No Crystal Stairby Eva Rutland
Telling the remarkable story of black Americans in the 20th century through the character of Ann Elizabeth Carter, this historical novel weaves real events throughout the tale of America making slow, steady, and still unfinished progress towards racial equality. Raised in the privileged and comfortable world of Atlanta’s black elite, Ann Elizabeth still
Telling the remarkable story of black Americans in the 20th century through the character of Ann Elizabeth Carter, this historical novel weaves real events throughout the tale of America making slow, steady, and still unfinished progress towards racial equality. Raised in the privileged and comfortable world of Atlanta’s black elite, Ann Elizabeth still endures the dangers and rank discrimination of the deep south. When she marries Tuskegee Airman Robert Metcalf during World War II, their world broadens to include war-torn Germany, postwar Los Angeles, school integration, marches and sit-ins of the civil rights era, Cold War Europe, and the black separatist movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Gwendolyn E. Osborne
- IWP Book Publishers
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)
Read an Excerpt
It was a Sunday morning, and a gentle breeze drifted through the stiff organdy curtains of the breakfast room at 2201 Hunter Road in Atlanta, Georgia. Ann Elizabeth Carter, still wearing her pink velvet robe, breathed in the fresh spring scent of pine needles and magnolia blossoms. Then she heaped her plate with fried chicken, grits and gravy, hot buttered rolls and jam. She smiled at her mother and her aunt Sophie, removed her napkin from its silver napkin ring, curled her toes around the rung of her chair and began to eat with unladylike relish.
Aunt Sophie, whose flowered chiffon dress did nothing to conceal her too-plump curves, sighed. "How you can eat like a horse and still retain that figure is beyond me."
The dimple at the comer of Ann Elizabeth's mouth danced. "Survival, Aunt Sophie. I starve all week at the dorm. Food at the dining hall is inedible."
"Silliest thing I ever heard of, making seniors live in, especially when you're practically next door to the college," Julia Belle snapped.
"Just one more month and I'll be free!" Ann Elizabeth knew that her mother's irritation had nothing to do with her boarding at school; it was about her attending Spelman at all. Julia Belle was an Atlanta University alumna and had never been reconciled to the affiliation of the three major Negro colleges, although the merger had occurred years before. Atlanta University had become the graduate school; Morehouse remained a men's college, and Spelman a women's college. Ann Elizabeth had a discomfiting thought. Would Mother insist on graduate school just so she could get that Atlanta University stamp? Except . . .
"Guess what," she said suddenly. "Last night Dan asked me to marry him."
Julia Belle Washington Carter paused in the midst of pouring herself a second cup of coffee, put down the pot and beamed. "Ann Elizabeth, how wonderful!"
Mother, I "
Sophie sat up, eyes wide. "Well, I do declare! Here I send Helen Rose to Fisk, way up in Nashville, so she can snatch one of those Meharry Medical School students, and you land a full-fledged doctor right under our noses! Not that it was unexpected isn't that right, Julia Belle?"
"Yes, I think he was just waiting for the proper time. Now that she's graduating "
"Well, it's too late for a June wedding, Julia Belle."
"August is better, anyway. Not as likely to rain and we can have the reception on the lawn." Julia Belle produced a pad and pencil. "Why didn't you wake me, last night, Ann Elizabeth? I could have spoken to Reverend Hawkins after church this morning."
"Mother, I "
"How many bridesmaids?" Sophie asked. "I know Helen Rose will be maid of honor. Yellow . . . No, not good with her pale complexion. Deep rose, and the other girls could wear pale pink. Good combination. What do you think, Julia Belle?"
Julia Belle was studying a calendar. "We'll have to decide on a date immediately. I'll have to call Henry about the catering. He's so busy these days. Even with a war on, you wouldn't believe how "
"Mother, Aunt Sophie, stop it!" Ann Elizabeth's voice was sharp.
Both women stared at her.
"I . . . I haven't decided."
"Of course not. There are so many things to decide. To schedule." Julia Belle made rapid notes. "Let's see. I'll call the bridal consultant at Rich's tomorrow and "
"It's not that." Ann Elizabeth drew a deep breath. "It's Dan. I haven't decided about him."
What do you mean?" Julia Belle's voice dropped to a whisper.
"Dan. Marriage. It seems so . . . final. I just don't know."
"Good Lord, girl!" Sophie's voice rose. "How can you sit there nibbling on a chicken bone and casually announce that you've just turned down the most eligible bachelor in town?"
"I . . ." Ann Elizabeth hesitated. Looked at the two women closest to her in all the world. She wanted, needed to talk with someone. To sort out her feelings. But this wasn't a discussion; this was a confrontation. She sighed. "I didn't turn him down," she said. "Not exactly."
"Well, thank God for that!" Julia Belle seemed relieved but still apprehensive. "What exactly did you say to him?"
"That I needed time."
"Time!" Sophie rolled her eyes. "Most girls would trade their souls for a date with him and she wants time to think about marrying him!"
"I'm not sure I love him." Surely, she thought, you ought to have a special feeling for the man you were going to marry. More special than the way she felt about Dan. She liked Dan. He
"What do you know about love? You're only nineteen!" Julia Belle scoffed. "Love isn't what you read about in those trashy books Sophie brings from the drugstore."
"Oh, Mother "
"Don't 'Oh, Mother' me! This is the most important decision of your life and you want to dillydally about it. You think you have to hear bells ringing or see sparks flying or some such foolishness!"
"No, Mother, it's not that. It's "
"You'd better believe it's not that. Marriage is more than feeling like a lovesick cow! It's a good home, a decent family, standing in the community."
"And linen and crystal on the table?" Ann Elizabeth's eyes flashed toward the pink linen mats, the crystal vase holding the long-stemmed rose. Things! Nothing to do with feelings.
"Well, that's what you mean, isn't it, Mother?" Elizabeth was breathing hard now. She felt rebellious. Felt as though she was being pushed into something she wasn't quite sure she wanted. "You think I should marry a rich doctor and do it quickly while I have the chance."
Sophie's charm bracelet jangled. "Few girls get that, chance."
"Not unless they pass the high-yellow fine-tooth-comb test," Ann Elizabeth said, an impish glean, in her eyes. It was conceded that once a Negro man gained professional status, he could marry his reward the whitest colored woman he could find. Her mother and aunt fit the category. Julia Belle was tall and slender and Sophie was inclined to be fat but both had complexions as fair as a Caucasian. Sophie's fine reddish curls, as well as Julia Belle's crop of silky black hair, slipped easily through a fine-tooth comb. Both had married professionals, Julia Belle a doctor and Aunt Sophie a pharmacist a successful one who owned two drug-stores.
Ann Elizabeth giggled, She'd flunk the test herself. As Ed Sanford had pointed out in his brutal teasing way, "You got the keen features and the blow hair, Ann Elizabeth, but you're a mite too tan. Now, if your ma's white skin hadn't been tinted by your pa's dark brown . . ."
Thinking about it, Ann Elizabeth touched her auburn brown hair and smiled. It wasn't as straight as Julia Belle's, but it was soft enough to be stirred by a breeze.
Julia Belle frowned. "Why are you grinning? Of course a professional man desires a wife with the right qualifications. He needs a woman who has a background and social niceties commensurate with his standing in the community."
Ann Elizabeth considered her father. He couldn't care less about his "standing in the community." And he probably cared no more about Mother's blow hair than he did about her background daughter of Professor James L. Washington, among the elite of Atlanta's Negro society. The Washingtons were one of the few families with their own pew in the First Congregational Church, right under the stained-glass window commemorating Grandfather. Dad might sit in the pew the occasional time he attended church, but it sure didn't mean as much to him as it did to Mother and Aunt Sophie, who reveled in such things. Symbols of their place in the black elite.
And why, Ann Elizabeth wondered, was she sitting here thinking stupid thoughts that had absolutely nothing to do with how she felt about Dan Trent?
Because she didn't know how she felt about Dan. She supposed she loved him. Ought to anyway, according to Mother and Aunt Sophie. Another involuntary giggle erupted.
"Ann Elizabeth, do be serious!" Her mother spoke curtly. "You need to think this through very carefully."
"I said I'd think about it!"
"Well, while you're thinking, think this!" Sophie said. "Herb gets all of Dan Trent's prescriptions, and he says Dan's practice, is flourishing."
"I know Dan makes pretty good money, Aunt Sophie."
"Well, you'd know how important that is if you'd had to pinch pennies like we did when we were young, Wouldn't she, Julia Belle?"
"I do know," Ann Elizabeth said quickly. She knew, her mother hated to be reminded of her penny-pinching days. She touched her aunt's hand and turned to her mother with a sigh. "I haven't said no," she remind her. "'Where's Dad?"
"At the hospital. Said he'd be back to drive you to college. Ann Elizabeth "
"Please, Mother, can't we talk later? I'm not even dressed yet. And I have to cram for a final." She gave both women a kiss and fled.
Upstairs in the bathtub she tried to dissolve her thoughts in the steamy scented water. Why did she feel so confused? She knew she'd probably marry Dan.
He'd come to Atlanta three years ago after his internship at Freedman's in D.C. Dad had taken him under his wing. "I like him," her father had said and continued say. "He's serious about his work."
Dan had been busy building up his practice. Busy dating, too, for every house in town was open to the charming handsome single doctor. From his lofty twenty-nine years, he'd always treated her like an impressionable younger sister.
And now . . . When had Dan's regard changed from brotherly affection to romantic interest? Had he, as Mother said, just been waiting for her to mature? He said he loved her. Seemed eager to please her. Goodness, he'd already bought a piece of land in that area being acquired by Negroes.
He'd driven her out there last night. He'd parked on the crest of a hill and pointed. "Five acres. Do you think it's a good site?"
She had leaned against his shoulder and gazed into the night. In the pale light of a full moon she could detect the faint outline of trees. A spring breeze freshened the air, tickling her nostrils with the heady aroma of pine needles.
"It seems perfect" she'd said.
"Say yes and we'll plan the house together. One big enough for our children and for all the parties you'll give.
Her future had spread like a lush carpet before her. Mrs. Daniel Trent, in a house built for children and lavish parties. She'd seen herself as a replica of her mother and hadn't known why the image disturbed her.
And Dan had already chosen the place for their home and bought her a ring. Was that what she'd resented? That he'd taken her consent for granted and made these decisions without consulting her? Now he rather than Julia Belle would choose for her.
Well, hadn't she always been happy with Mother's choices? Even as a child she'd felt so proud in those crisp organdy dresses and patent leather Mary Janes, her reddish-brown hair in the curls her mother fashioned by brushing her wet hair around a piece of broom handle. She had liked going to the private elementary school, to birthday parties and the dolls' club with her special group of friends.
Until high school . . . She chuckled. Lord, what a blowup there'd been! One, now that she thought about it, she'd actually prompted herself. She clearly remembered the morning they'd been driving to her private school and had witnessed a fight near the public high, school. She'd been frightened when her father drew to the curb and jumped out of the car. He could get hurt! But Dr. Carter, in his commanding way, had stopped the fight and dispersed the crowd. He'd then tended the wounds of the two combatants, somehow managing to resolve their differences as he did so.
She'd observed the motley group of youngsters and, with the insight of her twelve years, made a hasty judgment. "They're bad," she'd said when her father returned to the car. "Not our kind of people."
She'd never forgotten the look her father had given her. And that he hadn't called her by his pet name "Kitten." But all he'd said was, "People are alike, Ann Elizabeth. Some just have more advantages than others.
That night had marked the beginning of a long series of bitter arguments between her parents. Dad won. The following autumn, both she and Randy had been enrolled at Washington High, the one public high school for colored kids in the city of Atlanta. To her surprise she'd enjoyed those four years. She'd liked the home-room devotional, where she first heard the beautiful old spirituals never sung in the Congregational Church. She'd liked being on the debating team and dancing in the operettas with her new school chums. Of course, Mother had seen to it that she maintained a tight connection with her old group, but as Dad wished, she'd made many new and different friends. In high school Sadie Clayton had been her best friend. Mother hadn't liked that because Sadie's father was a garbage man, and they lived in Beaver Slide, a far less genteel neighborhood.
Ann Elizabeth climbed out of the tub, toweled off and went into her room to dress, all the while reflecting that her friendship with Sadie had been her only rebellion against Mother. Unlike Randy, her brother, two years older and never as compliant. With him there had always been ripples of discontent getting home late, making the wrong friends. And, come to think of it, Sadie. Randy had been immediately attracted to Sadie, and for a while they'd been pretty close. But neither she nor Randy had seen much of Sadie since she'd started nursing school.
Now Sadie's a full-fledged nurse, she thought, and I'm still wondering which way I'm going. I must remember to call her. I'd like her to see the play I'm in, show her I'm still performing. Lord, what fun we had, all those hours rehearsing operettas! I want her to come to my debut.
She hoped Randy would make it from Tuskegee. She smiled. Another rebellion. Randy's fascination with airplanes, like a bolt from the blue, had disrupted their parents' plans for him. Despite his disagreements with them, Randy had been following their chosen path. He'd completed his college requirements and was already registered in medical school. Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war hadn't disrupted these plans, since medical students weren't being drafted; it was Randy himself who rebelled.
Ann Elizabeth sat on her bed to slip on her pumps remembering the day Randy had come in waving that newspaper with the headlines in bold type: ARMY TO ATTEMPT TO TRAIN NEGRO PILOTS. He read the article, aloud. "Disastrous mistake . . . some Army planes fly at two hundred miles an hour, and it is well-known that Negroes can't think that fast."
They had been indignant. Not Randy. He had howled with laughter, his eyes bright with challenge. "We'll show them!"
"We?" Dr. Carter's question had been an apprehensive gasp.
"I'm enlisting, Dad."
"But what about medical school?"
"Saving you a bundle. The Army will pay for medical school . . . after they've taught me to fly!"
Her mother had cried. Her father had tried reason and Ann Elizabeth's heart had ached for him. He'd counting on his son to join him in practice.
But Randy had been adamant. Determined.
Dr. Carter had tapped a finger to the paper. "Such waste. They'll take our best, our finest and brightest And they'll never know what they have!" He'd shaken his head sadly.
Copyright © 2003 Eva Rutland
Meet the Author
Eva Rutland was born in the segregated South before World War II. She was the recipient of the 2000 Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement and is the author of more than 20 novels, including Almost a Wife, Heart and Soul, and Her Own Prince Charming. She lives in Sacramento, California.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
Eva Rutland is best known for her Harlequin romances. This book is a semiautobiographical novel that chronicles the period between just before the start of World War II and the end of the twentieth century. The author does a wonderful job of depicting the impact of political, social and economic changes on this one African-American family.