Not since her bestselling book The Friendship Cake has Hinton created characters who are so filled with heartache and fragile hope.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.61(d)|
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The Arms of God
By Lynne Hinton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Lynne Hinton
All rights reserved.
1932 left North Carolina barren. Tobacco farms and cotton fields stood idle while farmers felt deep inside pockets of old pants and under mattresses and in between cushions, trying to find a nickel or maybe a dime that could mean shoes, sugar, or even seeds for the coming year.
Every spring it was a gamble. The prices. The boll weevil. The weather. And winter in the South was the outcome of casting the dice. This was the season of squeezing turnips and convincing each other that you were seeing blood. Of making something out of nothing. Like stretching a ball of dough into three meals and making a new dress with the seats and knees and seams from an old pair of trousers. From November to March there was nowhere else in the country where the men appeared so unsteady and the women so careful. And the southern farmer pushed through those months like a train slowing down before passing through a tunnel, trying to save a few pieces of coal.
Winter was the time for figuring. Long days and restless nights of deciphering survival as if it were a complex math equation with a simple solution that you can't find. Men trying to decide whether it was the mines of Appalachia or the factories up north that would lend them back the dignity that the farmland had stripped.
Women trying to make up rules and stories that would keep the children from getting lost in a dream that made them weak-spirited and unable to fight off diseases like tuberculosis and scurvy. Tenant farmers wondering how they can plant more tobacco in a row or which child will be old enough to join the others in the field. It was a low time and gray and folks went to bed trying to remember spring and the colors and the way they used to touch each other in the night.
North Carolina was lonesome for life. For some noise other than the shifting of prayers to get through the day or the busy silence that marked the beginning and ending of daily tasks. The whole state seemed to be folding up in old age. Land and river, field and meadow, every acre, every glance, seemed to be empty of any flower or seed. Except for the womb of Mattie Jacobs.
Here lay the faint movement of time that grew stronger each day, forming into heart and liver and breath-giving lungs. Brain stem pushing into spine and earthy brown eyes. Fingers grabbing and clutching. Legs curling and stretching. Each ticking of the clock signaling shape and span to the daughter who was dancing inside her. Mattie was going to give birth to one long, needful child.
The young woman had not planned to leave her home in Mississippi, but circumstances prevented her from staying. She sensed a change in her body. She felt the stirring inside her, but she tried hard to make herself believe that it was only her restlessness and her need to get out of the Deep South.
Having heard of work and men in North Carolina, she packed up her few belongings, her five-year-old son trailing behind her, and headed north. By the time she crossed the state line she was late and she knew. But she still believed that she could make this baby go away just by denying it. It didn't work, but it didn't matter because even when the child was pushing through her clothes, she swore it was just a virus.
The young woman arrived in Greensboro, North Carolina, on a late day in March when winter was still bearing down. She got off of the bus, early in the afternoon, her son standing close behind her, and expected at the very least some man to greet her, carry her luggage, and help her find a place to stay. She was, instead, met with extreme disappointment when the only people she saw at the bus stop were three boys not much older than twelve who had a price set for every bag depending upon its weight and how far they had to walk.
"A penny for each one," the oldest of the three reported to Mattie when she asked how much it would cost for his help.
The young boys, impressed with the flash and style of the stranger whose dress clung in all the places they craved to touch, still charged her the same amount they had agreed upon for all who asked for their assistance. To save herself a few coins she made her little boy carry his own bag, needing the help of only one of her greeters.
"Well, darling," the young woman said to the boy who quoted her the price, "I reckon I'm just going to have to pay for your services." Then she laughed like what she said was sexy and smart, like she had suddenly become charming.
The boy blushed and picked up her bags, leading Mattie and her child in the direction of the boardinghouse just a few storefronts away.
The young woman paraded behind the boy slowly, her purse swinging easily at her side. Mattie was pretty. And she knew it. Tall and leggy, she always wore clothes that held tightly against her figure. She was proud of her curvy profile and often would stand to the side so that a man's eyes could appreciate the dips and turns her long line of body would take them.
She knew that without money and hardly any education that her figure was her only ticket out of poverty and loneliness. What she didn't know was how to distinguish between the sets of eyes that roamed across her wishing for a closer look. Her mama used to say she was so dumb she wouldn't know a man was bringing trouble if he stuck it in a marked box and carried it on his head.
She stood at the entryway of Barrett's Boardinghouse and paid the boy three cents. Then the crisp March wind blew open her coat. So she slid her hands just below her collarbones, outlining her breasts, down along her slim waist, and into the meeting of her thighs, then up again and across the bottom of her back, settling into the small of her spine. This, she decided, was his tip.
And with a wink and a smile from the mother of a too-silent child who stood watching, the boy who carried her bags stumbled over his feet and hurried away with a face as red as the new copper pennies that were buried deep into his palm. Pleased with herself, Mattie walked in the house, leaving her son alone on the porch.
She had not thought much about where she and Roy would live once they arrived in North Carolina. She had not thought much about anything except leaving. She had enough money to stay a few weeks at the boardinghouse, but she knew she was soon going to have to find a place that didn't charge by the night.
Miss Barrett pointed her to the farthest room upstairs and watched with a hint of worry as the woman in the tight dress walked shamelessly up the steps with the boy tugging tightly at her coat as it swung from her arm.
The old woman did not like children in her house and usually preferred middle-aged men as boarders, but two salesmen had already checked out and weren't returning to town for a month. She needed the money. So she gave the woman and her son a room but was relieved to find out it would only be for a couple of weeks.
Mattie was not prepared for city life. She had not considered a failed economy or the idea that she would not find a job. She had not realized that winter and the Depression had taken its hold on the cotton mill town and that opportunities for women were few and far between.
She tried Cane Mills and was told that the waiting list had a hundred names on it though she was welcome to add hers to it. She hitched a ride to High Point to Amazon Mill where the women worked side by side with their children and lived in a company community with white frame houses and indoor toilets.
"All positions are filled," read the note on the front door. She rode over to the hosiery mill and stood in line to talk to a big red-faced man who stared at her breasts and licked his top lip but offered her no employment. She walked to two furniture factories and even took the bus to Winston-Salem, seeking a career of rolling tobacco shavings and packing them into paper. The news was the same. Nothing was available.
It was Claude Smithson who finally got Mattie work. His sister-in-law's cousin ran a beauty shop near the edge of town and she was trying to find someone to help her sweep up the place, clean the sinks, and do occasional manicures.
Claude had noticed the dark-haired beauty when she gave Reevie Daniel his tip on the day she arrived. Since then, he made a point of hanging around the old boardinghouse to offer himself as a driver or a baby-sitter just so he could watch the way she slid her hands across herself, the curves and the bends outlined by her fingers.
"I think you'll like Kay Martha," Claude told Mattie as he drove her to the shop. "And I think she mentioned that she may even have a place for you and your boy to stay." He smiled, sure that getting her a job and a house would have to mean something to the young woman who had caught his eye.
Mattie turned to her driver. Her skin itched from the wool sweater she was wearing. "Then I guess you think I owe you now."
He focused on the road, embarrassed that she had read his thoughts. She moved closer to him, rubbing her leg against his.
"It's all right, Claude. A party will do us both good." And she leaned up and blew lightly in his ear.
Claude pulled away from her and glanced in the rearview mirror. The little boy was asleep on the backseat and the man was relieved. He was uncomfortable with how Mattie never seemed to care what she said or how she acted in front of the child.
When they pulled up to the shop she jumped out quickly. "Just come get me this afternoon," she told him, "and make sure Roy doesn't sleep all day."
Then she headed inside Kay Martha's House of Good Looks, confident that the job was already hers.
The owner was cleaning up the bottles of shampoo and conditioner when Mattie walked in.
"I'm Mattie Jacobs," she said and stuck out her hand. "I'm here about the position."
Kay Martha walked around the table and took the young woman's hand. Claude had said she was pretty and outgoing, and the salon owner was immediately impressed.
"I'm Kay Martha," she responded. "Here, have a seat." She was heavyset, middle-aged, a pleasant woman who had a good head for business.
"So, Claude tells me that you just moved here." She sat down across from her.
"Yes, mam," Mattie answered, "from Mississippi."
"Oh, please," Kay Martha responded, "none of that polite stuff here, okay?"
"And Claude says you have a son?" Kay Martha searched out the window for the child.
"Yeah, but he ain't any trouble," Mattie answered. "Claude watches him a lot. He really ain't much trouble," Mattie repeated.
"Yes, I'm sure he isn't," the woman replied.
They talked about the weather and the coming spring and the shop; and they discovered that Claude had been right. They did like each other. Kay Martha was sure that the presence of such a young and attractive woman would bring in customers. And she enjoyed Mattie's slow way of talking, her pleasing personality.
Mattie was happy to be with a woman who didn't seem concerned that she had on too much makeup or appeared worried that she might steal a husband; and she could tell that the older woman was easy to be with, uncomplicated.
"Well," Kay Martha began, "the job is basically just cleaning up, maybe a few manicures if we can get them. Mostly, I need an assistant; but if you like the job and want to learn more, I'm happy to teach." She nodded toward a couple of certificates taped to the wall. "I finished first in my class at beauty school."
"I'm happy to do whatever you need," Mattie responded. "I am very good with a nail brush. I do my own nails." And she threw out her hands for inspection.
Kay Martha held Mattie's hands in hers and noticed how carefully the polish had been applied. She approved.
"I think you'd be great." And she patted the top of Mattie's hand. "The job is yours if you'd like it."
Mattie yanked the woman into her arms in a hug. "Thank you so much! I will work very hard," she promised, "starting now."
Kay Martha pulled away, surprised. "Well," she said, smoothing down the front of her dress. She glanced around the salon. "Okay, empty the trash first, if you don't mind," she told Mattie, watching as the young woman rolled up the sleeves of her sweater, "and then we'll wash out the combs and brushes."
Mattie did everything she was instructed. Later that morning she mixed up a perm solution and learned how to make appointments and keep up with receipts. She discovered how to fold the towels and where to keep the broom and dustpan. Then she finished the day once again showing off her steadiness with nail polish, giving Kay Martha a manicure with a color of Pretty in Pink.
When Claude returned to pick Mattie up, both of the women wore bright polish on their fingernails and lots of curls in their hair. They were chatting like old friends. The job and a place to stay, just at the end of town, were hers.
Kay Martha first mentioned the house to Mattie while they ate lunch together. She fixed them plates of navy beans and white bread and explained that the old place wasn't much. "Just a small cabin, really," she said. "It was the house where my grandfather lived a long time ago."
Empty for years and starting to fall down, she confessed. However, she told Mattie that she didn't care about deposits or contracts, that she just wanted someone to work on it, live in it, keep it from rotting on the foundation.
Kay Martha knew that Claude was a carpenter and seemed to have an interest in the new woman in town; so she thought he wouldn't mind patching the holes and putting in the new flooring. She thought it was a good arrangement for everybody. She'd get the place in working order and would not have to pay a penny. And the young mother and her little boy from Mississippi would have a home for just the two of them.
Later when he heard about the house, where it was and what was needed, Claude reluctantly agreed to fix it. He wasn't happy about the new living arrangements for Mattie and Roy because he thought it was not a good location for a woman and child. He thought it was dangerous and unsuitable since it was out of Greensboro and just on the edge of what most folks referred to as Smoketown.
The little shack, he found out, was right off the main road, down and across the street from the Pinetops Baptist Church; and as far as what the rest of the town saw, it was the beginning or ending of life depending upon what direction you were starting from. Smoketown was not a place, in the minds of lots of people, including Claude, that anyone should call home.
Everyone knew that it was the last house that church ladies visited to invite folks to worship, the final stop for the white salesman who carried silk stockings and new cleaning supplies in a suitcase that hung low at his side; and it was the turnaround mark for children riding bicycles.
However, despite Claude's reservations and the shocked reactions of some of the other residents in Greensboro, Mattie seemed unconcerned about the location of her new dwelling and was just glad to get away from the boardinghouse where visitors were not allowed after dark.
The landlady was as rigid and stifling as Mattie's memory of Mississippi. So it didn't matter to her if all the white people raised their eyebrows and sucked their teeth when she told them where she lived, she just wanted something that was all her own. And even though none of the women who came into the beauty shop could believe it, Mattie actually liked the place. It was an adequate house for a mother and child, roomy, with walls thick enough for privacy and thin enough not to close her in.
"Room to breathe," she would say to Kay Martha, "and space to play."
Kay Martha thought, of course, that she meant for Roy, her little boy. But Mattie hardly ever thought of anyone but Mattie. The play space was meant for herself.
Regardless, however, of his mother's desires and intentions, Roy liked their new home too. He was given his own room next to the door leading to the kitchen with a window that leaned out to the side where his neighbors lived. The glass was broken in several places; and especially late on Sunday afternoons, he could smell the food cooking next door and hear the low hum of people laughing. He didn't have a bed, but Kay Martha had given them plenty of quilts so he had a pallet that was soft and drowned out the noises from where his mother slept and entertained company.
Excerpted from The Arms of God by Lynne Hinton. Copyright © 2005 Lynne Hinton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Reading Group Guide
Alice is making her daughter dinner when her mother Olivia, who left her at a day care center when she was four, appears at her door. Alice has learned almost nothing about Olivia, when suddenly Olivia dies, leaving Alice to sift through her belongings. As she pieces together her mother's life, Alice learns how a woman can become so desperate that she leaves her child and so courageous that she finds her again.
Not since her bestselling book The Friendship Cake has Hinton created characters who are so filled with heartache and fragile hope.
1. Olivia dies only a short time after reappearing in Alice's life. Do you think that she knew she was going to die? If she did, was it the knowledge of her imminent death that led her to seek out her daughter? If you knew you had three weeks to live, who would you try to find?
2. Alice reveals some of her difficulty in living with her mother's decision to abandon her. What do you see in Alice that might be the result of such an action?
3. Do you think that Olivia should have explained why she did what she did? How frustrating do you think it would be not to hear an explanation or an apology? Was it enough that she just showed up?
4. After leaving the hospital, Alice decides to go to her mother's residence. What did the place, the room, say about Olivia? What do you think was the most important thing she found?
5. The book makes clear that Alice never really knows about her mother's past. How differently might have Alice turned out had she known her mother's history?
6. How much of your mother's story do you know? How much of a mother's life story affects the life story of her child?
7. Olivia not only finds her daughter, she finds her best friend Tree. How important is a long-term friendship? Do you have any friends from your childhood? How are they different from your other friends?
8. The story deals a lot with racism. What do you think about the state of our nation regarding race relations? How integrated is your life? The lives of your children?
9. How do you define hope in this story? The hope for Olivia? For Alice? For Anna?
10. Regardless of the judgments that can be made about Olivia and her choice to abandon her daughter, she did show up. How important is it to make amends for past wrongs?
11. What would be your wish for each of the characters in this story? Alice, Tree, E. Saul, and Anna.