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Five Smooth Stones: A Novel

Five Smooth Stones: A Novel

4.7 65
by Ann Fairbairn

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This gripping bestseller, first published in 1966, has continued to captivate readers with its wide-ranging yet intimate portrait of an America sundered by racial conflict. David Champlin is a black man born into poverty in Depression-era New Orleans who makes his way up the ladder of success, only to sacrifice everything to lead his people in the civil rights


This gripping bestseller, first published in 1966, has continued to captivate readers with its wide-ranging yet intimate portrait of an America sundered by racial conflict. David Champlin is a black man born into poverty in Depression-era New Orleans who makes his way up the ladder of success, only to sacrifice everything to lead his people in the civil rights movement. Sara Kent is the white girl who loves David from the moment she first sees him, and who struggles against his belief that a marriage for them would be wrong in the violent world he has to confront. And the “five smooth stones” are those the biblical David carried against Goliath. By the time this novel comes to its climax of horror, bloodshed, and hope, readers will be convinced that its enduring popularity is fully justified.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A courageous novel . . . David is a marvelously well-done character."  —Library Journal

“A long and richly realized novel . . . Ann Fairbairn renders her scenes so skillfully and reveals her hero so fully that [his] qualities are transformed from desirable abstractions to a memorable identity. . . The numerous people characterized so clearly in this novel are ‘mortal humans.’ That is rare enough in any fiction dealing with one of the bone-deep issues of our time.” —The New York Times Book Review

"No matter how large Ann Fairbairn’s audience is, it won’t be large enough . . . Technically Miss Fairbairn is flawless . . . David Champlin is a great tragic hero in a memorable story."  —Denver Post

“Every so often along comes the big book that defies categorization . . . It has real size, stature . . . Above all, it rings true . . . You may put it down, but you can’t forget it. You have to come back. Such is the case with Five Smooth Stones.  —Springfield Daily News

Product Details

Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Rediscovered Classics Series
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Product dimensions:
8.96(w) x 6.02(h) x 1.51(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Five Smooth Stones

By Ann Fairbairn

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1966 Ann Fairbairn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-572-2


There was a ten-dollar bill in Joseph Champlin's pocket on an evening in early March in 1933. Few Negroes in New Orleans during those days of a paralyzed economy could boast as much. With the ten-dollar bill was a fifty-cent piece; this he had made on a four-hour cleaning job. The ten dollars he attributed to the direct intervention of the Almighty in his troubled affairs. He budgeted his windfall in his mind as he walked along the banquettes of the Vieux Carré on his way home: coffee, coal, beans, rice, salt meat, oil for the lamps, something held back for his mother, and something to pay on the overdue rent.

Geneva would be happy, he thought; Geneva would sure be happy. He planned to keep quiet about the ten dollars at first, giving her the four-bit piece when he came in, giving her chance to blow off steam because he'd worked for so little. He knew by heart what she would say, and he would not give her the opportunity to say all of it.

"Don't come crying to me, Li'l Joe Champlin!" Her voice would be sharp with worry, and there would be desperation behind it. In the early days of their marriage the sharpness had been less, more a thing of tone than of emotion. These days it sliced at his nerves. "Don't come crying to me. You think they gonna pay you good if you don't have no understanding first? Or even if you got an understanding. But you got no understanding at all, they going to take all they can get even if it's blood. They gonna take it and expect you to say 'thank-you-suh.'"

"You don't understand. Things is different. Things is bad, real bad. Even they got it rough."

"That ain't our fault."

"Sure as hell ain't, but there ain't nothing we can do about it. You knows damned well, Neva, I never done no job in my life till now I didn't have an understanding first how much I'd get. Li'l Joe Champlin got his price or he didn't do no work."

"That's because they knew you was the onlies' man could turn out the work like you do. Working like a pint-sized mule, half killing yourself."

"I'll get me my own price again, you wait and see, better times come."

"Better times ain't coming."

"They says they is. Seen it in the paper. Everything's going to be better now they got them a new President." Joseph Champlin laughed without sound. "You does a lot of talking, but I don't see as how you've had no better luck getting more'n a dollar a day washing dishes in that restaurant where they gets five dollars just for putting the water and bread on the table. That and maybe some beef ribs to tote home. What kind of a dog you tell them folks you was taking them bones home to?"

Then it would go on, Li'l Joe Champlin's voice quiet, soft; Geneva's rasping. It hadn't been like that when they'd first started living together, after he and his first wife, Josephine, had separated, or after he'd made her his married wife. Now the nagging was wearing him down.

Usually, after a few hours of it he would leave the house, sometimes slamming the door, more often letting it close quietly behind him. Then he would walk, legs leaden with fatigue, the meal Geneva had somehow managed to scrape together a burden in his stomach. Most of the time he wound up at Hank's Place and sat slim and straight at the counter, drinking his coffee slowly, making it last until he knew Geneva would be in bed. Sometimes he had a little money he'd held back, and then he would have a drink of bootleg or corn whiskey. If he didn't have the money even for coffee, Hank would trust him, winking at him to say nothing.

When Li'l Joe went home, it would not matter how harsh the words had been earlier. He would move quietlv, as he always did, undressing in the dark, slipping into bed beside the tired woman who was his wife. Just as he felt sleep creeping on to obliterate the ache of living, one slender brown hand would reach out almost without volition, and he would grasp a fold of her nightgown, holding it tightly. If he woke up through the night and found it no longer in his grasp, he would reach out again, and return to sleep with its folds in his fingers.

Tonight there would be no need to leave the house, no preliminary quarreling or nagging. He would not let it get to that stage before he pulled out the ten dollars. He thought of telling Geneva he had earned the ten dollars, and then decided against it. She wouldn't believe him. He would tell her the truth — that he had found it, wadded into a ball, on the floor of the men's toilet in the Creole Club when he was finishing his job of mopping.

Joseph Champlin was forty-two in that year when the economy of the country had reached its nadir. He was a slight, brown-skinned man, quiet in his ways. He was respected and loved by his own people and in considerable demand by the whites as a worker, because he had the capability and drive to turn out more work in a day than most men twice his size. His top weight was one hundred and twenty-five; on the night Providence had led him to the ten-dollar bill it had dropped to one hundred and nine. He could not remember the time when he had not been known as "Li'l Joe" Champlin.

When the economic rigor mortis of the depression settled over New Orleans, it had been hard for him to take whatever came his way. Not that there had ever been work he was too proud to do. His mother had taught him that, speaking as often in French or Creole as she did in English. But there had been jobs he had refused to return to because he did not like the treatment he received as a Negro. He had always resented the patronage of householders more than he did the sometimes abusive, always profane, attitude of the white straw bosses on the docks or other manual jobs. He resented the "boy" of the genteel white far more than the "nigger" of the straw boss.

He did not make all his money by manual work. He could play banjo and guitar with the best New Orleans had to offer, and when times were good he was always able to make extra money playing.

He looked with contempt on his own people who talked "poor mouth," whose voices changed when they talked to whites. He had no more scruples than the next man when it came to lying to whites as a means of self-preservation or to please them and keep them in a good mood. Lying to whites was a fact of life; it was like keeping your head up and your eyes up when you worked on the docks around the cranes, because the cranes could mean a horrid death. But if he gave his word to any man, colored or white, he kept it. If they did not keep theirs, his was not given again.

Now hunger and want were threatening to strip his dignity from him as a vulture strips flesh from the bones of the dead; they were not unfamiliar, he had known them all his life, but not in quite the guise he knew them now. He had worked before his seventh birthday, and with the pennies bought salt meat to surprise his mother. Now hopelessness was added to hunger and want. That had not been there before. There had always been hope before, within the narrow, circumscribed world in which the color of his skin required him to live.

During his adult life he had never failed to stop at his mother's room on St. Peter Street on his way to a job, to drink a cup of coffee with her. He did not change the habit now; the difference was that he was not setting out on a job, but to walk God only knew how far before dark in search of one.

Irene Champlin was a small woman, almost tiny; it was from her the man called Li'l Joe inherited the delicate look, the slender bones, the slight frame, and the hidden strength. Her skin was as blue-black as her mother's had been when she had been brought to America as a child, eight years old, straight from Africa on a slave ship. Irene spoke precise and nearly perfect English because she had taken the fancy of the woman she had been put out to work for when she was a child and had been taught to read and write and speak properly along with her employer's children. She spoke Creole and French fluently because those were the languages spoken by her own family.

She was waiting for her son the morning of the day he found the ten dollars, coffee hot on the tiny stove, the strong black coffee of New Orleans, bitter with chicory. As Joseph Champlin drank the coffee, he knew he did not want to leave the little room, wanted to sit there quietly with her, drawing from her strength. He felt dead inside, and dreaded what he must face when he walked down the worn stairs and into the streets.

She waited until she saw the shadows of his face lighten a little, and said: "It's near your birthday, son. Pray to St. Joseph. He'll help you. And when the work comes, offer it to God."

He tried to speak lightly. "Looks like God don't need no work, Ma."

There was no softness in her ejes when she looked at her son, her first and only child, but behind them there was pain.

"God never made the mouth he wouldn't feed." She spoke in French.

He was silent a moment, did not answer directly; he had seen too manv mouths in need of food these past months. "You need anvthing, Ma?"

"Nothing, son. I worked three days last week. You know that. Stop bv tonight and I'll give you some rice and some sugar for Geneva. She likes plenty of sugar for her coffee."

He did not tell her they had used the last of their coffee that morning. He had not yet told her of the real poverty of his home these days. What must she have made last week? Two dollars? Some to put up for the rent, some for the coffee she loved herself, some for rice and beans and what she could pick up at the French Market for a few pennies — filleted fish backs, chicken backs — and she would make them taste better than some of the junk Geneva brought home from the restaurant where she sometimes worked. If he told her of their need, she would wait until he had left her room and go to their house, and if Geneva was not there she would open the door with the key they had given her and leave something in the icebox or on the kitchen table.

She sat at the little table by the window opposite him. "They're waking Ruth tomorrow night," she said. "Will you be there?"

"If I ain't working."

"It's the wake for your son's wife."

"I know, Ma, I know. I'll be there, I tell you, if I ain't working. If I gets a job, no matter what time of day or night it is there ain't nothing going to keep me away from it. Reckon John would understand."

It had been six months, almost to the day, since his second son, John, born to him and Josephine twenty years before, had died under the wheels of the freight train he was hopping north to find work. John had been big and strong, with skin almost as black as his grandmother's, and had laughed a lot. "He laughs like his grandfather," Irene Champlin said. "Like my husband did."

Then John's wife, Ruth, had died in a little room on the other side of town just twenty-four hours after giving birth to their son. There was sick sadness in Joseph Champlin's heart that morning as he sat with his mother.

"Ain't never thought I'd envy the dead," he said, and stood quickly, wanting to get away, to take his sadness outside where it would not worry his mother.

She went into the hall with him and said, "God's blessing, son," as he turned from her and started down the stairs, shoulders straight and thin under the clean, starched khaki shirt. She watched him from the top of the staircase, eyes on the nappy black hair kept as she had trained him to keep it, close cut and gleaming, and she put out her hand to him as he went from her. He did not see her, only felt along the back of his neck a prickle of warmth, for he knew without seeing it that she had made the gesture.

By ten o'clock that morning he could sense there would be no work. He was far more tired than he ever remembered being at the end of a day's work with pick and shovel, deep in a ditch; more tired than he had ever been after ten, twelve hours wrassling coffee sacks on the docks. He walked endlessly, without a dime in his pocket. His belly was beginning to cramp, as it always did when it was empty, but he could not bring himself to go home. He went to numberless restaurants, offering to wash dishes, and found no takers. One woman laughed sympathetically. "We've got a waiting list," she said. "Come back tomorrow afternoon. Maybe then." Something in the straightness of his shoulders as he turned away prompted her to call him back. "I'll send someone out with a cup of coffee," she said.

The coffee stopped the cramping for a while and chased the giddiness of hunger from his head. When there was no place left to go on that side of town, he turned toward Canal Street, heading for the depot and the area back of it. Ahead of him he saw a white man he knew, unlocking the door of a small nightclub where he had played gigs with Kid Arab's band in the good days when there was music to be played all over, and the streets of the Vieux Carré were alive at night and swarming with people. The man was Tony Guastella, and the club was called the Creole Club. It was a white club, a bootleg joint, and he stood now in the open doorway through which Guastella had disappeared, and knocked on the jamb.

Ten minutes later, equipped with dusting cloths, pail, mop, and broom, Joseph Champlin was attacking two weeks' accumulation of dirt. He had not asked what the pay would be; Guastella had not told him. He wrinkled a fastidious nose at some of the dirt, but went after it in the only way he knew how, as though the devil were riding him.

Stale coffee was in a pot on a battered electric plate on the shelf beneath the bar. The bartender had washed the glasses last night, but had left the coffee to grow stale in the pot. He asked Guastella if it was all right if he had a cup, and was told to take all he wanted, and help himself to the pretzels in a bowl on the bar. These and the knowledge he would not be going home that night with completely empty pockets gave him strength to make the job a good one. Do it good enough, he thought, mebbe I can get me a little work here now and then.

When he saw the end of the job in sight, could see in his mind's eye a can of coffee on the shelf, salt meat in the icebox, and enough rice and beans to last them a while, he began to sing. Singing was not one of his accomplishments; his musical talent was strictly instrumental. His voice was rougher, stronger than his size would indicate, and he let it out now, the rhythm helping his arm with the mop:

"'Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you moan —
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you moan —
Pharaoh's army got drownded —
Oh, Mary, don't you weep —

"'When we get to Heaven, gonna sing and shout —
Can't nobody in Heaven throw us out —
Pharaoh's army got drownded —
Oh, Mary, don't you weep —'"

He sang this song because it was on his mind. He had sat alone in his kitchen the night before, listening to a church "sing" in Conservation Hall, just behind their back window, in the next street. Emma Jefferson was playing the piano, anyone could tell that, playing it with a force so compelling, a touch so sure, and a sense of beauty so perceptive that her chording breaks made his flesh prickle, brought out gooseflesh on his arms. After they had sung about Pharaoh's army until he could see it, and the Red Sea swallowing it up, he waited hopefully for "He's My Lily of the Valley." It came finally, and as soon as he heard the opening chords he began to smile. In a little bit Geneva's voice would break away from the others and take off alone, take off and travel, not strong, but clear and high and sweet. The ensemble would be strong and close — "'He's my lily of the valley, everybody knows —'"; then Geneva's voice would soar like the exultant song of a solitary bird flying high above its companions — "'Everybody don' know — everybody don' know — what Jesus means —'" And then the ensemble would come under her voice and cradle it, and then it would break away again, soaring and swooping — "'What Jesus means, what Jesus means —'" He could listen to it over and over, but it was the hymn about Pharaoh's army that lived with him for two or three days after he heard it.


Excerpted from Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn. Copyright © 1966 Ann Fairbairn. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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.

Meet the Author

Ann Fairbairn was best known for Five Smooth Stones, but also published two other books: a biography of New Orleans jazz clarinetist George Lewis, whose tours she managed, and a 1970 novel, That Man Cartwright. She lived for many years in New Orleans and died in Monterey, California, in 1972.

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Five Smooth Stones: A Novel 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 65 reviews.
Sue_in_Wisconsin More than 1 year ago
I had read this book 20+ (ahem) years ago, and found it powerful then. Now, older and having experienced the world more, I find it even more powerful today. Parts of it will rip your heart and guts out, but it is based on real things that happened every day preceeding and during the Civil Rights movement. I cannot reccomend this book too strongly--you simply have to read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The characters steal your heart and the story is sad but real. It begins in the South during the Depression and moves through the Civil Rights movement in the North and South. It makes the struggle between blacks and whites more understandable. A must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This beautiful novel shattered my reality and changed my life
lovetoreadSJ More than 1 year ago
one of the best books I have ever read. If I recall, nearly 1000 pages. To answer the readers question, that wanted to know. Have read it three times. Now that it is on nook, I shall read it again.
rbmerlot More than 1 year ago
One of the most beautiful stories written. You will care for the characters Sara and David. It is written during the time of the civil rights movement. When I started reading it, I could not put the book down. The story has everything a reader could want, a story with depth, action, love, and even despair. I made my recent purchase to always have a copy for my shelf (someone borrowed my copy from the 70's). This book should be read by young and old alike.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read a lot and rarely reread a book, but this one is an exception. I remember being a teenager in the 60's and living through the events at the end of the story. I can also can relate to the history that brings the characters through the generation to those events.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A co-worker recommended this book to me. Wow! A bit long, but a very good read.
JamieFan More than 1 year ago
I read this book at the age of 16, in 1968. I remember how captivated, stunned, and horrified I was when I finished reading it. It moved with me for the next 10 years, always being boxed up with care. However, somewhere along the way of my life I lent it out and never got it back. I'm thrilled that it's been re-published 43 years later. I can't wait to read it again!
BCBL More than 1 year ago
Five Smooth Stones is a book that you will think about for a very long time. It raises so many issues and you will find yourself trying to decide what you would do and how you would handle the different situations. The characters draw you as a reader and are very well developed. It was amazing to me that the author portrayed all the characters so well. The book is very long and there were parts that moved slowly, but overall I would recommend this book to anyone. In my opinion the book is very thought provoking and worth your time as a reader.
FEM More than 1 year ago
I have read this book almost every year since it was published. I have given it as gifts, loaned it to people(some of whom never returned it), and probably have purchased for myself alone approx 8 copies. I am addicted to this book, so I find myself purchasing another copy since i can' find mine. I wish they would make a movie based on this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my all-time favorite book. The first time I read it was in 1979. My old copy is in tatters from lending it to so many people. Now I can buy some new copies & give them as gifts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read
Melancholia More than 1 year ago
I read this amazing book when I was 18 and I loved every minute of it. Now 43 years later I am going to read it again because it has become relevant to my family's story. It is a beautiful love story of both the young couple and David's grandparents'. I always remember how they held hands as they went to sleep and I know that has affected my loving. We'd like to believe that rascism no longer exists but we all need to do serious soul-searching.
avidreader716 More than 1 year ago
I have read Five Smooth Stones three times. I lost my original in the early 1990's and had to find a copy because I knew I would want to read it again. The story is a perfect mix of character and plot development and even though the ending is sad, the book is uplifting.
Ms-Cat More than 1 year ago
My grandmother gave me this book when I turned 16 and I could not put it down. It was so moving and relevent to a young black teen in 1972. I have read it over and over and will give it to my niece when she turns 16. Following David's struggles with his own feelings while Sara is so free and open with hers was a real learning experience. Recommend it very highly.
ashleycooper More than 1 year ago
I read this book so many years ago I can't remember - probably after it was first published. I have always remembered the title, but not the author. Someone told me that 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle' was the best book they had ever read. That started me thinking about the best book I have ever read and while I can't narrow it down to one book, 'Five Smooth Stones' is one of the top five. Obviously it affected me very much if I can remember it forty years later. I need to read it again to remember the details, but I do remember that it had a powerful effect on me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Actually read this book 40 years ago; can't quite remember what drew me to it but I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. Found it hard to put down and so is the case now. I named my first born, David, after the character in this book that' how much I admired this fine young man. Life is a circle; things go round and round. We face the same issues today as yesterday. I'm sure there are many David's and Sara's out there...this is your story!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i read this book as a teen and still have the first printing. it is an exceptional read that has stayed with me all my life, One of the very few books that has survived  a fire, a flood and numerous resident relocations. I couldnt loose this book if i wanted to.I have raise my children and grandchildren to be tolerant of all diversities for being this way makes for us a better world.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this 47-43 years ago and found it to be a pretty powerful story and with the re-read I still do. The title has always stuck with me so was surprised that details of the story didn't. I recommend
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Because this is a book of its time, a reader can see even more clearly that love emerges without respect for patriarchal rigidity or man-imposed restrictions. Love prevails. A wonderful book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing, once finished wanted to read again. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Manassasrn More than 1 year ago
I first read this book in 1966, it literally changed my life and the way I have lived my life.Bravo Ann Fairbains
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I dont think I can remember the title.of any other book I read that long ago but I remember staying up late reading in the hallway so I would not keep anyone wake!! Can't wait to start reading again.