How Sweet the Sound: A Novel

How Sweet the Sound: A Novel

4.5 12
by Amy K. Sorrells

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A woman hides in fear after an atrocious crime. Her brother takes justice into his own hands. And a young girl fights to make sense of it all in this Southern coming-of-age novel set in coastal Alabama in the summer of 1980.
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A woman hides in fear after an atrocious crime. Her brother takes justice into his own hands. And a young girl fights to make sense of it all in this Southern coming-of-age novel set in coastal Alabama in the summer of 1980.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Debut inspirational novelist Sorrells opens her story powerfully, with a rape and double murder within the Harlan family, who grow pecans in Bay Spring, Ala. This strong stuff is Southern gothic, but it’s also biblical, a retelling of the story of Tamar, who is raped by her brother, a son of King David. The story of this event and its tangled consequences is narrated alternately by Anniston, who is 13 and has seen her father murdered, and her aunt Comfort, the rape victim. The family’s secrets emerge, even as healing, propelled by faith, begins. Sorrells’s ambitious work has beautiful elements, chief among them the strong voice of Anniston. Others need work: Princella, the Harlans matriarch, could use more development and subtlety, and so could the prose (“The haze of quiet sunlight floated into the room like a slow dance between dreaming and waking up”). Sorrells will likely move many readers of faith, and she’s worth watching. Agent: Sarah Freese, WordServe Literary Agency. (Mar.)

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David C Cook
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David C. Cook

Copyright © 2014 Amy Sorrells
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7814-1125-7



I thought I'd lived through everything by the time I was thirteen.

Hurricane Frederic nearly wiped the southern part of Alabama off the map that fall, and half of our family's pecan orchards along with it. Daddy said we were lucky—that the Miller pecan farm down the road lost everything. The Puss 'n Boots Cat Food factory supplied our whole town of Bay Spring with ice and water for nearly a week until the power and phones came back on along the coast of Mobile Bay. Anyone who could hold a hammer or start up a chain saw spent weeks cutting up all the uprooted trees and azaleas, pounding down new shingles, and cleaning up all that God, in His infinite fury, blew through our land. Like most folks who lived along the coast, we'd find a way to build back up—if we weren't fooled into thinking the passing calm of the eye meant the storm was over.

If I'd only known this about Hurricane Frederic—that the drudging months leading up to Thanksgiving would be the only peace we'd see for some time. Weren't no weathermen or prophets with megaphones standing on top of the Piggly Wiggly Saturday mornings to shout warnings of storms and second comings to us.

The only warning was the twitch of my grandmother's eye.

* * *

"Happy Thanksgiving!" Mama, Daddy, and I said in unison.

Princella pulled the front door open to let us in, kissing us each coolly on the cheek as we passed. Her graying hair was twisted into a tight, smooth bun on top of her head, and a purple suede pantsuit hung on her too-thin frame.

"Thank you. Oralee, Ernestine will help y'all take that food on to the kitchen."

"How are you, Mother?" Daddy had grouched around the house all morning as we readied ourselves to go to the big house.

"Why, I'm fine. Thank you, Rey. Your father is in his den." Princella nodded toward the book-lined room to the left of the foyer.

I followed Daddy. Though I loved peeling potatoes and painting butter on yeast rolls as they came steaming out of the oven, I didn't feel like being around Princella, who preferred I call her by her proper name, saying she felt too young to be called Grandma. I couldn't figure her out. Then again, who could? Mama called her an enigma. I called her old and bitter.

The thick, wide shoulders of my granddaddy, Vaughn, filled every inch of the leather chair behind his desk. Wire-rimmed spectacles sat on the tip of his nose, and he rubbed his neatly trimmed moustache as he concentrated on the thick ledger open in front of him. As soon as he saw Daddy, he got up and threw his arms around him hard, patting him on the back. "Good to see you, Rey."

"You, too, Daddy."

"And how's Miss Anniston today?"

"Fine, sir." The sun caught on the silver bevels of a sword sitting on Vaughn's big wood desk, sending shards of light dancing across the walls and ceiling.

"Wow, I haven't seen that in a long time." Daddy gently picked up the sword and let his fingers glide along the blade, down to the tip and back again. Carvings of horses and soldiers wrapped around the thick handle.

"My granddaddy gave me that sword. Belonged to his granddaddy, Gabriel Harlan, from before the War." Vaughn picked up the case, the name Harlan inscribed deep into the worn, cracked leather. "I intended to wait until later, but I might as well give it to you now."

Surprise spread across Daddy's face, ruddy from all the days working outside in the orchards, but softened by the kindness in his eyes, which were heavy with the love I saw when he read to me each night, even still, before bedtime. "I always thought this belonged to Cole next."

Vaughn stood up and peered out the window overlooking the orchards. "Granddaddy helped Gabriel plant most of these. Helped him plant the trees, babying them until they pulled in a crop. While they waited for the trees to yield enough to live off of, Gabriel oystered and fished and worked for lumber companies, making an honest living and providing for everyone—including the freed slaves—who lived on this land. One of only a few abolitionists back then, he paid his black workers a fair wage, sometimes choosing them over white workers who needed a job, and at the expense of ridicule and putting his family in danger. He retired from the Confederate Army before the War, so he never fought in it. Granddaddy told stories about how Gabriel wouldn't have fought in that war if he'd died refusing, because he hated slavery so." He turned to face Daddy. "He stood up for what was right and for the weak. Raised me to do the same. And that's how I believe I've raised you."


Vaughn held his hand up, and to my surprise, a tear rolled down the side of his face as he kept talking. "Been thinking a lot about this family lately, how I done you and your sister, Comfort, a disservice over the years by feeling sorry for Cole. Listening to your mother when she said I was too harsh with him, when harsh was what he needed. I felt sorry for him, I suppose, not having his real daddy around. I never listened to you or your sister, or anyone for that matter, who voiced concern about his choices and actions. And now I see those actions have taken a toll on all of you, and I'm sorry for that. I brought him in and raised him as my own—and I would do it again—but you and Comfort ... You're my flesh and blood."

He took the sword from Daddy's hands and slid it into the leather case. "When my daddy gave Gabriel's sword to me, he said it stood for peace, not war. That it should be given to the firstborn son, a son raised to believe in freedom. Someone who will fight injustice with courage and truth."

Quiet fell over the room, except for the ticktock of the grandfather clock in the hallway.

"Take it, son. Will you?"

"What's going on in here?" Princella's unexpected voice struck us like a whip across our bare backs. "What are you doing, Vaughn? That's Cole's sword."

Vaughn walked right up close to Princella until he stood about an inch from her face. "Something I shoulda done a long time ago."

"Hey, everybody!"

My aunt, Comfort, and her long-time boyfriend, Solly, burst through the study door, giggling like a couple of kids my age. But their faces fell when they saw Princella and Vaughn standing there in obvious disagreement.

"I'm—I'm sorry. Were we interrupting?"

Princella turned sharp and stomped out of the room.

"Sorry, Solly. You're fine," Vaughn said. "Please come in."

"Welcome to the festivities," Daddy simpered.

"Comfort!" I ran and hugged her despite the tension I felt in the air.

"Hey, darlin'," Comfort said in a tempered voice, hugging me back. Despite my affection for T-shirts, boy shorts, and flip-flops, her outfit, as usual, was to die for. Beneath a striped, fringed poncho, she wore flared white trousers, a bright-orange halter top, and orange plastic platform shoes that matched. Her hair was done up in a high bun tied up with a matching orange-and-white scarf that trailed down her back.

"What about me? Don't I get a hug from my girl?" Solly, a burly fellow with curly dark hair that fell over his ears and glasses, caught Daddy's eye as he yanked me into a bear hug. He looked handsome as ever, dressed in what appeared to be a brand-new pair of jeans, a plaid, button-down western shirt, a black cowboy hat, and black boots.

Thank goodness they came when they did. If Princella wanted to be in a snit, fine. But with Comfort and Solly there to brighten the mood, maybe she wouldn't ruin the whole of Thanksgiving Day.



The mess during everyone's arrivals redeemed itself over the sizzle of fried turkey, yeast rolls melting in our mouths, and the crunch of crawfish-pecan dressing. The sweet potato soufflé settled as Vaughn finished carving the turkey.

"Rey, would you do us the honor?"

"Amen," we said in unison after Daddy finished thanking God for blessings past and yet to come.

"Somebody pass the giblets," Vaughn said with a gleam in his eye.

"Saved some just for you." Princella winked at him, one of her few ways of showing affection, as she passed the bowl of steaming bird innards. How anyone ever ate those, I never could understand.

"Princella, your cranberry mold is beautifully done. It must've taken you forever to get it to set like that." Mama took a bite of the scarlet jelly.

"Thank you for noticing, Oralee. It did take quite awhile."

"And the silver. I've never seen it shine so," said Comfort.

"I can't tell you how many times I've dreamed of your yeast rolls since last year, Mama," said Daddy.

Princella smiled at them both, all the while holding her neck up high, stiff, and hawk-like, perched over the rest of us as if we were the meal. Thankfully, the centerpiece, a vase stuffed to overflowing with every shade of rose you could imagine—reds, pinks, peaches, yellows from Princella's garden—nearly hid me as I pushed pieces of turkey around my plate.

Princella and I had a complicated relationship, not the warm-milk-and-cookies type most of my friends had with their grandmothers. On the rare occasions I spent the day with her, I caught glimpses of kindness, even sympathy, especially as she tended her rose gardens or brought food to church shut-ins. But most days, she acted matter-of-fact and strict in matters of fashion, manners, and social standing—especially when it came to my life.

The back door opened and shut with a boom that rattled the crystal, and my uncle, Cole, barged into the room. Princella stood up so fast she nearly knocked her plate off the table. "Welcome home, son!"

"Mama." He held her by the shoulders, kissed her on the forehead, then stood back and glared at the rest of us. The outline of his thick chest muscles pushed against the Alabama Southern on the front of his T-shirt, and his face was a mess of unshaven stubble. Though he coached football at Alabama Southern, Cole often moved back and forth without notice, never settling here or there.

"Nice of y'all to wait for me," he said.

"I'm so sorry, hon—"

Ernestine, our family's Haitian nanny and house help for the past thirty-five years, interrupted. "Don't you give your mama a hard time now. We can't ever be sure of when you'll show your face around here. You surely know that."

"All I surely know is that I'd appreciate a tall glass of bourbon." He sneered. Never was one to put up with correction from anyone.

Ernestine, who sat on my right, started to get up, but the lengths of her flowing, Caribbean-style dress caught on the leg of the chair.

"It's okay, Ernestine. You sit. I'll get it," said Mama, glowering at Cole.

"On the rocks."

I watched as Ernestine's rough, ebony hands adjusted the napkin on her lap. She'd worked for our family ever since Daddy was a boy, raising him, raising Comfort, and half raising me. Whenever Mama worked, Daddy brought me here with him, and even now after school, Ernestine minded me. Up until I grew too big to sit on her lap, she'd held me with her dark brown arms. Eyes rich and sweet like chocolate chips, she listened to my every dream and fear. On rainy days, she brought out her squeezebox and handed me the frottoir, and we made music and danced up a storm under the protection of the giant, pillared front porch, singing and laughing like crazy at the lightning, and drowning out the pounding of the thunder. She taught me how to braid friendship bracelets, lines of color knit together in a tight string of love. She taught me the Bible and how to pray on my knees. She was my best—and close to my only—friend.

"So." Princella sat back down, straightening her napkin on her lap. "How long will you be staying?"

Cole pulled out the empty seat next to her and winked. "Long enough to get good and full of your cookin', Mama."

Princella's whole face looked brighter. Meanwhile, the rest of us ate our meal in silence. Those of us close to Cole knew to keep our mouths shut when he came around. The whole town had worshipped him ever since he'd grown old enough to hold his head up with a football helmet attached. Kenny Stabler picked him for an understudy in youth leagues. He led Bay Spring High School to the highest-ranked season finish ever, second only to a big school out of Birmingham in the state championship. Got himself a full ride to Alabama Southern with the promise afterward of coaching for them. But when he was home ... Well, he was unpredictable.

"Now? Do you think?" Solly whispered to Comfort.

Comfort blushed and nodded as she grabbed his hand under the table.

Solly set down his fork and cleared his throat. "I have an announcement to make. Comfort and I do. Vaughn?"

Vaughn gave him a crooked grin and nodded.

"Last night, I asked Vaughn's permission for Comfort's hand in marriage."

"And he has my approval." Vaughn beamed.

"And after proposing properly to Comfort"—he kissed her on the temple—"she agreed to be my wife."

Together, Solly and Comfort brought their linked hands up onto the table, and sure enough, a small diamond on her ring finger caught the light from the dining room chandelier.

I squealed, and Mama, eyes welling, about crawled over the table to hug Comfort.

"Oh, Comfort, I'm so happy for y'all!" she said.

Princella gave a thin smile and set her spoon down a bit harder than she should have. "Well, then. Congratulations. But I do hope the ceremony will be ... private."

"What do you mean, Mama?" Comfort's face faded from pink to the color of the mashed potatoes.

"She means," Cole said, wiping his mouth with the pressed linen napkin, "we don't need to invite the whole town to see a whore get married."

Mama's fingers tightened around her fork and knife.

Solly's and Daddy's jaws clenched.

Comfort's chair squeaked as she pushed back from the table. "Excuse me—I—"

"Wait." Vaughn's voice cracked across the table like a gunshot. Then, softly, he spoke to Comfort. "Please, darlin'. Please wait." Then he scowled down the table at Princella. "Enough."

"What on earth do you mean?" she replied.

"We will let them celebrate, and we will support whatever and however they choose to do so."

"Of course. I don't want to draw the whole town's attention to it. That's all."

Cole sniggered, and Solly woulda come across the table at him had his arms not been around a trembling Comfort.

Daddy pounded his fist onto the table, ice rattled in the glasses, and our plates jumped. "She's your daughter. My sister. We will all support them, with or without you two." He pointed a finger at Cole. "And as for you, the only reason anyone thinks poorly of Comfort is because of you and the heinous things you've said about her over the years. Things I'm not gonna let you get away with anymore."

"Whatever, John Boy."

Princella's chair squeaked across the floor next. Cole laughed and threw the rest of his bourbon down his throat. The ticktock of the grandfather clock grew loud in my ears.



"What is that banging at this time of night? Anniston? You okay?" Mama hollered from her bedroom across the hall.

The noise had already jolted me awake. Sounded like someone ramming a post against the front door, they banged so hard. I stumbled out of bed, one of Daddy's old Tulane T-shirts hanging down to my knees, and met Mama in the hall. Her pretty brown hair fell in tousled pieces around her face. Daddy, dressed only in his boxer shorts, rounded the corner to the front room and flipped on the porch light. Molly, my white retriever, barked like crazy, scratching at the threshold as Daddy turned the lock and opened the door.

"Rey? Who is it?" Mama pulled her thick, pink bathrobe tighter around her slender self.

"Dear God, it's Comfort. And she's hurt. Oralee, call an ambulance." Daddy yanked the door open, and Comfort stood on our front doorstep, shivering. Her face was swollen, her dress torn at the shoulder and splattered with blood.

"Tell the operator to send an ambulance," Mama instructed me. Then she ran to Comfort, who fell into her and Daddy's arms.

I made the call from the phone in the kitchen, and the operator's flat and solid voice steadied my shaking hands as I held the phone against my ear and asked her to please send help.


Excerpted from HOW SWEET THE SOUND by AMY SORRELLS. Copyright © 2014 Amy Sorrells. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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.

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