&3151; The Washington Post
Let the Lion Eat Strawby Ellease Southerland
Hailed upon publication by writers and critics alike, including Shirley Hazzard and Charles Johnson, Let the Lion Eat Straw is a dazzling novel that tells the story of Abeba Williams, whose mother abandons the poverty of the South –– and in the process her daughter –– for opportunities up North. Missing her mother, she clings to/em>
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Hailed upon publication by writers and critics alike, including Shirley Hazzard and Charles Johnson, Let the Lion Eat Straw is a dazzling novel that tells the story of Abeba Williams, whose mother abandons the poverty of the South –– and in the process her daughter –– for opportunities up North. Missing her mother, she clings to Mamma Habblesham, a woman with enviable reserves of love and hope. Their affection for each other seems boundless –– until Abeba's mother returns to take her to Brooklyn.
As Abeba grows up, her exceptional musical talent promises to be an avenue of escape. But a handsome singer distracts her, and opportunities that once seemed so close begin to fall away. Now married with children of her own, she fights to maintain the dignity of her family. Let the Lion Eat Straw is a revelation of the glory in apparently ordinary lives.
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Let the Lion Eat Straw
Jackson didn't have good sense. He had all the sense he was born with, but that wasn't enough. He was a great big boy, sixteen years old and what'd he do all day? Go on up the road to the midwife's place and play just as content with the little girl there. Playing tea party. That ain't no way for a grown boy to be. Just two years ago, the little girl fix mud cakes and all. Took weeds and fixed it sos it looked like greens and laid a twig beside the dinner for a fork then called Jackson to the table to eat and that great big boy picked up the little mud cakes and bit right into them. And Abeba Williams, that's the little girl, put her hand on her hip just as she see the midwife do and said, "Jackson, you to play eat, not to eat mud sure enough." And Jackson got it straight after that.
And Jackson quick to tell people, "Me and Abeba going to get married."
And people say, "Who's Abeba?" And come to find she somebody no more than a baby and he a big boy holding her hand. They called him crazy. Crazy Jack. Except for the little girl, the midwife and Jackson's family. And sometimes he get on his brother's nerves and he call him the same thing. Crazy Jack.
Jackson had just gone down the road to play with Abeba. Banged on the door. Door wasn't locked, just pushed to. He holler her name. "Abeba."
Folk said, he's feeling hisself and going to hurt that little girl one of these days.
Then he come on back home to worry his mother to death.
"I told you they went to town, Jackson. Calm yourself."
"She not home. I was just fixin to stop by but she not home."
His mother kept washing.
"She gone north?"
"Jackson, don't worry me today."
"Where she at? She gone north?"
"Not yet, Jackson."
"When she going?"
"At the end of summer."
"How come Abeba going north?"
"Her mother's coming for her. Jackson you been asking me the same questions since morning."
"When she be back?"
"Jackson, sit down."
"I'm fixing to go to Abeba's house and wait till she get back from town. Bye Ma."
She let him go.
He soon came back.
He sat quietly in the yard.
His mother looked at him. Big hulking shoulders. Abeba Williams. The little girl with the pretty wide nose. That was an unusual little girl. With good understanding. Of course folk say that when two people sleep with their heads together, they get the same dreams. And Abeba slept with the midwife. Dreamed the old woman's dreams. Quite naturally she know some old folks' secrets. But weren't they two people proud of each other. Didn't have much of nothing, staying out in that one-room shack. Nothing but a rooster and a handful of chickens and a cabbage in the yard. Didn't have no outhouse. Did their business right in the bush. But they were a proud somebody. The midwife, half Indian, half African. You could see it in her face. All in the cheekbones. And couldn't she bring some babies into this world. She could look up in the sky on a bright day and tell new life on the way. She start down the road and come across some nervous somebody beating a path to her house.
She was an unusual woman. She and the little girl come to the church door, with the same walk, same way of studying you. And the people had to turn, and see who's that so proud of themselves. And smiling and fanning. She looked at her son. "They be back directly, Jackson. You help me peel potatoes and directly it'll be time for you to go see is Abeba and Mamma Habblesham back from town."
In town, the midwife and the little girl met first one acquaintance and then another making over the little girl going to leave her Mamma Habblesham and go off to the big city to live with her natural mother.
Sister Mildred said, "Why you going way off from your Mamma Habblesham?"
The little girl looked troubled. Didn't answer.
"Every time I break bread with Abeba, it's sweet. Lord knows I don't want this baby to go way from me. What I got to do, Abeba not here? But I got to give all that up now."
Others stopped. Spoke in close-teeth whispers to keep the conversation over her ears. So the mother found herself a husband in New York. Hope she'll be happy. They said things louder for the little girl to hear.
"Be a good girl, Abeba."
"Yes ma'am." A feeling came over her. It felt like the times Mamma Habblesham sang about God. Going to move this wicked race and get some other people who had better manners to obey. And not fight. Mamma Habblesham sang in front of the big tin basin where she washed the blood from chickens. Pulled out the wet feathers, and burned them in the fire outside.
They went into a goods store and looked at nice soft material. Abeba was very quiet as the man unrolled, spread and cut the cloth.
Back home, the little girl looked at the midwife and said, "You declare you tired?"
"I sure do, Abeba. Your Mamma Habblesham sure do."
"And there was plenty folks in town today?"
"Hush your mouth."
They smiled at each other. Glad to be home. Mamma Habblesham said, "Go open the package."
Abeba worked at the tight knot for a quiet minute, then said, "I believe it's too much for me to handle."
Mamma Habblesham cut the string with a knife and together they pulled back the brown paper and uncovered the soft fabric. Spread the cloth. Soft gingham, white and green squares. Pretty bright cotton, soft violet. And blue. Dotted Swiss. So much new cloth in the old shack with its one horsehair mattress, kerosene lamp. Chipped basins and old chairs.Let the Lion Eat Straw. Copyright © by Ellease Southerland. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
Ellease Southerland, recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Award for Poetry, is professor of African Literature at Pace University in New York. The author of the novel A Feast of Fools and the poetry collection The Magic Sun Spins, Ms. Southerland divides her time between Nigeria and New York City.
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