Feather Crowns

Overview

Set in the apocalyptic atmosphere of 1900--a time when many Americans were looking for signs foretelling the end of the world--Feather Crowns is the story of a young woman who unintentionally creates a national sensation. A farm wife living near the small town of Hopewell, Kentucky, Christianna Wheeler gives birth to the first recorded set of quintuplets in North America.

Christie is suddenly thrown into a swirling storm of public attention. Thousands of strangers descend on her...

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Overview

Set in the apocalyptic atmosphere of 1900--a time when many Americans were looking for signs foretelling the end of the world--Feather Crowns is the story of a young woman who unintentionally creates a national sensation. A farm wife living near the small town of Hopewell, Kentucky, Christianna Wheeler gives birth to the first recorded set of quintuplets in North America.

Christie is suddenly thrown into a swirling storm of public attention. Thousands of strangers descend on her home, all wanting too see and touch the "miracle babies." One visitor crawls right in through the window! The fate of the babies and the bizarre events that follow their births propel Christie and her husband far from home, on a journey that exposes them to the turbulent pageant of life at the beginning of the modern era.

Richly detailed and poignant, Feather Crowns focuses on one woman but opens out ultimately into the chronicle of a time and a people. Written in Bobbie Ann Mason's taut yet lyrical prose, the novel ranges from a peaceful farming community to a fire-and-brimstone revival camp, from seamy traveling shows to the hushed precincts of the nation's capital. Moving through the center of it all is Christie, a charming, headstrong, loving woman who struggles heroically to come to terms with the extraordinary events of her long life.

Feather Crowns is an American parable of profound resonance. Spellbindingly readable, it is a novel of classic stature destined to confirm Bobbie Ann Mason as one of America's most important writers.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
Possesses both gravity and grace; it has the power to move us with its simple, heartfelt depiction of ordinary, inarticulate people and their efforts to cope with the unexpected.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060925499
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/28/1994
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 1,194,347
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Bobbie Ann Mason has won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her books include In Country and Feather Crowns. She lives in her native Kentucky.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Birth February 26, 1900

Christianna Wheeler, big as a washtub and confined to bed all winter with the heaviness of her unusual pregnancy, heard the midnight train whistling up from Memphis. James was out there somewhere. He would have to halt the horse and wait in the darkness for the hazy lights of the passenger cars to jerk past, before he could fly across the track and up the road toward town. He was riding his Uncle Wad's saddle horse, Dark-Fire.

The train roared closer, until it was just beyond the bare tobacco patch. Its deafening clatter slammed along the track like a deadly twister. Christie felt her belly clench. She counted to eight. The pain released. The noise of the train faded. Then the whistle sounded again as the train slowed down near town, a mile away. The contractions were close together now. The creature inside her was arriving faster than she had expected. The first pain had been light, and it awakened her only slightly. She was so tired. She dreamed along, thinking it might be no more than the stir and rumble she had felt for months--or perhaps indigestion from the supper James's Aunt Alma had brought her.

"You have to eat," Alma had told her. "That baby'll starve, though by the looks of you I reckon he could last a right smart while. You've got fat to spare."

"I can't eat butter beans," Christie said. "They're too big."

Alma hooted. "The beans is too big? You keep on with them crazy idies and we'll have to carry you off to the asylum."

"Good," said Christie, making a witch face.

In late December, when the doctor advised Christie to stay in bed,they talked about moving her back up to Alma's house, where the women could take care of her more easily, but Christie wouldn't go. She had had enough of that place--too many people under one roof. She said she didn't want her children to be in their way. And she didn't want to be waited on like James's Uncle Boone, who wheezed and didn't work. He believed he had TB.

She tried to turn, expecting the pain to come back, but her stomach felt calmer now. Dr. Foote probably wouldn't want to come out this late, she thought, when the clock began to strike midnight.

Alma burst through the back door a few moments later. She hurried through the kitchen into the front room where Christie lay.

"Lands, here I am again." Alma wore enormous shapeless shoes and a big bonnet with a tiny gray-leaf figure that resembled mold seen up close. A woman in a blue bonnet followed her into the room. "Hattie Hurt's here," Alma said. She grunted--her laugh. "It's just like James to run off after the doctor when Hattie was right near. Why, Hattie can dress that baby."

"Babies like to meddle with our sleep right off," said Hattie cheerily. "They don't want to come in the middle of the morning like civilized company." She dropped her leather satchel on a chair and hurled off her coat all in one motion. Then she unbuckled the satchel. "Where's Mrs. Willy?" she asked. "She always beats me to a birthing."

"She went to Maple Grove to see her daughter and grandchillern and didn't say when she'd be back," Alma said.

"Mrs. Willy told me to take calomel when the pains commenced, but I didn't," Christie said.

"You'll feel better when you get this baby out, Christie," said Hattie soothingly.

"It's not a baby."

"She's talking foolishness again," said Alma.

Christie tried to sit up. She was in her front room, or Sunday room. The bed, directly across from the fireplace, was sheltered from the front door by the closed-in stairway to her right. To her left was the kitchen. The door was swung back all the way against the kitchen wall so that the two rooms joined into one. Christie leaned over to the bedside table for a rag, and Alma ran over to help her. Alma was rarely this attentive. Christie didn't want to depend on her, but she was helpless. She had been helpless for weeks, and the condition had made her angry and addled. The children seemed scared of her lately.

"Alma, reach me a drop of water. My lips is parched."

"You done flooded the bed," Alma mumbled. She brought Christie a cup of water and a wet rag, then turned to the kitchen stove to tend the fire. "This water's going to take awhile to boil," Alma said.

"We've got time," said Hattie, busy with her jars and tools. Her apron was freshly starched. It gleamed white as new teeth.

Christie's belly was tight. It needed to loosen up. She tried to knead it, to make it pliable. She thought it might explode. She ran her hands around the expanse--the globe of the world, James had joked. She hadn't needed a doctor for her other babies. It seemed that each time she had a baby her belly stretched and could accommodate a larger one. The second boy had been a pound heavier than the first, and then Nannie was so big she caused a sore that didn't heal for weeks. But what Christie had in her now was more than twice as large as any of the others. She had a thing inside her that couldn't be a baby--it was too wild and violent.

Hattie Hurt had visited several times during the winter, even though they hadn't been able to give her anything more than a ham and some green beans Christie had put up in jars. Dr. Foote was sure to charge more money than they could pay, but James said he'd sell a hog.

"Let me take a look at what's going on down there," said Hattie. "Can you get them drawers off?"

Christie's stomach was quiet now. She loosened her clothes and pushed down her step-ins, one of three enormous pairs she had sewed this winter. James had joked about those too, but she thought he was trying to hide his concern.

Hattie Hurt had strong hands and a gentle, reassuring voice. Her voice reminded Christie of her grade-school teacher, Mrs. Wilkins. Christie still remembered the teacher leading a recitation of short a's: march, parch, starch, harsh, marsh, charm, snarl, spark. She remembered how Mrs. Wilkins moved her jaws in a chewing motion to stress the sound.

Hattie poked around, feeling Christie's abdomen. She examined the place between Christie's legs. "You're pooching out some," she said. "Now just lay back and wait real easy. We don't want to force it too soon."

While Alma worked at the stove, the children still slept. Christie could see Clint and Jewell in the loft, above the kitchen, on a feather bed. She heard them stirring. Nannie was sleeping on a pallet in the corner between the fireplace and the kitchen wall. This winter, because of her pregnancy, Christie and James had shut off their north bedroom and slept close to the brick fireplace in the front room. Ordinarily, the children weren't supposed to enter the front room except on Sundays, but this winter they had all moved in. The front room contained Christie's best furniture, the almost-new cabbage-rose carpet, and her good Utopian dishes in an oak china-safe. James had made their furniture when they started out together in Dundee. When they moved to Hopewell, they stored it in Christie's parents' stable in Dundee until their own house was ready. When the furniture finally arrived, it had some mouse stains, but Christie had never seen anything so lovely. She sanded it down and oiled it. Now her weight had broken two of the slats in the bed, and the corn-shuck mattress beneath the feather bed sagged through the hole in the slats. It almost reached the floor, until James put a hassock under the bed for support.

"Is it time for breakfast?" Nannie asked. She was standing beside the bed, twisting the hem of her muslin nightdress across her face.

Christie pulled the dress away and patted her child. "No, hon. Go back to sleep."

"I want to get in with you. Where's Papper?"

"He's outside." She started to make room for Nannie in the bed, but her belly contracted then and she cried out involuntarily.

"You hurt me," said Nannie. "You hurt my fingers."

Christie released her. Alma came over from the stove and steered her back across the soft carpet to her pallet. "Go look for your dreams, child," she said. "They'll get away from you." Turning back to the kitchen, she said to Christie, "I told Mandy to get on down here and carry the chillern up yonder to the house, but where is she?" Alma cupped her ear to listen. "The moon's shining big as a Sunday communion plate, so I don't know what she'd be scared of."

"Hoboes from the train," said Christie. "And devils behind bushes."

"She ain't got the sense God give a tomcat."

Amanda was Alma's sister-in-law, married to Alma's brother, Wad Wheeler. Alma bossed everybody in the household, but she bossed Amanda the most. She believed Amanda thought herself too good for ordinary work.

"I wonder if Mrs. Willy's back yet," said Christie.

"Oh, I don't think she knows a woman's behind from a jackass, to tell you the truth," Alma said, scowling till Christie imagined Alma's loose-jawed face drooping all the way down to her apron.

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