A heartfelt debut about a spunky girl determined to save her family and find her way home.
Twelve-year-old Ruby Clyde Henderson’s life changes the day her mother’s boyfriend holds up a convenience store, and her mother is wrongly jailed for assisting with the crime. Ruby and her pet pig, Bunny, find their way to her estranged Aunt Eleanor's home. Aunt Eleanor is an ornery nun who lives in the midst of a peach orchard on Paradise Ranch. With a little patience, she and Ruby begin to get along, but Eleanor has secrets of her ownsecrets that might mean more hard times for Ruby.
It's not going to be easy for Ruby Clyde and Eleanor to heal old wounds, face the past, and learn to trust each other. But with enough little pieces of love, they might be able to bring their family together again, and learn that paradise isn't a placeit's the feeling of being home. Corabel Shofner's ALMOST PARADISE is a funny and heartfelt story of determination, belonging, and the joys of loving one another.
About the Author
Corabel Shofner is a wife, mother, attorney, and author. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English literature and was on Law Review at Vanderbilt University School of Law. But before that she was a terrible student, seriously spacey, and wants all students to keep trying. Her shorter work appears in Willow Review, Word Riot, Habersham Review, Hawai’i Review, Sou’wester, South Carolina Review, South Dakota Review, and Xavier Review. Almost Paradise is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
I woke up alone in the backseat of the Catfish's car. That was my mother's boyfriend. Don't get me started on the Catfish. His real name was Carl but I called him the Catfish, because that's exactly what he looked like. The distance between his eyes was enormous, and he had skinny lips and a pointy mustache. If I'd been older when he came around, I never would have allowed him into our lives. But honest to God, I had no entire clue how to get rid of him once he was wedged into our family. You may as well know, Mother was no help at all, but don't hold that against her: she'd been real fragile since my father died, which was before I was born. I was still inside Mother at the time and his shooting death actually made me come out.
Anyway, Catfish wasn't in the car and neither was my mother. The sun was all over me, and I was tangled up in the blanket, staring up at the ceiling — thumbtacks held up the saggy material. And you know, at first I didn't even wonder where I was. I mean, I knew I was in the Catfish's car, but to think outside the car would be like wondering where my planet was in the universe.
I sat up to look for Mom. She was just outside, sitting on an upturned log by a burning campfire, watching coffee perk into the glass knob on top of a metal pot. A lady holding a carton of milk sat on the log beside Mother. I thought she was the nurse from school, with those blond curls all around her face. But then I realized that I'd never seen her before.
It still hadn't hit me how much we were not home — really, really not at home. I rested my cheek on the window and watched Mother watch the coffee brew. She sat real dainty, with her feet and knees together. My mother was always a pretty person, even in the morning. Her hair was thick and wavy around the shoulders of her favorite dress. Pale pink flowers, green leaves with an occasional bug; she'd replaced missing buttons at least ten times. She kept herself real clean too, which was something I could stand to learn.
What's more, she was calm, being outside and all, so I knew Catfish was nearby. Mother's almost like those agora-something people on TV, the ones who can't go out of the house, but she's not mentally ill. There's no medical words ending in -oids or -icks for what she was. It's just that, after my father died, she stayed inside so much that she forgot how to get along in the world. It all seemed like chaos to her, she said. The Catfish got her to go outside more, but so what? We didn't need him.
Speaking of outside, we were surrounded by those big RVs, tents, and popup campers, all under the trees. It was organized, somehow, like an outdoor hotel, and then I started to think — Where the heck are we? I went to sleep at home and woke up in some kind of vagabond camp.
Inside, the car was all packed up — that should have told me something. It was stuffed full of my toys and workbooks, clothes, and two horrible orange lamps. Looked like all our belongings, but that didn't upset me right away. I only got upset when I tried to get out of the car and put my foot down on a flimsy box. I knew what it was as soon as I felt the cardboard crush. My heart sank.
My birthday cake! I had stepped on my birthday cake. The one I had bought for myself at the grocery store; the one my friend Bunny and I were supposed to share at home that afternoon for my twelfth birthday. (Mother could never celebrate my birthday, because of Father and all.) But I couldn't figure out what my cake was doing there on the backseat floor of the Catfish's car. I pulled the box up on my lap and lifted the busted top.
Inside it said: — PY — DAY — UBY.
I cried big tears. I was no crybaby but I was so surprised to wreck my own name that the tears just leaked out. HAP and BIRTHcould fall by the wayside, but losing the R from RUBY — now that hurt; it hurt bad. I knew from the Bible that when somebody got a name change, God was about to let it rip. So I knew then, just sitting and looking at that UBY, that even though it was only my twelfth birthday, my life was turning upside down.
I opened the car door, swung my feet out, and walked over to Mother. She turned slowly from the fire to look at me. She was pleased to see me; I could always tell by her eyes, and the warm light there she saved for me alone. "Where are we?" I pulled on the elastic waist of my pajamas and let it pop. "Aren't I supposed to be in school today?"
The lady with the blond curls could tell I was confused and needed to talk to my mother, so instead of talking, she politely turned away and stirred the fire with a long stick.
Mother tilted her head and gestured to the woods and the campers all around us. She had this way of looking at ordinary things like she had never seen them before.
I got right in front of Mother and touched her cheek. The fire warmed my back. "How far are we from home, Mom? Do you know?"
She sighed. "Oh — about ..."
"How long did we drive last night? Do you remember? Were you awake?"
She glanced over at the car as if it might tell her. Then she said, "The sun came up behind us. It was lovely. I almost woke you up to see it."
All night traveling in the car! We could have been in China, for all I knew. "Mother," I said slowly, "where is the Catfish taking us?"
She nodded peacefully, then touched her lips. "Hollywood. It's in California."
I could not believe my ears. The Catfish probably thought he was going to get into movies or music. That was just like him, buying lottery tickets and gambling on any other fool thing that popped into his mind. He'd lay good money on whether the sun would come up and somehow he'd lose. The main problem with Catfish was he'd always been too good for his own life; he was always looking for a better place. And once he got going on one of his big ideas, it was near about impossible to slow his motor down.
"Where is he now?" I asked.
"Down there making friends, I suppose." She made a hand gesture like a fairy princess spreading stardust, then poured us each a cup of coffee.
I ought to say something here about my own self and the way I was back home, before they dragged me off on that horrible, horrible journey.
My name is Ruby Clyde Henderson and I am not stupid. What's more, I look like a boy, even at my age — I am skinny, and as my mother says, flat as a pancake. So when I want, I tell people my name is Clyde, and when I don't want, it's Ruby. Some don't even believe I'm a girl, with my hair being so short. It's funny, people tell you not to lie, but they hardly ever want to hear the truth. If you try to tell it, they call you a liar. Liar, liar, pants on fire. But if you lie, they believe you.
Back home there was this little blockheaded boy, new to school, and he actually pulled my pants down, wanting to prove that I was one of his kind. What he saw so surprised him that he laughed out loud, braying like a donkey. So I knocked him down — I'm good at that — and I sat on him. I'm good at that too. Then I snatched a sweat bee off the clover and shoved it in that boy's mouth and pinched his puffy lips closed until he fainted flat out.
I was in trouble with Mr. Upchurch, who had been principal since before the school was built. That man gave me the willies. And, of course, we called him Mr. Upchuck behind his back. His eyeglasses caught and reflected light, so you couldn't ever see his eyeballs. And what's worse than a grown man with no visible eyes?
I took my place in his "bad child's circle." We never got to sit down in Mr. Upchuck's office. He'd taped off a circle on the floor for us. It was supposed to make us feel squirmy. But I liked standing in the circle because I'd heard that if you put a rope around your tent when you were camping out, snakes couldn't get to you. So I always imagined the masking tape was rope, and that it kept Mr. Upchuck from getting his fangs in me. I had to stand in that circle for an hour just for beating up the little blockhead, but I would have done it again.
You'd think I didn't have any friends, after hearing a story like that. And I'm ashamed to tell it on myself — it makes me sound like a bully, which I'm not. Bullies pick on weak people. What fun is that? I only pick on bullies. Which means that most of my friends are weak people, which I like. They're much more interesting. I mean, bullies are all alike, really. That's why I beat them up.
What's more, I have a gift and talent. I don't know which it is, really — gift or talent — so I call it both. It is this: I am a healer. I do it with my hands. I haven't cured any cancers or brain tumors, not yet. I haven't cured any blindness or leprosies either. And to tell the truth, I haven't even cured a common cold, not yet. But that doesn't mean I won't one day.
For now, though, I can make people stop crying. And that's a God-given gift ... and talent.
Whenever children back home got hurt on the playground, I'd lay my hands on them and they'd stop crying. The nurse was my friend, and she let me help her; told me I was her best student. (That's why she asked the bee-stung bully boy if he wanted me to help. He hadn't heard about that side of my personality, so you can imagine! When he heard my name, he flew up off her table and ran flat into the wall.)
But that didn't change her good opinion of me. She gave me "Wordly Wizard" workbooks, bunches of them, and she taught me words like ointment and hypodermic. See, she knew I wanted to be a nurse when I grew up. Me, Nurse Henderson, with a little white hat, all starched and pleated; white dress, white legs, white shoes, white shoelaces. Like an angel, only a little more starched and without the wings.
The Catfish hollered from down past the silver camper, the one that looked like a big toaster. He had a long, rolling laugh that he always topped off with a wild yelp of "Whoo-hoo mercy!"
Here comes nothing, I thought to myself. Of course I thought it to myself, how else could I think? You can't think to somebody else. Our brains are in our own skulls. So if you don't say it out loud, nobody hears it.
Mother's friend poured milk into my coffee. I looked down into my cup, watching the milk cloud swirling, knowing it would be the last quiet moment of the day. When the Catfish was on a tear, he kept everybody stirred up. His mood storms could get right scary. Not that he ever hit us; he didn't. If he ever hit my mother, it'd be the last thing those hands ever did — I'd see to that.
Pretty soon the Catfish came strolling up the path with his new friend, a short, swaggering guy with a chipped front tooth. Nobody was a stranger to the Catfish. He talked to people everywhere he went. Store clerks, traffic cops, even people in other cars sitting at stoplights.
"Angie, doll!" he called.
"I'm not your doll," the blond woman said flatly, and that did it for me. That Angie was a friend.
"Whatever." The Catfish brushed on. "I want you to meet an eligible bachelor. And I do mean eligible. This here's Gus Luna," he said, presenting his new friend with a sweeping gesture. "He's a self-made man, like me."
Gus smiled like he was so glad to be invited around the campfire with us. Hands down, Catfish was the king of the lonely people. (Don't tell anybody, but that's the one thing I liked about him.) And Catfish went to knee-slapping and howling "Whoo-hoo mercy!"
"Babe, sweetheart," he said — Babe was my mother's name. Short for Barbara. "Did Angie bring enough coffee to offer a cup to my new best friend?"
Apparently, Angie was parked at the campsite next to ours and was sharing her stuff with Mother, because, of course, the Catfish had taken us camping with no equipment whatsoever.
Mother poured both men a cup of coffee. Catfish drank his in a single gulp, wiped his mouth, and yowled, "Ruby Clyde Henderson. I bet you ninety-to-nothing that you think I forgot your special day." Then he and Gus put their heads together and started to sing me "Happy Birthday." I did not want to smile, having been dragged halfway around the world without my permission, but I couldn't help myself. Who could frown through their own "Happy Birthday" song? The Catfish rushed over to the car and got out the cake while he sang, "Happy birthday, dear — What the heck happened to your cake? Oh, well, never mind, forget it."
He cut the cake with his pocketknife and put the pieces right on our bare hands. While we ate, he went into the car trunk and took out a big gift-wrapped box. "This is part birthday present and part look-to-the-future present, because I know it's hard for a kid to leave friends and whatnot. But one day you will thank me, Ruby Clyde. Remember this: A self-made man makes his own self."
I held the gift box in my lap. It was wrapped in pink and green teddy bears, with a huge gold ribbon, big as a cabbage. There was something so exciting about an unopened gift sitting and teasing me to tear the paper. But I never tore birthday wrapping, never.
Catfish was a big kid about my present, squirming and twisting like a puppy.
"Come on," he said.
"I will," I said.
"Sometime today, please," he said.
I ran my fingers around the edge of the box and began to loosen the tape.
"Oh, for crying out loud." He flapped his arms and said, "Just rip the stupid paper."
I threw the gold bow in the air, and he snatched at it like a dog with a ball. He tied the darn thing to his head and did the cha-cha for Mother. He could make her laugh, I'll give him that. That shiny bow kept the Catfish entertained while I enjoyed opening the rest of my present. I got the paper off without a single tear, then folded it flat to save.
I lifted the top off the box, and inside I found a real cowboy hat, real cowboy boots, a lasso, a holster with a toy gun, and rolls and rolls of caps. I was a little old for that getup, but I'm short with not much hair, and frankly, I loved that cowboy outfit. In fact, it may be about the best present I ever got.
But I saw Mother looking at my gun like it was a snake. "It's okay, Mother," I said, putting her hand on the plastic. "It's just a toy."
Catfish kept on blabbing. "Do you like it, girl? Do you? Does old Carl know how to pick 'em or what?"
I nodded, and as soon as he saw how much I really liked his present, he went on to something else. He was always in such a hurry, like he was swallowing food without chewing.
I put on my cowboy hat and tightened the thingy under my chin, then buckled the holster around my pajama waist and brushed dirt off my feet before stepping into the boots. I couldn't see myself, but I knew I was looking pretty good.
Angie, with her blond curls and crinkledy eyes, looked me up and down and said sincerely, "Suits you perfectly, kiddo."
Gus was telling us about his ex-wife and their divorce papers, and who got the car and who got the stereo. Mr. and Mrs. Gus thought they'd find something better if only they could get away from each other, but they never did, so they got back together but then broke up again.
Angie listened to him with her mouth half open, as if she couldn't believe that the Catfish was trying to match-make her with this guy. She told us that she was a recent widow, driving back to live with her family in Corpus Christi, so it was clear that she was not going to be dating Mr. Gus Luna. Angie was what I call "happy-sad": she smiled, but her flat blue eyes only made sunbursts of wrinkles from the corners of her eyelids.
Gus was telling us about working his way up from janitor to head cook at the Do-Nut Hole. He stopped and took a deep breath, then said, "Who'd have thunk it? Me, Gus Luna, would grow up to be the best doughnut cutter in Arkansas."
Catfish beamed like a lightbulb. "See what I told you? A self-made man, just like me."
So we're in Arkansas, I thought. Arkansas was a long way from home. I was loading my new cap gun and trying to call up a picture of the U.S. map in my head. I aimed my pistol and shot the coffeepot. Crack! It went way louder than just the cap gun because at the same time the log popped hot sap. Mother jumped out of her skin, which sent the old Catfish into great peals of laughter and knee-slapping and that "Whoo-hoo mercy!" that he so enjoyed. But it wasn't funny, I hadn't meant to frighten her, so I put the gun away and held her hand.
"Everything's okay. Who knew a little toy would make such a noise?" I rubbed my thumb across the top of her hand until she quit her shivers.
Mother didn't like guns, you know, what with my father getting killed and all.
Excerpted from "Almost Paradise"
Copyright © 2017 Corabel Shofner.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
How could any reader of this book not be charmed by Ruby Clyde? The delightful narrator of this debut novel had me from page one. I would follow her anywhere. ALMOST PARADISE is full of heart and Southern charm. A truly delightful exploration of what constitutes a family, forgiveness, and pieces of love.
Wonderful story about love and loyalty in down and out circumstances. Very engaging right from the start. Heart breaking and heartwarming twists that conclude in a noble ending. Leaves you with a smile and prayer for children having to make their own way.