )

Overview

From the author of Mad Girls in Love comes this lively multigenerational tale of six charming, unforgettable Southern women — a novel of love and laughter, pain and redemption.

Though she was born in Tennessee, Miss Gussie is no country fool. A woman who can handle any situation, she has her hands full with two headstrong daughters who happen to be complete opposites — dour Dorothy and sweet Clancy Jane. Hoping money will heal childhood wounds, Dorothy marries the owner of a ...

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Overview

From the author of Mad Girls in Love comes this lively multigenerational tale of six charming, unforgettable Southern women — a novel of love and laughter, pain and redemption.

Though she was born in Tennessee, Miss Gussie is no country fool. A woman who can handle any situation, she has her hands full with two headstrong daughters who happen to be complete opposites — dour Dorothy and sweet Clancy Jane. Hoping money will heal childhood wounds, Dorothy marries the owner of a five-and-dime, while Clancy Jane gets into a mess of trouble, running off with a randy tomcat who pumps gas at the Esso stand. And then there are Gussie's granddaughters, the smart but plain Violet and fancy-talking Bitsy — a new generation whose lives will reflect a nation's tumultuous times. From Tennessee to New Orleans, from psychedelic San Francisco to a remote Southwestern desert ranch, this funny, poignant novel spans more than four decades as it vividly recounts the universal loves, sorrows, and joys of women's lives.

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Editorial Reviews

AudioFile Magazine
...a rich and robust novel, wonderfully performed.skillfully interwoven mix of calamity and comedy, narrated inturns by a wholly entertaining cast of characters.
Washington Post Book World
A wonderful first novel of the lives of three generations of Tennessee women....I can't think of enough nice things to say about Crazy Ladies. The voices are sharp, wry, and utterly convincing.
San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle
Wonderfully inventive.... Her writing is brilliant in detail and dialogue, flavored with just enough spicy Southern wit and wisdom.
St. Petersburg Times
Not since Flannery O'Connor's first book has a debut novel by a young Southerner been so filled with wry humor and humanity, so precisely right in its idioms, and so distinctive in its voices.
Los Angeles Times
West's accent is Southern fried and brassy...her spirited performanceis enjoyable.
Providence Journal
...a fine reading by Nashville resident West, who finds just the right voice for each of her creations.
Washington Post Book World
A wonderful first novel of the lives of three generations of Tennessee women....I can't think of enough nice things to say about Crazy Ladies. The voices are sharp, wry, and utterly convincing.
San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle
Wonderfully inventive.... Her writing is brilliant in detail and dialogue, flavored with just enough spicy Southern wit and wisdom.
St. Petersburg Times
Not since Flannery O'Connor's first book has a debut novel by a young Southerner been so filled with wry humor and humanity, so precisely right in its idioms, and so distinctive in its voices.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The characters in West's promising first novel are richly eccentric and they exist in a colorfully evoked setting. However, there's little tension in this saga of a family in small-town Crystal Falls, Tenn. Though the story begins with the shock of a murder and the attempts of Miss Gussie Hamilton, resident matriarch, to conceal it, the murder has little importance in the ensuing narrative, even when the body is unearthed decades later. Meanwhile, Miss Gussie, her three daughters and their daughters endure various dramatic vicissitudes, including a fair share of illegitimate births, betrayals and divorces. (Three generations of daughters reunite under Miss Gussie's roof). Miss Gussie's daughter Dorothy is the only truly ``crazy'' lady among them: her whining sibling rivalry blossoms into self-absorption and culminates in nasty, dangerous paranoia. The extremity of her neurosis seems unwarranted unless one accepts her as a bad seed, but she remains the family troublemaker until she receives her well-deserved comeuppance. Cultural referents, such as pop song titles and lyrics, keep the time frame intact and convey the cadence of life in the rural South, and though readers may become somewhat exasperated by Miss Gussie's flaky kin, they should enjoy West's portraiture of women who triumph over the problems that fate and their own difficult personalities bring into their lives. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Six interlocking first-person narratives chronicle the family history of a generation of white Southern women from the Depression through the Sixties. An unexpected and extraordinary act of defensive violence sets the stage for subsequent developments as domestic ties, the constraints of small town society, and international events shape and change each woman's life. Strongest when exploring the private world of family, this first novel is less successful in placing that world in the larger context of contemporary culture.-- Susan C. Griffith, Boston Coll. Lib., Chestnut Hill, Mass.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060977740
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: 1 HARPER
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 336,030
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.06 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Lee West is the author of Mad Girls in Love, Crazy Ladies, American Pie, She Flew the Coop, and Consuming Passions. She lives with her husband on a rural farm in Tennessee with three bratty Yorkshire terriers, a Chinese Crested, assorted donkeys, chickens, sheep, and African Pygmy goats. Her faithful dog Zap (above) was the inspiration for a character in the novel.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

MISS GUSSIE

1992

    My baby had the spring colic, and I remember just as plain as day, there was nothing I could do to calm her. All morning I walked up and down the length of the porch, jiggling her in my arms, watching Charlie plow the garden. The air around him seemed dust-charged, fine particles wafting in the March sun.

    "Look at your papa," I'd say, but Dorothy just wailed. Charlie wasn't a farmer. He was a teller at Citizens' Bank, and he was proud to bring home fourteen dollars every week. Before the Depression, he'd had hopes of advancing to cashier. I always expected the bank to close. In spite of his good job, I was of a mind to stuff our money into a mattress. Stick it in a jar and bury it next to the climbing roses. Charlie just shook his head when I talked like that. But I knew what I knew. Mr. Wentworth, who owned the bank, gave Charlie and the other tellers thick stacks of one-dollar bills; then he'd cover the stacks with fifties and hundreds. People would come to the bank, see all the money, and go home satisfied.

    I'd been hankering to start me a garden early. I thought it would ease my mind from worrying about the baby, worrying about the awful things going on. There is so much good in a garden, if you don't count what happened to Adam and Eve. When I was a girl, my favorite hymn was "In the Garden." I would sing at the top of my lungs, I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses. I pictured me a mess of butter beans and squash, not roses. I pictured squatting between the long green rows, me working in the sun, Dorothy sleeping in a wicker basket.

    We lived on the edge of town, but we had no close neighbors. Before Dorothy was born, I'd watch Charlie shoot cracked milk bottles in the backyard. I was a better shot than him, on account of my brothers learning me, but I didn't have the heart to tell him. I let him think he showed me everything I knew. You have to coddle menfolks on account of their pride.

    The Depression had made us all prouder. A man on the radio said too much prosperity ruined the fiber of the people. I wondered why he'd say a thing like that. When I looked around town, all I saw was poverty and slow living, Tennessee ways. I didn't know about the big cities, but there were tarpaper shacks beside the railroad in Crystal Falls. Most of the men held signs, WILL WORK FOR FOOD. They were skinny as chickens. Hoovervilles, the papers called those shacks. Charlie said he didn't see how President Hoover would be re-elected in November. I didn't know what to think.

    I had plenty on my mind. My nerves were laid wide open from Dorothy's high-pitched cries, which I could not soothe and could not help but take personal. She was my first baby. I was eighteen years old, a bride of one year, the youngest child from a family of seven. So I just didn't know what to do. There had never been babies for me to help Mama raise. To make things worse, I could not seem to turn away from the terrible news on the radio. It was the middle of March, and the body of the Lindbergh baby had just been found. The Philco radio was paid for, and it had a glass dial like a single eye. From the porch, I listened to the radio and watched Charlie turn the soil. I held my Dorothy and offered her my breast, which only made her cry harder. I moved the rocker into a patch of sunlight and rocked her back and forth.

    I couldn't get the handsome Lindberghs out of my mind.

   That was also the year a series of murders shocked Crystal Falls. The victims, four total, were all young women. They had been stabbed, but I'd heard that the newspaper hadn't reported everything. I didn't want to know. It was such a large crime, in such a small town, that people were cowed by the news. Women whispered among themselves, but mostly they didn't like to think about it. It didn't seem real. Instead we hovered around our radios for news of the Lindberghs. It was a relief when music came on, playing over the static. I always liked "Star Dust"--Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights/Dreaming of a song? Saturday evenings me and Charlie sat in the dark and watched the glowing dial while we listened to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM.

    It was late afternoon when Dorothy, all red-faced, fell asleep chewing her fingers. I set her in the bassinet, rolled it into the kitchen, and looked out the window. Charlie was moving his plow into the barn. The garden was long and narrow. It was almost in the center of the backyard. Most every place else was full of limestone--the rocks jutted out like broken bones. One end of the garden, the east side, was shaded by a huge oak tree. Charlie said that tree had been there forever. Beyond the tree was the old graveyard, past the barn and the barbwire fence. I didn't cotton to living next to it, but I held my tongue. It was Charlie's land. The old homeplace, which I didn't have a memory of, had burned in 1902. Over the years, some of the markers had sunk into the ground or been knocked over by cows. Others stood tall and gray, carved with dates, names, and epitaphs:

Mary Beatrice Hamilton Her children arise up and call her blessed Nov 18, 1843--April 14, 1887.

Charlie stomped his feet on the back porch and lumbered into the kitchen. He poured a glass of buttermilk and drained it in three swallows, his Adam's apple jerking up and down. Because of the sleeping baby, I did not fuss at him for tracking up my clean floor with mud. I just gave him a harsh glance from under my eyebrows. He was too tired to notice. He gave me a kiss on the cheek and went upstairs to bathe.

    I sat down at the kitchen table and laid out packets of seeds as if they were a deck of cards. Watermelon, cantaloupe, radishes, lettuce, cucumbers. And we already had starter trays in the window, cabbages and onion sets, bought from a farmer on the town square. The old man had given me a sack of white corn seed. He said, "Don't plant your corn on a full moon or it'll shoot up sky high. You'll get nothing but little bitty ears. And plant your cabbages when the moon's on the wax. Onions on the wane."

    Well, I already knew that, growing up on a farm like I had, with Papa and all those brothers of mine. But I thanked the man. Mama had taught me how to can when I was a little thing. It seemed as if we spent whole summers putting up tomatoes because they'd never come ripe at the same time.

    The screen door was open, and a cold breeze pushed into the room. I glanced up, thinking I ought to close the door before Dorothy got chilled, and that was when I saw the man. He was outlined against the screen mesh.

    Lordy Jesus, I thought to myself. How long had he been standing there, watching me study my seed packets? My next thought was, this is the man who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. And I knew he had come for my Dorothy: I pushed away from the table and stood up. I was determined to fight. I had me a gun in the pantry, too. I would not let this man see my fear, even though my knees twitched and shook under my cotton dress. Growing up with mean-natured older brothers had taught me aplenty.

    "What do you want?" I asked real icy, staring back at him.

    The man opened the door and stepped into my kitchen. A great stench filled the room. Corn whiskey. He was a young man, barely out of his teens. His hair was blond, combed over to one side. His eyes were deep-set, dark and empty, hardly no lashes at all. His cheekbones were high, like two slanted rocks, and dropped off into dark hollows. Something nagged at me, but I couldn't place his face. I looked down at his feet. His shoes were crusted and muddy. Why, he had been walking through my garden. Maybe he'd been standing there for Heaven knew how long!

    "I didn't ask you to come into my house, now did I?" I hollered.

    He answered by reaching into my dish drainer, yanking out my best butcher knife, and pointing it at me. Then he slogged forward. His eyes burned, hard and black, and I knew then he had not come for my baby girl. He had come for me.

    He waved the knife. "Take your clothes off and get on the floor," he said. There were red moles on his cheek. Red moles and pimples. He looked too young to be telling me what to do.

    "I most certainly will not!" I said, sticking out my chin.

    He grabbed my arm, making me cry out, and pressed the tip of the knife against my throat. Something slid down my neck and dripped onto my dress. Blood. I closed my eyes and waited for him to plunge the knife into my windpipe. He grabbed my collar and ripped my dress to the waist. My breasts popped out of my slip. He put the knife to my chest and scraped the blade across my skin. I didn't feel it. Above my head, I heard water running through the pipes and splashing into the tub. I knew Charlie couldn't hear me. But the murderer didn't know it.

    Three seconds passed.

    Then I screamed.

    The man jumped back, startled.

    "You get out of my house!" I yelled. "My husband's going to blow your head off! He's right upstairs! Listen!"

    The man looked toward the ceiling. Then he turned his burning eyes on me again. I saw then that he would kill Charlie, too. Dorothy awakened. Her cries filled the room. The man cocked his head, puzzled, then turned to the baby. He seemed to have forgotten all about getting his head blown off. He walked across the room, lowered the knife to the pink blanket, and flipped it back with the blade. Dorothy screamed.

    I could not breathe. Blood dripped down my neck as I watched him lean toward the baby. He seemed spellbound by her hysterical cries, the rise and fall of her chest. Upstairs, the water continued to gush into the tub. Would it never stop?

    I stepped backward, reached blindly for the pantry. I flung open the door, grabbed Charlie's shotgun. It was loaded. It had been loaded since the newspaper first carried the news of the murders. I was no country fool. I planned to raise me a big family, and nothing but God would stop me.

    The man stared at Dorothy, the knife flashing in his hands. His back was to me. I lifted the gun and took aim down the length of the barrel. Then I paused. I was terrified the buckshot would hit Dorothy.

    "You old hog you," I yelled. "Get out of my house!"

    He turned, and his eyes went completely black. He lunged toward me. Dorothy was screaming. How could my Charlie not hear?

    Lordy Jesus, I prayed, let me shoot him in the heart. I squeezed the trigger. The blast knocked me backward against the stove. I blinked and saw the jagged hole in his stomach. The Lord had made me miss his vitals, but dark blood, mingled with torn fabric from his shirt, poured out of his belly. He looked down at his stomach, touched his fingers to the blood, and I took aim again. Before I pulled the trigger, he slumped to the floor, still clutching the butcher knife. All at once Dorothy's screams snapped off.

    Charlie came running down the steps, dripping water, holding a towel around his waist. His eyes bugged as he looked at the man, now gasping for air. "Oh, mercy!" he said. "Oh, merciful heavens!"

    I lowered the gun and looked at my kitchen. Blood was splattered across my pine cabinets, across the counters, across Dorothy's bassinet. Dorothy. I ran to her. She looked up at me, her face puckered, and she let out a long wail. Her legs thrashed. I saw a red flash on her gown. I jerked up the fabric. A long, ugly scratch ran up the length of her side. In the bassinet itself was a piece of buckshot, which had only grazed her. I gathered her into my arms. Charlie was feeling the man's neck, feeling for a pulse.

    "He's still alive," he said. "He's just fainted. What in tarnation happened?"

    "He tried to rape me," I said, holding the baby against my shoulder. "And he was going to kill Dorothy."

    The truth was I didn't know if he would have killed her. But I had no doubt he would have killed me. I looked down at the man. His chest heaved just the slightest bit. Blood poured from the hole in his belly. I had never seen so much blood.

    "We've got to get a doctor," Charlie said.

    "Wait!" I shouted, and Dorothy screamed into my ear. "Just wait a minute!"

    "Honey, do you know who this boy is?" Charlie stared.

    "No. And I don't care. Let's just get the sheriff."

    "This is Claude Wentworth's son," he said. "His youngest boy, Sawyer. You remember him, don't you?"

    I felt the breath leave my body. Claude Edmund Wentworth was the president of the bank where Charlie worked. Claude Edmund Wentworth owned half the town. Claude Edmund Wentworth had once met Charles A. Lindbergh in Washington, DC. There were photographs on Mr. Wentworth's desk, pictures of his wife, Willadean, and their two boys. The youngest, Sawyer, had a reputation. He was the one who'd slammed old Mrs. Beatty's cat into a stone wall. The oldest, Claude Jr., had a son who was a few months older than Dorothy. His name was Claude III. I stared at my husband. "Tell me what to do," I said.

    "Why didn't you just lock the door?"

    "I've never locked a door in my life," I said coldly. "Look at my dress, Charlie. Look what he did to me. He told me to take off my clothes and get on the floor. That's what he said."

    "Let me think a minute. Just let me think." He blinked at the Wentworth boy. The boy's eyes flickered open, and he moaned.

    "Oh, Gussie." Charlie's broad forehead wrinkled. "This is so serious. I'm afraid of what Mr. Wentworth will do."

    "He can't do anything." I stared. "Can he?"

    "He could foreclose on our house."

    "His boy would've murdered me," I said, almost to myself. "Like he did to those other women."

    "The thing is, Gussie, we'll never prove it was self-defense. I can hear the Wentworths now. They'll say you thought he was a prowler, that your nerves got the better of you. That you shot an innocent boy."

    "He wasn't innocent."

    "What if Mr. Wentworth fires me, Gussie?"

    "He won't. Not when he hears the truth."

    "Maybe he already knows it." He paused and looked down at the boy. "Blood is thicker than water. And Wentworth blood is thickest of all. They'll die before dragging their name through mud. They'll run me out of town first."

    I patted Dorothy's back, but she rooted for my breast. I touched my finger to the dried blood on my chest. I imagined us taking in boarders or selling apples for a nickel, eating up the profits to keep from starving. Or I could hire myself out as a maid. The Crash had reduced most of us to paupers. Jobs were hard to find, harder to hold. When I looked up, Charlie was staring at me.

    "Let's bury him now," I said, not believing my ears. Surely I hadn't said such a thing. The boy's eyelids flickered again.

    "Gussie, no!" Charlie pushed his fingers through his hair. "He's not even dead," he said. "Can't you see that for yourself?"

    "I don't care." I looked at Charlie, but he refused to catch my eyes. "Then I'll do it myself. Look, he's already fainted again."

    "No." Charlie's face darkened. "We won't do this."

    "Oh, yes we will," I said. "You're the one who's afraid of the Wentworths. Not me. I wanted to call the sheriff. You can't have it two ways, Charlie. Unless you know something I don't."

    He looked up at the ceiling and blinked hard. His eyes watered.

    "Unless you have a better idea, we'll do it," I said. "We'll bury him at the east end of the garden. There's not much limestone there. The ground is soft. Then we'll never talk about it again. Ever. Not to another living soul."

    He didn't answer. He stared at the boy. Finally he looked at me.

    "We'll burn in hell," he said and walked out of the room, leaving me with that bleeding man and my screaming baby.

    I wrapped the boy in an old sheet. A time or two, he weakly struggled, batting the linen, like something in a cocoon. He moaned, called for his mama. "Mother?" he'd cry. I felt no pity. I remembered the knife at my throat. I remembered the faces of the dead women in the newspaper.

    While the afternoon stretched into night, I passed time scouring my kitchen, wiping down the cupboards. Each time I squeezed out my dishrag in the pail, the water turned to blood. That night there was full moon. Charlie came downstairs and we carried the boy's body to the edge of the garden. Above us, branches on the oak tree moved back and forth. We dug in silence, grunting softly when our shovels struck rock.

    We seemed to work forever, digging throughout the night. I remembered when I was a little girl, how I'd make mud pies in the yard, and Mama would tell me I was digging all the way to China. Now I pretended I was fashioning a complicated tunnel, that when we dropped the boy in it, he would fall soundlessly through the earth, passing through layers of rock and ore, until he reached the other side. Chinamen would gather and stare.

    We rolled the boy's body into the hole. It fell with a hard thump. The sheet looked too clean beneath the moonlight. I heard a muffled moan, "Mother?" I picked up the shovel. From the house, I heard Dorothy's wails start up again. I was grateful for not having neighbors. I let her scream. It was me who wanted to howl at the moon, but I shoveled harder, getting into a rhythm. For a time, the earth seemed to swallow the dirt. I could still see the sheet through clods of soil. There was no way I could plant vegetables over this. Just the idea of cabbage or corn growing over this dead boy took my appetite clean away.

    I could plant zinnias there. I could plant marigolds and sunflowers. I dropped to my knees and pushed dirt into the grave with my hands.

    "Stop it, Gussie!" Charlie said, trying to pull me away.

    "Just leave me be!" I snarled and shrugged off his hands. I scraped the dirt with my fingers. All I could think about was what that old farmer had said. It was a good thing we weren't planting corn. It would grow to the sky, all stalk, the green ears packed with nothing but yellow silk. I pictured the boy, his mouth full of dirt, clawing his way toward the moon.

    "Gussie, stop it! For the love of God, stop it!" Tears poured down Charlie's face, but I felt no mercy.

    "I told you not to talk about this!" I cried. Then I looked up at him. The moon skated over his head.

    He wiped his face on his shirt, and I went back to filling up the grave.

    That summer, my garden produced enormous cucumbers and cabbages. The corn was so sweet and soft you could cut it from the cob with a spoon. My tomatoes were full of red juice. Charlie wouldn't go near the east end of the garden, even though it was the coolest place to work on account of that oak tree. He said he wouldn't eat anything that grew in that section. I planted me a flower garden, but I didn't bring any blossoms into the house. Instead I picked wildflowers--honeysuckle, Queen Anne's lace, black-eyed Susans.

    The Wentworths ran a full-page ad in the newspaper, showing their crazy son's solemn face. They offered fifty dollars for news of his whereabouts. They, too, had been affected by the Lindbergh kidnapping. I heard down at church that Mrs. Wentworth had fully expected to receive a ransom note.

    Finally, they decided he must have strayed to the railroad and crawled into an empty boxcar like an ordinary wanderer. They believed he was living in some city, standing in breadlines or shining shoes for a nickel. They believed that he had simply forgotten the way back home.


Chapter Two

QUEENIE

1938

    I come to work for Miss Gussie in 1938, before her second baby is born. It is late summer, August, and she is sitting on the front porch, stringing beans, wearing a huge pink-flowered top. Her yard smells like wild mint and fresh-cut grass. She looks close to my age, twenty-four, only she be big pregnant. And it look like she spaced her children out too far. The Lord didn't see to bless me and Talley with babies, so I treat Talley like he's a big old baby. He helps Mr. Dempsey break mules. You won't see Talley without his church clothes ironed. And I know how to feed a man right, I sure do, no matter what Talley's mother say.

    Miss Gussie's little girl is sitting in the wooden swing, fussing at her dolls. She has light brown hair, all pulled back with wide yellow ribbons. She stop talking to her dolls when I climb up the porch steps. Then she stares at me with these milky blue eyes.

    "How old is you?" I ask her real friendly-like, but she don't answer. She just keep staring. Those eyes remind me of something, but I can't think of what.

    "Dorothy, where's your manners?" says Miss Gussie. "Tell Queenie how old you are, honey."

    Dorothy, she look at me from under her eyebrows. "I'm six," she says.

    "Six going on thirty-six," says Miss Gussie, smiling. She eases herself from her chair. Her belly huge. She's got the same blue eyes, only her hair is blond, wrapped on top of her head in two braids. "I'm sure glad you came," she tells me. "Aren't we glad, Dorothy?"

    Dorothy looks at me and scowls.

    "Dorothy?" says Miss Gussie again.

    "Yes," the child say like the word hurt her throat. Then she goes back to dressing her doll.

    "When's your baby due?" I ask Miss Gussie, shifting my eyes from the little white girl and her china-faced dolls.

    "Not till the middle of September," she say. She pause in the doorway and rub her back. "Come on inside, Queenie," she tells me. "I'll show you where things are."

    I set up the ironing board in the kitchen and stare out the window. Miss Gussie's outside, paying no attention to that girl of hers, who's busy dragging a mama cat across the yard. Miss Gussie walks into the garden. It is big and green. I see her pink-flowered top and big belly move through the corn. The corn taller than she is. She comes out on the other side, her hands empty, her belly poked out to here. Her forehead is wrinkled, and her mouth turned down at the corners, like maybe she saw something that disturb her in there. I know that look, I've seen it on womens all my life, and it don't have nothing to do with bugs in her garden. She do not look like a woman happy because she having a baby, she sure don't.

    Then, as if my own thoughts be nothing but lies, she turns her face up to the sun and shuts her eyes like she be praying. What a white lady like that be praying for? I have worked for stranger folk. I have worked for rich peoples, too, and Miss Gussie sure ain't rich, but the rich be strangest of all. They sure are. I worked ten years for the Wentworths and quit the year before Mr. Sawyer, they crazy son, run away. It was the year of all those bad murders. After he run off, there never was another murder, not a single one. Not even a shooting at the bootleg joints. So don't you tell me he wasn't the one that killed those womens. He is probably living in some big city, driving the polices crazy. From the time he was young, he never looked right to me. They kept him in the house, wouldn't let him go outside. Not after what he done to his little brother's dog. No, they just kept him upstairs, and I wouldn't go near him. Once, I found a human finger under his bed. That's right, a human finger. I sure found it. I showed it to the cook, and she told me to put it back and shut my mouth if I knew what was good for me. I knew. I put it back. But later he stared at me like he seen what I'd done. I was glad when he run off.

    Now Miss Gussie stands in a patch of sunlight and rubs her hands over her belly like it aches. The whole time, Dorothy just tormenting that poor mama cat. She drags it to the edge of garden, right in the middle of her mama's flowers.

    "Get out of there, Dorothy!" cries Miss Gussie.

    Dorothy ignores her mama and reaches for the cat's tail. The cat hisses and scratches Dorothy across the cheek. She throws down the cat and runs screaming across the grass. She slams right into her mama's belly and they both fall down. Miss Gussie look surprise and says "Oof!" like she catch a baseball. The color drain from her face. She winces a little and holds her belly.

    "Mother Dear!" said Dorothy. "I'm hurt! Look at my cheek, Mother Dear."

    Miss Gussie's mouth open, but she don't say nothing. She start rubbing her stomach.

    "Mother Dear!"

    "Well, I told you not to play in the flowers," Miss Gussie says finally. She takes a deep breath and stops rubbing her belly. She gets up. Dorothy, wailing louder and louder, scrambles to her feet. She hold her hand against her face, hopping on one foot. Her cheek bleeding a little.

    "Well, let's go wash your face, Dorothy," she says, sighing hard. They walk in the screen door. Dorothy's face be streaked with dirty tears, not much blood. Her mama rinse out a cloth and dab it against the scratch.

    "Ouch!" screams Dorothy. "That hurts, Mother Dear!"

    "You teach her to call you Mother Dear?" I ask without thinking. Sometimes it's hard to know what to ask and what not to. But all this time I been thinking about asking this.

    Miss Gussie says, "No, she thought it up herself. She's always been one to think things up."

    "Oh," I say and nod my head. But it do make sense. A child like that, with those old eyes hooked on her mama's belly, like she scared something bad going to come out of there. I myself hope it ain't another one like what she already got. Maybe that's why she waited so long to have this baby.

Miss Gussie turns to rinse the rag in the sink. All of a sudden like, she moans and grips the counter. "Oh, my," she says and sinks to her knees.

    Dorothy says, "Mother Dear? Get up, Mother Dear."

    I set the iron down on the stove and go to Miss Gussie. She grips my arm, breathing hard, but she don't say nothing. I run my hands over her stomach. It feel tight as a drum.

    Dorothy shouts, "Get your nigger hands off of my Mother Dear, you nigger, you!"

    Miss Gussie licks her lips and rolls her eyes over at Dorothy. "Shut your mouth, Dorothy," she says. "Shut it now. Or I'll wash it out with soap."

    Dorothy's eyes fill with tears, her face screws up and turns red. She slides off the stool and fixes me with those blue eyes. "Nigger, nigger!" she hollers and runs out of the room. She runs so fast, she slips on the rug and I hear her bones knock against the floor. She gets up, whimpering, then she flies around the corner, and her shoes pound hard up the stairs.

    I prop Miss Gussie's head in my lap. "I think the baby's coming," she says.

    "You want me to run down to the bank and get Mr. Charlie?" I ask. "Or you want me to fetch the doctor?"

    "There's no time. Just call the doctor. The phone's in the hall. On the table. Tell the operator to call Dr. Butler."

    "Yessum."

    "Oh, Queenie. It feels like the baby's head's about to drop out of me this second," she says. "It hurts so bad."

    Then she squeezes her eyes shut and grits her teeth. She starts moaning. I push the heel of my hand against the floor and stand up. My hand feels wet. I'd mopped the floor earlier, so I just think it's water. Only it be blood. I look down at her skirt. Underneath be more blood. My mama brought many a baby, and I heard her say that some bleeding was natural and some wasn't. The difference be how fast it comes, and hers coming fast. I run and get a thick towel and push it between her legs. She is breathing funny, strained like. Her belly still be hard, like it's drawn up in one big knot.

    "Now you stay here, Miss Gussie," I tell her. "I'll be right back. Right back, you hear?"

    "Why am I bleeding so much?" she says weakly. "I don't remember doing this with Dorothy."

    "You sit tight. I've got to call the doctor. You just busted a vessel is all, just a vessel."

    "No." She shakes her head and grabs my sleeve. "It's God. He's punishing me. An eye for an eye. Queenie. A life for a death."

"Now you know the Bible don't say no life for no death," I tell her. I pat her hand and she closes her eyes.
"But you don't understand," she says.

    "Oh, yes I do. Queenie understands," I say, but I think maybe I don't understand. I think maybe she is going to die. I think about yelling for that bad Dorothy to come downstairs to see for herself what she done done, but she holed up in her room pouting, and I don't have no time for sweet talk.

    "It all started with the Lindbergh baby," she says. "It was on the radio. Don't you remember? And then that woman chopped up bodies and stuffed them into a trunk? Oh, I can't remember her name. Do you remember? Her last name was Judd, I think."

    I shake my head and try to shush her.

    "It was, let's see 1932. No, 1933. Do you remember that song? `Love for Sale.' Libby Holman sang it. She killed that tobacco man. Married him and killed him. I told Charlie, I said, `It's an unsafe world.' I told him and I told him. He didn't believe me. He should have. I'd never hurt anyone on purpose, Queenie. I never would. He said I should've locked the door--"

    "You're talking out of your head, Miss Gussie."

    "No." She closes her eyes. Her chest rises and falls. I get up and walk backward into the hall. I pick up the telephone and right away I hear two old women gossiping on the party line.

    "Who picked up this line?" one of the women says sharply.

    "I did," I tell them.

    "And who are you?" the woman wants to know.

    "I'm Queenie LaFevor, and I need to make a phone call, please."

    "Why, I don't know no nigger who has a phone," the other woman says.

    "This is an emergency," I say, breathing hard. "I have to call the doctor for Miss Gussie. She's bleeding bad?"

    Silence. I hear breathing. After a moment, one of the women say, "Why, Gussie don't have her a nigger maid. And her baby's not due till next month. So you just hang up this phone right now, gal, or I'm calling the police."

    "Miss Gussie's bleeding!" I holler. "I need this phone to call!"

    "Get off the phone, nigger," the other lady says.

    From the kitchen, Miss Gussie groans. I throw down the phone and run out the front door. I run down the sidewalk, and I don't stop running until I reach Dr. Butler's office six blocks away. I'm sweating heavy when I open the door. All these sick white folks just stare at me like I've lost my mind. When colored peoples are sick, they have to stand in the street and wait until they names called. The nurse, who is sitting behind a glass window, rises to her feet.

    "Get Dr. Butler now," I say, panting hard as Miss Gussie was earlier. I tell her Miss Gussie Hamilton's girl punched her in the stomach and it's brought her baby, and now she's bleeding awful bad. That she fall to the kitchen floor.

    The nurse runs to get the doctor.

    Then here he comes running, holding his doctor's bag. All the sick white peoples just stare. Dr. Butler buckles his bag shut. Now I know him from way back. He's old and knows my mama. He knows I am not one to stretch the truth. "Did you say Gussie Hamilton's bleeding?" he asks me.

    "Yessir."

    "Is she bleeding real heavy, girl?"

    "Yessir."

    "Well, let's go."

    He and his nurse rush out of the office and climb into his car. They slam the doors and drive off and don't see me running behind them, waving my arms. I'm so full of fear for Miss Gussie I take off after them. Let her and that baby live, Jesus, I think. I get a hitch in my side, but I just ball up my fist and poke it hard and keep running.

    Mr. Charlie sits in the kitchen, his elbows propped on the white enamel table. Dorothy sits on the floor, fussing at her dolls. She won't look at me. If she was mine, I'd wear her out but good. But she ain't mine. And I'm too busy to think. I go in and out of Miss Gussie's room, bringing towels, pans of steaming water. My feet move like they've never moved before. Dr. Butler takes out long curved blades, shiny metal, what I've never seen before. Then he fits them inside of Miss Gussie, fits them around the baby's head, although I don't see how he knows a head from a bone, there's so much blood.

    He pulls, he hollers at Miss Gussie to push. He props his feet on the bed. He grunts and sweats. Finally the baby's head pops out. Miss Gussie pushes again, her face all purple, and the rest of the baby slides out, slick as a trout. It be another little girl, and she lets out a big scream. She so skinny you can see her ribs under her skin. Her bottom lip just quivers like it got a motor. Her hands and feet are a deep plum color. Her little legs pump the air like she riding a bicycle. She has blond hair, a pinkish scalp, but one side of her face red and scratched from where the blades mashed her. But she's alive and screaming for her mama. Dr. Butler's nurse gives her to me, and I wrap a blanket around her. She don't have no fingernails or toenails, and I hear Dr. Butler say it because she come so early.

    "You going to be just fine, baby," I tell her, and she opens her two big blue eyes and looks around.

    The door cracks open and Mr. Charlie's asking if everything's all right.

    "It's a girl," hollers Dr. Butler.

    "Well, I'll be. Another girl. How's my Gussie?" Mr. Charlie says.

    "She's going to be just fine," Dr. Butler says, his head stuck between Miss Gussie's legs. "Just fine and dandy."

    "It's a girl," Mr. Charlie tells Dorothy, who looks at me and don't say nothing, nothing at all. Before Mr. Charlie can close the door, I see her face, the dark, slanted eyebrows.

    "Thank you, Queenie," whisper Miss Gussie. "You saved the day."

    "She sure did," says Dr. Butler.

    I look down at the baby, what Dorothy almost killed. She roots for my breast. I'll protect you, little gal, I think to myself, I'll protect you, and when she open her eyes, I know she knows.

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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Crazy Ladies, Michael Lee West's spirited first novel, explores the trials and tribulations of six Southern women--Miss Gussie, the reigning matriarch, her daughters, Dorothy and Clancy Jane, granddaughters Violet and Bitsy, and her irreplaceable maid and guardian angel, Queenie.

The story begins in 1932, in Crystal Falls, Tennessee, where Miss Gussie is struggling to adjust to life with her difficult baby daughter. When death darkens her doorstep, Miss Gussie pledges her husband to a lifetime of secrecy, a promise that she herself takes to the grave.

Miss Gussie has her hands full with her two daughters. As the girls grow older, the surprises begin. Dorothy, believing that money will heal her childhood wounds, marries the owner of the local five-and-dime and settles next door to her childhood home. Clancy Jane shocks everyone by running off with her high school sweetheart, who spends his time working on oilrigs and girls on the side. Eventually Clancy Jane's free spirit leads her far from home, while Dorothy free falls into obsessive self-absorption and dangerous paranoia.

Meanwhile, Miss Gussie's granddaughters have their own hardships to endure. Each woman, however, is ultimately guided back to the shelter of dear Queenie, where three generations of daughters are once again reunited in Miss Gussie's old home.

Interweaving dark calamity with remarkable insight and humor, each voice resounding with Southern cadence, Crazy Ladies is a novel full of love and laughter, pain and redemption.

"A wonderful first novel of the lives of three generations of Tennessee women . . . Sharp, wry, and utterly convincing." -- Washington Post BookWorld

"Powerful. . . . Impressive." -- New York Times Book Review

Topics for Discussion

  • On the first page, Miss Gussie states, "There is so much good in a garden, if you don't count what happened to Adam and Eve." How does this statement serve as a foreshadowing of events to come and as a metaphor for the story as a whole? Why does West choose to begin and end the novel in Miss Gussie's garden?
  • What is the significance of Miss Gussie's act of murder in the first chapter? Why would West choose to open the story with this scene?
  • Both Dorothy and Clancy Jane have self-destructive tendencies that lead each to the brink of suicide. Why? What in their shared experience could lead to this behavior?
  • West uses multiple narrators to unfold the story in Crazy Ladies. What advantages are gained by this? How does the perspective of each of the six women affect your experience of the story? Do multiple narrators help to temper your judgments toward a character?
  • Clancy Jane is the most free-spirited character, and her life is filled with experiences that none of the other women ever share or understand. How does her character serve to expand the range and depth of the novel? What could her experiences teach the other women?
  • One of the dominant themes of Crazy Ladies is that of the single mother. How well do Clancy Jane, Dorothy, and Bitsy handle their issues of abandonment and the challenges of raising their children alone. What is West saying about the fortitude of women?
  • By the end of the novel, Queenie has become the most stable and secure characters. Were you surprised by this? Was there any foreshadowing of this in the novel's beginning?
    About the Author: Michael Lee West is the author of She Flew the Coop, American Pie, Crazy Ladies, and Consuming Passions. Her fiction has also appeared in First for Women, Wind, Southern, and other magazines. Her forthcoming books include Mad Girls in Love and Mermaids in the Basement, sequels to Crazy Ladies.

A registered nurse, West lives with her husband, two sons, a Scottish terrier, and five alleycats in a renovated funeral home outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2001

    Southern flair at it's best

    I have always been a fan of stories about southern women being one myself, and West did not let me down. I found her style of storytelling fascinating and enjoyed hearing the tales from every characters point of view. It really gives you a sense of what took place and you feel sympathy for every character in their own way. I also felt a connection with every character in some way or another. West is truely gifted in her art. I look forward to reading another book by her.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2012

    Ladies really ARE crazy!

    This book depressed me. I couldn't even finish it. Maybe it's just me, or the time of year (winter) but it was just dark and confusing and pitiful and depressing. I didn't like it. I read novels for enjoyment, and this one was NOT enjoyable in my opinion.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good cast of Characters

    They are crazy, unique and each strong in her own way. Good story that keeps you going; nice for a book club discussion.

    Interesting how the author writes in each "lady's" voice; good writing.

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

    Posted October 19, 2007

    Filled with Southern Charm

    I loved this book. I love how West takes you through literal decades of these women's lives and she presents them in such a way that you can identify with them. There are heartbreaking parts in the book where I found myself going 'Aww..not again, she's already been through so much.' But in the end it all works out to make a wonderful story.

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

    Posted June 27, 2005

    Great Book

    I sincerley enjoyed reading this book. I felt a strange conection to the character's and I haven't read a book like this in years.

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

    Posted May 14, 2002

    EXCELLENT!

    This was a wonderfully written book; told from each character's point of view. I was interested from the first few pages all the way to the end.

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

    Posted February 4, 2001

    Enjoyable Read

    I liked both the southern flavor and different perspectives from each of the main characters. The author's style of storytelling and description was quite appealing. I will be reading Michael Lee West's other books.

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

    Posted September 18, 2000

    Could be my all-time favorite book

    Coming from a large family I found each character in this book was someone I truly knew. The story is heart-warming, tragic and hilarious all at once. I can't say enough about this book!

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

    Posted June 3, 2000

    A wonderful Find!!!

    I just happened upon this book by accident...and boy am I glad I did! A fabulously engrossing story that I couldn't put down. By the end of the book I wished there was a sequel or the book was longer. West's writing style is wonderfully colorful,detailed and keeps me coming back for more! Read it!

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

    Posted May 31, 2000

    Can't wait to read her again

    This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. The character development is strong and the story engrossing. I hated to have to put the book down.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted November 18, 2009

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    Posted February 3, 2011

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    Posted January 4, 2011

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