The Language of Silence

The Language of Silence

4.8 5
by Peggy Webb

View All Available Formats & Editions

Following in the footsteps of her tiger-taming grandmother, a woman flees her abusive husband to join the circus in this masterful, heartfelt work of women’s fiction.

Peggy Webb won raves for her debut novel, The Tender Mercy of Roses*, with novelist Pat Conroy calling her “a truly gifted writer.” Now Webb has crafted a poignant


Following in the footsteps of her tiger-taming grandmother, a woman flees her abusive husband to join the circus in this masterful, heartfelt work of women’s fiction.

Peggy Webb won raves for her debut novel, The Tender Mercy of Roses*, with novelist Pat Conroy calling her “a truly gifted writer.” Now Webb has crafted a poignant portrayal of a woman on the edge seeking solace in the past.

Nobody in the family talks about Ellen’s grandmother Lola, who was swallowed up by the circus and emerged as a woman who tamed tigers and got away scot-free for killing her husband. When Ellen’s husband, Wayne, beats her nearly to death, she runs to the only place she knows where a woman can completely disappear—the same Big Top that once sheltered her grandmother. Though the circus moves from one town to the next, Wayne tracks it, and Ellen, relentlessly. At the same time, Ellen learns more about her feisty, fiery relative, and the heritage that is hers for the taking—if she dares. With her violent husband hot on her trail, Ellen must learn to stand up and fight for herself, to break the cycle of abuse, and pass down a story of love and redemption to her children.

*writing as Anna Michaels

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
You wouldn’t think a story about spousal abuse could be magical, but that’s what the prolific Webb (The Sweetest Hallelujah) has accomplished with this page-turning novel about Ellen Blair, a battered wife in the early 1970s Deep South who takes to the road with a traveling circus. The peripatetic lifestyle is practically in Ellen’s DNA: her grandmother Lola joined the very same troupe during the Depression, performing as a tiger tamer before dying of TB. The book paints Ellen’s marriage in grim detail, showing how easily her outwardly charming, successful husband turns into a monster behind closed doors. Webb’s disturbing portrait of abuse is balanced by the wit and whimsy supplied by Ellen’s eccentric great-aunt, Ruth Gibson, who uses her power of second sight to help Ellen escape a desperate situation. The growing friendship between Ellen and the circus people, who hire her to teach their children, restores an optimistic note to the novel. She becomes particularly close to Nicky, a little boy left literally speechless after witnessing his mother’s death during an act. In the end, Webb demonstrates that both Nicky and Ellen see themselves as more than just survivors of tragedy. Agent: Stephanie Kip Rostan, Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. (Aug.)
Library Journal
In the early 1970s, after two years in an abusive marriage to Wayne, a prominent Tupelo, MS, businessman, Ellen Blair is tired of her mother, Josie, telling her to "mind her p's and q's." Ellen knows she isn't June Cleaver, and she can't follow Tammy Wynette's advice to stand by her man, so she seeks assistance at a domestic violence shelter—but fails. So she decides to follow in her grandmother's footsteps and run away to join the circus. Her elderly Aunt Ruth joins her, toting a shotgun. Ellen transforms herself into Eve Star and is hired as the teacher for the circus performers' children. Wayne and Josie pursue her, since neither wants her divorce to ruin their status in the community. Webb's previous work includes The Sweetest Hallelujah, which was published under the pen name Elaine Hussey, and The Tender Mercy of Roses, which she published as Anna Michaels. The author writes a heroine for readers to root for as Ellen strikes out on her own and learns to stand up for herself. VERDICT Anticipation builds as Ellen and Ruth embrace circus life and become part of the tight-knit family of performers. Recommend to fans of Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants.—Joyce Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL

Product Details

Gallery Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Language of Silence

  • 1

    IT WAS THE BLACKBIRDS that first told Ruth something was wrong. At exactly the stroke of noon, they landed in the cornfield and commenced eating her corn as if they’d been the ones to stand in hundred-degree heat and chop the weeds out with a hoe.

    In eighty years she’d put up with many injustices, but she’d be damned if she was going to stand in her kitchen mixing corn bread in a stone bowl while a bunch of black-feathered demons deprived her of a whole crop of corn. She jammed on her calico bonnet, then hoisted a soup pot and a clean wooden spoon and raced out her door, spry as any Ozark woman twenty years her junior.

    And she’d box your ears if you said different.

    Don’t ever tell Ruth Gibson she’s too old to live by herself. She aims to live to a hundred, all alone thank you very much, and Lord help the man who tries to stop her. Not that one would. The only men she’s ever allowed on her farm are her granddaddy, God rest his soul, and Ray Boy Turner, who has been taking care of her place for might nigh fifty years. If Ruth has any say in it—and she plans to have plenty—Ray Boy will be there another fifty.

    The screen door popped shut behind her, sounding like somebody had shot off a double-barreled twelve-gauge. But the crows paid the sound no more mind than they did the distant backfiring of Ruth’s ancient Chevrolet as Ray Boy navigated down the winding road toward town.

    “Shoo!” she yelled at the crows. “Git outta my corn!” A hundred pairs of beady eyes turned on her, giving her the all-overs.

    Still, she stalked down the middle of her corn patch banging her wooden spoon against the pot as hard as she could. As the birds beat upward, the sound of wings caught Ruth high under the breastbone and wouldn’t let go. Hundreds of blackbirds rose against a sun-bleached sky, pulling her out of her skin so she could look back and see nothing of herself except a pile of bones covered with her bonnet and her blue gingham dress.

    Lost in a cloud of dark feathers, borne high by a murder of crows, Ruth found herself dissolving—her thin lips, her gray hair, the pink of her muscles. Finally she was nothing but a wisp of smoke with a beating heart and a pair of sharp blue eyes. Ghostlike, she traveled forward and backward at the same time: backward to the year of the Great Depression where her half sister Lola was forever young, forever fearless, dressed in circus spangles as she subdued golden-eyed tigers; and forward, to see Lola’s granddaughter with her neck twisted sideways, blue eyes staring sightless at her bedroom walls.

    Ruth fought against the pull of black wings, her silent screams echoing over her cornfields. Her heart strained with the effort to escape the mystical and anchor herself to the solid red clay of the mountains. But the gaping hole inside Ruth ripped wider as the loss of her sister was compounded by the possibility of losing a beloved great-niece who could have been Lola’s double.

    “No!” Ruth’s bellow jerked her down and she found herself sitting in an undignified heap on crushed cornstalks, her bonnet hanging over one eye and her dress hiked up past her garters.

    She tested her old bones gingerly to see if anything was broken. Satisfied, she got down on all fours to push herself off the ground. Then she stood in the relentless glare of a June sun, slowly counting to ten till she could get her balance and start back to the house.

    This time she’d been lucky. The force of her visions had only thrown her off balance and cost her dignity. Sometimes she lost consciousness. Typically though, the weightlessness that was central to her visions just left her feeling a bit misty-eyed and damp.

    “Damn crows,” she said. “Next time I’m gonna be totin’ my shotgun. See how they like that.”

    She considered herself fortunate that she’d sent Ray Boy for groceries. If he’d found her wadded up in the corn rows, he’d have called her doctor. If that wasn’t enough, he’d have turned right around and called Ellen. Then her great-niece would have driven from Tupelo to way past Hot Springs only to discover she’d made the long drive for nothing.

    Lord help her, that girl had enough on her plate without Ruth adding to her worries.

    As Ruth trudged back to the house, she tried to figure out the visitation of crows. When her visions came to her whole and clear, she didn’t have to ponder. But sometimes the truth was hidden behind a veil and open to all kinds of misinterpretations.

    Today, for instance, had she seen harmful intent toward her niece, or merely a terrible accident? Ruth wasn’t about to sound an alarm over a veiled vision. She knew the horrible consequences of giving warnings that changed the course of another person’s life.

    If she hadn’t warned her sister about Jim Hall, would Lola have run away from her husband and left her baby in Ruth’s care? Would her sister still be alive? Would Jim?

    All Ruth’s good intentions couldn’t justify the end—Lola dead, Jim said to have been murdered, and Josie hating the very sight of Ruth, who had only wanted to keep her safe—three lives forever altered by visions Ruth might or might not have interpreted correctly.

    Even though her sister had been gone nearly fifty years, she still woke up every morning with guilt and loss perched on her breastbone, a boulder she had to heave out of the way just so she could sit up in bed and breathe.

    The first vision she remembered having was because of Lola. Ruth had been thirteen and under strict orders to take care of her baby sister while their mother hoed the garden. Caught up in her game of hopscotch, Ruth hadn’t noticed when the three-year-old woke from her nap on the quilt under the willow and toddled off.

    Suddenly the leaves began to fly off the willow tree, though there wasn’t a breeze stirring. Ruth got dizzy as the leaves swirled around her, silver as water. And in their midst was a tiny hand.

    “Lola?” The quilt was empty, her baby sister gone. The leaves spun so fast they became liquid. “Lola!”

    When the leaves collapsed around Ruth, she saw her sister’s cap of yellow curls—clear and true—disappearing underwater. She set out running and got to the lake behind their house in time to save her sister by taking a shortcut through the blackberry patch, only the scratches on Ruth’s legs to tell the tale.

    Some seers read tea leaves and palms, auras or tarot cards. Ruth read her dreams and the world around her, the revelations appearing involuntarily—in the flight of birds, the mystery of leaves, the whisper of stars falling into a river. Even objects as ordinary as a kitchen chair could take on extraordinary form, leaving Ruth with truths to decipher.

    Had she read the vision of the crows correctly? When she got back to the house, she called Ellen, as much to reassure herself as to tell her great-niece she should be careful not to trip and fall.

    When there was no answer, she went back to her chores in the kitchen, but Ruth’s head hurt and she had lost her taste for corn bread. There it sat, eggs and buttermilk already mixed into the stone-ground cornmeal. Ruth couldn’t abide waste. She added a pinch of baking soda, some baking powder and salt, then poured the mixture into a black cast-iron skillet and stuck it in the oven.

    It was too late to turn on the radio and catch the new show The Rest of the Story, and too early to catch the CBS Evening News, though she already knew what she’d hear: Nixon and Watergate. Still, Ruth considered Paul Harvey and Walter Cronkite two of the smartest men she knew. Just the sound of their voices reassured her, anchored her to the present.

    Skirting the bucket of peas she’d picked earlier in the day before the sun got too high, she left her hot kitchen to call Ellen again. When there was still no answer, she went into the parlor on the shady side of the house to cool off. Folks nowadays called it a living room, but there hadn’t been any living done in this room in nearly fifty years. Not since Lola died.

    Ruth turned on a set of Victorian lamps beside a burgundy velvet sofa, then pulled back the faded rose brocade drapes to let in some light. But forsythia bushes had long ago climbed nearly to the roof, and the windows hadn’t been washed since Ruth accidentally disturbed a nest of vicious red wasps under the sills. What was it, five years ago? Six?

    When Ruth sank onto the sofa, dust rose from the velvet cushions. She fanned it away then reached onto the ­marble-topped coffee table for the treasures she displayed there—a yellowed newspaper clipping, a small gold brooch, and a grainy photograph made in a booth at the county fair. The photograph showed Ruth and Lola in pigtails, their arms around each other as they smiled into the camera, Ruth taller by five inches and older by ten years, her face defined by the sharp lines that would become hatchetlike over the years, and her half sister already stamped with the golden beauty that would be both her blessing and her curse. And yet there was something fierce inside Lola, too, something that couldn’t be threatened out, beat out, or scared out.

    Tracing the lines of her beloved sister’s face, Ruth stared at the picture so long she became part of the air around her where, suddenly, a lone figure pulsed and swirled, dancing to some unheard melody. Lately, the lines between the physical world and her visions had become blurred and things kept getting mixed up, crossing over. Nothing surprised Ruth anymore, not a crow that could carry you to the sky or a phantom dancing in her parlor.

    Half the time she didn’t know whether she was on this side or the other. Old as she was, she reckoned she was straddling two worlds and too damned stubborn to give up either one of them.

    As disconnected from her own body as dandelions blowing off their stem, Ruth squinted at the dancing vision, trying to assign Lola’s face to the woman who sparkled when she twirled. But the phantom turned her back, keeping her secrets.

    She found herself back on the sofa, taking off her glasses and wiping them with the hem of her dress. When she put them back on, the photograph had fluttered to the table, and she stared at the headlines in the ancient newspaper from Tarpon Springs, Florida:

    The Great Giovanni Bros./Hogan & Sandusky
    Circus Presents Fearless Female Tiger Tamer!

    Her sister smiled back at her, dwarfed by two six-hundred-pound Bengal tigers standing on back paws, licking her face.

    Suddenly the brooch sprang to life, a miniature golden tiger turned full grown and fierce, prowling Ruth’s parlor, claws extended and teeth bared. Snatched into another dimension, Ruth watched while he circled her rosewood upright piano with its ball-and-claw feet, sniffed behind her drapes, inspected the cushions on the carved mahogany fireside chairs, and sat a spell in front of the swinging pendulum of the grandfather clock.

    When the tiger turned to look at her with eyes that could snatch souls, she stared right back.

    “You ain’t gonna find nothin’ here but a skinny old woman with a tough hide. Now, git.”

    The tiger began to dissolve, first his tail, then his giant paws and upright ears, and finally his glaring, golden eyes. Then he lay back on her coffee table, a harmless brooch that nobody had worn since 1929.

    As reality weighed down her bones once more, Ruth squeezed her hands together to stop the shaking. This was the second time she’d seen the tiger. The first had been last week when she’d roused from a nap on the porch and seen it streaking across her yard with Lola and Ellen both on its back.

    Lord have mercy. Her sister had been gone all these years with Ruth getting nary a sign. What was the tiger trying to tell her?

    She wiped her face with the red bandana she kept in her pocket, then she heaved herself off the sofa, leaned down to fluff up the indentation she’d made in the cushions, walked across the room to close the draperies, and left the parlor.

    She had peas to shell, a cake to bake. Last night her dreams had told her company was coming, and she wanted to have a lemon pound cake ready.

    By the time she heard Ray Boy chugging back up the mountain, she had the peas cooking, the corn bread cooling, her mixing bowls laid out, and the TV on so she wouldn’t miss the news.

    When Walter Cronkite signed off by saying, “And that’s the way it is,” Ruth wished she could be as certain about the messages from today’s visions.

    It took her to nightfall to get the cake done. She was slower than she used to be. But by the time she went to bed, the pound cake was under its glass dome on the cake plate, plump and proud and fragrant as the citrus groves Ruth sometimes smelled in her dreams, though she’d never set foot in Florida.

    Shedding her calico dress, her shoes and garters and stockings, Ruth bathed herself at the washbasin that had belonged to her grandmother, though she had a perfectly modern bathroom. The simplicity of the old ways soothed her. Then she got into a clean white cotton nightgown and climbed into bed. It was taller than ordinary, plantation style with layers of thick bedding, but she had no need for the footstool. Even at eighty she was still a tall woman.

    Ruth turned off the bedside lamp, pulled the sheet up to her chin, and lay in the darkness, praying she wouldn’t dream. Still, she could hear the black shapes gathering—but it wasn’t the rustle of wings. It was stealth with fur and teeth and claws.

    Resigned, Ruth closed her eyes and went to sleep in the shadow of a tiger.

  • Meet the Author

    Anna Michaels lives in the deep South, where her own rose garden served as her inspiration for The Tender Mercy of Roses, her debut novel. She also writes mysteries under the name Peggy Webb. Visit her at

    Customer Reviews

    Average Review:

    Write a Review

    and post it to your social network


    Most Helpful Customer Reviews

    See all customer reviews >

    The Language of Silence 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
    Pensacola-Reader More than 1 year ago
    Totally enjoyable read! I loved The Language of Silence! Peggy Webb addresses the difficult subject of domestic abuse  in this wonderful novel. She makes us feel helplessness and fear but then gives us characters that overcome and flourish inspite of it. We experience hope and "rebirth" against the backdrop of the circus The love and devotion between Ellen and Ruth and the circus family is reminisent of Frired Green Tomatoes. I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Happy Reading! 
    ABrantley More than 1 year ago
    Peggy Webb's ability to paint a picture with words is awe-inspiring. I found myself immediately pulled into the story and found the book impossible to put down. Those looking for a truly heart-felt, amazing read should definitely add The Language of Silence to their TBR pile.
    MissDirection More than 1 year ago
    I loved everything about this book, and I was especially enthralled with the cleverness of the imagery that I continually had to read excerpts to my husband. I wholeheartedly recommend "Language of Silence" as a book that can offer readers enjoyment on many levels. I will read it again, and enjoy it just as much the second time!
    Anonymous 10 days ago
    The exquisite use of imagery brought this English teacher to her knees more than once. So vivid, so unique, and so perfect is the word choice that you need to read it again. From the train compared to a Chinese dragon to the cake that "tasted like regret," I was hooked. So refreshing to read such beautiful, meaningful description and not be wordy. Looking forward to reading more by this author.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago