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Fifth Born: A Novel

Fifth Born: A Novel

4.2 34
by Zelda Lockhart

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When Odessa Blackburn is three years old her beloved grandmother dies, and so begins her story, set in St. Louis,Missouri, and rural Mississippi. As the fifth born of eight children, Odessa loses her innocence at first when her drunken father sexually abuses her, and then again when she alone witnesses her father taking the life of his own brother.


When Odessa Blackburn is three years old her beloved grandmother dies, and so begins her story, set in St. Louis,Missouri, and rural Mississippi. As the fifth born of eight children, Odessa loses her innocence at first when her drunken father sexually abuses her, and then again when she alone witnesses her father taking the life of his own brother.
Fifth Born is Zelda Lockhart's debut novel, lyrically written and powerful in its exploration of how secrets can tear apart lives and families. It is a story of love, longing, and redemption, as Odessa walks away from those whom she believes to be her kin to discover the true meaning of family.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
O Magazine Lockhart's mastery of sensory detail — the tastes, smells, sounds, and sights of Odessa's world — roots us moment to moment in the hardscrabble life of this transcendent tale.

Essence A touching story told with incredible grace and subtlety.

The San Francisco Chronicle The language in [Fifth Born] is eloquent, the writing style poetic and the use of African American dialogue masterful.

Kirkus Reviews A poetic debut....An impressively mature piece of work.

Robin D. Stone With compassion, wit and grace, Zelda Lockhart gives us a new heroine: Odessa — forgotten, betrayed, wounded in body but strong in spirit that keeps us rooting for her 'til the sweet, sweet end.

The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
Debut novelist Zelda Lockhart studied with writer Dorothy Allison, and the evidence of that link lies on every page. Like much of Allison's work, Fifth Born is a painful read. In a voice with the same immediacy as that of Allison's protagonist, Bone, in Bastard Out of Carolina, Lockhart's endearing Odessa, the "fifth born" child in an ever-expanding family, is the keen-eyed observer who takes readers on a harrowing journey through adolescence.

Odessa's unruly Mississippi family moves north to St. Louis, but their problems follow close behind. Her "Deddy," an alcoholic with "a dullness behind his eyes from so much wanting and not enough getting," wields his belt as a weapon, and the threat of its usage is omnipresent. But the belt is just one symbol of the power he holds. Odessa's mama, a prototypical enabler, makes up stories to mask the family abuse rather than risk confrontation, convincing a young Odessa of her inability to see things clearly.

Odessa's story, unfortunately, is not a new one. But Lockhart's literary sensibilities, so well honed for a newcomer, raise the bar for the typical abuse tale. The raw intensity of her prose sings with tension and stuns with its ability to affect. But Fifth Born does not end without hope. Odessa goes in search of the truth and begins to see more clearly than ever the terrible darkness the cloak of secrecy has compelled her family to live within, and to realize that she, though wounded, may find someone to love her after all. Fall 2002 Selection

Publishers Weekly
Set in Mississippi and Missouri in the 1970s, this strong debut novel tackles harrowing if familiar themes of family violence and abuse. As the fifth child in a family of eight siblings, Odessa Blackburn sees herself as the "invisible middle" of her family. Sexually abused by her alcoholic father early in life and then again in late childhood, Odessa feels herself pushed away by her enabling mother and alienated by her own siblings, each of whom has a different strategy for coping with the family dysfunction. As Odessa grows up, she learns that her mother is having an affair with her father's older brother, Leland, and when her father learns of it and murders Leland, Odessa is the only witness. Unable to tell anyone what she's seen or about her own molestations, Odessa turns inward to memories of the one person who has ever shown her any real love: her grandmother, whose funeral opens the book. Odessa discovers a message in her grandmother's Bible that sheds some light on the intergenerational anguish of her family: "I lived in fear so much I couldn't show you any love." As Odessa begins her quest for a haven, she finds a long-lost relative who is also the "fifth born" and plays an important role in helping her rediscover her sense of trust. First-time author Lockhart, student of bestselling author Dorothy Allison, paints a disturbing portrait of childhood sexual abuse and its repercussions, and the strain alcoholism places on a family. While little new territory is covered here from a literary standpoint, Lockhart's narrative is straightforward and lyrical, Odessa's voice is believable and the evolution of her character in the face of overwhelming alienation is as engaging as it is heartbreaking. (Aug. 6) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In a poetic debut, a little girl is seemingly the only witness to her large family's truly disturbed behavior. When she's only three, little Odessa sees the only person who seems to care about her, her grandmother, dies, and it all seems downhill from there. Odessa is the youngest child in a big African-American clan that relocated from rural Mississippi to St. Louis for apparently no other reason than that their ill-tempered father could continue picking up the scraps from his more successful brother, Leland, who owned a tavern there. Odessa is not even old enough for school the first time her father sexually abuses her. Even though it's plenty obvious to her mother, nothing is ever said. The years pass and Odessa becomes more aware of her father's horrendous, drunken, and violent nature even as she forgets the details of what happened to her. The older she gets, the more her family's secrets come clear, and eventually the stage is set for a harrowing revelation back under the stultifying Mississippi sun. Lockhart studied under Dorothy Allison, and the influence shows. But even though the novel has echoes-a young girl lost in a welter of lies and abuse set against a hot and humid southern backdrop-it's a story all Lockhart's own. Odessa's voice is a singular one, never too wise for her age but still possessed of a keen perception that brings the hazy memories of childhood into sharp relief. An impressively mature piece of work.

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Washington Square Press
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0.52(w) x 5.00(h) x 8.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One:The Funeral

When we pulled off in the station wagon to head home to St. Louis, Granmama stood in the wake of dirt and rocks waving, her black hair blowing violently in the wind of the storm that we were leaving. I watched Granmama from the back of the station wagon until first her copper skin faded into the colors of the landscape, and then the speck that was her dress drifted, as if blown by the wind, out of the road and up the stairs of her front porch. That was the last time I saw her.

Granmama's funeral was held in the church where she had taken us on summer Sundays. The church stood tall and blinding white in the middle of a stretch of orange Mississippi dirt. Our family sat on the front pew, and because I was the baby, I sat next to Mama, holding her arm tight while my sisters and brothers sat quietly with their eyes wide open. Mama and the aunts wore veils, all their heads erect, their eyes and mouths invisible. The sun filtered through the stained-glass window, breaking the light into streams of orange and yellow where dust particles floated like dandelion seeds.

Our Grandeddy sat on the elder's pew at the front of the church. The wood dipped where he sat rocking to the soothing sound of the choir. He was the fattest black man I ever knew, and in the stained-glass light, he was so black, he was almost purple. The whites of his eyes were yellow like yolks. I stared at his face full of misery and regret for the woman that I never saw him hug or kiss. Their relationship was a lot like Mama and Deddy's, always cutting each other down with a list of regrets, but the babies came like seasons.

That day Grandeddy's face was hard and cold, not grinning behind a sip of white lightning like it usually was. In his white shirt and suspenders he looked worn, his age dusty on his black skin. I rocked with him and the rest of the family, and looked all over the church for some shift in things that would help me understand what was happening. He rolled the program tighter and tighter where the roughness of his hands against the paper sounded faint behind the harmony of the choir. Their voices lifted into the beams of the church and resonated inside my chest.

Walk the streets of glo-ry

Let me lift my voice...

The sweetness of the voices pushed Mama and the aunts into sobs and tears that sent me into tears, and I struggled to get around Mama's shaking arms and into her lap.

The adults fanned themselves to the beat, moaning like Granmama's cow when Grandeddy took her calf and sold it down the road. I watched Grandeddy.

The music paused, and the reverend stood. His voice echoed in the rafters. "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it."

He wiped the spit from his mouth with a handkerchief and motioned for the choir to hum the procession song. People lined up to look in the casket, like they were lining up for communion. There we all sat waiting, me, the littlest Blackburn. The church framed us, my two sisters and two brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, all the descendants of Grandeddy.

A tall, sturdy woman walked by in the procession and looked into my eyes. She lifted me from Mama's side, just swooped down like a hawk. When Mama looked up and saw through tears and veil that this woman was taking me to view the body, she pushed her veil up and yelled, but I cannot remember the sound that came from her mouth, because the humming had turned to singing, and somebody was shouting out the Holy Spirit in front of the casket, but when this woman looked into my eyes, the singing and moaning were muted. She looked down at Granmama and whispered in my ear, "Don't you never forget her face. You was her best granbaby. She tried to love you because she couldn't love her own."

I didn't recognize the voice that sounded so much like Granmama's, but let my three-year-old ear linger there on what felt familiar, her breath warm like comfort where nothing else made sense.

In the still of that moment I could smell Granmama's perfume, the perfume she only wore to church. She was resting in her yellow dress. The yellow dress that had yellow lace flowers over yellow satin, the dress that hung in her cedar wardrobe, the dress that she would put my hand on and say, "Flowers. Fl-ow-ers," and I would see in my mind the tall yellow sunflowers that had grown up among the weeds behind her house. I reached for her, but her hands were gray, not brown and pink, and her face was gray and dusty. She did not reach for me, and I did not know this woman in Granmama's dress.

On the train back to St. Louis I asked Mama, "When can we go back to Granmama's?" but she stared straight ahead, moving only when the train jostled her. I let go of her arm and braced myself as I crossed the aisle. My oldest brother, Lamont, pulled me up on his lap. At nine he seemed to understand things like a grown-up. I asked, "Where Deddy?" He answered me while looking out the window, "Who cares?"

"When we goin back to Granmama house?" In the reflection I didn't see his face change, but I put my hand on his cheek to turn it to me, and felt heat rise up to his temples. Warm tears rolled over my hand, and he mumbled, "Granmama's dead." I heard the voice of my big sister Towanda, the day she ran home and said, "There was a fight after school in dead man's alley," and Mama saying, "A nigga ain't worth a damn less he's dead." I saw Granmama's gray face and yellow dress lying among broken glass and candy wrappers, muddy storm water washing over her. I leaned against Lamont's chest and cried at the window too.

I was always crying, and clinging to Mama like death would sneak up and take her away. Unlike my four older siblings, I always walked because running meant falling, and falling released blood, blood released tears, pain spewing up from some churning ulcer inside of me that nobody understood. People stopped blaming my fragile state on the fact that I was born in Mississippi one summer and was Granmama's favorite, and it hurt me more than the other kids when she died. Mama said, "She's always cried a lot."

Mama didn't seem to mind my constant tears unless we were at church or at a barbeque and one of the aunts commented, "Lord, that chile done sprung a leak again," then Mama would yank me out of the fray of flying baseballs, jump ropes, and drunk uncles, and say, "Don't be so damn sensitive, cryin over every little thing." Usually I cried softly for an additional hour, so none of the aunts would want to sit and talk to Mama, just like none of the kids wanted to play with me.

My oldest sister, Towanda, nicknamed me "cry baby-baby," because I was unlike my sisters and brothers, who had their legs planted firmly under them like young oaks with deep roots reaching beneath the asphalt. They ran up and down the streets of West St. Louis, falling and bruising without the slightest grimace. When Lamont dragged Towanda, Roscoe, and LaVern through the gangway in the red wagon, their ashy brown legs with dirty sneakers dangled. Their knees scraped against the brick of our house and the grainy tar-paper shingles of the neighbors' house — their laughter louder than the pain of scabby knees.

My mama could tell a story. Where Deddy didn't have much to say about his childhood, Mama made up for it with stories about hers. And when she told stories about something bad, she had a way of plugging a funny image in there, or throwing her head back in a big laugh with her gold tooth shining. The story about how she got that tooth was one of my favorites.

"I was in Bo's car flyin up to West Point to pick up my girlfriend. We was goin to my graduation dance, and the car caught a patch of gravel, and the next thing, my forehead was stuck in the glass of the windshield, and blood was pouring from where my real tooth used to be." That's where she laughed, loud like Grandeddy, holding on to a door frame, a chair arm, a kid's shoulder, whatever was nearest.

In the living room there is a black-and-white photo of Mama on the hi-fi. She is in a white dress, sitting in the dirt next to the car. She is posing, smiling, her dress ballooned around her. Her round face is in contrast to the white bandage that is wrapped around her forehead. Grandeddy's new car, black and chrome, is shining in the background, its front crumpled like papers. When I look at the photo, I can see the whole accident, just the way Mama describes it.

When Mama tells the story about Granmama dying, it isn't funny at all.

I sat on the front steps thigh to thigh with her. Mama watered our small lawn and hummed church songs in a low sweet voice, while Lamont, Towanda, Roscoe, and LaVern ran up and down Kennedy Avenue with the other neighborhood kids, trying to get the last bit of play in before it got too dark and Mama said come in. The smell of dry earth dampened by cool city water filled my lungs, and I sat and listened to her talk to our neighbors, who sat on their steps, watering their lawns in the same sweeping motion. Most of the grown-ups in our neighborhood had moved up from Mississippi at some point, and they always wanted to know what was happening back home.

Mama shook her head and retold the story. "Well, we were on the road coming back from down South when it happened, but Bo said Mother took one look at where he cut his self cleaning them fish and just lost her mind tryin to stop the bleeding."

I made pictures in my mind while Mama talked, trying to see Granmama running all over her house, long arms reached to grab rags, quilt squares, whatever she could to stop the bleeding. I imagined my retarded cousin Neckbone being there. He was always present when bad stuff happened, but never made it into the retelling of the story. I could hear Granmama's footsteps from the kitchen to the bathroom, and Neckbone stood at Granmama's out-of-tune piano, trying to find the notes to "Wade in the Water," his nervous, callused feet shifting from side to side on Granmama's wooden floor.

"Bo tried to tell her to calm down. He bled all over the table, but he wasn't hurting none. Lord, Lord." Mama shook her head, but kept up the steady sweeping motion with the hose.

"Mother ran to the bathroom to try to rinse and squeeze the rags, and she clutched her chest right there and had a heart attack. Bo's blood was all over the bathroom, and all over her dress. She never could stand the sight of blood."

I listened, rocking now, to music from the funeral:

What — can wash away — all my sins

Nothing — but the blood — of Jesus...

And I saw in my mind Grandeddy wringing the program, Granmama's obituary scraping over the crusty insides of the hands he had cut up with a fishing knife, but there were no bandages.

Death, blood, Jesus, my cousin Neckbone standing over Granmama singing "Go Tell It on the Mountain," words and images put together like puzzle pieces that made a picture of logic for Mama and the neighbors, but in my brain they swam around like tadpoles trying to find a place to settle.

Copyright © 2002 by Zelda Lockhart

Meet the Author

Zelda Lockhart¹s poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in such publications as WordWrights, Sojourner, Calyx, Sinister Wisdom and USAToday.com. She received her B.A. from Norfolk State University and her M.A. in Literature from Old Dominion University. She lives in Ithaca, New York.

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Fifth Born 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What started off as an intensely interesting books, completely nose dived in the end! The akward and eccentric ending left me uncomfortable, and wishing the main character after years of abuse had gained something better....and normal. I felt extremely disappointed and let down. What was the author thinking? I've heard of surprise endings but this literally ruined the entire book for me. Proceed with caution, hopefully you won't be as disappointed as I was.
STEELO07 More than 1 year ago
This book was horrible. I have no idea what the author is talking about. A waste of money
HotChocolate40 More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book based on the reviews that I read. The Fifth Born represents generations of abuse that was hidden with lies. This book was ok not as detailed as I expected it to be. The story line pulled me in but while reading this book I felt like part of the story was missing. The end of the book put alot of the piecies of the puzzle together, I wish the author would have given a more cheerful positive ending.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had the opportunity to met the author at a book reading at Norfolk State University. She is very humble and offered much insight to the book. The book will keep you turning from page to page. Easy read!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Simply wonderful! I laugh, I cried, I felt Odessa's pain. Best book since Child of God.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A powerful read that will leave you yearning for me. If you only read one book this year, let this be it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book
Twylight07 More than 1 year ago
I am late reading this book as I see the other reviews were a long time ago but I loved it. The characters kept me interested and I read it in two days. The ending made me want to read the sequel which is not on Nook and hard to find.
junebugSM More than 1 year ago
Well, lets see now, Odessa, and Dessa for short was the 5th born, for a minute, then her mother was having babies left and right. So being the 5th didn't last to long. Alot of family incest and alot of beating kids, which makes me wonder if some of this didn't happen to the writer, don't know, but didn't care for it too much, it reminded me of the Movie The Color Purple, which this book really took me over the edge on this sex stuff. I didn't care for it for that reason and a few more. I don't care for back and forth stuff, which could lose you in the time span of grabbing some popcorn and a coke. When Ella Mae steps into the picture, I figured things out from that point on. Cannot read this book again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was great; U couldn't wait to get to the end. Definitely a page turner!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love this book...very entertaining..odessa, odessa!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Matthew Merritt More than 1 year ago
I had the author as a teacher, she is a great writer. Amazing book. Couldnt put it down
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aloveforbooks More than 1 year ago
I started this book and couldn't put it down. Being a survivor of childhood trauma, it was incredible how well Zelda put into words the feelings of the child. Amazingly written. Zelda is one of three things....an amazing writer, a survivor or childhood trauma, or both! Eagerly waiting for the next chapter in Odessa's life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put it down. I've given it to 5 people already and I never do that. Great Job!
Guest More than 1 year ago
its very hard for me to find a book to catch me right away..and NOT ten chapters later. this book took my interst right away and i loved reading it all the was through.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this novel in less than 5 hours. A page turner. Riveting and gut wrenching. A must read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author's writing is well planned and brilliantly executed. We are drawn in to the life of Odessa, who is also the narrator, from the age of 3 to 12. Odessa experiences alcoholism, physical abuse, murder, betrayal, poverty and rape, just to name a few. This book will make you laugh, cry, experience happiness and hope for revenge and redemption.