Playing with Matches

Playing with Matches

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by Carolyn Wall

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When I felt truly lost—which was most of the time—I went out to the narrow lot and sat down in the weeds. From there I could observe both houses. After all, I had two eyes, didn’t I? Two nostrils, two arms, two knobby knees. The trouble was, I had only one heart.

Growing up in False River, Mississippi, Clea Shine learned early that


When I felt truly lost—which was most of the time—I went out to the narrow lot and sat down in the weeds. From there I could observe both houses. After all, I had two eyes, didn’t I? Two nostrils, two arms, two knobby knees. The trouble was, I had only one heart.

Growing up in False River, Mississippi, Clea Shine learned early that a small town is no place for big secrets. Having fled years ago in the wake of a tragedy and now settled with a family of her own, she faces a turning point in her marriage and seeks refuge in the one place she vowed never to return.

Clea’s homecoming is bittersweet. Reunited with Jerusha Lovemore, the kindly neighbor who raised her, Clea gains a sense of love and comfort, but still cannot escape the ghosts of her past: the abandonment by her disreputable mother, her constant search for belonging, the truth behind that fateful night from long ago. Once outspoken and impulsive, Clea now seeks only redemption and peace of mind. And as a hurricane threatens to hit False River, everything she has tried to forget may finally be exposed once and for all.  

A mesmerizing and poignant work by a master of the Soutern novel, Playing with Matches is a stunning tale of guilt, forgiveness, and the enduring bonds of family.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wall’s stunning second novel (after Sweeping Up Glass) tells the heart-wrenching tale of Clea Shine, a precocious girl growing up in the shadow of a northern Mississippi prison in the 1980s. Clea, a white girl, has always lived with her black “aunt” Jerusha and Jerusha’s sister in False River, a stone’s throw from the house where her mother frequently entertains guards from the prison and other local men. Though she loves Auntie, Clea’s longing for her mother often sends her across Potato Shed Road, where she sees too much and gets too little from her mother. Meanwhile, Clea consorts with colorful characters including separated conjoined twins born with three arms between them, a boy who lives in a tree, and another boy being held captive under a neighbor’s house. Traumatized and heartsick, 12-year-old Clea flees after she sets fire to her mother’s house, with disastrous results, and only returns to False River two decades later when a tropical storm destroys her own house and she discovers that her husband is unfaithful. Wall’s talent and empathy are evident in this story of learning to forgive. Agent: Danny Baror, Baror International, Inc. (July)
From the Publisher
Praise for Carolyn Wall’s Sweeping Up Glass

“Extraordinary . . . filled with arresting images, bitter humor, and characters with palpable physical presence.”—The Boston Globe

“[Wall’s] evocative prose recalls the regional style of such authors as Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, and Eudora Welty.”—Mystery Scene
Library Journal
Clea Shine's view from her auntie's window is a particularly desperate fragment of the deep South: abandoned buildings, a flood-prone river, a prison, and a house where her mother works as a prostitute. Despite the bleak surroundings, Clea has a bright outlook: she is smart and she loves the patchwork family that is raising her. Only when she attends school does Clea become aware of her outsider status: she is ahead of the other students academically, she is white, and her mother is the town pariah. It is this last stigma, and the certainty that her mother will never love her properly, that leads Clea to an act that will haunt her forever. The second—and somewhat less focused—part of the novel describes Clea as an adult: married, the mother of two, and the author of a published memoir. Her return home on the eve of a hurricane forces her to face several questions from her past. Wall (Sweeping Up Glass) successfully interweaves a series of family and small-town mysteries, although at times the resolutions seem rushed. VERDICT An introspective novel about personal redemption set in the modern South; best for readers of literary fiction.—John R. Cecil, Austin, TX

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Random House Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.90(d)

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Playing with Matches

A Novel
By Carolyn Wall


Copyright © 2012 Carolyn Wall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780345525697


If there’s help for the little guy—­for my Harry, who won’t talk—­it’ll be north on a green elbow of the slow-­moving Pearl River. But that’s the one place in the world I cannot go. It would mean the chicken circus, the boy who lived in the tree. The burning bed. Hell’s Farm and the curse of Millicent Poole.

Wherever we go, Thomas Ryder will come after us—­won’t he? I hope he’s frantic and sorry, and that he never finds us. But I’m waffling in my thinking. In this tiny motel room with the worn-­thin rug and the rusty washbasin, it’s been a long night. The storm has played out. I leave one candle burning.

But oh, God, Harry’s neediness points me upriver. It steers me home.

The candle sputters out. In the stifling dark of after-­storm, I kiss my children’s damp foreheads, and I pray for three things:

Jerusha will remember me.

She’ll do for my Harry.

And she’ll care for them both while I’m locked away.


Upriver” is Potato Shed Road—­dusty shotgun houses and run-­down duplexes, folks backed up to False River and poor as Job’s aunt. Miss Jerusha Lovemore’s place was a good ways along, a clapboard house with two floors, a small attic, and a crooked turret.

It was widely known that Jerusha once worked for a chicken circus up in Haynesville. What exactly she did there seems a subject best left for adult conversation. In the end, though, she took up a riding crop and thwacked the ringmaster, in the name of the Lord.

Then she bought an old car and putted down through the long green state of Mississippi, heading for the town of False River, where her sister lived. She used a chunk of her circus-­earned money to buy the big house, and she settled in. Rapidly, she grew to know her neighbors. Her years under the big top had done her no harm because she beat her rugs regular and went to church on Sunday. She put up bread-­and-­butter pickles and was a right hand at turning out sweet-­potato pie and jalapeño corn bread.

Past Auntie’s place was a narrow field of weedy grass, and then the bony old house that belonged to my mama.

I, Clea Shine, was born in Mama’s kitchen—­on the table, so as not to ruin the sheets upstairs—­and I lived there for one hour and ten minutes. It took Mama that long to get down off the table, clean herself up, and step into her high heels. Then she carried me, in a wicker laundry basket, over to Jerusha’s.

I picture Mama wobbling off through the brown grass, wrapped in a sweater, for it was coming on winter.

Poor Auntie, as I came quickly to call Jerusha. I was chicken-­legged skinny and already howling for my dinner. She couldn’t have known beans about foundlings and such. And I was a handful.

But her sister, the broad-­in-­the-­beam Miss Shookie Lovemore, was herself raising up a fat daughter called Bitsy, and Miss Shookie knew all there was to know about everything.


For a long time, in those days, I had not a tooth in my mouth nor a hair on my head and according to Miss Shookie, I cried all the time. I must have given Aunt Jerusha one everlasting headache. Still, she held fast to my hard little body, and rocked me long, and hummed slow, quiet streams of things like We. Shall. Not. Be. Moved.

At nine months I came near strangling with the whooping cough, and while I crouped and hawked up phlegm and sucked air, Auntie dangled me by the heels over the kitchen sink. For three weeks, she fed me with an eyedropper, slapped mustard plasters on my chest, and whomped my back with the pink palm of her hand. At least once each night, she pinched my nose and blew in my mouth just to keep my lungs going.

And all that time, Mama was across the field. Auntie couldn’t help but hear the piano music pouring from there, and I wonder if that noisome key-­plunking helped or hindered her in laying this white child down to sleep. It was my lullaby, but maybe Auntie cursed the racket and hated my mama and all the men who came there—­prison guards, mostly, but others too, looking for a fine time. Mama obliged them. She was a tireless thing and could drink and dance and laugh all night. For a few dollars, she laid the men down.

My earliest memory could be nothing but a trick that my brain played on itself. I seem to recall Auntie’s front window being propped up in the hope of a breeze. Inside, I rested my chin on the sill—­and thrust out my tongue to receive a drop of whiskey, amber in the moonlight and tasting like butterscotch. It could not have happened, of course, because Auntie kept screens on her windows. Still . . .

Sometimes she and I sat on the upstairs gallery, cracking beans into plastic bowls, snap snap. From there, we could see Mama drifting out into the yard, lithe as a willow and throwing slops, her yellow hair backed by the sun glinting off the wires of the Mississippi state penitentiary, another quarter-­mile on, at the end of the road.

In the heat of the day, Auntie draped a sheet over our upstairs gallery rail, and there we sat, her in her slip and me in my undies, overseeing the dirt road and the prisoners working the far fields in their orange suits, while even the dust shimmered in the heat. Toward the end of the day, we watched guards in gray uniforms park in Mama’s yard. Sometimes she’d greet them at the door—­the river wind lifting her pink feather boa. Her silver-­heeled slippers winked like glass in the twilight.

The weeds grew tall around Mama’s place, and the upstairs windows cracked and fell out. I suppose the place looked spookier than all get-­out, because teenagers drove by and threw rotten fruit. They chanted things I could not understand, and spray-­painted words on the peeling clapboard.

I determined I would learn to read those things. They might tell me something about my mother. Maybe in my heart I already knew what those words said, because, while I grew lankier and clumsier with my long legs and feet, the worst of me was a wide, smart mouth. It spewed chatter and backtalk. Lying was neither harder nor easier than telling the truth. In fact, all my growing-­up years, I maintained an unholy attitude for which Auntie whipped my calves with a green willow switch, and I deserved every whack.

Still, I wasn’t a complete loss. I taught myself to read early on and was a smart hand at filling a basket with blueberries.

By the time I was four, my hair had grown dark, unlike Mama’s, and thick as a broom. When Auntie tried to drag a comb through it, I screamed and stomped so that she braided it and wound thick pigtails, like rope, around my head. It was sometimes two weeks before she took down the plaits, saddled up with a comb, and rode into that rat’s nest. The rest of the time, my loose, fuzzy hair stuck out in all directions.

Later, my friend Finn told me that when the sun shone just right, I looked to be wearing a golden halo. But it was like Finn to say that. He was kinder than me, and he never killed anybody.


Excerpted from Playing with Matches by Carolyn Wall Copyright © 2012 by Carolyn Wall. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc.
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

Carolyn Wall is an editor and lecturer. As an Artist-in-Residence, she has taught creative writing to more than 4,000 children in Oklahoma, where she is at work on her third novel, The Birdcage.

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Playing with Matches: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
arlenadean More than 1 year ago
Review: "Playing With Matches" by Carolyn Wall was a wonderful read of a young girl(Clea) recounting her difficult childhood in rural Mississippi and then the story switches to the grown-up Clea... going back and forth until the end. I must say I enjoyed the novel. It was a bit long but well worth the read. This young girl is abandoned by her birth mom that presents issue that will stem into her adult life. This author worked her magic with such a well written novel presenting humorous parts that will put a smile on your face. The characters... Aunt Jerusha and Uncle Cuddy were definitely wonderful characters so full of love. Be ready for plenty of twist and unexpected turns but when in the end you will have read a wonderful read that I would recommend as a excellent read.
librarysusie More than 1 year ago
This book started out good really grabbed me with the story of the little girl Clea Shine, then switched so abruptly and without warning to a grown-up Clea and what happened to her with this back and forth in time which was confusing as I felt it wasn’t really well done, then the book got preachy and the ending was just, well, unsatisfying. I liked the characters in this story and I liked the book, I just didn’t love it. I loved Jerusha & Uncle Cunny they were my favorite characters and their storyline was my favorite. Clea Shine had a tough life that I believe she at times made harder than it needed to be. I understand she wanted her mother’s love and that seeing the things she saw at such a young age was very wrong, however she had love from the people that took her in and it seems it took her a very long time to appreciate that. This has been a hard review to write because as a whole I liked it but parts of it felt, forced? Out of place? Preachy?...I just can’t put my finger or brain on the right word. This is a book I think you just have to read and decide for yourself, I like little Clea Shine but Clea Ryder annoyed me. 3 Stars I received this book via Librarything Early Review program