Emmaline Nelson and her sister Birdie grow up in the hard, cold rural Lutheran world of strict parents, strict milking times, and strict morals. Marriage is preordained, the groom practically predestined. Though it's 1958, southern Minnesota did not see changing roles for women on the horizon. Caught in a time bubble between a world war and the ferment of the 1960's, Emmy doesn't see that she has any say in her life, any choices at all. Only when Emmy's fiancé shows his true colors and forces himself on her does she find the courage to actfalling instead for a forbidden Catholic boy, a boy whose family seems warm and encouraging after the sere Nelson farm life. Not only moving to town and breaking free from her engagement but getting a job on the local newspaper begins to open Emmy's eyes. She discovers that the KKK is not only active in the Midwest but that her family is involved, and her sense of the firm rules she grew up underand their effectchanges completely. Amy Scheibe's A FIREPROOF HOME FOR THE BRIDE has the charm of detail that will drop readers into its time and place: the home economics class lecture on cuts of meat, the group date to the diner, the small-town movie theater popcorn for a penny. It also has a love storythe wrong love giving way to the rightand most of all the pull of a great main character whose self-discovery sweeps the plot forward.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Amy Scheibe is the author of What Do You Do All Day? She has written for Dame Magazine, Seattle Weekly, The Forward, The Jewish Quarterly, and other publications. Born in Minnesota and reared in North Dakota, she now lives in the Catskill mountains with her husband and two children.
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A Fireproof Home for the Bride
By Amy Scheibe
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Amy Scheibe
All rights reserved.
The day after her eighteenth birthday, Emmaline Nelson sat with her spine hovering a good two inches away from the straight, cold back of an oaken pew, her feet planted next to each other on the pine floor, knees pressed together as she'd been taught. Her wool serge skirt should have been cozy, but the nylon slip her mother had insisted she wear crackled like electric ice against her dark stockings from its contact with the charged January air. Her coat hung cold and useless out in the makeshift foyer, where her mother had made her leave it, even though the inside of the church was not much warmer than the air outdoors.
Emmy worked hard at achieving what she hoped would look like a good Christian demeanor—eyes focused on the front of the church, Bible open to the day's scripture reading on her lap, hands folded on the Good Book, mouth slightly open and whispering along with the Nicene Creed. She knew these words so well she no longer had to parse their meaning. She knew the service so well that she barely kept her thoughts on God. No, Emmy's mind was quite understandably drawn over her right shoulder, pondering instead the man who would soon officially become her betrothed.
The prayer over, Emmy cocked her head to the left and turned it just enough to steal a glance of Ambrose Brann. She could feel his steady gaze warm on her neck, even as the congregation stood to sing another hymn. It seemed as though Ambrose had always been there, somewhere, in and out of her memories of youth. They had played together when she was small, endless indulgent games of hide-and-seek at one farm or the other on Sunday afternoons while the grown-ups visited over coffee and her sister toyed with dolls on a flannel blanket stretched out in the grassy sunshine. At times inseparable, Emmy and Ambrose had walked through muddy spring-dense fields of ankle-deep black soil in order to place a penny on the railroad track down at the end of the farm's quarter section, returning later in the day to find the bright copper disc pressed flat and smooth. He had taught her how to hunt, to clean a gun, to shave a piece of soft wood into a palm-sized cross, and after Grandfather Nelson died when she was ten, Ambrose's economy of words had made her feel her loss less keenly, even though the few things he did share revealed little of his heart.
Ambrose was a good deal older—nearly ten years—and yet he never seemed to mind his young companion, always extending to Emmy a level of familial love that promised to keep her comfortable the rest of her life. She tried to imagine what the weight of his silence might feel like in the stretch of time about to be set before them, and an unexpected feeling rose against it, a slight hiccup of concern.
The Brann family's status was considered a significant step up from her family, with Delmar Brann's vast acreage of sugar beet fields and hundred head of fine beef cattle comprising the largest farm in the township. Unlike her Norwegian-born grandfather, Mr. Brann was second-generation American—a fact he frequently worked into conversation. Still, the two men had been the kind of friends who were more often seen together than apart, and it had been Grandfather Nelson's dying wish for Emmy to marry Ambrose. She could learn to live in a quiet house, she supposed, or fill it with the noise of children by and by.
Emmy waited to join in the singing a moment too long and felt a quick, sharp pinch delivered with dogged expertise to her upper left arm by her mother. As Emmy slowly stood, she took quiet note of the increase of her stature, for she recently had cleared the brim of her mother's hat by a solid three inches. Emmy's life up to now had been constrained by her mother's views, her instructions, her limits. Yet somehow, a strange miracle had happened in September: Her father moved them from a shack on her grandmother's farm near the sleepy town of Glyndon and into a small, tidy house in the much bigger city of Moorhead, Minnesota, across the Red River and in the shadow of Fargo, North Dakota. Emmy had entered her final year of high school surrounded by the kinds of ideas and knowledge that unfolded a crumpled sheet of possibility inside of her, and Karin's influence had started to pull away from Emmy like warm taffy. The move had revealed tiny windows that were now opening onto new opportunities.
On Emmy's right the bright singing of her sister, Birdie, cut through Emmy's preoccupations. Birdie had burst into the Nelson household three years after Emmy, a gift of uncomplicated grace and laughter among a previously glum trio. Sometimes Emmy wondered what would have become of them if Birdie hadn't been born. Emmy's own arrival had been less auspicious, coming as it had three months after their brother, Daniel, had died. With so much grief in such a small house how could anyone joyfully greet a red-faced, colicky girl? Instead, Emmy had slept in her grandmother's bed, fed from a bottle and carried around on the older woman's hip until Emmy was big enough to walk. When Karin had come home with Birdie, three-year-old Emmy eagerly accepted the role of mother's helper, happy to be useful and wanted. She couldn't remember much from those early years, and besides, she had quickly learned to appreciate the feeling of being needed more than loved. Now that she was eighteen, Emmy was ever more mindful of what kind of wife and mother she wanted to be, itching to cook meals the way she preferred, keep her own house, and create for her children a pocket of happiness that no one would fill with the pebbles of grim self-sacrifice. Marriage to Ambrose was not merely a promise to be fulfilled, it also seemed the only way forward, a destination she knew as well as any other, a place she could feel finally at home.
Once the blessing was given, Karin quickly slipped past Emmy's father in order to join the women serving coffee in the basement, and gave him a look that suggested he keep a close eye on the girls. Christian frequently deferred to Karin, even after their own small farm had failed when Emmy was ten, and they'd had no choice but to move into a three-room shack on Grandfather Nelson's farm. It had once been used by the betabeleros who took the trains north every spring to plant sugar beets and back down south to the Texas border once the harvest was completed late in the fall. The interior walls of the outhouse ten feet behind the shack were still papered in Mexican movie magazines featuring Rita Hayworth's toothy smile.
As much as she had wondered why they couldn't just live in the farmhouse with her grandmother, Emmy knew that there was some strength behind Christian's quiet pride. Rather than replace his newly dead father as head of the farm, Christian took a mechanic's job at the sugar factory. It took seven long years of taxing work, but Emmy could tell that Christian was never happier than when he unloaded their possessions into the small house in Moorhead that fall. Even so, they all continued to help Grandmother Nelson maintain what little was left of her enterprise: a handful of milking cows, a half-blind hunting dog, a dozen laying hens, and an old inedible hog named Sausage. Lida wouldn't hear of selling one feather of the place, and it had been made plain to Emmy that the farm would be given to her and Ambrose, finally joining the two families as Grandfather Nelson had desired.
Task-driven blood in her veins, Karin Nelson looped her arm through Grandmother Nelson's, helping the much older woman out of the pew and down the short aisle toward the stairs. Lida Nelson was the center of the church's universe. She had left her family early in order to create her own place in this loop of the river, and she took on the history of every parishioner as though it were her own. The Nelsons had all been baptized in this room, they would all be married here, and God willing at the end of their lives receive the blessing of rejoining their relatives in the attached graveyard of good Lutherans. Emmy touched the smooth pew, finding the slight dent where she'd cut her first tooth. She imagined what the low-shouldered country church must have looked like from the sky, set back from the meandering creek just far enough to stay high in flood years, close enough to hold picnic suppers in the late afternoon shade of early September harvests. Since she was very small, she'd been told stories about the great Norwegian settlers who had staked out this land and constructed a sod lean-to from the densely packed soil, slicked the sides with paint made from quicklime and chalk, and retained the services of a traveling preacher until they could afford a full-time recruit. Soon after, a suitable wooden building was constructed.
All that hard work was swept up into the spinning maw of a tornado in 1929, leaving only the organ untouched. Twice more, twisters had descended on them, the most recent coming late on a cloudless day the past June, when the deadliest cluster ever seen had ripped its way through a speckled swath of the county. One tremendous funnel that looked like an upside-down birthday cake had flattened areas of Fargo, while a group of three smaller spirals barely missed the little church as the storm made its devastating way into their valley, leaving pieces of houses from as far away as North Fargo scattered about the farm. Emmy had found a dollar bill, the wheel from a child's wagon, and the cracked head of a porcelain doll, among other displaced treasures. Even now, in the dead of winter, when the sky turned black, a shiver of trepidation would come over Emmy, reminding her of how scared she had been as they huddled in the disused coal bin, listening to the howling winds encompass her grandmother's home.
Emmy rubbed the gooseflesh from her arms as she stood between her father and Birdie in the crowded aisle. She gazed up at the stained-glass depiction of Christ ascendant, wondering what He thought of the poor souls from the Golden Ridge area of Fargo who had been killed in the storm. Had He opened his arms to the five Acevedo children taken alongside their mother? Did it make sense that God chose to leave behind the father and one son? She'd read their stories in the local paper, and had wept over the picture of the baby of the family being carried away from the wreckage by a fireman who had either lost or discarded his hat—his limp slant of bangs obscured the horror he must have felt—until her heart couldn't stand any more of it.
The feel of her father's hand on the middle of her back brought Emmy's thoughts around to the sturdy brick church, and she let her questioning melt away, as she often had when the wall of God's reason seemed too high for her to scale. Christian roped his other arm around Birdie's shoulders and engaged Ambrose's father as he moved out of his own pew.
"Good morning, Del," her father said, offering his hand to the dark-suited gentleman. Delmar Brann, reed thin and yet a good head taller than Christian, took the slighter man's hand in both of his as he grunted a greeting. An older, squatter, and unfamiliar man moved out of the pew, nodding solicitously at them as he slid past and broke into the line waiting to greet the pastor at the door. Emmy noticed her father's look of irritated surprise before she cast her eyes to the floor, while Birdie used the moment to sprint out from under her father's arm and rush off to join her friends at the back of the church. There was something in Mr. Brann's stature that always made Emmy feel small, insignificant: almost breakable. He was closer in age to her grandfather than to Christian, and had been married late, but widowed early, to a woman rumored to have come from a wealthy Chicago family.
"Good morning," Mr. Brann said, and moved in a lanky shuffle along the aisle. "What are you hearing in town about Burdick's attempts to get into Congress?"
"I prefer not to talk politics in church," Christian said, forcing a friendly enough laugh, but Emmy sensed discomfort in her father as he tipped his head in her direction.
Mr. Brann turned brusquely to Emmy, sliding a rough knuckle under her chin. She resisted taking a step back. "How's our girl?" He leaned closely enough for her to see a fleck of pepper between his top teeth. "The winter cold enough for you?"
"Oh, you bet," Emmy replied, an embarrassed shade of red prickling her skin. Karin had told her that after Sunday dinner at the Branns', matters would be discussed between the two families, and from Mr. Brann's solicitous smile, Emmy could tell that her position in his favor had risen. The obvious downside of a marriage to Ambrose was the eventual, continual proximity to his father, though Emmy knew that there was no fairness in comparing Ambrose to Mr. Brann. She was nothing like her mother, and Emmy's blush began to rise up to her ears with the notion of Ambrose setting them in the same frame. Her mother was cold and firm, hardworking and driven, serving Jesus with her every breath. Emmy loved Jesus but found less of her soul compelled to model his mission. She wanted to do good works in her life, but she also wanted to look up and out at the world, rather than stare deeply into a pair of prayer-folded hands, whispering words of devotion and salvation. What was the point of being saved if she never did anything that required the risk of being lost? Her mother lived within the limits of this room, even when she was outside of it. Emmy's view was drawn to the horizon, and whatever might lie beyond. How she would incorporate this yearning into a marriage to the farm boy next door she had no clue, but she hoped her brand of faith would lend more guidance than her mother's had.
Emmy gave her head a little shake to clear the muddling thought and quickened her step to leave the older men behind. She slipped her hand into the crook of Ambrose's arm. He smiled down at her.
"How's the farm?" Emmy asked, feeling the heat of his body through the layers of clothing, hot like an ember in the grate. Beads of sweat stood out on his brow and Emmy had to quietly wonder whether he might be ill. Clearly she wasn't the only one nervous about what the day would hold for their future.
"A dozen hens are off their lay," he said.
Emmy laughed, then darkened her tone. "That sounds serious."
"You'll see," he said, a small smile pulling at one corner of his mouth.
"Yes, I suppose I will," she said, her attempt at merriment waning as they approached Pastor Erickson where he stood in the entryway, shaking hands and listening to the needs of his flock with a look of either deep sympathy or abject senility. He was a perfectly square man with straight, feeble lines of white hair laced atop a face that was always bright pink, regardless of the weather or circumstance. Emmy had loved the pastor when she was a small girl, but as she'd filled out her Sunday dresses over time, his lingering eyes had made her increasingly uncomfortable to the point of slouching.
"Good morning, Emmaline," he said as he took both hands and held them out to her sides. His touch was oddly damp and dry at the same time, like washing taken in from the line five minutes too early. "You're looking especially pretty today." Emmy broke her own sweat, which she could feel collect at her temples and underneath her gray wool hat, where her scalp began to itch.
"Thank you, Pastor. You're very kind to say so," she said as Ambrose stepped between them, saving her from further discomfort.
"Yes, she's a pretty one, sir," Ambrose said as he shook the pastor's hand. "Wonderful sermon, I especially enjoyed your thoughts on Nadab and Abihu. I had never considered how their punishment related to the great flood, or Gilgamesh." Emmy looked at Ambrose, surprised by how much he had to say, as though the coal of Isaiah had touched his lips when she wasn't looking.
Pastor Erickson narrowed one eye. "You're a great study, Ambrose. You should consider taking the cloth yourself, you know. We could use more men like you."
"So you always say." Ambrose bowed his head. "But I serve the Lord through faith alone."
"His Grace be with you," Pastor Erickson replied, turning back to Emmy and casting a rheumy glance down the length of her frame.
"And with you," Ambrose said, moving Emmy along toward the basement stairs. The smell of percolating coffee and the clattering of the church women setting out cups pointed up the silence that rested between the young couple. In the few moments it took them to descend, Emmy sought a topic of conversation to begin, but nothing came to mind. She certainly hadn't listened closely enough to the sermon to engage him on the topic of divine retribution—or whatever it was the pastor had spent so much time talking about. If it wasn't damnation, it was likely wrath or some other brimstone subject. The gamut Pastor Erickson ran was as small as that of a penned-up rooster, and nearly as nonsensical, but she knew better than to speak her mind on to Ambrose. It seemed to her at times that she was the only person who noticed the paucity of words and ideas coming from the pulpit, so eager were the parishioners to have Pastor Erickson's holy approval.
Excerpted from A Fireproof Home for the Bride by Amy Scheibe. Copyright © 2015 Amy Scheibe. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: His Wonders to Perform,
Part I Disinheritance,
1. Faith Alone,
2. The Bloom of Youth,
3. A Single Comma,
4. Clad in the Cloth,
5. To Hold a Thing Unknown,
6. A Reflection of Human Frailty,
7. A Delicate Web Unwoven,
Part II Doubt Grows with Knowledge,
8. Candles in the Wind,
9. The Fragility of Stars,
10. A Wet Seed Wild,
11. A Goodly Heritage,
12. The Beauty of Patience,
13. All Progress Is Precarious,
14. Unseen Feet,
15. My Peace Is Lost,
16. When the Soul Is Touched,
17. By a Soft Whisper,
18. The Start of the New,
19. Darkness Illuminated,
20. A Collection of Order,
Part III A Child of Solitude,
21. A Cold Day Gone Hot,
22. Life with God Forever,
23. Grace Alone,
24. I Will Overturn, Overturn, Overturn It, and It Shall Be No More,
About the Author,
Also by Amy Scheibe,