In 1914, Andrew Houghton’s family is one of hundreds eking out an existence in the coal mines of southwestern Pennsylvania. Though he longs to be a veterinarian, he’s fated for a life underground, picking rock alongside his father.
That destiny changes when his aunt, Eveline Kiser, arranges for her husband to secure Andrew an apprenticeship on the railroad. Wilhelm Kiser, a German immigrant, has found his American dream in Pittsburgh, with a well-paying job as a brakeman, and a secure pension. But on Andrew’s first week, an incident goes tragically wrong, leaving him severely injured, his dreams shattered. Wracked with guilt, Wilhelm finally agrees to his wife’s pleas to leave Pittsburgh’s smog behind. With Andrew in tow, they swap their three-story row house for a rough-and-tumble farm.
Life in rural Pennsylvania is not as idyllic as Eveline imagined. The soil is slow to yield and their farmhouse is in disrepair. But there is one piece of beauty in this rugged land. Lily Morton is quick-witted and tough on the outside, but bears her own secret scars inside. Andrew’s bond with her will help steer them through all the challenges to come, even as anti-German sentiment spreads across America with the outbreak of World War I.
Beneath the Apple Leaves is a vivid, deeply moving portrait of family—its hardships, triumphs, and passions—and a powerfully authentic evocation of life on the land and the hearts that sustain it.
Praise for Daughter of Australia
“A stunning debut novel that evokes the epic scope of Colleen McCullough’s classic The Thorn Birds, Harmony Verna creates a poignant, beautifully told story of love and courage.” —Library Journal
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Beneath the Apple Leaves
By Harmony Verna
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Harmony Verna
All rights reserved.
"Quiet now." The two words pounded against the walls, elongated and echoed. "Just keep your eyes closed."
Andrew obeyed the orders, held tight to his father's large hand, his own tiny fingers in the womb of the callused palm. His feet stepped blindly on the downward slope. Water dripped and tapped hollowly through the tunnel, the air cool and damp to the skin, reminiscent of the early morning fog that congealed in the valley.
His father stopped and slid from his son's grip. "Now, open your eyes."
He was still blind. He blinked again and again and again, but the darkness was whole and complete, eternal and deep as a well. Andrew rubbed his eyes, his fingers invisible and absent in front of his face. His breathing thickened and panicked in short gasps. Invisible walls pressed from above and below, from the left and the right. The black drowned, heavy as a man's boot stomping upon the lungs. Andrew reached one way for his father and then the other, his hands clawing the emptiness.
"I'm right here, Son." Strong arms wrapped him instantly. "I'm right here."
Andrew clung to the rough fabric of his father's shirt, buried his head against the burly stomach, the light smell of tobacco and chopped wood bringing comfort to his senses, a familiarity to the void. He closed his eyes and fell into the scents.
His father took hold of Andrew's shoulders while he lowered to the boy's level. "I just needed you to see."
"I can't see anything!"
The man grinned, a subtle sound of lips over teeth. "Meant you just needed to see what it's like down here." A scrape and hiss came to a stone and ignited a flame. With the match, his father lit the candle on his miner's helmet, highlighting the firm streams of old wax that formed like dripping egg whites. The glow of the wick grew into a small yellow orb, just large enough to show the man's forehead, eyes and bridge of the nose.
His father squeezed the little boy's hands in urgent pulses. "I need you to know that this will not be your life." The eyes spoke, the mouth still eclipsed under the blanket of onyx. "I won't have my son picking coal. Do you hear me, Andrew?" His words were gentle in their pleading. "You work hard. Study hard. You build a life for yourself when you get older. But not here. I won't have you picking coal. Understand?"
"Take care of your family. Always." He swallowed bitterly. "But not this way."
The eyes watched him, moved slightly as if the missing mouth tried to form a sound. "You're better than this," his father finally said. "Don't let anyone tell you different."
Andrew listened to the words, struggled to balance the weight of them against his desire to go home, to flee into the light again. "Yes, sir."
His father stood then. "You never come down here again. Promise?"
He couldn't get out fast enough. "Yes, sir."CHAPTER 2
Uniontown, Pennsylvania — 1916
Beneath the open and shattered hillside of the Pennsylvania coalfields, between the blurred swings of autumn and winter, Andrew Houghton bundled against the cold and put an arm around the young woman by his side. "You warm enough?" he asked.
"I'm f-f-fine." Her teeth chattered through her forced smile.
"No, you're not." Andrew stopped, shed his coat and draped it around her shoulders. "Better?"
She gave a slight sigh and nodded. "You're going to freeze without your jacket."
"Me? No! Feels like summer," he mused, and put his arm back around her, his skin shivering. "Besides, got my bruises to keep me warm."
She grimaced. "You're too handsome to be messing with those fights, Andrew." Gingerly, she touched his swollen cheek, and he stiffened. "Besides, how you going to kiss me with your lip swollen like that?"
Andrew gave a quick, uncomfortable laugh and loosened his grip. He should have known better than to hold her so close. She stopped and pulled the large wool coat tighter around her body, her eyes beseeching. "Why haven't you ever kissed me?" she asked in earnest.
The cold cut through his thin linen shirt. "If the police captain caught me kissing his daughter, there would be a couple broken bones to go with this bruise."
"Don't tease me," she said. "You're no more afraid of my father than you are of those men in the boxing ring. So, tell me why you won't kiss me. The truth this time."
Andrew exhaled slowly, looked at the pretty young woman, her soft eyes brown as a doe's. He could kiss her. He could take her in his arms and kiss the lips that waited. After all, pleasures were few and far between in the coal patches. But that's all it would be — a quick blast of pleasure, a sweet distraction soon to sour. He didn't want to lead her on. "I can't offer you anything," he finally said.
She stuck out her chin and scoffed. "What does that mean?"
"Look," he started, and tried to think; she wasn't making this easy. "I'm just not looking for a girl right now," he said as kindly as he could. "I just don't feel that way about you. I'm sorry."
Her jaw dropped and her eyes fluttered with the rebuff. "Do you have any idea how many men would jump at the chance to be with me?"
"I don't doubt it," he consoled. "You're a beautiful —"
"Do you have any idea how many men beg to kiss me?" she shouted. "Do you?"
His skin numbed under the gooseflesh and he was tired. His face hurt in pulses. He was relieved he never kissed her. "Well, you shouldn't have any trouble finding a replacement then."
She snarled in disgust and tore off his jacket, threw it at his chest. "Should have known better than to cohort with a coal miner's son."
"Cohort," he teased, amused by her tantrum. "Is that what we were doing?"
"You think you're so smart, don't you?" She snorted white steam from her nose. "Should be kissing my feet I'd even talk to you, let alone let you walk me home."
Andrew slipped on his coat, relishing the warmth. He turned off his ears to her whiney trill and turned around.
"Never would have let you kiss me anyway, Andrew Houghton!" she hollered. "Take me a day to wipe the soot off my mouth!"
He smirked, gave a dismissive wave and kept walking.
"So proud, are you? One day you'll be picking underground and I'll be dancing over your head!" Her last ranting filtered away into the night. Dodged a bullet with that filly, he thought gratefully, and blew a hefty puff of white air from his mouth.
The road back home was quiet, the sky black as pitch. Lanterns were turned off in all but a few windows. A stray dog scurried nearby, licked at a fetid puddle. Andrew knelt down. "Come here, girl." He clicked his tongue.
The dog inched forward, the head bowed low, the back hunched, ready to sprint at the slightest hint of aggression. Andrew stuck out his hand, let the dog sniff his fingers, her ears pulled back protectively. He smiled and scratched the neck of the pup, who hurried forward and gave two great licks to Andrew's face. "Whoa, girl." He laughed. "What's with everybody trying to kiss me tonight?"
A garbage can tipped and crashed. A feral cat shrieked and the dog jolted into the night. Andrew stood, wiped the dog's drool from his swollen cheek with his sleeve. The silence seeped with the cold, brought a melancholy to the empty stretch ahead.
He turned from the even road of the town center toward the rutted and sloped curve that headed to the mine housing. The melancholy grew — a nostalgia for a life that didn't exist, a longing for the type of woman that didn't exist. It seemed all the women he met fell in two categories: the spoiled girls from town and the listless, broken girls from the patches. He wanted neither.
The lines of a poem by Atticus drifted into his thoughts, the words pantomiming each boot step forward:
Her heart was wild, but I didn't want to catch it, I wanted to run with it, to set mine free.CHAPTER 3
Plum, Pennsylvania — 1916
Lily Morton emerged from the forest like a porcupine, the pine needles sticking stubbornly in her hair and needling through her dress. After plucking the ones deep enough to poke her scalp, she ignored the rest and plodded through the light snow toward home.
Instead of taking the shorter route through the valley, Lily climbed the slope of the old cornfield, the green pinnacles long browned and severed to splintered stalks. This was an open land, a land of even rows and endless swords of withered corn and ground straw. Her worn boots stepped with great concentration between the crisp sticks and occasional rock and tangled thorn bushes. In her imagination, she stepped like a soldier through a battlefield of bones, working hard not to desecrate as she picked her way across enemy lines. And she laughed at this. Laughed at the childish game, for she was no longer a child. The mirth left. She wasn't a child or a porcupine. This wasn't a battlefield in a brave war. She was a young woman who plodded through an old farm field that mirrored a million other farm fields in rural Pennsylvania. The cold stung her cheeks then and she veered hurriedly down to the valley.
In the open land, Lily sprouted. She changed as the seasons, expanded and contracted with the phases of the moon, shifted with the clouds and rose and rested with the tidings of the sun. She knew the soil that crunched and purred beneath her footsteps; knew the sky that hovered above her skin. She knew the songs of the birds and the secret language of the ants and bees and crickets. From the valley, Lily stretched her legs up the sharp incline of the hill and evened her stride as she reached the one-lane road — and here along the reclaimed, man-made stretch she knew her way by heart but was lost again.
Lily passed the Sullivan farm, the white farmhouse quiet and sleepy in the encroaching twilight, the gentle white smoke rising from the stone chimney. A few miles more and she would pass the Mueller homestead, the smell of their hogs drowning out the natural scents of frozen earth and distant wood fires. If she walked for an eternity along this road, the pictures of those houses would repeat in a stuttering image, one after another, just like the inhabitants within the reposeful walls.
The wind cut wickedly through Lily's sweater, the fabric silvered and shiny at the elbows. She regretted not wearing a coat and ran the last mile home. And once there, she did not refuse when her sister made her drink strong tea by the fire, did not complain as her sister plucked and pulled at the nest of pine needles in Lily's ashen hair.
The fire crackled, released the occasional spark as the flames touched upon a stick of damp wood. Lily sat cross-legged on the knotted rug, studied the lines of her palm undistracted, even as her sister tugged at her long tresses with the hairbrush, forcing her head back now and then in sudden jerks.
"Sure I'm not hurting you, Lil?" Claire asked.
"Hardly tell you're combing."
"Bet I'm squeezing tears." She grimaced. "Sorry I got to pull so hard."
"Can't feel it. That's the truth."
"How'd you get all this sap in here anyways?"
Lily shrugged. "Up in the pine tree. Got stuck in a resin patch."
"Well, you smell good. That's for sure. Fresh as the forest." Her older sister laughed softly as she worked on another tangled lump of hair. "Remember when I'd take you out to those trees when you were just a little thing? You and me? We'd sit up there for hours, nearly fell asleep up there a couple of times." Claire's voice suddenly abandoned its jovial chirp. The strokes came lighter to Lily's hair until the brush stopped moving completely.
Lily turned around. Her sister's head bowed. Lily took the brush from the woman's hand and placed it on the floor between them. Growing up, they had hid in those trees, the two of them, tangled close together for warmth and strength. Within those boughs, they had kept silent, pretended it was a game. And when his footsteps plowed through the dead leaves and his voice hollered in rage across the valley, they clung tighter to each other and endured the hours until he was gone.
These were the memories that plagued Claire Morton, that came with the wind and left the woman hollow. Lily reached her arms around the slight shoulders. "That was a long time ago, Claire," she whispered. Claire stared from the familiar abyss that made her skin chill. She was lost to the demons again.
Lily lifted her sister's chin. "We're safe, Claire. Nobody's going to hurt us ever again. I promise."
Claire blinked, then tilted her head curiously, asked nearly in despair, "Then why you still hiding up in those trees?"CHAPTER 4
Andrew Houghton woke first. The voice of the great owl prodded from the roof, as it poked with scraping talons against the shingles, usurped the duties of the scrawny roosters that ran free from broken gates and fences. Before dawn, the silent raptors flocked to the hideous coal patches, the mine town beyond the trees where the mice were plentiful. For here the rodents scurried between the endless line of old sheds and privies, darted inside beehive ovens where burnt bread crumbs sat like anthills.
The great owl called again, chiseled the dream state until eyes opened. The hoarfrost clung to the windows and the chill shuddered through the wads of newspapers insulating the cracks and holes of the shabby wood home. Andrew sighed and placed a naked foot to the frozen floor.
The young man ran a hand through his thick dark hair, scratched above his ears to rouse. In the kitchen, he stooped over the coal box and refilled the stove, then set the water to heat. He warmed his hands above the black iron, his breath visible from his lips.
Frederick and Carolien Houghton slept soundly in the next room, Andrew's parents unburdened and secure within the wool blankets, his father's light snoring soothing in the tightness of the small house. Soon, the owl would wake them, too, and Andrew's father would head underground, pick rock from dawn until dusk.
Andrew put the tin mugs on the table, caught his tarnished reflection in the dented metal. He held a cup closer to his face, inspected his swollen lip, bruised jaw and blackened eye. Practicing a weak smile, he tried to mask the injuries with a beguiling grin, but all it did was open the cut on his lip and make him look not quite right in the head. He reached into his back pocket and took out the money he had won from the night's fight, pulled out the steel box shoved behind the crocks of lard and cured meat. The coins were deep and the box heavy, the sound of his future clinking inside. Andrew crammed the bills and clicked the clasp, then slid the bank back into place.
The movement uncovered a small piece of paper tucked under the empty sugar canister: a bill from the company store — coffee, tea, lye, oatmeal, castor oil, sugar, dried mustard, pork, cheese, beans. Black lines crossed off half the items, the edits from the store clerk of what exceeded the Houghton credit. The familiar indignation rose. Andrew folded the receipt carefully back to the original despondent creases and slid the note back under the canister, the box of coins poking out guiltily.
Feet shuffled in the bedroom. Andrew busied a cast- iron skillet to the stove. Carolien Houghton placed a waxy, gnarled hand upon his. She was a beautiful woman, young in face with blue eyes that matched his own, but her hands were shiny and warped and ancient. In the cold months, she ached from the cold, her joints tight and balled in hard, painful knots.
"Go rest, Andrew," she whispered. "No need for you to be up yet."
"Couldn't sleep." He kept his face turned. "I'll start the sausage."
"Only have scrapple," she noted while tapping his hand to release the skillet. The woman rubbed her twisted hands over the heat. Andrew brought out a few chipped plates while she poured the boiling water into the blue spotted enamel pot and stirred in the black grounds. Dawn would forever mean the scent of his mother's simmering coffee.
Andrew brought her shawl and wrapped her shoulders, partly to warm the body and partly to keep her blind to his injuries. She spooned a heap of opaque fat into the pan, the hissing loud and sputtering in the small open room.
Andrew watched his mother work over the stove as she held her shawl tight and away from the spitting grease. Carolien's life revolved around the four walls of the unpainted home, the tiny chicken coop and vegetable garden in the back, her only travel to the company store or to the pump house on washing day. In the summer, she baked, canned and pickled; in winter, she stretched the meals with buckwheat cakes, fried carrots, potatoes and meatless red sauce. And Andrew's mother did her chores as they all did, with the soundless dignity that hid the tired bones and weary limbs.
The rooster crowed from the henhouse. The shadow of the owl flickered across the window as the wings flew to the fresh forest beyond. Carolien closed her eyes, recited the short prayer she made every morning before her husband burrowed underground. Andrew, forgetting about his bruises, handed the egg basket to his mother.
The woman jolted, the wooden spoon held high and dripping above the pan. "What happened to you?"
"It's nothing." Andrew rolled his eyes and cursed himself, tried to dodge his puffy profile from her full view, but she was quick and grabbed his face.
Her mouth fell open before her lips clamped shut and formed a pursed circle. "Frederick!"
"Don't wake him —"
She stormed to the low wooden bed and shook the lump of blankets. "Get up!" Frederick buried his head under the covers, grunted and turned toward the wall, twisted the thin mattress so the burlap ticking was visible. She pulled the blanket from his body in one quick snap and dropped it to the floor.
"Eh, Frederick, enough of this now! What did I tell you about letting Andrew fight in those ham an' eggers?" She knew all about the boxing matches held every Thursday. The winner got the money; the loser got a ham sandwich. Some of the weaker miners lived on a diet of little else.
Frederick wiped the sleep from his eyes, his hair jutting in two directions at once. "Come now, Carolien, don't get yourself all in a huff —"
"A huff? Andrew's face is half-beaten!"
Andrew came up from behind, snapping his suspenders in place over his shoulders. "It doesn't hurt, Ma. I swear it."
Excerpted from Beneath the Apple Leaves by Harmony Verna. Copyright © 2017 Harmony Verna. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Captures the tenacity of the human spirit .
Through the family's adversities, I had a good review of our country's history with other discrimination.
Great book...hard to put down.
Its a terrific read, very packed full of events, characters and incidents that feel so real, and some heartbreaking sorrow. It does have a HEA for the main two characters though :-) Its set in US at the beginning of WW1, a time when it seemed like every country was at each others throats, and as still happens the media whip up hatred, minorities get spurned at best, murdered at worst by righteous feeling so-called "patriots". Yet these people are doing nothing except living their lives, struggling along with everyone else. They didn't start the war, but they and their families reap the hatred engendered by it. Of course in this atmosphere some flourish, fan the flames of hatred, turn things to personal advantage and profit, and Frank Morton is one such man. A dangerous and powerful man to be on the wrong side of, and he's got there by some evil methods. He's married to Lily's sister Claire, a lovely lady but very scared, slightly childlike, simple minded, it seems and Lily does all she can to protect her. They have such a sad story, little good in their life until Andrew and his family come to live there. Andrew is a solid character, full of strength, morality, fairness and compassion he's a true Gentleman. I loved him all the way through, he was a wonderful man. His father hates the mines and vows Andrew will have a different path. Sadly though his plans fail, an underground explosion kills him, and as happened back then the house came with the job, so it was Andrew to the mine or 30 days to move out. Andrews mother arranges for him to apprentice with her sister's husband on the railways and she goes back to Holland. After all those things happening you'd think Andrew might have some luck, but he gets the reverse, is badly injured in an accident leaving him permanently disabled. Wilhelm feels guilty and can't stand the shame, so he leaves the job he loved, and takes the family to the farm. Its a beautifully written, wonderful love story, but a very rocky road to get there. There's tragedies, harassment, deliberate vandalism, anti German sentiments when the US gets involved in the war. At times it feels like if it can go wrong it will. In among that though are the gems, the elderly couple who deliver baked goods, of different races who understand mindless prejudice, the Muellers, another local family who've worked hard and now have a prospering farm, the friendship between Andrew and their son Pieter, and of course the very tender, emotional, gentle romance between Lily and Andrew. Its very much a romance of the time, nothing outward, nothing seen for a long while when they both hide their feelings thinking the other is too good. Even when they do finally let their feelings show its still a few careful glances, subtle touches, and very chaste kisses. Very much what would happen in those days. Its a rocky path though, with lots of misunderstandings and some outright lies and evil manipulations by Frank, who doesn't approve. Lily is his, he wants full control over her and uses her love for Claire to keep it. He really is a nasty, vicious piece of work. Sadly he's the sort that do well in war-times. an amazing read, tender and beautiful romance, and played out in a very realistic setting, characters and events that feel very genuine. Reaching the finish I was sad to see these people go, though very happy at the final ending. ARC supplied for review purposes by Netgalley and Publishers