An Eighth of August: A Novel

An Eighth of August: A Novel

by Dawn Turner Trice


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From the author of the highly acclaimed Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven, a new novel about the strong ties and haunting memories that bind family and friends in a small town.
Narrated by a chorus of voices, An Eighth of August tells the story of a Midwestern community that celebrates the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation year after year. Celebrants from come near and far to pay tribute to the rich heritage of the former slaves who settled the Illinois town. But along with the festivities come painful memories and long-buried resentments, and while this year’s celebration is no different, it will offer up its own particular brand of freedom to one extended family and the wonderfully eccentric white woman whose life becomes entwined with their own. Wavering between the devastating and the uplifting, An Eighth of August is ultimately an enduring and exuberant novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385721479
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/14/2002
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Dawn Turner Trice is the author of Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven. She writes for the Chicago Tribune and NPR’s Morning Edition. She lives outside Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

J. Herbert Gray
The 1986 Halley's Landing Emancipation Festival
Sunday, August 3, 1986

From the start . . .

From the very start, them women on the Mothers Board say they saw her coming up the shoulder of the road, half dressed and walking scatter-legged 'long the side that hugs the river.

Them no-seeing women on Greater Faith's Mothers Board say they knowed it was her even when they was looking straight ahead up toward the pulpit at young Delaware Matthews, the assistant pastor, and she was merely caught up in their side glance. Them women say they knowed right off who it was just as soon as they saw all that pretty yellow coming toward the church. Yellow set 'gainst green countryside and the clear blue sky. 'Gainst newly laid black asphalt with a fresh white seam painted straight up the middle, so ain't no mistaking which side for heading east and which for heading west. One woman say yellow that pretty used to belong only to the sunflowers in the patch on the other side of town. But that was before Sis moved to Halley. Folk liked to intuit that women with skin that dark couldn't, or shouldn't, hold claim to such a vibrant color. But Flossie Jo never cared 'bout such particulars. Wore it without shame or sorrow, like she owned it and the sun, too; walked--when she wasn't walking scatter-legged--like she had wings and could show it off finer than any bird or butterfly of the same hue.

Them women on the Mothers Board say they was standing right here in this front pew, looking out this window, when they saw her. Never mind that the day was hazy and you could hardly see for the heat waves making everything ripple and blur. Heat beating down from the sun and rising up from that black asphalt, meeting in the middle in a steamy crease. Them women say they saw her, never mind them black fringes on the window's awning. Them fringes always hang long like scrappy thin pickaninny braids and nearly block the view. Still, them women say them fringes wasn't making no difference that morning. Neither was their wide and cocked, colorful Sunday hats or their rheumatized joints or their bad feet, which taken together made them stand stooped over and made seeing straight even more of a chore. They say when they saw Sis coming toward the church, everything sorta moved out the way; sorta opened up or eased up to let her through. They remember the exact moment she deboarded the bus under the last of all them fine houses on the hill. They remember 'cause them propane cannons sounded, nearly jarring the deafness out of them. They even recall when she crossed the Jefferson bridge, officially entering the downtown, and not long after that, stepped under the

banner that stretched between the cornices of the old glass company and the taxi place.
Them five women say by the time she made it halfway to the church and was hovering 'bout the Mercury Filling Station, they had done finished Communion--had gulped down double portions of that potent elderberry wine--and was up clapping and singing, swaying, though they couldn't recall the song. They did remember sorta that the choir was standing, too, and so was the young people up above in the loft area, and so was young Delaware and Pastor hisself--who, standing next to Delaware, always lost some of his handsomeness, what with that good-sized hole eating into his Afro. You noticed Pastor's hole only 'cause Delaware had a head full of that curly hair. And with Pastor's head and Delaware's head bowed over the empty Communion vials, Pastor's hole gaped wide open and shined, too, on account of the sweltering heat. So many people had done arrived for the goings-on that every seat in the sanctuary was filled to overflowing and everything running water: the walls, the floors, the pews, the people, and naturally, Pastor's head.

At one point, them women say, the big fat organist grabbed their attention 'cause he jumped up from his bench and screamed hallelujah. The music fell off as he hot-footed it down the center aisle toward the rear of the sanctuary. He turned the corner, smacking into the last row of pews--pews that don't offer much in the way of comforts for sitting, let alone for smacking into them--and rolled back up toward the pulpit 'long the outside aisle by the windows.

Them women was certain he ain't seen nothing outside that window, or 'round them fringes, or through the haze, what with his eyes squeezed shut the way they was, which explained why he smacked into them pews, bruising and welting up his stumpy legs. Windows may as well have been pushed down, showing off the stained glass, rather than propped open, beckoning a breeze. Especially since there was no breeze to speak of and the onliest thing coming in through those windows was a few of them forehead-kissing horseflies and, every now and then, a whiff of that good ol' barbecue pit smoke from the fairgrounds behind the church. Air was so thick and smelling so good that every time Pastor shook his tambourine and said "Somebody say Amen," you said "Amen" and tasted hot tangy sauce and soft white bread.

What People are Saying About This

Gloria Naylor

Dawn Turner Trice writes beautifully; but above all, she writes deeply. I've read passages over the phone to friends, and I cried when I finished the book.

Reading Group Guide

Set in the gritty heart of Chicago, Dawn Turner Trice's debut novel, Only Twice I've Wished for Heaven, was hailed by the Washington Post as "a polished gem that shines from every angle, rich in rhythm, story, characterizations--." In her second novel, An Eighth of August, Trice explores small-town life in southern Illinois, once again creating a work that sparkles with insight and humor. The discussion questions and author interview in this guide are designed to enhance your reading group's discussion of these two portraits of African-American life in the late-twentieth century, limned by an author who has been compared to such distinguished and beloved writers as Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Harper Lee.

1) For discussion of An Eighth of August:
An Eight of August presents the same events from several different points of view. Which narrator most closely represents, if any, the voice of the author? Did your opinions of the characters change as you saw them through different eyes? Did you trust their own words and perceptions more than the portraits others painted of them?

2) Sweet Alma is a central character in the book, despite the fact that she isn't present in 1986. Drawing on the impressions the other characters offer, how would you describe her? Do you feel sympathy for her or do you think she is acting selfishly by not returning to Halley's Landing?

3) What motivated Flossie's decision to send Simon and Sweet Alma to St. Louis? Was she merely protecting the family from scandal? In what ways did it reflect her dissatisfaction with her own life? What would have happened to Sweet Alma had she remained in Halley's Landing?

4) Why did Flossie decide to raise El herself? To what extent was she influenced by the close-knit community of Halley's Landing and the attitudes of her friends and family? Would she have made the same decisions about both her daughter and her grandson in Chicago, where she, Simon, and Sweet Alma lived before coming to Halley's Landing?

5) The people of Halley's Landing are very involved with each other's lives. Do you think this is an accurate portrait of small-town life? Are the characters more tolerant of each other because of their shared histories? Are they more accepting of eccentricities and idiosyncrasies than members of your own community?

6) Trice portrays the relationships between several couples: Flossie and Simon, Herbert and Thelma, Pepper and June, and May Ruth and John. Discuss how each of these relationships represents a different concept of love and marriage. What makes Herbert and Thelma's marriage so successful? Why do Flossie and Simon continue to meet years after their divorce, and why do they keep it a secret from the others? Do your sympathies for June and Pepper change when you learn more about June's background? Do you think they will be able to overcome their pasts and form a family of their own?

7) Thelma is presented as a scattered-brained, flighty, naively endearing woman. How does Trice convey Thelma's strengths without contradicting the portraits the narrators draw?

8) Does Cora's position as confidante and mediator to the others give added weight and credibility to her version of events? How does her dream about El and Sweet Alma [pp. 74-75] show a side of her that is not apparent in her straightforward accounts of the day-to-day activities?

9) What role does May Ruth play in the novel? Why does Trice wait until the end of the book to reveal her story and how she became a part of Cora's and the others' lives?

10) Why do Pepper and El allow the others to believe that Pepper was the one who attacked Mr. Paul? Why does Flossie allow Pepper to accept the blame for El's death? What insights does this give you into Flossie's own feelings of guilt and responsibility?

11) Why did Trice set the story against the background of an Emancipation Day celebration? Discuss how the conversations and events of the 1986 festival represent a personal emancipation for each of the characters.

For discussion of the two novels

1) Trice describes three different African-American communities--the posh Lakeland and sordid 35th Street in Only Twice, and the rural midwestern town of Halley's Landing in An Eighth of August. In what ways do each of these communities reflect the history of African-Americans in this country and the social and economic realities of America today? What attitudes or beliefs do the characters who inhabit these very different worlds share?

2) Only Twice deals graphically with the problems of urban living--drug addiction, prostitution, casual violence, governmental indifference and neglect, not to mention that the fateful events in An Eighth of August are set in motion by Mr. Paul's act of perversion. What keeps the negative events at the heart of the novels from overshadowing the stories Trice tells?

3) Why does Trice use more than one narrator? How do the changes in voice shape the stories she tells? Did you identify more closely with specific narrators, and if so, why?

4) Tempestt tells her story from the vantage point of twenty years, and the recollections in An Eighth of August switch back and forth from 1973 to 1986. How do the changing time frames and perspectives strengthen the power of the novels?

5) In Only Twice, all the characters are African-American. In her second novel, Trice included a white woman, May Ruth, as part of the community she creates. What do you think she was trying to accomplish by doing this? Does May Ruth's background and race influence the way the other characters relate to her?

6) Both Tempestt and Pepper witness the death of their best friends, and both feel a sense of responsibility for the tragedy. How do their reactions differ? How do the reactions of the adults around them affect their abilities to cope with their guilt? We know that Tempestt ended up living a rich, fulfilling life. What do you think will happen to Pepper in the future?

From the Hardcover edition.

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