A spellbinding debut about half sisters, one black and one white, on a 1950s road trip through the American South
Self-educated and brown-skinned, Cassie works full time in her grandmother’s laundry in rural Mississippi. Illiterate and white, Judith falls for “colored music” and dreams of life as a big city radio star. These teenaged girls are half-sisters. And when they catch wind of their wayward father’s inheritance coming down in Virginia, they hitch their hopes to a road trip together to claim what’s rightly theirs.
In an old junk car, with a frying pan, a ham, and a few dollars hidden in a shoe, they set off through the American Deep South of the 1950s, a bewitchingly beautiful landscape as well as one bedeviled by racial strife and violence. Suzanne Feldman's Absalom’s Daughters combines the buddy movie, the coming-of-age tale, and a dash of magical realism to enthrall and move us with an unforgettable, illuminating novel.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
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By Suzanne Feldman
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Suzanne Feldman
All rights reserved.
Cassie and Lil Ma and Grandmother lived in a house at the far end of Negro Street in two rooms over the laundry that they ran in Heron-Neck. Whoever had lived there before had papered the walls of the upstairs rooms, every inch of them, with newspapers, spread-out magazine pages, and letters. One crumbling page of newspaper showed a white man with a rifle standing over an animal, which Lil Ma said was a lion, which Grandmother said was a wild animal from Africa that would eat you in one bite. Below the lion a page torn from a magazine showed a rabbit eating a head of lettuce. Underneath the rabbit the words said, Ridding your garden of pests. Over by the back window were pictures of ladies in beautiful dresses, all tall and slender, like Lil Ma. There were no pictures that looked like Grandmother, who was short and round. None of the ladies on the walls were colored either.
Lil Ma taught Cassie to read by showing her the words on the walls and making her say them properly. Before bed, she and Cassie would find a patch of wall and sound out the letters. There was a picture of an elephant by one of the front windows with words underneath that said, Tuska Lives on Coney Island. Coney Island was a long way from Heron-Neck, Mississippi, Lil Ma said. One summer when the circus came to town, Lil Ma took Cassie down to the other end of Negro Street and across the railroad tracks to see the animals, but said Grandmother wouldn't want them to spend the nickel to see the show. They watched an elephant sway in its chains and a lion pace in a cage. Clowns sang a funny song; a monkey in a little suit danced and caught peanuts in its mouth. Music started inside the tent, and the white people went in with their ice cream cones. Cassie and Lil Ma went home, across the tracks and back to the laundry, where Grandmother was waiting with a stack of linens to be pressed.
Negro Street had houses on one side and railroad siding on the other. Instead of trees there were electric poles that had been standing beside the tracks for years without wires. Beanie Simms, who lived in the house next to the laundry, had three shoeshine chairs in front of the barbershop on the white side of town and a falling-apart truck in front of his own place. In the spring, when everyone on Negro Street planted greens, melon, and tomatoes between the electric poles, Mister Simms was the only one who didn't put up a wire fence to keep the rabbits out. The rabbits got into the other gardens anyway, but Mister Simms said they left his alone. When Cassie asked him why, he showed her a stick carved to look like the head of an animal poking out from between perfect heads of lettuce.
"It's a fox," Cassie said.
"It only look like a fox," said Mister Simms. "But th' rabbit think it real."
When Cassie told Grandmother about Mister Simms's fox, Grandmother said that Beanie Simms worked his soil with chicken innards before he planted, and the smell of blood was what kept the rabbits away.
Beanie Simms was sought after on account of his advice and his magic. Sometimes people would come in from other towns and wait at his door all day for him to come home from the shoeshine so they could ask him for guidance when they'd been 'witched. Because she was only six, Cassie was allowed to sit unnoticed on her own front stoop and watch as Beanie Simms dispensed special charms. All his business was transacted in front of his house in a couple of lawn chairs; Beanie Simms never let anyone inside, and Cassie learned a lot from what she heard. For example, there was a special way black folks could turn white, but it required a long trip east of town, and once you went there, you could never come back. She was so captivated by this information that she asked Grandmother about it. Grandmother gave her a hard look.
"If that's true," Grandmother said, "then why doesn't he leave town and take his hoodoo with him?"
Lil Ma was neighborly enough with Beanie Simms, but after Cassie told her story about how black folks could turn white, Lil Ma told Cassie never to sit on the front stoop while Mister Simms was out there with his eager listeners. When Cassie knew Lil Ma wasn't watching, she sat out by Beanie Simms anyway.
As for schooling, when she was seven, Cassie went to school for one whole day. Since she already knew how to read and count, the teacher let her sit in the back of the classroom with a group of older boys, who ignored her, talking in low voices about girls and money. The way they talked sounded improper, but Cassie couldn't keep herself from listening. Finally, one of the boys noticed her and said, "Ain't you the laundry girl?" When she said yes, he said, "Ain't your mama Adelaine?" The other boys snickered. The first boy said with a knowledgeable air, "You know what we call your mama? 'I'da Lain' down with any ol' white man.'" The other boys hooted with laughter, and the teacher looked at them. The first boy leaned closer to Cassie. "So how come you ain't any lighter than your ma?"
When Cassie got home that day, Grandmother asked what she'd learned, and Cassie said, "I ain't learned nuthin'." Grandmother decided it was the last of school for her.
That same year Cassie noticed the southern Mississippi heat for the first time. On dry days the dust rose in weightless puffs when Cassie stepped her feet in it, and stayed in the air around her, sticking to her sweaty legs and to the hem of her dress, to her hands, and to the white sheets when she took them down from the lines strung in the yard behind the laundry. Dust flavored the collards and sweet potatoes Lil Ma cooked. Dust lay on the walls and collected in the creases of the papers, letters, and spread-out pages of old magazines, drifting into a thin layer over everything. On wet days, when the air was too heavy even to rain, the heat turned the distance into a white haze, and the dust became a damp grit. On those days it was impossible to run; no one went out to play.
On summer evenings, the houses on Negro Street cast shade over their own front stoops, and the maids, the oil men, and Beanie Simms would come home and sit out front until after dark. Grandmother sometimes pulled a chair out in front of the laundry's plate-glass window to peel potatoes or snap beans. Men would walk by and nod to her. Lil Ma would come out from the storefront after doing the ironing, shiny with sweat, her blouse as wet as if she'd just washed it. Other colored women would stop and talk to Lil Ma and Grandmother. Every one of these women called Lil Ma Lainey instead of Adelaine, and every time they did, Grandmother would correct them. She was unfriendly about it, as though she was the only one who knew what was proper. Eventually, the only people who stopped by were the colored women who brought the laundry from the big houses across town. None of them stayed to talk, and after two or three weeks without conversation out front, Grandmother took her chair to a shady spot out back of the laundry and snapped beans and peeled potatoes there.
One afternoon while Lil Ma was cleaning collards and Grandmother was peeling potatoes, Cassie heard Grandmother tell Lil Ma that the Negroes in Heron-Neck were the most rude of any, anywhere they had ever lived. Cassie asked, "Where did we live before?" And Lil Ma told her that she and Grandmother had been in another part of Mississippi before Cassie was born. Cassie asked if that was where Lil Ma was born, and Lil Ma told her, no, she had grown up somewhere else, and Grandmother had been born and grown up in a place even farther away. Cassie asked where those places were, and Grandmother would only say that they were farther south in Mississippi and that it only mattered where they were right now. Other children on Negro Street had aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandfathers. "Where is the rest of our family?" Cassie asked. Lil Ma got down on her knees and hugged Cassie and said this was the only family Cassie would ever need. Grandmother sliced the skins off the potatoes with short, angry strokes, and the subject didn't come up again until well after Cassie discovered her father.
Cassie's father and his real family lived on the other side of town, but not in one of the big houses. She found out about him the same summer she noticed the heat and dust. She and Lil Ma and Grandmother were walking across the hot street between Saul's Grocery and the Mobil station. Lil Ma had been saying something about rain coming on when a fat, clean-shaven white man passed them, crossing the other way. He barely glanced at the three of them, but Lil Ma, holding Cassie's hand, tightened her grip and stopped talking. Cassie said, "Who is he?" and Grandmother said, "You've got everything you're ever going to get from him." From that, and from murmurs she heard on the rare Sundays when they went to church, Cassie knew the fat white man was her father and that his name was William Forrest, and that what had happened, in order for him to be her father, had happened before she was born, when Lil Ma had been doing laundry for the oil men south of town.
After that, Cassie noticed him more often. She noticed his family. His flushed wife, Miz Helen, came to pick up the wash for the wealthy white women in town whose colored maids were too busy to do it themselves. Miz Helen loaded the cloth sacks into two faded red children's wagons and took them, rattling along the street, all the way across town and up the hill to where the big houses idled under big trees. She earned pennies this way. Her children came with her, in patched hand-me-downs. One was a boy named Henry. The other was a girl, Judith, a year older than Cassie, who had the same look as her father — as Cassie's father — and who stared over the counter at Cassie as if she saw something she recognized while Cassie folded white handkerchiefs. There was a mirror upstairs, and when Cassie was nine, she was tall enough to see herself without having to stand on a chair and see only the top half of her face. She tried to see what Judith saw. Narrow jaw. Wide-set eyes. The color Lil Ma had said was cinnamon, when Cassie was little, and Lil Ma had given her the wonderful-smelling stuff on the tip of her tongue. Cassie grimaced, thinking of the spice's dry, sweetish taste, and in the sudden twist of her mouth saw William Forrest and also saw Judith. She stared at herself and understood why Judith stared.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, when Miz Helen came for the laundry, Cassie couldn't take her eyes off Judith. There was a week when Judith came in every day, and the two of them would study each other. It was all Cassie could do to keep from saying something. She was never sure what that something would be, but words were about to spring out of her mouth. One Friday when Judith came in, Lil Ma took Cassie's chin between her fingers and, as Judith watched, pulled Cassie's face around so Cassie could see the expression on Lil Ma's face. It was different than any she'd ever seen before, or maybe it was the same look she had been too little to understand when William Forrest had walked by on the street two years ago or when she'd asked Grandmother about Beanie Simms's magical destination where colored folks could turn white. Lil Ma let go, and Cassie concentrated on her folding until Miz Helen and her children left.
* * *
William Forrest left his family the year Cassie turned ten.
One morning in August, Judith came to pick up the laundry without her mother. Mrs. Duckett, who cleaned for the Clements, was there with her big son, James. Mrs. Duckett, who was in a gossipy mood and didn't seem to mind calling Lil Ma Adelaine, said, "Watch if Miz Helen show up." Miz Helen didn't.
Judith was eleven and thin. She stood outside in the heat with her hands at her sides while James Duckett, whose mind, at seventeen, had grown no older than five or six years old, took the heavy bags of laundry down from the counter and out to the two faded red wagons. Cassie and Lil Ma and Grandmother and Mrs. Duckett watched through the plate-glass window
"How she gone haul all that up the hill?" said Mrs. Duckett.
"Maybe she thinks your James'll do it," said Grandmother.
"I ain't sending my boy no place with that girl," said Mrs. Duckett. "Let the whole town talk about her daddy 'fore she gets to makin' up stories about my James."
James patted the bags into place and smiled his big little-boy smile and walked back into the laundry. The screen door slapped behind him, and the hot breath of the day followed him in.
Outside, Judith picked up the handle of one of the wagons and then the handle of the other. She turned and pulled like a plow mule. The wagons barely budged. She pulled again, arms stretched out behind her, eyes on the hot white concrete sidewalk. She certainly knew the faces behind the plate-glass window were watching.
Cassie stood at the screen door, feeling the heat behind it. Judith moved away, slowly, down Negro Street.
"Don't you think about going out there," said Lil Ma. "She's doing just fine."
Cassie pushed the door open and stepped into the hot, humid morning. The words she felt finally formed and came out of her mouth. "She didn't know who her daddy was gone be!"
She ran and caught up to Judith at the corner, where she was waiting for a break in the scant traffic.
"Git away," said Judith. "I don't need no help."
"I ain't here to help you."
Judith kept both hands locked around the wagon handles. Sweat ran down her neck. There were purplish circles under her eyes. Her lank brown hair looked uncombed. Her dress was a grimy pink, falling just above her knees, like she'd grown out of it too fast for the next hand-me-down to catch up. Cassie wore hand-me-downs too, but hers were freshly laundered, and Lil Ma hemmed them properly.
Judith jerked the wagons over the wooden planks of the railroad crossing and across the next road. Cassie followed her into the shade of the trees lining the old neighborhood streets. The houses had been nice once; they were shabby now and broken up into apartments. The white men who worked in the oil fields lived here. Their wives and daughters did what they could for money, and those who couldn't find work watched what went on outside from their windows. The colored maids who kept the big houses on the hill walked through this neighborhood every day. Judith and her family lived around here somewhere.
Judith stopped and wiped her face on her sleeve and held one of the wagon handles out to Cassie. "Well, it don't look right, do it?" she said and angled her head at a clapboard house with peeling paint. In one of the upstairs windows, a flowered curtain fell back into place.
"I ain't here to help you."
"Why the hail are you here?"
All Cassie's life there had been a laundry counter between the two of them. This close, the family resemblance seemed less clear. Cassie knew she'd be punished when she got back to the laundry, which made her less in a rush to get back. She took a wagon handle and pulled.
Each wagon was heavy enough where the street was flat. Judith could not have managed both once the road angled upward. The two of them walked along, the wagons rumbling behind. It was so hot, even the birds were quiet, and the leaves of the old plane trees hung limp.
"You wanna know where my daddy went?" said Judith.
"He run off with 'nother woman." Judith changed hands on the wagon handle. "Rich woman, my momma said."
"What rich woman?" said Cassie.
"No one ever said her name."
"Why a rich woman wanna run off with a oil-field man?"
"My momma said she was a hoor."
"A rich hoor?" said Cassie. The rusty wagon handle felt gritty in her fist. "I never heard of a rich hoor."
"I seen 'em dressed real nice."
"I seen 'em wearin' the same clothes all the time."
Judith wiped a damp hand on her grubby dress. "You know any? I mean personally."
"One. But I only see her in church. My mama don't mix with her."
"We got three come to our church." She aimed a thumb over her shoulder, back toward town. "I hear the Catholics got half a dozen."
Cassie laughed and then stopped herself. "Jesus prob'ly didn't laugh at the hoors."
"Prob'ly not. Here's the hill, now. Pull!"
* * *
Cassie had never been up the hill or anywhere near the mansions. The first house sat well back from the curb at the end of a driveway lined with rosebushes and azaleas. The front yard was like a forest, filled with spreading maples. The front door, which Cassie could just see through the canopy of leaves, was framed by tall columns. Pots of flowers lined the front porch. Wisteria in full bloom hung from the eaves like bolts of purple bunting.
Judith flipped through the tags on the laundry sacks until she found the one she was looking for. "Leave that wagon," she said. "Come on."
Excerpted from Absalom's Daughters by Suzanne Feldman. Copyright © 2016 Suzanne Feldman. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Seldom has a debut so absorbed and touched me. It is simply magnificent - beautiful, funny, wise and filled with heart. Suzanne Feldman has given us two sisters in Heron-Neck, Mississippi in the early 1950s - each are poor and both work hard. Born of the same father Cassie is black and Judith is white. Cassie lives and works with her mother and grandmother doing laundry. Both Cassie and Judith pile their carts with freshly done laundry to tote up the hill to luxe mansions where the white folks live. We can forget their father as he has been long gone. Cassie’s grandmother warns her about Judith by saying, “no matter how twice related you are, she’s no kin to you.” Nonetheless, Cassie is drawn to Judith, becoming almost protective of her. Feldman’s descriptions of their conversations are telling, they shine with wit and truth. When the girls learn that their father has gone to Virginia to claim his inheritance an unforgettable road trip, one like no other begins. Judith believes she can be a radio star in New York City so she convinces Cassie that they should find their father, prove they are his progeny and claim their share of the money. They go off in an unbelievably old junked car that belches steam, sleep behind billboards, and try to follow a route on a map so old that the state lines are blurred. For the reader Feldman has deliciously introduced us to unreality - the sisters come across mules who were once men, find towns that seem to be one place on the map and somewhere else on the road, Cassie even spends some time as a white girl. They meet kindness and adversity as each searches for her own freedom. Many may be reminded of William Faulkner as they read Absalom’s Daughters yet Feldman’s voice is entirely her own, brilliantly so. She writes with total authority, entertaining us, engaging us, and at times provoking us. Enjoy!