Ascension of Larks

Ascension of Larks

by Rachel Linden

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Overview

“Winsome kids and family friends add depth and warmth to the well-developed cast of characters. Readers will eagerly await future offerings from this promising new author.”—Publishers Weekly, STARRED review

“Linden’s debut novel is a bittersweet tale of enduring friendship, family ties, and the complexities of love that will engage readers of thoughtful women’s fiction.”—Library Journal, STARRED review, Debut of the Month

When globetrotting photographer Magdalena Henry loses the only man she’s ever loved, she risks her stellar career to care for his widow and young children on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest.

Free-spirited and fiercely independent, Maggie adores her life of travel and adventure. But she has a secret. She can’t let go of her first and only love, renowned architect Marco Firelli, now married to her best friend Lena.

When Marco drowns in a kayaking accident, Maggie rushes to the Firelli family’s summer home on San Juan Island. Once there she discovers that Marco was hiding something that could destroy his family. As fragile, perfectionistic Lena slowly falls apart, Maggie tries to provide stability for Marco and Lena’s three young children.

When Maggie is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete in the world’s most prestigious photography competition, she thinks she’s found the answer to their problems. Then Lena makes a choice with unexpected and devastating consequences, forcing Maggie to grapple with an agonizing decision. Does she sacrifice the golden opportunity of her career or abandon the Firellis just when they need her the most?

Gradually the island begins to work its magic. A century-old ritual to beckon loved ones home offers hope in the midst of sorrow. And a guilt-ridden yet compelling stranger hiding on the island may offer Maggie a second chance at love, but only if she can relinquish the past and move forward to find joy in unexpected places.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780718095734
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 06/20/2017
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 491,947
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Rachel Linden is a novelist and international aid worker whose adventures in over fifty countries around the world provide excellent grist for her writing. She is the author of Ascension of Larks, Becoming the Talbot Sisters, and The Enlightenment of Bees. Currently Rachel lives with her family in Seattle, Washington, where she enjoys creating stories about hope, courage, and connection with a hint of romance and a touch of whimsy. Visit her online at rachellinden.com; Instagram: rachellinden_writer; Facebook: authorRachellinden.

Read an Excerpt

Ascension of Larks


By Rachel Linden

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2017 Rachel Linden
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7180-9574-1


CHAPTER 1

"Come on, come on. I know you're here somewhere," Magdalena Henry murmured, squinting through the viewfinder of her camera at the ragged line of coffee pickers sorting their day's yield. Standing in the dust on a narrow dirt lane, she panned over the workers, looking for the perfect shot. Behind her, the late-afternoon sun spread light like butter, soft and golden, over the Nicaraguan landscape, across the high, dense, green mountains and ribbon of road winding back through the coffee fields. Birdcalls blended with the screeching of howler monkeys, creating a cacophony of sound in the treetops above.

Adjusting her 55mm camera lens, Maggie focused on a young girl in a grimy rainbow-print shirt as she worked through a large woven basket full of coffee cherries, separating the ripe red ones from the young, bitter green ones. Inside each cherry lay two small coffee beans. The girl looked up at Maggie and grinned, holding out a handful of red cherries. Her baby teeth were all rotten, a line of black against her gums.

Maggie caught her breath with the familiar thrill of recognition. Every so often the elements aligned and offered her a perfect shot. She paused for one split second, focusing intently on the girl amid the dust motes and shafts of sunlight. Then with speed and precision born of long practice, she pushed the shutter once, twice, again in quick succession. She glanced briefly at the digital image frozen on the screen. Beautiful. The colors were crisp and striking. The light was excellent. At least one of these shots should be good enough for the magazine cover.

Maggie was known for photos like these, intimate portrayals of daily life around the globe that highlighted people often unseen by the camera's eye. She captured images that were striking in their display of basic humanity, their sense of real life in all its grit and vibrancy, its specific and often brutal beauty. Her ability to reveal hidden and forgotten things was a gift, a skill that took her to some of the most isolated corners of the earth. It was also quickly making her one of the most acclaimed documentary photographers in the world. Maggie Henry's star had been rising for almost seven years. It showed no sign of slowing.

Lowering her camera, Maggie walked to the edge of the dirt lane, stretching to ease the tension in her shoulders. She was standing on one of the largest fair-trade coffee plantations in the country. It spread around her as far as the eye could see, with a bevy of coffee pickers harvesting the grounds and two guards armed with machine guns at the entrance.

Earlier the temperature had been almost cool in the shade of the high mountain coffee fields, but it had risen in the late afternoon. The sun was fierce now, and she felt a prickle of sweat beginning to bead under her quick-dry shirt, already rimed with dried salty blotches from her earlier hike. She didn't bother to blot it away. Sweat came as part of the job.

Maggie took a deep breath. The air smelled like dust and lush vegetation, a sharp, fertile scent that clung to the creases of her skin at the end of the day and had to be scrubbed away with her almond castile travel soap. She tucked a stray, dark curl back into her ponytail and let her gaze drift over the rolling terrain.

"Here, you need to stay hydrated." Sanne, Maggie's assistant for the shoot, appeared at her elbow and handed her a bottle of water. "I know it doesn't feel hot, but the sun's strong this close to the equator." A photojournalism student from South Africa, Sanne was interning with Maggie's photography agency for the summer. Her job was to provide whatever Maggie might need on the shoot, from paper clips to toothpaste to international dialing codes, a role she fulfilled with brisk efficiency.

"Thanks." Uncapping the bottle, Maggie took a long swallow of water, watching a tiny woman in a stained blue blouse as she hoisted a large basket of coffee cherries onto her back. Her face was tanned to the color of strong tea, her shoulders permanently sloped from years of picking on the steep hills.

"How's it going?" Sanne asked, surveying the line of pickers sitting along the lane with their baskets of cherries.

"Good. The light's perfect," Maggie replied, pleased with the afternoon's work so far. "I've got at least a dozen we could use from today."

On assignment for TIME Magazine, Maggie was shooting a photo spread for a feature article on fair-trade coffee. The article promised to reveal the truth behind the fair-trade label. Did the label make a difference in the lives of the pickers? From what Maggie had seen in the last week, the answer was no. The pickers and their families looked like countless others she had photographed in the slums of Mumbai, the sun-dried plateaus of sub-Saharan Africa. They bore the telltale signs of malnutrition and a lack of basic hygiene or medical care — missing teeth, leathery skin, a faint orange tinge to their hair. Poverty was a familiar story, but one that never grew easier with the telling.

Maggie gulped a few more swallows of water. It tasted of minerals. She lifted her face to the sun, closing her eyes and enjoying the brief respite. She loved the feeling of the sun's rays on her skin, the warmth seeping into her bones. She never burned, thanks to the complexion she'd inherited from her Puerto Rican mother. She just tanned a dark, burnished gold.

Maggie sighed, trying to tamp down a creeping sense of weariness. Another day or so and she would be done, flying back to Chicago to prep for her next assignment. This was normal life for her, jetting to far-flung places and for a week or a month immersing herself in a remote area of the globe, reemerging with a handful of marvelous photos to share with the rest of the world. In the past seven years, she'd tucked over ninety countries under her belt.

Bolstered by the momentary rest, Maggie tossed the half-empty water bottle into the leather backpack that seldom left her side. "I'm going to take some more shots before the light goes," she told Sanne. "We should have enough after today to wrap up by tomorrow."

Her assistant's face brightened. Although Sanne hadn't once complained, Maggie knew she had struggled with the ever-present dust, sparse living conditions, and multitude of insects. The first night rats had chewed through Sanne's backpack to reach her stash of organic granola bars. Maggie shrugged when she saw the gnawed hole. She accepted the more unsavory aspects as part of the job. Centipedes in the shower and grit in her teeth were standard fare. After years of working in primitive conditions many people would consider unlivable, very little was outside her comfort zone.

"Great." Sanne flashed a relieved smile. "I'll call the office and let them know our schedule." She was already moving before the words were out of her mouth.

Maggie lingered for a few minutes near the little girl in the rainbow-print shirt. She'd noticed the family at the beginning of the week. The girl and her brother were young. The plantation overseer claimed the girl was twelve, the age when children could begin picking coffee on the farm, but Maggie guessed she was no more than seven or eight. The boy appeared to be a year or two older.

The girl pranced in a circle in front of Maggie, imitating a rooster, showing off. She had a mop of frizzy curls, and her belly was slightly distended from malnutrition or parasites, probably both. Her mother worked silently nearby, sorting cherries while keeping a sharp eye on her daughter. Maggie snapped a few more photos, and the girl offered her a handful of coffee cherries, proudly telling her in Spanish that she had picked them herself. The arm she held out to Maggie was scabbed between the wrist and elbow from the tough coffee bushes. Maggie met the girl's eyes, seeing in that dark gaze a fierce independence tinged with a hint of desperation. Maggie had encountered that look countless times — in the faces of children indentured as cigarette rollers in Bangladesh, in the lipstick-painted smiles of Thai bar girls too young to fill out the sequined bras they wore. It was the look of a child forced to grow up too quickly.

"Gracias," Maggie responded easily, taking the cherries and carefully tucking them into her backpack, switching from English to Spanish without hesitation as she spoke. Her mother had often spoken Spanish to Maggie in their home. It didn't trip off Maggie's tongue as easily as English did these days, but Spanish was still a language that warmed her heart.

"Cómo te llamas?" Maggie asked the girl. What is your name?

The little girl giggled at Maggie's accent, so different from her own. "Carla," she answered.

"Que linda," Maggie responded. How lovely.

Leaving the mother to her work, Maggie walked slowly down the line of coffee pickers, camera in hand, alert for a potential angle that might catch her eye. Carla followed her, chattering away, asking for candy and chewing gum. She scuffed the dust with her bare feet as she ran alongside Maggie, keeping up a constant stream of conversation, both of them speaking Spanish.

"How old are you?" Carla demanded. "What's your name?"

"My name is Magdalena, and I'm old. Almost thirty." Maggie smiled, remembering how thirty had seemed impossibly ancient when she was Carla's age. She would be thirty in just a few months, and she had to admit that sometimes she felt old beyond her years. This kind of work exacted a toll. She loved it and couldn't imagine doing anything else, but she paid a price to do what she loved. Every year it seemed to cost her a little more.

Carla beamed at Maggie's attention.

"Estas bonita!" the little girl said admiringly. You're pretty! After a moment she asked again, this time more slyly, "Do you have any candy?"

"No. And you shouldn't eat candy. It isn't good for you," Maggie chided, smiling in spite of herself at the girl's obvious attempt to curry favor in the hope of getting a treat.

Carla grinned, showing her rotten teeth. "But I like it."

With a glance at Carla's hopeful, wary face, Maggie sighed and dug through her bag until she found a piece of sugar-free gum, then handed it to the child. It certainly couldn't do her teeth any more harm.

In the early years of her career, Maggie would have driven into town and tried to buy children's toothbrushes and toothpaste, taken Carla's family bottles of kid-friendly multivitamins in colorful animal shapes, urged the mother to send her children to school. After a few years of frustration, feeling as though she were throwing a teaspoon of remedy into an ocean of need, Maggie realized she could never single-handedly stop the grinding poverty, disease, and injustice that dogged so many of those she photographed. She had slowly come to understand the best thing she could offer was her camera, to turn the eyes of the world onto those who, like Carla, were ignored, forgotten, unseen.

In the past seven years, she had been gratified by the responses to many of her photos — two new schools in Kolkata, India, for girls at risk of being forced into the sex industry; an infant vaccination and health program among Roma families in the Balkans; an initiative against female circumcision in Eritrea; and a clean-water drive pairing villages in Sierra Leone with elementary schools in the United States. Her photos had been a catalyst for each one.

Maggie found tremendous satisfaction in making a difference in the world with her own two hands, but an even stronger motivation drove her to succeed. She had been raised by a single mother in a rough, inner-city neighborhood rife with poverty and violence. Her mother had worked hard, but often her earnings were barely enough to make ends meet. Some days it wasn't enough. Maggie knew firsthand the sharp pinch of deprivation felt by so many of those she now photographed. She had experienced the quiet sense of desperation, living day after day on a knife-edge, teetering between barely sufficient and not quite enough. And she had vowed never to be in that position again. She was driven by a genuine passion to help others, but also by an intrinsic need to secure her own future. She photographed the injustices of the world so she could challenge them, but also so she would never have to experience them again.

The sun was dipping low on the horizon when Maggie called it a day. Returning Carla to her mother, Maggie walked back to the shade of a spreading Spanish lime tree where her rolling camera case and the rest of her equipment lay. Sanne sat propped against the tree trunk with her laptop open. Beside her was the satellite phone Maggie carried to more remote locations for emergencies or in case the agency needed to contact her. It often provided the only internet connection in mountainous places such as this one. Sanne scrambled to her feet as Maggie approached.

"The light's going," Maggie said, pulling her camera strap over her head and handing her camera to Sanne. "I don't think I'll get any more good outdoor shots today. Let's pack up and head back to the casa. Luis wants to make some of the coffee from the plantation for us." The thought of the plantation overseer's thick, dark coffee, strong enough to make a spoon stand upright in the cup and liberally laced with Flor de Cana, Nicaragua's prized rum, was cheering after the long afternoon spent in the sun and dust. She unzipped her camera bag and checked to make sure all her equipment and lenses were in the right compartments.

Sanne carefully held the camera, a state-of-the-art digital Canon, as though it were eggshell porcelain. "And you still think we'll be done tomorrow, right?"

"Yeah. I got some great shots today, and I'll finish up whatever I still need in the morning." Maggie took the camera from Sanne and laid it in its compartment as gently as she would a sleeping baby. This was one of her favorite parts of a shoot, packing up her camera at the end of a day, the symbolic moment when she could lay an assignment to rest for the night, knowing she was free as a bird after a job well done.

"Did you manage to get an internet connection with that thing?" Maggie nodded toward the satellite phone.

Sanne grimaced. "More or less. It's slow, but it worked when I e-mailed the agency and let them know we'll be finishing up tomorrow. I'm going to see if I can get a better signal at the casa and try to book our flight."

She gathered up her laptop and the satellite phone, as well as the portable cooler and first aid kit she'd brought, and headed toward the white Toyota Land Cruiser parked by the side of the road. Their driver, Ernesto, a weathered Nicaraguan man of indeterminate age, was lounging against one of the front tires, napping.

Maggie paused for a moment under the tree, fishing through her backpack for the water bottle Sanne had given her. The branches overhead were heavily laden with clusters of small, just-ripening limes. Picking one from a low-hanging branch, she peeled an end and squeezed the juice into the half-empty water bottle. She took a few sips, enjoying the fresh sour pucker. She would miss these limes when she left.

Tomorrow or the next day she'd be on a plane back to Chicago. The thought was neutral for her, holding neither a sense of regret nor relief. Chicago was the city where she had grown up, but a place that no longer felt like her own. It was now just familiar terrain, one city among dozens of others where she could navigate the public transit and order a decent cup of coffee, well known but no longer special.

Home was an ambiguous concept for Maggie. She was never in one place for more than a month at most. She kept a studio apartment in her old stomping grounds in southwest Chicago, in the neighborhood where she was raised. It was no longer the rough, inner-city Latino community of her childhood. In recent years it had gentrified into an emergent arts community. No one she grew up with lived there now. They'd been pushed out by rent hikes and artisan coffee shops that catered to the surfeit of skinny artists with chunky glasses and side-swept bangs who now lived in the former tenements. Chicago was her landing pad and the location of the photography agency she was a part of, but it held little for her now except work assignments and memories, no real life. The truth was that Maggie felt more at home in the international terminal of an airport than she did in Chicago.

The only place that felt even remotely like home was far from where she'd grown up, in the Pacific Northwest in a cluster of remote islands north of Seattle, on San Juan Island. Every August she returned to the big yellow farmhouse perched on a bluff overlooking the sea, staying for a month with her two best friends from college, Lena and Marco, and their brood of three dark-haired children.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Ascension of Larks by Rachel Linden. Copyright © 2017 Rachel Linden. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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