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This Is Graceanne's Book

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The story is told by a nine-year old boy, Charlie, who observes with an encompassing awe a pivotal year in the life of his older sister Graceanne. She's loud, intellectual and a ruthless physical and psychological daredevil, a girl whose ferocious exploits are the stuff of local legend and the stuff of all that Charlie aspires to be. He narrates Graceanne's painful passage into teenage, a passage made tempestuous by their violent mother.

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This Is Graceanne's Book: A Novel

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The story is told by a nine-year old boy, Charlie, who observes with an encompassing awe a pivotal year in the life of his older sister Graceanne. She's loud, intellectual and a ruthless physical and psychological daredevil, a girl whose ferocious exploits are the stuff of local legend and the stuff of all that Charlie aspires to be. He narrates Graceanne's painful passage into teenage, a passage made tempestuous by their violent mother.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Charlie Farrand and his barely teenage sister, Graceanne, have grown up under the lash, often wielded by their abusive, alcoholic parents. In the recesses of her mattress, Graceanne hides her journal, the feisty hard-won wisdom of a battered child. When this little book is confiscated, younger brother Charlie takes it upon himself to become the chronicler of his winningly defiant sister.
From the Publisher
"Much can be learned about life and growing up from Graceanne's book."--Library Journal

"Growing up is always hard, but even more so for Whitney's young protagonists who live in the tumultuous 1960s, on the wrong side of the tracks, with an abusive mother. Charlie, a quiet, club-footed, nine-year-old boy, narrates this story of his creative, smart, and wild older sister, Graceanne. He watches her become a teenager through beatings and other punishment and shares her innermost ideas and pain by reading her diary. After their mother confiscates the diary, he continues to keep her stories in his head. Graceanne incurs their mother's wrath for a number of reasons—the friendship of their next door neighbor (a black girl named Wanda), ice sculptures of a mixed-race baby Jesus, baseball games, and a college boyfriend named Collier—and yet, grows up a survivor. It is the unbreakable spirit of both Charlie and Graceanne that keeps this story afloat. While hurting along with them through the abuse, readers will cheer for them as they struggle to grow up."—Ellie Barta-Moran, Booklist

"[A] wonderful novel . . . Between one Independence Day and the next, as in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, on Huck Finn's Mississippi, in John Kennedy's Camelot, looked down upon by heavenly astronomers, two children must save each other from an alcoholic father (the Combat Soldier), an abusive mother (the Queen of Egypt), the Ugly Blue Man, the Black Santa, degrading poverty and violent shame. Although just thirteen herself, Graceanne will protect her younger brother, Charlemagne, from the terrifying and arbitrary power of adults—with poetry and magic, kingfisher stories and Elvis records, ice babies and cornstalk silk, scarecrows and arrowheads, Catechism of the Mackerel and the Miracle of Our Lady of Fort McBain. In the book of wonders Graceanne braids out of their childhood games, Charlie learns to swim, not only in the swollen river, but all the way to Mars. This wonderful novel belongs on the shelf and in the heart next to Toni Morrison's Sula, Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, and David Grossman's The Book of Intimate Grammar."—John Leonard, critic for New York Magazine and CBS Sunday Morning

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312272784
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 8/22/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 308
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

P.L. Whitney lives in New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt

This Is Graceanne's Book

By P. L. Whitney

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2001 P. L. Whitney
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312272782

Chapter One

We were warned and warned to stay away from the river.

But Ugly Blue Man came into our lives anyway, down one of the spiderleg creeks that feed the Mississippi, and I learned how to keep a secret.

The Mississippi went over its banks at Cranepool's Landing three times that spring. By mid April, the water was running so fast and wide that whole acres of freshly turned topsoil were sucked off the shore farms and dragged out into the middle of the river, racing in swirling black half-moons all the way down to the town of Ste. Genevieve before they sank under their own weight.

From the window of the green "Measles Room" (called that because any kind of illness sent us into quarantine in that small olive-drab chamber) at the top of our old brick house on Lewis and Clark Hill, the brawny river seemed to throb with thousands of living pulses under its swollen skin. And the currents were so contrary, so separate from the rest of the river's momentum, so independent, that it often looked like the fastest and straightest water out in the middle was a snake, suddenly rearing its head, swiveling around to look north and then, overwhelmed by its own rolling force, opening its wide jaws to swallow its body and choke on its tail.

We were warned and warned, but we didn't have to descend into the wretched sinfulness of outright disobedience for us to get a kid's full share of this unexpected drama. The Mighty Muddy Cruddy Flood, and the reeking corpses of animals caught in its spate, had already pushed across the bottomlands to become part of us. Without going anywhere near the river, we found ourselves standing in its wash and surrounded by its heavy strength.

In the town of Cranepool's Landing, the old river valley farming rhythms still wrote our calendars, but that April the brutal rush of the river over its banks muscled us out of familiar patterns, delayed the planting, closed businesses, and reshaped the land, giving us new reference points and ways to log who we were and where we came from and where we might be going.

Because the water was so cold and full of grisly, squishy things, we played what we called "Noah's Softball" in our red rubber boots on the old Jefferson Barracks Parade Ground, with a set of crudely negotiated but ironclad new flood rules. We had banned the use of gloves because the object was not golden-glove fielding but rather hurting and humiliating each other.

Only the real power hitters ever got on base, because (1) any ball hit into the shallow new lake covering the field sank and was ruled dead, and (2) the count on the batter was frozen while the ball was found and squeezed out. The rare base runner was automatically out if he touched the floating base first with his foot because headfirst sliding was mandatory. Indeed, it would have been strangely lax of our ringleaders to waste such an opportunity for exploiting the gift of the river, those twelve blessed inches of stinking water standing on the parade ground at the bottom of Lewis and Clark Hill.

The flood wash was so full of rotting things on their way to heaven or hell, and was such a powerful new strategic element in our games, that the army engineers from Jefferson Barracks Fort sometimes came out to watch us play ball in it. The headfirst-sliding-rule made some batters, including the occasional soldier who took a turn, think twice about putting the wood on the ball, and deliberate strikeouts became so plentiful that our pitchers got good workouts for their bean-balls. And there was no such thing as a foul ball. Anything hit in the air was fair, and the fielder was allowed to call if he thought he could control the soggy incoming ball with a maximum of one drop. "Whale shit," the fielder would call as he stood under the ball, holding out his hands and waiting for the splat.

Outfielders, bending over and groping in the water during the inevitable lull while the cowardly end of the order was up to bat, could sling drowned squirrels and rabbits at the infield, but the corpse of a muskrat scored an automatic earned run for the defense and the game was halted so we could slit the soft skin under the tail and extract the greasy musk glands. These were understood to be the exclusive property of the power hitters, who wrapped them in waxed paper with the purpose of preserving them for private experimental use the next day at school.

The floods produced field architecture changes in our other games, too. The dead-kids rope had to be moved closer to the shore of the swimming hole at French's Limestone Quarry. The dead kids (those of us who did not know how to swim) lined up in the icy water up to our necks and held onto the rope for safety while we watched the swimmers play Jump-or-Dive Murder from the peeling sycamore trees jutting out over the limestone quarry rocks. The cobweb vault of mottled white branches, just coming into bud, hung heavily over the crystal water. The swimmers, their flesh scratched and stung by the trees, would climb out onto the highest limbs, squeezing water and bugs from the sopping dark patches of bark as they put their hands down on the shaggy boughs.

The dead kids--our teeth chattering, our skinny pelts blue, our fingers twisted around the rope--watched the swimmers launch themselves one at a time off the branches, cascades of bark water and tree scales traveling with them into the air. The airborne swimmer attempted to suspend gravity in mid-air--to listen for that moment when the dead kids would holler either "jump" or "dive"--and then twist headfirst or cannonball into the water, depending on what we dead kids decided. We would delay to the last stupefying moment of reaction time before yelling out the word, the object being to engineer as many painful bellywhoppers as possible. We never maimed anyone during this game: The object was only painful mortification, and the dead kids were almost invincible that spring with the water so high and the soaked branches so low.

And school was on half days. The basement of Our Lady of Lourdes Academy was full of water and the electricity was shot, so the grades got split up. The dead kids used the sunny upstairs classroom in the mornings, and the older kids had to clean up after us when they came in to study in the afternoon.

We didn't get beat up as much when the broken schoolday put the power hitters on a different schedule from us, but the real bonus for the dead kids that spring was getting an early taste of freedom as we were turned loose, without the usual leashes and restraints of mothers and nuns and older siblings, with fierce and reiterated warnings to stay away from the river.

For me, along with this spectacular burst of freedom, there came a peculiar loneliness. Although we all took on a ducklike, uneven gait--a sort of universal lameness--as we slogged through the glutinous mud, I was actually lame, and the brace and corrective shoe I wore then under my red boots, compounded by the miracle of black sludge that had buried the streets and sidewalks of Cranepool's Landing, put me considerably behind the pack of kids trailing across the gooey landscape of the town like 'cold knives through chocolate frosting. After they had passed me, the other kids would turn around and shout, "Hey, Taxi!"

I had lived much of my nine years in the shadow of two muscular sisters whose arsenal of pinching fingers and loaded vocabularies was a measure of their deep resentment at having to babysit a clubfoot younger brother sixteen hours a day. To me, being left behind and magically alone was the biggest and most mysterious of the Mighty Muddy Crud's contributions to the town of Cranepool's Landing.

Being alone for even an hour a day was a heady experience. I had always been surrounded by children and included in every game and activity. My sisters, both power hitters in every sense of the term, would have beaten the daylights out of anyone who tried to bar me from softball games, because my mother Edie's unchallengeable rule was that if I couldn't play, the Farrand girls--Kentucky Athena and Graceanne Regina--couldn't play.

Softball wasn't the only game in which I had a role predicated on the babysitting duties of my ferocious sisters, but my mother was kept in the dark about most of the others. I became the indispensable key to the dead kids' string of victories in Jump-or-Dive Murder (because of my sense of timing, keenly developed as a lame boy dodging his sisters' expert punches). And I was necessarily "it" in hide-and-seek: I couldn't run fast enough to hide from the other kids, so our brand of the game evolved into a superior exercise in tactics and guile. With my unmoving and monopolistic vantage point on the secret landscapes, I became an expert on all the good hiding places. And that was probably the reason I was the one, even with a clubfoot, who would find Ugly Blue Man and keep from bragging about the secret.

To make the hiding game more sporting that April, they handicapped my talents by creating an enormous and popular incentive for the winner. They tied me to "home," my torso thrust through a rotted but very high tire swing behind Tyler Rodgers's house on Lewis and Clark Hill, so I couldn't escape and slink away out of boredom or frustration or fear, and made me guess where everyone was. They took turns being "Jezebel," the runner appointed to seek out the hiding places at my instruction. The last person we caught won the game and the honor of untying me and rolling me down spongy Lewis and Clark Hill to the parade ground, past all the other "turn-of-the-century-tall" houses that faced the river.

The trick for me was to outthink them, sending the Jezebel out with hideous selectivity in an effort to guess the least violent kid's hiding place last; and, to counter my growing wisdom, it was their sworn duty to make the hiding places increasingly more devious. In those measureless days, hiding in Cranepool's Landing reached new heights of invention, because rolling me to the parade ground was a loud, messy spectacle, and watching me clean sludge out of my nose and mouth was a badge of passage for the select, clever few. We called it Rolling Pin, and it was a version of hide-and-seek that even a dead kid could win, because brawn was of no use in eluding me.

My central role as a dead kid in the spring games did not make me popular, but it did make me unavoidable--except for those trips through the mud when suddenly I was alone for an hour. After I made it home alive two days in a row with only dubious supervision, my mother suddenly, and for all time to come, revised the iron rule that had bound both of my sisters to me.

On that third day, Kentucky and Graceanne didn't get out of bed to get me to school. My mother made me oatmeal and let me out of the house herself. She said goodbye from the foot of the highly waxed hardwood stairs leading up to the bedrooms from our front parlor. Our stairs were probably the only shiny ones on the Hill that spring. Every other woman in the town had given way before the tide of dirt pouring in through every door with every child. But not Edie Farrand.

"Charlemagne Farrand," she said, a subtle elation in her pale blue eyes and her freckled hands squeezing my shoulders, "when you came along, I made a decision. I decided I would like this child, because you were so good and so quiet. Well, today I've made another decision. Today you are a man." She walked me to the door and closed it firmly behind me, and I wished she would just call me "Thumper," the way everyone else did.

Two of my mother's firmest beliefs had apparently collapsed under the prospect of entertaining me until the floods subsided:

A: Some bully would beat me to a pulp.
B: I would take off my brace and ruin my progress in turning the clubfoot.

These fundamental beliefs rested on two equally fundamental miscalculations on her part.

A: The two worst bullies in Cranepool's Landing
were already exercising their license as family
members to beat me silly--"whale on you,
young man"--on a regular basis, leaving all
other potential assailants the status of respectful,
but backward, admirers of my sisters' originality
and prowess.

B: I wanted to be normal, and my brace was the

palpable, dependable, objective evidence that

someday I would reach that exalted plateau.

So I knew, despite the fact that I was evidently being given blank check authority in Cranepool's Landing to come and go without an escort, that I was nowhere near being a man. I was just a dead kid.

Even after I found Ugly Blue Man that same day.

As I stepped across the sopping porch--concrete, too, was swelling with moisture that spring--I heard piggy snorts issuing from the open bathroom window upstairs. Graceanne was hanging out the window, her glasses slipping down her small nose, one of her loose blond braids dangling across her open mouth.

"That's what she said to me when I got my period, you little freak," she screamed like a hyena. "'Graceanne, today you are a woman.'" She banged her head on the window, but she kept on yelling. "Hey! I'm a twelve-year-old WOMAN. I'm gonna be the youngest person in the state of Missouri to vote and buy liquor. But I'll be damned if I'll get married and have brats until I'm at least thirteen." She started tossing tampons out the window. "Charlie's got his period, Charlie's got his period, Charlie's got his period." One of her projectiles, aimed with the strong arm and killer eye of our best shortstop, struck the side of my head. "Stick that where the frog sings, Thumper."

I knew better than to respond, because if I yelled back, my mother would know something was going on; she'd punish Graceanne, and then Graceanne would punish me. Punishments were diluted in intensity on their way down the pecking order, but their creative management increased inversely when Graceanne was involved. So I started to walk away, limping toward the little crowd already headed for the parade ground in their red boots.

"Pick up those plugs," Graceanne squeaked, emitting a thin, penetrating hiss like a steam radiator in her scream-whisper. "Are you trying to get me in more trouble, you little skunk?"

I crawled around the porch and the steps, listening for Edie and shoving damp tampons into my pockets. The passing troop of dead kids coming by our house on the Hill watched my operations curiously. Graceanne had explained tampons to me under her bed one night the previous winter, so I knew enough to be embarrassed, assuming that her graphic crayon drawings on a paper bag represented actual physiology and not a devious and cruel mind at work.

"Don't tell about them plugs," she screeched and pulled the bathroom window down.

I followed some other dead kids down from the top of the Hill, and I tested the thickness of the mud by listening to the sucking and plopping sounds of my mismatched rubber boots--I had to wear two different sizes to accommodate my brace and my normal foot.

The wild surface of the river was running in silver-brown crashes and bumps, as though great boulders impeded its path, but there were no boulders this far south in the Mississippi. Whole trees were riding the water, their giant roots spinning at the center of raging eddies until they were towed down by the savage undercurrents, but even the trees couldn't tear the skin of the river that stayed whole and strong. I saw a white-tailed deer shoot past a whirling elm, over near the Illinois side. The deer's soft brown mouth was wide open, its antlers broken, its hooves pawing the rapids.

When I got to the parade ground, it was only dead kids fooling around in the water before school. Since that would have been a good time to get our own muskrat glands, we were all bent over with our hands in the water. A goat came floating by on its side, all chewed up by its ride down the river.

And I found a leg, over about by third base. It wasn't any goat leg. It was a man's leg and the rest of the man was with it.

I found his shirt collar and started yanking at him. I got his head out of the water and dropped him with a quick splash because his face was all blue, and his tongue was almost bitten off, half of it hanging out of his mouth, and he was so ugly I almost threw up. And on his forehead there was a bright and big reddish purple triangle mark, a wide indentation so deep that it looked like the river had let loose and walloped him with all its force with a piece of stout oak.

Dead kids didn't know much, but we all knew better than to get caught with an ugly blue man, so I shouted at the other kids. We all pulled together and Ugly Blue Man came unstuck from the mud with a noise like my boots and floated on the skin of the water.

I didn't know any bottomless water except French's Limestone Quarry. We got the hide-and-seek rope from when I'd get tied to the tire swing at Tyler Rodgers's house, and we fastened the man's feet together and dragged him as hard as we could, all the way across the parade ground and through the mud at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy and over the lip of the playground where we could look down at the quarry. We got behind Ugly Blue Man and pushed him hard. He slid fast down the mud, down the slick slope of limestone, into the quarry lake, feet-first with hardly any splash.

But he came up again. And then he just floated around on his back, his ugly blue face like the hub of an old bicycle wheel and his arms the broken, spiny spokes.

Since it was just us dead kids, we couldn't go out to him on our own. We all took off our boots and left them on the rocks, all except my right boot, which I couldn't get off. We untied the safety rope at one end but kept the other end knotted tight around the sycamore tree where the swimmers had made it fast. We lined up along the rope, and I got to go first.

When I was in up to my chest, leading the dead kids, and I was turning blue from the fierce grip of the stinging cold water, the other kids behind me handed over a long branch that had bugs squeezing themselves out of the bark. And the way they passed that stick made me think of the fire brigade we'd watched one night when Geronimo Pinnell's house burned to the ground.

I almost went under trying to hook Ugly Blue Man. My hands were shaking from the bitterness and the reaching and the fear that I couldn't get him.

But I snagged his ankles where we'd tied him and we dragged him and ourselves back to the white edge of the quarry lake. We were all too cold to stop moving, so we quickly scrambled around for rocks, stuffing them in Ugly Blue Man's pants and his pockets and his shirt, and when he looked like a blue overstuffed scarecrow, we let him loose in the water.

He sank slowly, spinning gently until all we could see was his blue face and the purple and red triangle mark gouged on his head. And then his head went in.

We stood there shivering, watching the wobbling water where that vivid, lively triangle had disappeared, but he didn't come back up.

I suppose I must have looked like some kind of half-squashed insect as I went back home, with the shivering and the jerking and my limp. And I thought I was still blue.

When I got home, instead of going upstairs to change my wet clothes, I went into the sunroom because my father was sitting in his uniform with the starch smell and the shiny medals on his pocket. He was reading the St. Louis newspaper.

He reached out and gave me a hard smack against my right ear. "You little pest, Thumper," he said. "I'll whale you good for tracking all that crud into Edie's house. And why the hell aren't you to school?"

I did glance down at the floor, out of a sort of habitual routine to see what I'd brought in with my limp onto Edie's floors, but I didn't care about crud or getting whacked on the head or about school. On the front page of my father's newspaper was a photograph of a deer, perched on his skinny stick-legs on a loose rock in the middle of the foaming, tearing waters of the Mississippi just above Cranepool's Landing. Behind the deer was a pack of white water after him. And I knew he'd never make it to shore. And the deer knew it. I could see it in his eyes.

"Daddy," I said, "what's going to happen to that deer when he dies?"

I could smell the old and musty combat soldiers on my father's breath--combat soldiers were the empty brown Pabst bottles we sneaked out of the basement and filled with mud so we could see who could throw a combat soldier the farthest.

"Thumper," he said, laying down the paper open on his lap so I couldn't look at any picture of a terrified creature in the angry river, "in a place called Animal Heaven it's always nice, and that's where all the deer will go."

I knew my father didn't believe in religion, but I stood up straighter because I loved him for telling me a nice lie, even with the combat soldier on his breath when he told it.

I could see then more pictures inside the newspaper on my father's lap. There was a pregnant woman sitting all by herself on the roof of a house, her stomach as big as an August watermelon under her wet dress. Her eyes looked like the deer's. And her house was up to the eaves inside flooded Hard Labor Creek that was bearing down on its way to the Mississippi.

Lower on the page there was a story about prisoners escaping when the flood waters took off the gates and shut down the electricity at the state penitentiary just south of Hannibal.

That didn't seem as worrisome as the woman on the house. I looked at the picture of her more carefully. She was clutching a long-handled shovel to her. I didn't know what kind of shovel that was, only that its business end was a triangle and that she was hanging on to her shovel like it was an extra baby.

I thought maybe the pregnant woman was looking back at me from out of the picture resting on my father's legs.

Dead kids can't swim, but they have a lot of time for figuring about things after they've been told a thousand times to keep their stupid mouths shut. So I didn't tell anyone about the newspaper, about the woman on the roof and her shovel and the way its triangle looked like the one I'd seen slip into the quarry lake.

That was the first time I ever knew something important by myself, without anyone threatening to whale on me if I told.


Excerpted from This Is Graceanne's Book by P. L. Whitney Copyright © 2001 by P. L. Whitney. Excerpted by permission.
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.

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Reading Group Guide

The story is told by a nine-year old boy, Charlie, who observes with an encompassing awe a pivotal year in the life of his older sister Graceanne. She's loud, intellectual and a ruthless physical and psychological daredevil, a girl whose ferocious exploits are the stuff of local legend and the stuff of all that Charlie aspires to be. He narrates Graceanne's painful passage into teenage, a passage made tempestuous by their violent mother.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2007

    What a Marvelous Book

    If there were ever a book I'd recommend, it's this one. After reading this book I had so many emotions. I have to say I hope the author will write another book telling us how Graceanne's life went forward and that of her brother. I WANT MORE!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2006

    the strength of graceanne

    Graceanne is an amazing character in this book narrated by her brother. She is so strong and you see all the crazy things she does. Her mother is constantly putting her down, but the strength of Graceanne really makes you wish you were like her and always had her kind of strength. This book caries Graceanne through hard times in her life and leaves you very emotional and feeling for her at the end. Once it is over you wish it never would have stoped.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2001

    Very touching and inspiring!!!

    The story was wonderful! Each page flowed into the next, and I couldn't put it down! I loved Graceanne for her strength, courage, and strong will and Kentucky for her wisdom and generosity!Her brother Charlie,who tells the story, is a true sweetheart. When I was growing up I would've loved for any of these kids to be my best friend. Their lives weren't even close to being perfect, it was a shockingly realistic book.

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