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Part of Me: Stories of a Louisiana Family
     

Part of Me: Stories of a Louisiana Family

by Kimberly Willis Willis Holt
 

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My dream of becoming a writer is like a fallen leaf swept up by the wind—dancing inches from my reach, teasing, never letting me touch it. But somehow I hope that my life will have meaning one day.

The story begins in 1939 with Rose, who takes a job driving a bookmobile when she moves with her family from rural Texas to the Louisiana bayou. Two

Overview

My dream of becoming a writer is like a fallen leaf swept up by the wind—dancing inches from my reach, teasing, never letting me touch it. But somehow I hope that my life will have meaning one day.

The story begins in 1939 with Rose, who takes a job driving a bookmobile when she moves with her family from rural Texas to the Louisiana bayou. Two decades later, Merle Henry, Rose's son, is more passionate about trapping mink than reading, although there is a place in his heart for Old Yeller. In 1973, Merle Henry's daughter, Annabeth, feels torn between reading fairy tales and a crush on her own real-life knight in shining armor. And in the present day, Annabeth's son, Kyle, finds himself in a bind: he hates reading, but the only summer job he can get is at the library. Touching, lyrical, and always intriguing, this family's story reveals how a love of books creates a powerful bond that spans generations.

Part of Me is a 2007 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Holt's (My Louisiana Sky) atmospheric novel traces five generations of a Louisiana family. Spanning the years 1939-2004, the book encapsulates the struggles, sorrows, infatuations and triumphs of various family members as they enter adolescence. Readers first meet 14-year-old Rose, who lies about her age to become the bookmobile driver for the new Terrebone Parish Library. Working hard to help her family make ends meet, she never realizes her dream of going to college but remains an avid reader and writer. She passes down her love of books to some but not all of her children and grandchildren. Rose's son Merle Henry would rather trap than read; her granddaughter, Annabeth, wishes she were more popular; and her great-grandson, Kyle, works at the library like his grandmother did, but doesn't have much use for books until he discovers Harry Potter. The author subtly weaves in historic influences such as the Dust Bowl, the Vietnam War and the Watergate hearings. Rose resurfaces briefly as a loving mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and once again takes center stage in the final pages of the novel when, at age 79, she becomes a published author. Economical, evocative prose reflects the leisurely pace of Southern living and movingly conveys family tensions, family love, and the power of stories to bring generations together. Ages 10-15. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT
Holt is an acclaimed writer, and her novels My Louisiana Sky, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, and Keeper of the Night are probably known to most librarians working with YAs. This is a departure in format, telling the story of four generations in one Louisiana family by dividing the whole into parts. The story begins with the voice of Rose, 14 years old in 1939. She really doesn't have a choice when her mother asks her to leave school to get a job helping to support the family--Rose drives the bookmobile through the bayou communities, lying about her age so she can get her license. She can't continue school, but she does love books, and she loves to write. At the end of Part of Me, it's 2004 and Rose, almost 80 years old, goes on the circuit again through the bayou communities, this time on her own book tour. In between these two "book-ends" about Rose are stories of the generations of her family who share her life and love of books: her son Merle Henry in l957; Merle's daughter Annabeth in l973; Annabeth's son Kyle in 2004. Each segment is immediate, with verbal sketches that reveal the themes in the family's life, references to the wider world, to books that are loved; the sections tell of adolescents struggling to find their own voices. There is drama, humor, rebellion, despair--but understated for the most part, quietly moving the reader. KLIATT Codes: JS--Recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2006, Henry Holt, 208p., $16.95.. Ages 12 to 18.
—Claire Rosser
School Library Journal
Gr 7-9-This lyrical novel is actually a collection of vignettes that spans five generations of a family living in the Louisiana bayous. Beginning with Rose as a young girl who, in 1939, must drop out of school in order to help her mother put food on the table, the stories follow pivotal moments-an injured dog, learning to dance, a summer job-in the lives of her descendants. What connects the chapters is the presence of books, whether on a bookmobile or on a library shelf, or even the writing of one's own story. Holt once again excels at creating character and an evocative sense of place.-Melissa Moore, Union University Library, Jackson, TN Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In 1939, Rose McGee's Papa leaves, and Momma moves the family from Amarillo, Texas to the Louisiana bayou where she grew up. When they arrive, Momma forces Rose to lie about her age to get a job driving the bookmobile. Rose would rather go to school, but the family needs the money. Seventeen years later, Rose's son Merle Henry prefers trapping, but sees the use in some books. In the '70s, his daughter Annabeth grows from reading fairytales to classics, and in 2004 her son Kyle takes a job at the library and discovers that he doesn't hate reading. As lovely as it may be, Holt's collection of stories connected by ties familial and literary doesn't have the time to flesh out most of its characters. Rose, who begins by telling her story, never comes back to life even as her dream of writing a book of her own comes to fruition in the final pages. None of the other characters are allowed to tell their own stories, and they come away feeling like place-holders on the family tree. Still, for its sense of family history, this is worth a spot in large collections, especially, of course, in Louisiana. (Fiction. 10-14)
From the Publisher

“* [An] atmospheric novel. . . . Economical, evocative prose reflects the leisurely pace of Southern living and movingly conveys family tensions, family love, and the power of stories to bring generations together.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“[An] affectionate multigenerational portrait. . . . Homespun dialogue and descriptive language . . . add to the narrative's comfortable charm. A thoughtful study of how everyday life may have twists and turns but can still take us where we want to go.” —The Horn Book

“Holt sketches a broad range of characters with verve and sensitivity.” —Booklist

“Lyrical . . . Holt once again excels at creating character and an evocative sense of place.” —School Library Journal

“[A] lyrical, touching saga.” —Voice of Youth Advocates

“There is drama, humor, rebellion, despair--but understated for the most part, quietly moving the reader.” —KLIATT

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786291847
Publisher:
Gale Group
Publication date:
01/28/2007
Series:
Thorndike Literacy Bridge Series
Edition description:
Large Print Edition
Pages:
210
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Part of Me

Stories of a Louisiana Family


By Kimberly Willis Holt

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2006 Kimberly Willis Holt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8790-9



CHAPTER 1

Beans and Cornbread


(1939)


Papa left the summer the windmill broke. Our fields dried up along with Momma's heart and for a while I thought each day was the end of the world. Then the peach tree burst into full bloom and I knew somehow we were going to survive—Momma, Pie, Possum, and me. Momma must have known, too, because she got out of bed one morning and announced, "I t'ink today is a good day for a picnic." So we packed a basket with bread and the last jar of dill pickles, and spread a blanket near the trickle of water that used to be Muddy Creek. That afternoon we listened to the mockingbirds' sweet songs, and when the sun set, the cicadas serenaded us all the way home.

That night in bed, Pie curled under the crook of my arm. "You know what, Rose?"

"What?"

"When Papa comes back, he's going to take me to the World's Fair in New York City. I'm going to ride the Ferris wheel a hundred times and eat cotton candy."

Our little farm outside Amarillo was a long way from New York City. I wondered if Papa was also. I let Pie rattle on and on, though, because she was only nine years old, and because I wanted to believe it was true, too.

There was something magical about my little sister. When she was born she came out smiling, dimples and all. Momma named her Vesta Evangeline, but when Papa took one look at her perfectly round face, he said, "You can call her what you want, but she looks just like a pumpkin pie to me." And from that day on she was Pie to all of us. She truly was like dessert—sweet as sugar, but too much of her could give me a bellyache. Sometimes I just didn't feel like being in a good mood and always seeing the sunny side of life.

The only note Papa had left was for me. Rosebud, fetch Wilbur to fix the windmill. I guess he feared Momma would let us die of thirst before she asked for help. Wilbur was Papa's former hired hand. That day he fixed the windmill in exchange for some peach preserves.

"I'll do it for nothing, Mrs. McGee," Wilbur had said. "Conrad always did right by me."

Momma straightened her back when he'd mentioned Papa's name. "You take de peaches." It was an order, not an offer.

Wilbur lifted his hat and wiped his forehead with his kerchief before taking the jars from Momma. "I don't know how long that old thing is gonna work."

That's why we stopped watering the fields. Momma wanted to make sure there was enough water for us and the peach tree.

We were the only folks around for miles that had peaches. The story goes Papa had teased Momma when she told him she wanted to plant a peach tree here in the Panhandle. But he drove eighty miles to buy one for her. She babied it like a child, always making sure it had enough water and was covered before a freeze. It had even survived the Dust Bowl. Though we almost didn't. While all the farmers around us took government handouts, to keep from losing their farms, Papa struggled. When it came down to feeding us or letting Wilbur go, Papa begged Momma to let him get some government money. "Today it might be losing Wilbur, tomorrow we could lose the farm."

Momma had folded her arms and narrowed her eyes. "I don't take no charity. And I don't marry no man who take it."

I wondered if that's why Papa left us. Maybe he thought Momma would give up and turn to the government for help.

One August evening we sat at the table eating dinner and heard shuffling coming from the porch. No one admitted they were hoping that the sound was Papa scraping his boots on the mat instead of the wind causing the cottonwood branch to brush against the pillar. But you could see that hope in all of our eyes, even Momma's.

When Papa left, the smokehouse had two hams and a slab of bacon remaining. By late summer, the meat was gone.

We ate beans and cornbread almost every night. And peaches. Thank goodness for the peaches. We'd picked every last fruit off the tree and Momma had filled all the Mason jars we owned with them. Their sweet juice tasted like honey after eating our bland meals.

The only one brave enough to say anything about it was Pie. "Are we ever going to have meat again?" she asked, twirling a long brown lock with her finger. Momma shot her such a glare that Possum and I left the room to find something to clean.

"If it was cooler, I'd take Radio out and we'd go hunting," Possum said, smoothing down the cowlick he could never tame. "There's nothing but a few measly squirrels around. And they're too bony to be any good." Last winter when he was hunting, Possum rescued a puppy and brought him home. Pie named him Radio because she'd wanted an Emerson radio so bad. We were the only family around that couldn't listen to The Lone Ranger and Little Orphan Annie.

* * *

In September, Pie went to fourth grade, Possum to fifth. I entered my freshman year at the high school, happy because my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Pratt, would be teaching me again this year. She liked my stories and I treasured the remarks she made on my papers—Keep writing. This is outstanding. Your descriptions are lovely.

Our nearest neighbors lived half a mile away, but word about Papa must have traveled to them. The Saturday before Christmas, the Calvary Baptist Church Visiting Committee came by with food. We had attended services there with Papa, but Momma was a Catholic from Louisiana and often said, "I worship at home before I do it in a Baptist church."

Once when she said that, Papa had winked at me and whispered, "It was good enough for her to get married in."

Papa teased that he kidnapped a Cajun princess and hauled her all the way to the Texas Panhandle. Those were the kind of moments I tried not to think of—Papa with his little winks and wisecracks that sometimes made even Momma laugh. Mostly they had made her mad. These days anger seemed to be the only thing that could swallow her sadness. Now if she broke a glass, it was Papa's fault. She said his name like a curse until the words "Conrad McGee" faded away and were never heard in our house again. Except for the winter day the Calvary Baptist Church Visiting Committee came calling.

From the kitchen window I watched them walk toward the porch with baskets in their hands. The wind whipped at their skirt hems, exposing their white slips. Skinny Mrs. Ingle wore a red hat while both Miss Thunderwood and Mrs. Cooper wore blue from head to toe. They reminded me of two plump blue jays and a frail cardinal.

"Hello, Rose," Miss Thunderwood said when I opened the door. "My, you're a pretty thing."

Mrs. Ingle centered her hat, which had slid to the right side of her head. "My word, Marie. Is that a peach tree out front?"

"Yes," Momma mumbled.

Mrs. Ingle shook her head in disbelief. "I didn't know peaches would grow up here. My cousin grows them, but he lives all the way over in Hedley."

Momma made them some coffee while they settled at our kitchen table. Possum and I tried not to stare at the baskets of food, even though our mouths watered from the aroma. But Pie just bolted into the room and asked, "What smells so good?"

Miss Thunderwood pinched Pie's cheeks. "Why, honey, we've got biscuits and gravy and fried chicken with corn on the cob." She still had ahold of Pie's cheeks when she added, "You are the spitting image of your daddy."

Pie pulled away from Miss Thunderwood and stepped closer to one of the baskets covered with a gingham cloth. I could see her fingers just itching to dive inside.

Then Miss Thunderwood looked up at Momma. "Where is Conrad anyway?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Cooper, "where is that rascal?" She took a sip of Momma's strong coffee, then squinted.

Mrs. Ingle chirped up, joining in with the blue jays. "We haven't seen him or the children in months."

Momma's hands flew to her hips. "You bring dis food for my children and me because you t'ink we are starving without Conrad?"

"Oh, goodness no," said Mrs. Thunderwood. "We're just out visiting and—"

Momma picked up the baskets one at a time, and one at a time, handed them back to the ladies of the Visiting Committee from Calvary Baptist Church. They were out the door and driving away from our house in no time. My stomach growled and I thought Pie was going to burst into tears. Possum walked out of the room and I heard him kick the wall. Somehow I felt like everything I'd hoped for went outside the door with those baskets. It was only food, I kept trying to convince myself. But it was as if my dreams of becoming a writer were tucked between the biscuits and the fried chicken.

That night I slipped my sweater over my nightgown and stepped onto the porch. I needed the cool air, but most of all I needed to get away from Momma. I collapsed onto the porch swing and rocked back and forth on the balls of my feet. The sky was black and the stars covered it like sugar sprinkled across a cookie. I was thankful that I couldn't look out and see the dry fields that made me think of Papa and how hard he'd worked trying to keep them watered. And I was glad that I couldn't make out the road leading up to our house. Many days I stared at it so long that I could almost imagine Papa walking toward us, smiling like he was about to burst with the best news in the world.

Straightening my legs, I held the swing back for a moment. Then I heard something hit the wood floor.

It was too dark to see so I patted the floor, searching until I felt two books and an envelope. Maybe the church ladies dropped them accidentally. I took off my sweater and wrapped the items with it before going inside the house.

Momma was already in bed, but Possum and Pie were playing cards on the floor next to a kerosene lamp. I lighted the other one and headed toward the outhouse, not wanting anyone to discover me. Inside I hung the lamp on the nail and uncovered the books. The envelope said "Rose" across it. One of the books was The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. The other was a brown leather book.

I tore the envelope and read the letter.

Dear Rose,

The women from the church visiting committee said they would be happy to give these books to you when they went calling. You are a gifted student and writer. Always keep the words flowing from your pen.

Sincerely,

Mary Pratt


I opened the leather book and discovered it was blank. Every single page was just waiting for words.

* * *

The beans ran out the day after Christmas. Momma didn't say anything, but that afternoon she gave us each a box to squeeze our belongings in. We were given strict orders to take only what could fit in the box. And I was surprised when Momma softened and let Radio come along.

After we finished packing the truck, I slipped in beside Momma, while Pie and Possum rode in the back with Radio. A second later, Momma started the engine and headed east toward her birthplace in south Louisiana.

I didn't look back. I didn't want to see our little farmhouse disappear from sight, fearful that it might disappear from my memory forever.

There hadn't been enough money in the flour tin to stay at a hotel, so every night, Momma pulled off the road and we slept in the bed of the pickup. That first evening on our journey, I ignored Pie while she asked Momma a million questions. But I listened for Momma's answer when she asked, "What does Houma look like?"

Momma grabbed Pie's hand and held it up in the moonlight. She traced the space between her fingers. "Deese are de bayous. De rest is de land." She touched the valley between two of her fingers. "I grew up here next to Bayou du Large."

Pie thought she was on an adventure. But she had the sense of an old dumb cow, standing in the middle of the road, chewing its cud while cars moved toward it. Except for Papa leaving, Pie hardly knew a bad time. Everything was fun to her.

Momma had been driving for two long days and she'd grown tired of it. Most of the way, I'd ridden on the passenger's side, sometimes trading spots with Possum or Pie, who seemed to like sitting in the back of the pickup.

The third morning Momma pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the engine. "All right, Rose. Time for you to drive."

"But I don't know how to drive," I told her.

"And how you going to learn?" Momma tightened her lips and glared at me.

There was no arguing with her. When she got out, I slid over into her place behind the steering wheel. She didn't give me any instructions. No "put the key in the ignition and turn it." No "put your foot on the brake." No "push in the clutch." Not Momma. She leaned her head against the window and said, "Drive, Rose." Then she quickly fell asleep.

I froze and looked into the rearview mirror at my little brother and sister, who looked like their eyes were going to pop out of their sockets. I wanted to nudge Momma and wake her and ask, What do I do? But she probably would have said, "I drive for hundreds of miles and you don't know what I do?"

My hands were sweaty. I wiped them on my skirt and turned the key. The engine started, but I got the brake mixed up with the clutch. The truck jerked forward and back. Then it took off down the side of the road. I stuck my head out the window and hollered back, "Hang on!"

Even though it was a bit bumpy, the grass seemed a safer place to be. I would have continued on that way, but Momma opened her eyes.

Without moving, she said, "Get on de road." Then she shut her eyes again.

Momma slept as I sweated and hoped that no one would pass us on the road. And when a black car got close behind us, I held my breath and swerved to the right. Pie, Possum, and Radio juggled to and fro in the back of the pickup like three marbles being shaken in a jar.

The next morning, Momma handed me the key. "You gonna drive today."

Possum and Pie yelled, "NO!"

Momma sighed and got back behind the steering wheel. She never asked me to drive again, because that day we crossed the state line into Louisiana. "If we don't watch out," she'd said, "we'll get pulled over with deese Texas plates."

The day before we reached Houma, Possum rode in the front with Momma while I sat in the back with Pie. It was warm even though it was December. We passed bare sugarcane fields that had recently been harvested. Stalks that had dropped from the trucks littered the road. Maybe Papa would have stayed if he'd had a Louisiana farm where rain fell almost every day. In the last hour, gray hills and valleys had formed in the sky. I dug out Papa's rain slicker from behind the boxes and unfolded it.

Pie glanced down at Papa's slicker. I knew she was thinking of him. "How will Papa know we're in Houma?"

I swallowed a lump that had formed in my throat. "He left us, Pie."

"But he'll go back to the farm and he won't know where to find us."

Pulling her close to me, I said, "He's not coming back." I knew it now, just as sure as I knew there wasn't a man on the moon.

CHAPTER 2

Fisherman


(1939)


Momma might as well have flown us to the moon. Because Houma looked nothing like Texas. Land seemed to be an afterthought in Houma with slivers of it squeezed between the dark bayous. When I asked, "How does anyone farm out here?" Momma said, "Dey don't. Dey fish."

Moments after we arrived in Houma, we were looking into the face of an old man that we'd been told all our lives was dead. It was like staring at a ghost. Our grandfather, Antoine Marcel, studied us like we weren't from this world either. Momma hadn't bothered to stay in touch with him since she left eighteen years ago, and he knew nothing of us.

We stood, facing him, soldiers ready for inspection. Even Radio sat at attention. The way Antoine Marcel's stare traveled from our heads to our toes, I half expected him to check behind our ears for dirt.

He rubbed his white beard and studied Momma's face. "You look old," he told her.

"You look older," she told him.

"I think you look like a skinny Santa Claus," said Pie. She smiled at him so big her dimples appeared. I hated Antoine Marcel for giving her nothing back but a frown.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Part of Me by Kimberly Willis Holt. Copyright © 2006 Kimberly Willis Holt. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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

Kimberly Willis Holt is the author of the many award-winning novels for young adults and children, including The Water Seeker, My Louisiana Sky, Keeper of the Night, and When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, winner of a National Book Award for Young People's Literature. She is also the author of the bestselling Piper Reed series of chapter books, and picture books including Waiting for Gregory and Skinny Brown Dog. Holt was born in Pensacola, Florida, and lived all over the U.S. and the world—from Paris to Norfolk to Guam to New Orleans. She long dreamed of being a writer, but first worked as a radio news director, marketed a water park, and was an interior decorator, among other jobs. She lives in West Texas with her family.

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