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In 1904, twelve-year-old Orphelia follows her dream by running away from home to join an all-black minstrel show headed for the Saint Louis World's Fair, and learns about her ...
In 1904, twelve-year-old Orphelia follows her dream by running away from home to join an all-black minstrel show headed for the Saint Louis World's Fair, and learns about her family's troubled past in the process.
THE STONE SHED
Orphelia Bruce raised her hands to an imaginary piano keyboard and wiggled her slender fingers in the warm Missouri spring air.
"Pearl, are you ready now to sing?" she said over her shoulder to her older sister. "We have got to do better this time. Cap, I see you're ready on your, uh, drum." She glanced at the tall, light-skinned boy beside her, two sticks in his hands, beating on a school-book that swung on a strap around his neck. "All right! And one and two and three and four and—Pearl! You missed your cue again!"
Turning around, Orphelia saw Pearl bent over in the tall grass, examining the hem of her long muslin skirt. "I must have caught it on the fence back there," she said. "You know I can't sing in a raggedy skirt. So unprofessional. We got to call off practice."
"Girl, you're always tearing something." Orphelia tried not to let her face frown up too much. "Come on, Pearl, we have got to rehearse. You're not getting up on that stage tomorrow night singing every which way with me and Cap."
"Oh? Well, maybe I just won't go at all." Pearl smiled wickedly. "Then we'll see who else'll get to be in Madame Meritta and Her Marvelous Traveling Troubadours Talent Show. How about that?"
Orphelia put her hands on her hips and opened her mouth, but Cap broke in. "You know your momma said if Pearl can't be in it, you can't either, so just be quiet, Orphelia. I'm not gonna look a fool banging out 'Listen to the Mockingbird' on a drum by myself."
"You mean banging on my book," Pearl said. "I don't think you got a real drum anyway I bet you plan to fix up a sorghum bucket."
"Don't worry about my drum," Cap shot back. "You better worry more about getting another hole in your stocking."
"Did I? Where?" Pearl hitched up her skirt and examined her black cotton stockings.
Orphelia snatched at her sister's skirt. "Put your skirt down, you ninny! Look, I'll mend your hem good as new, all right? Stockings, too, if there's a hole. All right?"
Darn Pearl. So vain! Orphelia lifted her hands again to her pretend piano and tried to look as pitiful as she could at Pearl and Cap. "Now, please, please, please, please, please can we try it one more time?"
Pearl smiled at Cap, who turned red up and down his neck. She cleared her throat, patted her reddish brown hair upswept in a pompadour, and clasped her plump hands before her. She fluttered her long eyelashes and gazed into the sky. "All right. I'm ready. Proceed."
Pearl's raspy voice scraped out the opening words of "Listen to the Mockingbird." To help her stay in tune as much as possible, Orphelia added her own strong contralto voice. Good grumpety gracious, but Pearl was so off-key! She sang like that even when they practiced on the real piano at school.
And just where Cap was going to find a real drum in one day was something Orphelia told herself not to worry about. It was stupid to have a drum playing with them anyway, but that was another of Sister Pearl "Miss in Charge" Bruce's ideas. Orphelia had wanted a tambourine, but nobody she knew had one.
She sang louder to try to keep Pearl on key and tried not to wince when her sister hit another wrong note. Even though Pearl couldn't sing, Momma insisted that Pearl be part of Orphelia's performance. This was the price one paid to reach fame, Orphelia reminded herself.
Cap was not from around here. He'd dropped off of a train into their Calico Creek community a couple of months ago. He said he was twelve, but with that height and barrel chest, he looked a good fifteen or sixteen. Big old boy! Living by the Mississippi River in northeast Missouri, in that corner where Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa came together, Orphelia had seen a lot of hobos who had passed through from steamboats, barges, and boxcars. The river and the railroad were natural highways for transients. She hadn't seen many as young as Cap, though.
The minute Cap saw Pearl, who was fourteen, he fell smack "in love" with her. Now he followed her around like somebody's pet goat.
Not that Orphelia minded much that boys seemed to like Pearl more, and that at first glance, folks told Orphelia to her face that Pearl was prettier than she was, and that Pearl was Momma's favorite. Well, she minded, but she refused to let any of it bother her, put it that way Orphelia was rather pleased that her braided hair made her look dignified, that she was slender and athletic, and that Poppa said her chocolate skin, like his, was as smooth as a piece of fine furniture.
Best of all, she could sing and play piano better than anyone else in Lewis County, even including most of the adults. She was church pianist-in-training for their Calico Creek Missionary Baptist Church. She sang solo and played piano at all the school and church events. Once she even sang at the Emancipation Celebration way over in Hannibal. She had perfect pitch and practically a photographic memory, which meant that she could play any song after hearing or reading the music just once.
It stood to reason that she was going to be a star one day. Everybody said so. Well, Momma wouldn't say so. Momma would only say that Orphelia's voice was "sufficient" for religious music, that singing sassy songs was a sin, and that no daughter of hers would ever perform professionally onstage. She and Momma had had more than one fight about that.
"Mockingbir-r-r-r-r-d," Pearl shrieked, spreading her chubby arms. "Okay, I'm through. We don't need to sing more than two verses, anyway. C'mon, let's go home."
Orphelia sighed, dropped her hands, and followed Pearl down the road. Better this short practice than none at all. "Maybe we can come to school early tomorrow so we can use the piano," she said. Neither Pearl nor Cap answered.
"Remember, we can win first place, you all. Remember St. Louis and the World's Fair! Cap, ever been to St. Louis? Yes? No? We haven't, yet. But if—when—we win, we'll get to play during Madame Meritta's program at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—the St. Louis World's Fair—next week! I love the sound of that. We'll be famous, you hear me? She's never brought her talent show to this part of Missouri before, Cap, so that must be a sign!"
"Orphelia, shut up. You're yapping so much I can't think," Pearl said.
Orphelia ignored the impulse to ask Pearl when did she ever think, and went on, "And maybe I could join up with Madame Meritta and Her Marvelous Traveling Troubadours show and travel all around the world. I'd wear furs and boas and diamond necklaces and sparkling dresses and a feather in my hat just like she does. Maybe I'd even get a beautiful gold tooth like she has. People would cram into her shows and swoon over me playing and singing. They'd throw money and roses at my feet."
"And when your daddy heard about it, he'd make them throw you out," Cap cracked.
"No, Poppa wouldn't," Pearl giggled, "but Momma would. Poppa'd just stand there and watch ol' skinny Orphelia go flying out through the tent door. Listen, Cap, when Momma's going to switch Orphelia, Poppa'll just go to the front porch or the outhouse and stay there until it's over."
"Oh have mercy heavens, Pearl, now you're the one flapping your lips," Orphelia said. She didn't want Cap to know that she still got switchings. "You keep falsifying like that and you'll give me heart palpitations. And I'm not skinny!"
"Kids from all over the state have been competing in that woman's talent shows for nearly a year," Cap reminded Orphelia. "This is her last stop anyway. She's probably already got the winner picked out, probably from Kansas City or Jeff City. She don't want no hicks around her. You and Clementine and Ambrose and anybody else from school who's gonna be in this thing's fooling yourselves. Don't even think about winning first place and going to St. Louis."
"You don't know that, so don't be so negative." Orphelia lifted her head and thrust out her chin. She picked her schoolbag up from the ground. Forget Cap.
As they walked past the Stone Shed, Orphelia stopped to scan the back-porch wall for new posters. The Stone Shed was a dilapidated old building set near the road, where people posted handbills, posters, broadsides, and other printed announcements. It wasn't actually made of stone but of wood. Everybody said it had been used once as a jail for colored people. But now it was like Calico Creek's community newspaper. And it was where, a whole year ago, Orphelia had first seen posters announcing the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—the World's Fair-starting April 30, 1904, in St. Louis.
Since then, news of the World's Fair had kept her thumbing through the newspapers that came to the school. Madame Meritta's poster, however, had appeared only a few weeks ago. The poster's announcement had made Orphelia almost faint with joy. The real Madame Meritta, coming to little Calico Creek, Missouri? Orphelia didn't care if Madame Meritta sang or not—if she could just see her! Well, if she did decide to sing, that would be even better. But it was a talent show for kids, after all.
For years Orphelia had read and saved as many newspaper clippings about Madame Meritta as she could find. Madame Meritta was a star! She was born of free parents in 1864 in St. Louis and could play the piano at the age of four. By age seven she was known as "Little Miss Meritta, child prodigy." By the age of twelve—same age as Orphelia—she had run away from home and joined a minstrel show.
Once she was on the same program as John William "Blind" Boone, the famous Missouri piano player. Several times she performed with the renowned opera singers, the Hyers Sisters. Madame Meritta formed her own minstrel troupe, one of the very few Negro women to do so, and now she traveled around the world. She had her own customized coaches and everything. Her life sounded so exciting!
To see the great Madame Meritta in person would be a miracle in itself. To perform in her talent show was something Orphelia had only dreamed about and never thought possible. Until now.
This would be her first big break. One of these days she'd be so good that Momma would have to like all the music she played. She'd be so famous that her posters would be all over the Stone Shed. The Hannibal Evening Courier and the Lewis County Journal and even the St. Louis papers would have write-ups about her. One of these days, no matter what Momma said, Orphelia would be a minstrel star, too, just like Madame Meritta.
As Orphelia, Pearl, and Cap slowly began their long walk across the cow pasture for home, Mr. McCutcheon and his ice wagon, drawn by his cross-eyed mare Canola, rumbled past the Stone Shed. World's Fair posters were nailed to both sides of the wagon. Orphelia waved at him. If he had stopped at a customer's house, she and Pearl and Cap would have scrambled up to his wagon and gotten fresh, cool chunks of ice. Singing made her thirsty.
"Well, I know neither Poppa nor Momma's gonna ever let me or you sing sassy songs in public," Pearl was saying. "You know Momma says—"
"I know, I know! I have to hear it more than you do! 'Perform only proper music in public, sassy music and dancing are sinful, always sit with your ankles crossed, and always conduct yourselves as proper young Negro ladies, according to the standards of the day.' I am too tired of hearing that. Why Momma's so much against every kind of song I want to play except church music is what I can't understand. She's so old-fashioned. Why do she and Reverend Rutherford say dancing is sinful and will make your soul burn in the hereafter down below, but then won't tell you why?"
"Uh-oh, Orphelia's gone off again," Cap said. "Pearl, hold this chile down!"
Orphelia spread her arms wide and whirled around. "Shoot, this is 1904! People in Hannibal have motorcars and electric lights inside their houses. Miz Rutherford told us that two men flew in the air last year! I want to see the world. I wanna play ragtime, sing show tunes, do the cakewalk—c'mon, you all, let's high step!"
Breaking into a lively chorus of "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers," Orphelia grabbed Cap by the left arm and swung him around. Pearl grabbed his right arm. They strutted and high stepped about in the pasture like she'd seen folks do at the Emancipation Celebration.
Suddenly Pearl stopped. "I feel flushed," she panted. "Did Mr. McCutcheon see us dancing? Am I feeling the hot flames of the hereafter down below already?"
Orphelia laughed, but she stopped dancing, too, feeling guilty. How could something so enjoyable as music and dancing be a sin? Momma didn't want to talk about any kind of music unless it was church music. She didn't even want to talk about her own brother, Uncle Winston, who had played the cornet before he died. His picture hung in the hallway at home. He wore a band uniform and carried his cornet. A tiny silver pin shaped like a musical note sparkled on his lapel.
Momma would only say that Uncle Winston died when he was a young man, that his cornet playing was "sufficient," and that Orphelia should let his soul rest in peace. Poppa was as closemouthed as a clam about him, too. Orphelia couldn't even pry anything out of Miz Rutherford. Orphelia felt a connection with him, as he seemed to have been the only other instrumentalist in the family.
Just then Pearl nudged her. "There must be something to what Reverend said. Dancing's put Cap on the road to sin already Look!" Cap had trotted along the dirt path to the porch of the old Stone Shed and was removing boards that were loosely nailed across the door.
"Get away from there!" Orphelia yelled. "Sheriff Lasswell owns all this, and I personally heard him say he'd arrest anybody who fools around in this building. Can't you read that 'Keep Out' sign? Ain't nothing in there for you. Cap, you hear me?"
Without answering, Cap pushed his way into the Shed. "Well, I declare," said Pearl. "Where he comes from, trespassing must not be against the law. I suppose he figures he can do anything, being a man, or near big as one."
Cap reappeared in the door with a drum in his hands. "Told you I had a drum. I know what I'm talking about. Come see what all's in here. Pearl, come look."
"Don't you do it," Orphelia said.
But Pearl hotfooted along the path to the porch. She peeked in the door. "Where'd you steal this drum? Cap, I'm not getting in trouble over your—oh, my goodness gracious! Looka-here! Orphelia, you got to come see!" Then she disappeared through the door, too.
"Momma's gonna skin you and fry you up for going in there," Orphelia warned. She folded and unfolded her arms, dying to go in, too. If this place used to be a jail, why would a drum be in there?
"Pearl, you come out here right now!" She took a step forward on the path and stopped, then took a few steps more. She swatted at a grasshopper that jumped from a stand of Queen Anne's lace onto her blouse. "Better come out before you give me heart palpitations!"
Cautiously she stepped onto the creaky porch and peeked in. Cap and Pearl stood in the middle of a large, dusty, spiderweb-strewn room. Sunlight through the cracks in the roof and walls gave her just enough light to see large piles of newspapers and rags on the floor, wooden straight-back chairs, a divan, a fireplace, a magnificent iron chandelier, and massive wood tables with legs the size of pillars. The air smelled like wet, decaying tree bark and rotted leaves.
Pearl and Cap pointed to a corner of the room where against the wall sat—an upright piano! The only other pianos Orphelia knew to be in the Calico Creek community were in their church and school. Eyes riveted to the instrument, Orphelia dashed into the room. She lifted the dusty piano lid and touched a few keys. Tinny sounds came out. Already she loved it.
"Shoosh, thing needs tuning bad," she said. "But I sure wish I could take it home! It needs somebody like me to take care of it."
Cap proudly set the drum back up on top of the piano. "Ain't this the funniest looking 'jail' you ever saw?"
"Looks more like it was a dance hall or a saloon, or a music room." Orphelia ran her fingers over the keys again. "But not a jail! Why would the sheriff and everybody tell us such things?"
"To keep nosy little children like you out of here," said Cap.
"Oh yeah? Well, what does that make you? And how'd you know about that drum being in here anyway?" Orphelia asked. She played a few more notes, wondering if Reverend Rutherford could tune pianos.
"'Cause I bet he's been in here before," Pearl said. "Tore those boards off like they were matchsticks, just like that, strong as you are." She plucked his shirt sleeve flirtatiously.
Cap puffed out his chest and hooked his thumbs into his belt. "When you travel around like me, you got to know how to do. Otherwise you be sleeping in the mud with the pigs and cows. We fellas on the road spot out places like this and tell each other. After I got kicked off—hopped off the train, I remembered a fella telling me about an old building out in the country. He described it perfectly, so I came right to it. A rug makes a good blanket when you ain't got nothing else, and a floor beats sleeping on the ground anytime."
Excerpted from The Minstrel's Melody by Eleanora E. Tate. Copyright © 2009 Eleanora E. Tate. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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.
Posted June 30, 2010
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I picked up and put this book back down years ago because it didn't interest me. I recently picked it up again and enjoyed it. It has some slow parts and others that happen too fast but the book is not long itself. Orpheilia is a young girl who wan't to star in a traveling show, sining dancing and playing music. She is the blacksheep of the family and feels no one understands her dreams howevr she will go to extraodinary measured to chase them.
I really liked Orphelia as a character and Othello but that was about it. Everyone else was either okay or I hated them. The mother for example didn't seem protective but insane to me. However it is a good read.
Posted August 12, 2003
Posted August 22, 2002
This is as good as Shadows in the glasshouse. I loved the daring character, Orphelia. She reminded me alot of myself. This book was sort of a mystery. The first one was Orphelia was tyring to let her mother play the music she loved. The author though kind of squeezed in the part about Reubun. At first he was no big deal. Then in towards the end of the book he became a big deal. If I hadn't known it was supposed to be a mystery book I would have thought it was just aa historical fiction book. This is why I only it 4 stars. It is very well written.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.