A Whistle

A Whistle

by Janice Daugharty
     
 

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Roper is illiterate. He is a poor, hard-working black man in the unforgiving heart of south Georgia, striving each day to put distance between his new life and his probation for a petty crime one year earlier. His routine is his savior: At sunrise he mounts the tractor belonging to Math Taylor, a prominent white landowner, and grooms the vast grounds of the…  See more details below

Overview

Roper is illiterate. He is a poor, hard-working black man in the unforgiving heart of south Georgia, striving each day to put distance between his new life and his probation for a petty crime one year earlier. His routine is his savior: At sunrise he mounts the tractor belonging to Math Taylor, a prominent white landowner, and grooms the vast grounds of the Taylor home — until one morning, when Roper's routine goes terribly wrong. While mowing the tall grass at the back end of the property, he comes across the body of his boss' wife, dead of a heart attack. In a moment of panic, terrified that he'll be blamed for her death and sent back to jail, Roper hides her body where it will not be found.

With the ensuing days and weeks comes a painstaking and fruitless search for the missing woman. The police want to interview Roper, to ask him if he happened to see Lora Taylor before her mysterious disappearance. After all, wasn't he running the tractor around the time she vanished?

Now Roper is not sure he did the right thing. He should have called for help. And there is no way he can come forward at this point. As the investigation begins and the tragedy hits the evening news, Roper is nearly crippled with self-induced fear and paranoia.

A gritty novel of suspense, Whistle is a powerful departure for acclaimed southern novelist Janice Daugharty. Masterfully weaving the fears of a desperate man with the stark lives of those around him, Daugharty creates a landscape of profound questions and moral quandary. Whistle is Daugharty's most evocative and ambitious novel to date.

Author Biography: Janice Daugharty is Writer-in-Residence atValdosta State University, near her home in Georgia. She is the author of one story collec-tion and five novels: Dark of the Moon, Necessary Lies, Pawpaw Patch, Earl in the Yellow Shirt, and Whistle.

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Editorial Reviews

News & Observer
Whistle is a triumph, and Janice Daugharty has produced a taut and redolent story of victory. Here is a glad experience.
Library Journal
Roper Rackard is a Georgia black man with a sharecropper temperament. When he discovers the body of his boss's wife while cutting hay, fear motivates him to dispose of the corpse, even though he is innocent of any wrongdoing. Recognizing her son's unease and guessing its cause, Mama Lou manipulates the situation to force Roper to take responsibility for himself and his family. Daugharty (Earl in the Yellow Shirt, LJ 5/15/97) has done a masterly job of mixing bravado, indifference, paranoia, and panic into Roper's character. In addition, she delicately stirs in hints of the early Civil Rights Movement, memories of Freedom Riders, and a healthy serving of fantasy to round out her too-easily-resolved story. A reader may finish this book wishing that Daugharty had captured the essence of the Southern black experience as well as she has created the multifaceted character of Roper. For literary fiction collections.Thomas L. Kilpatrick, Southern Illinois Univ. Lib., Carbondale
Kirkus Reviews
A man fleeing sudden trouble inadvertently sets in motion a series of revelations in a small Georgia town. Roper, the black protagonist, is "short and stringy and gaunt," just out of prison after serving time on a drug charge and eager to stay out of harm's way. He's moved back into the decrepit trailer court on the edge of Withers, Georgia, dominated by his mother, Louise, a strong, devout, harried woman harboring a number of secrets, and taken a job with Matt Taylor, a farmer and contractor and one of the area's most powerful men. Things begin to go wrong when Roper stumbles across the body of Taylor's wife in a field he's been told to mow. Terrified that he'll be accused of murder, he hides her body in a nearby well—but does in fact become a suspect when she's reported missing. Then, to Roper's astonishment, Taylor himself is a suspect: It turns out that he has a lover, and that Taylor and his wife have had a series of bitter, and very public, fights. An increasingly panicked Roper is torn between the need to confess to save Taylor and the fear of what will happen if he tells the truth. The corrosive power of secrets, and the double-edged nature of community (often sustaining, but also often constricting), are central themes in Daugharty's fiction (Earl in the Yellow Shirt, 1997 etc.), but this is the first time she's focused on a black southern community. Her portrait of Roper's complex, resilient mother, of his two disaffected young sons Beanie and Bloop, and of his struggling friends and neighbors seems both admiring and exact. And Roper's long battle to do the right thing is handled with considerable subtlety and psychological acuity. Matters are further complicated whenthe complex blood ties between Roper's family and the Taylors come to light. The moment when Roper finally comes forward is both moving and unadorned, with Daugharty steering clear of melodrama. An ambitious and vivid tale, by an increasingly impressive novelist.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060175511
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
02/17/1998
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Roper hopes he isn't seeing what he thinks he's seeing, but he is, he knows he is. He hopes it's a roll of navy rags tumbled up by the wind that isn't wind but a drizzly draft batting through the truck window. Eyes on the roll of navy at the end of the pond road, he steers the blue Isuzu onto the rough ground of the open field, driving north toward the blue tractor, to get on with his mowing. Watching till the strand of unmowed weeds blocks his view of the navy rag roll. When he looks again, it will be gone. Surely it will be gone.
But when he mounts the tractor and gears it into first, looking again toward the end of the pond road, he is high enough to see over the weeds and still the roll of navy is there. Not exactly a roll shape, and if he isn't careful he might conjure the rest of it into the image of a white woman's overlapped arms and legs. Driving parallel to the navy and white--what? rags blown from the old homesite on the south end of the property?--yet a good hundred feet away, he heads the tractor east in the direction of the white farmhouse fronting Highway 129, listening to the hard chirr of the rotary mower, the mind-numbing clata-clat-clat of the tractor. Seeing before him the green Volvo in the backyard where he'd talked to the boss's wife before going home for lunch. Wearing what? One of those shorts outfits she wears when she goes out walking every day. What color? He can lie to himself and say red or gray. He can lie to himself and say he never spoke to that white woman in the first place, that he hasn't seen what could be her body sideslung in the sand at the other end of the road.
But he has.
In the pecanorchard, field side of the rail-fenced yard, he turns the tractor, mowing west into the fuzzy brown weeds and grasshopper flurries, eyes on the navy roll that he tries to fool himself into believing has moved. Maybe she is resting. Maybe she is trying to lure Roper into coming to check on her; maybe Math Taylor has told his wife to test Roper. But knowing Taylor, whom Roper has worked either with or for, off and on, since the early part of his fifty-four years when he became workable, Roper knows that isn't right. That Math Taylor would do his own testing if he wanted to test somebody. Two weeks Roper's been working for Taylor, this time, and two weeks he's been trying not to look at the white woman, who could land his ass back in jail. Not that she's been anything but kind to him, too kind.
Getting closer to the navy and white hump, Roper decides to really look this time. Almost level with it, though still maybe ninety feet to his left, he can see her gray-blond hair cooped over her left arm. Right arm covering her face as if she is playing peekaboo with a baby. But the right toe of her white running shoe is flexed inward in a way that this lady would never flex her foot, maybe even if she was dead. Dead, she has to be dead. Did she have a heart attack, did somebody murder her, did a rattlesnake bite her? Maybe a stray shot from a deer hunter's rifle.
All the way up to the row of pine saplings circling the pond, so close Roper can see the shrunken black water, and again he turns the tractor, juddering it over the furrows of dirt and wintering weeds, toward the house again, past the woman again, now some seventy-five feet away. Watching behind him the body and letting the tractor cruise randomly through ragweeds and dog fennels, goatspur and blackberry thickets. When he has to look ahead again, when he has to steer the tractor into the neat etched line of sagy cured weeds on his right, away from the pale green stubble on his left, that clean patch every day for two weeks the tractor has been gnawing away at, his hands are shaking so badly he has to grind them into the steering wheel. To make them stick.
Next run, and the drizzle changes to rain. A slow slanting rain across the same impossible but peaceful two hundred acres he's been whittling away at for two weeks--he's never worked so steady for so long before. The field peaceful now except for the navy roll that hasn't moved. Same down-flexed right shoe and right arm over the face. Hell, even Sweet, the quarters' whore, crazy as she is, wouldn't lie down to rest in the rain! In the middle of a weed field?
When it rains, generally, Roper can go home and sleep or wander the quarters, a mile south of Taylor's place. He should go now, a good excuse. Passing the parked pickup on his left and the roll of navy on his right, he is tempted to stop, to get into the truck, to go home, but instead makes a quick right. Straight across the humpy field, stopping the tractor a few weed-choked furrows away from the body or whatever.
Rain streams down his hot face--so hot this last day of October! He calls out, "Hey, hey! Hey, Miss Lora! Hey!" The word "hey" feels stuck in his throat, and doesn't sound proper anyway when addressing the white woman. Does it matter? "Hey, get up," he yells through the muffler of rain. "You awright?"
Rain spots spread on her navy shorts and shirt, the toe of her right shoe still points down. No blood that he can see. He is so close he can make out the heel stitching of her white sock showing above the back of her shoe, the untied shoelace--a bad sign--and realizes he is walking toward her, whistling, rather than standing in one spot as he'd thought. Rain beating straight down on his cap now, straight down on the woman's gray-blond hair. So strange in the sandy dirt.
Still whistling, he wheels and starts toward the idling blue tractor; not blue, like navy, but what a woman might call bright blue, what his mama, loving color, might call royal blue. The old tractor bluer than normal with the rain rinsing the cottony fuzz of weeds from the bent left fender. Not Roper's fault, the bent fender. Nobody can blame him for the bent fender. Nobody has tried to. Will they blame him for the white woman's death or whatever? Probably. He stops whistling, starts to moan.

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What People are saying about this

Amanda Heller
Whistle is a wonderful piece of storytelling...It is also a shrewd social commentary."
Pat Conroy
"(Janice Daugharty is) a natural-born writer, one of those Georgia women like O'Connor, McCullers or Siddons that are best grown in small towns, a long way from city life. There's a lot of red clay and long nights in every line she puts on paper."
Kirkus Reviews
"An ambitious and vivid tale, by an increasingly impressive novelist."
Lisa Alther
"Daugharty writes taut and vivid prose that brands white-hot images on your gray matter and makes you sit up straight with admiration."
Michael Lee West
"Reading Janice Daugharty is like sitting on a Georgia porch listening to family tales, squabbles, and secrets. She knows her territory, evoking her home state and its people with grace and poignancy."

Meet the Author

Janice Daugharty is Writer-in-Residence at Valdosta State University, near her home in Georgia. She is the author of one story collection and five novels: Dark of the Moon, Necessary Lies, Pawpaw Patch, Earl in the Yellow Shirt, and Whistle.

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