On a quiet Philadelphia morning in 1906, a newspaper headline catapults Alma Mitchell back to her past. A federal agent is dead, and the murder suspect is Alma’s childhood friend, Harry Muskrat. Harry—or Asku, as Alma knew him—was the most promising student at the “savage-taming” boarding school run by her father, where Alma was the only white pupil. Created in the wake of the Indian Wars, the Stover School was intended to assimilate the children of neighboring reservations. Instead, it robbed them of everything they’d known—language, customs, even their names—and left a heartbreaking legacy in its wake.
The bright, courageous boy Alma knew could never have murdered anyone. But she barely recognizes the man Asku has become, cold and embittered at being an outcast in the white world and a ghost in his own. Her lawyer husband, Stewart, reluctantly agrees to help defend Asku for Alma’s sake. To do so, Alma must revisit the painful secrets she has kept hidden from everyone—especially Stewart.
Told in compelling narratives that alternate between Alma’s childhood and her present life, Between Earth and Sky is a haunting and complex story of love and loss, as a quest for justice becomes a journey toward understanding and, ultimately, atonement.
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Her past arrived that morning on page ten, tucked between a crosshatched cartoon of striking trolley workers and an advertisement for derby hats.
INDIAN MAN FACES GALLOWS FOR MURDER OF FEDERAL AGENT
Alma held the newsprint up to the light and read the article twice, three times, as if the words might change upon closer inspection.
That name. She knew it as well as her own. Her lips moved around the syllables — yet familiar after all these years. The accompanying sound died in her mouth.
His face coalesced in her mind: broad cheekbones, tall forehead, coppery skin. His clever eyes once again met her own. But he was just a boy then, a youth when they'd parted. What of the man he'd become?
She drew in an overdue breath and shook her head. No, she could not picture him a killer. The journalist must have gotten it wrong. That sort of thing happened all the time. Had the paper used his real name — his Indian name — the name she'd breathed a million times, then she would know for sure.
Surely the other dailies had run the story, too, and with more detail. A different name, a different man. And if not? If it was him, what would knowing bring save more heartache?
She pushed away the paper and groped for her teacup. It slipped from her fingers and shattered atop its saucer. Hot tea bled into the tablecloth.
"You all right, Mrs. Mitchell? Heard a noise clear from — Your tea!" The maid scurried in and threw a towel over the shattered porcelain.
The clock sounded in the foyer, each chime beating in Alma's ear. She had a ladies' auxiliary meeting to sit through at nine. Later the Civic Club and a few laughter-less games of euchre. Busyness, after all, was the best tonic for regret.
She stood, but her knees wavered. Her feet refused to move. More of that first day came back to her: wagon dust and smoke, cornbread and fire. The leather doll. She must know if it was him. "Edie, did we get the Record and the Inquirer this morning?"
"Your dress, ma'am. The tea's done spilt onto the lovely batiste. Best get it off before the stain sets."
She waved the maid off. "Never mind that. The papers?"
"I'll fetch 'em, ma'am. Along with some vinegar for that stain. But sit down, won't you? Your face has the air of the grave."
For the sixteenth time that day — she knew, for she'd counted — Alma searched the horizon. She wobbled atop her toes and craned her neck that she might see beyond the bend where the road disappeared into the forest. Empty.
She rocked back onto her heels and squeezed her eyes shut, listening for the pounding of hooves or cry of wagon wheels. A bird cawed from above. Leaves chattered. Pans clanked from the kitchen at the back of the schoolhouse. But nothing of her father, the wagons, and the Indians he promised to bring.
After another searching glance, she spun around and skipped toward the schoolhouse to see how far the hands on the grandfather clock had moved since last she'd checked.
Not the sound she'd hoped to hear.
"What did I tell you about running? Now you've gone and rumpled your dress."
Running and skipping were not the same thing, but the sharp look in her mother's eyes told her it was best to mind her tongue.
"Keep to your best behavior now," her mother said as she fussed over Alma's dress. "These children will look to you as an example."
"But don't be overly familiar either." She straightened the pearl brooch at Alma's collar. "They're Indians, after all."
Indians. Her mother spoke like it was a disease. Surely not. Her father wouldn't bring them here if that were so. Surely they could still be friends without Alma falling sick to whatever it was her mother feared.
Galloping horse hooves enlivened the quiet as a pair of wagons rounded the bend into view. Their iron-rimmed wheels ground over the gravel trail. Dust swirled amid the trees. She bounced on her heels and clapped her hands, willing the sweat-slickened horses to press their gait.
At last the wagons arrived, stopping in the boxy shadow of the great schoolhouse. Her father jumped down. Alma abandoned her mother and ran ... er ... skipped to his side. He picked her up and kissed her, his bushy mustache tickling her cheek. "Here they are, kitten, your new classmates."
Thirty-seven black-haired children huddled in the wagon beds. She counted each one twice, just to be sure. A smile readied on her face. She waited for her new friends to look her way, but they kept their heads down and gazes lowered, their knees drawn tight against their chests, as if the day were cold and cloudy, not sunny and fair.
Her father set her down and opened the back gates.
None of the Indians moved.
When he touched the shoulder of the nearest child, the boy shrank back as if stung.
"Come now, no one here will hurt you," her father said.
Why didn't they climb down? It couldn't be comfortable crowded in like that, nothing but scratchy hay to sit upon. Couldn't they smell the sweet cornbread Mrs. Simms had just finished baking? Alma looked beyond them at the schoolhouse. The freshly painted trim gleamed white and three stories' worth of windows sparkled with sunlight. Surely, they hadn't such grand buildings on their reservations.
Finally, a boy seated near the edge raised his head. Alma guessed him to be only a year or two older than she was. Loose strands of hair danced about his round face, catching the light with their glossy sheen. He pushed them behind his ears and glanced around the yard. She followed his gaze from the clapboard outbuildings, to the nearby picnic spread, to the lawn and surrounding forest. Then his dark brown eyes fixed on her.
Alma forgot her smile. His stare reminded her of the fox she'd seen sniffing at the edge of the yard two days before. Intelligent. Cautious. Just as curious about her as she was of him.
The boy scooted across the wagon bed and dangled his legs over the edge. For the count of several seconds he sat there, undecided, his leather-clad feet swaying high above the grass.
Jump down, Alma breathed.
At last he did.
One by one the other children followed. The school's new teacher, Miss Wells, shepherded them toward the picnic table. Alma moved to join them, but her mother grabbed her hand. Despite the dusting of rouge she'd seen her apply that morning, her mother's face was in want of color. She stared at the new arrivals with the same pinched expression she brandished at stray dogs and street-side beggars.
"You said they would be clean and affable," she said to Alma's father.
"Wagon dust, Cora. They've only just arrived."
"Humph. Not a very impressive lot."
"Give them time."
"A millennium would not be long enough."
"We're their salvation." Her father's voice hummed with excitement. "Here they shall be reborn, civilized and good."
Alma kept her face lowered, tickling a dandelion with the toe of her boot. She knew better than to interrupt her parents' conversation but wished dearly they'd hurry up.
Her mother gestured around the yard. "Indians or not, how are we to raise a genteel young lady in this wildness?" "Come now, La Crosse is only a few miles away."
"Provincial. Hardly fit to be called a city."
Her father squatted down. "What do you think, kitten?"
Alma glanced at the children corralled before the picnic table. "They're awfully funny looking."
"That's just on the outside. Inside they have the same potential as you or I."
"Yes," her father said at the same time her mother shook her head no.
Alma looked over again. It would be so nice to finally have friends her own age. "Let's keep them, Papa. Can we?"
Her father rose and took her hand. He offered his other to her mother. She didn't take it, but strode nonetheless beside them to join the others.
Standing before the picnic table, her father cleared his throat. "Almighty God, Creator and Preserver of the white man and the red man alike, we call upon Thee to bless the founding of this school and the children within its fold. Banish the wickedness from their souls and guide them toward lives of industry and righteousness...."
As her father's gentle voice grew louder, full-throated like that of a ringmaster, Alma peeked at the new arrivals. A few children prayed as they should, hands clasped and heads downturned. The others wandered their gaze around the yard or stared wide-eyed at her father, whose outstretched arms had begun to vibrate along with the timbre of his voice.
Their skin was not really red, but varying shades of brown and copper. Many wore their hair long in braids or ribbon-wrapped ponytails that snaked down their backs.
The Indians she'd seen in her father's color-plate books were strange and fearsome: feathers splayed about their heads, bright bobbles adorning their chests, paint smudged across their cheeks. These children bore little resemblance to those drawings. Most wore pants and dresses similar to those good Christians wore. But whereas Alma's clothes had lace and ruffles, their outfits were ornamented with beads and brocade of astounding color — blues like the sky and the river, reds and yellows like the newly changed leaves. One boy had what looked like horse teeth sewed to his shirt. They jiggled as he shifted from one foot to the other. She reached out to touch one, to see if it were truly a tooth, but dropped her hand at her mother's sharp ahem.
"... Finally, O Lord, bless this food before us. May it nourish our bodies as Thy word nourishes our souls. Hear these our prayers, we beseech Thee, in Christ's name. Amen."
Mrs. Simms bustled from the kitchen at the back of the schoolhouse. Smears of grease and crusts of dried food blotched her apron. She distributed tin plates to the children and motioned with pride to the buffet. They hesitated, but once the first descended upon the food, the rest did likewise, clumping around the table despite the cook's efforts to form them into a line.
One boy with only a narrow patch of hair on the back of his head picked up a chunk of cornbread and brought it to his nose. After several sniffs, he bit off a small corner, then frowned and returned it to the tray. Another child dished out potato salad with his bare hand. A piece of fried chicken was passed and examined by several children before a small girl finally claimed it for her plate. Alma couldn't help but laugh. Didn't they have picnics where they came from?
A whistle cry cut short her giggles. The children froze.
"Halt!" her father cried, blowing his whistle again. "Order, children. Order."
He bustled among Indians, arranging them in a straight line. Alma skipped to the front and took a plate. "I'll show them, Papa."
She dished out small portions of each food, even the mushy-looking green beans — she was, after all, to set an example — and sat down on the unshorn grass a few paces off, carefully tucking her skirt around her.
The next boy in line was a head shorter than Alma. He wore a gray shirt and dark blue pants gartered at the knee. His hair hung loose down to his shoulders, and a nest-like cap of feathers topped his head.
When he turned with his plate of food, Alma grinned up at him and motioned to the grass beside her. He circled wide, plopping down cross-legged several yards away. The other children parted around her in similar fashion, spreading out in small clusters across the lawn. Few would meet her eye. None returned her smile.
Why didn't they want to sit with her? Did she have chicken grease on her face or smell of rotten egg? They were the ones who were strange, after all. She cast aside her half-eaten lunch while the Indians — after a great deal of picking and sniffing — devoured their food and returned for seconds.
After the picnic, a man arrived with a small satchel. A scowl lurked beneath his neatly trimmed mustache. He followed her father to a nearby chair and side table. With one eye still on the Indians, he reached into his satchel and withdrew several metal tools.
"Line up," her father said, and again blew his whistle.
The Indians looked at one another, then back at her father. No one moved.
He sighed and walked among the children, picking out several from the group and molding them into a line. Miss Wells took charge of the others, arranging them single file and marching them around toward the back of the house. The first group, led by her father, moved toward the man and his silver tools.
Alma scrambled to her feet and watched her father maneuver the first child into the chair. The bearded man picked up a pair of long scissors. Sunlight glinted off the tapering blades. He grabbed hold of the girl's long braids and, with two fluid snips, severed the black plaits from her head. The girl cried out and dived to the ground, scrambling toward her hair.
Alma gasped. Why would they cut away the girl's beautiful hair? Then she looked closer at her clothes — threadbare trousers and a button-down shirt. Not a girl. A boy.
Her father pulled the boy back into the chair and, with the help of the surly groundskeeper, Mr. Simms, held him in place while the barber combed and trimmed. All the while, the boy twisted and hollered.
Alma couldn't move. She knew a haircut didn't hurt, but the boy grimaced and fought as if it did. "Stop, you're —"
"Alma!" Her mother's voice cut across her own. "Come here this minute."
She tore her eyes from the boy and hurried to the edge of the schoolhouse, where her mother stood.
"They're stealing that boy's hair."
"You don't see good little white boys with long hair, do you?"
Alma glanced back toward the shining scissors. "But they're hurting him."
"Of course they're not. They're helping him. Less beast, more boy."
It didn't look like they were helping him. Her fingers found their way into her mouth and she gnawed at the soft skin around her nails.
"Stop that." Her mother slapped her hand. "Now come on."
At the back of the house, the Indian girls huddled near three large basins filled with sudsy water. A large bonfire crackled at the edge of the yard. The falling sun hung just above the treetops, the color of a blood orange in the smoky air.
Miss Wells waded among the children, her sleeves rolled and a starched pinafore draped over her gown. She bent and pried off one of the girls' dress and leggings. The girl neither fought nor aided, but stood stock-still with the look of one too frightened to cry.
With puckered lips, Alma's mother tugged at the dress of another. The cook then prodded the naked Indians into the tin basins.
Alma watched, her frown deepening. "Why must they bathe outside?"
"Pestilence, my dear. Must you ask so many questions? Come, we need your help." Her mother held out the girl's clothes at arm's length. "There's an apron for you there by the steps. Put it on and collect these rags."
Pestilence? Alma didn't know the meaning, but her mother spoke as if the word itself tasted foul. She grabbed the apron and collected the clothes, examining each garment for some sign of this awful pestilence. When her arms were full, her mother nodded toward the bonfire.
"Burn them?" Alma looked down at the heap of bright cloth in her arms. "But they're so —"
"Filthy. Fleas, lice, who knows what else."
Though much of the fabric was patched and frayed, Alma saw only a few stains and smudges of dirt. Still, the thought of bugs crawling up her arms made her shiver, and she hurried the clothes across the yard.
At the fire's edge, she hesitated. Tall flames rose above her head. Heat bit at her cheeks. Was it fair to burn their colorful clothes? But then, they were getting new clothes, pretty black dresses to match her own; ones without holes, tatters, or pestilence. She cast the bundle of cotton and leather atop the logs and watched it singe and blacken. The smoke finally chased her away, but only after the shape and color of everything was lost.
When she returned, her mother was bent beside a young girl whose two front teeth were only halfway in, the very same as Alma's. The Indian wore a blouse, calf-length skirt, and leggings, all cut from black broadcloth. Embroidered flowers wound across the fabric. In her arms, she clutched a small doll.
She looked from the doll to the girl's face. Brown eyes stared back, wide like a spooked pony's. Alma had imagined these children would be as excited as she about coming to the new school. But this — the whistle, the haircuts, the burning of their clothes? Would they still want to be her friends afterward?
Her mother yanked the Indian's blouse up and over her head and then pulled at the ties of her skirt. The girl's copper skin turned to goose flesh in the cool evening air. Her cheeks bloomed pink. She covered herself with her arms, clutching the doll in the crook of her elbow.
Excerpted from "Between Earth and Sky"
Copyright © 2018 Amanda Skenandore.
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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.