As a fourteen-year-old black boy living in 1940s South Carolina, Linus Bragg should know better than to follow the two bicycling white girls. But something about Sue Ellen and Cindy Lou compels him. Maybe it’s the way Cindy Lou speaks to him, or how Sue Ellen sits on her bike. Whatever the reason, he follows the girls into the woods. It’s the worst mistake he ever makes. When he comes into the clearing, both girls are dead and young Linus is the natural suspect. Forty years later, a nephew of Linus’s returns to South Carolina, curious about this dark moment in his family’s past. To find the fourth person who visited the clearing that day means reopening a sinister chapter of the small town’s history, which certain evil men had thought closed forever.
Carolina Skeletons is based on the 1944 case of George Stinney Jr., who, at the age of fourteen, became the youngest person executed in the United States during the twentieth century. After a hastily scheduled hearing only a few hours long, the jury quickly charged him with a double murder. He was put to death three months later.
A haunting journey into America’s shameful past, Carolina Skeletons deftly explores how history’s skeletons rarely stay hidden forever.
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By David Stout
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 David Stout
All rights reserved.
Alcolu, South Carolina
Late March, 1944
First light, and the shack village where the colored live comes to life. A rooster crows, a dog yelps, a baby cries. Shout of a woman, shout of a man, a hand hitting flesh, a scream. In the barn over near Mr. Tyler's sawmill, the horses grunt, annoyed at the feel of bridles, reins, saddles. A whip cracks across a horse's flank, bringing a whinny that rises to a shriek of pain.
The sun goes from orange to yellow. More sounds from the shacks, really a low rumble as the sounds blend into one. And smells—smells of people too close together, of this morning's cooked possum and last night's vomited peach wine. And, from over by the mill, smells of horses and their straw, smells of wood, cut and soon to be cut. Smells, all mixed, rising with the mist coming from the dirt and grass between the shacks.
A whistle sounds, beckoning men to the long, gray dirty mill hunkered down next to a pond. White foremen on horses use the heads of the animals to nudge the slower colored through the gate. White mill workers, dressed cleaner than the colored and carrying black lunch pails, shuffle through the gate, too. The white men talk to each other in tired drawls.
The saws go on, one by one. No matter how many times you hear it, the sound of the saws is terrifying. When a big log is fed into a saw, the scream is horrible, like an animal being tortured.
The white men run the saws and cranes and other machines, and the colored force the logs into the saws, not seeming to mind the noise and heat and flying dust. In that way, the whites and colored are a team.
Some of the colored are down at the pond. You can hear the splashes as the logs bump and roll in the water, prodded by colored men with long poles. A wonder to watch, how the colored balance on the logs, laughing and talking to each other in grunts and shouts unfathomable to white people. They seldom fall, so fine is their sense of balance, and when they do fall they laugh and kid each other, teeth flashing in dark faces, as only the colored can kid each other. But when something bad happens—an ankle broken, toes smashed between logs—they jump to help each other.
Some of the older workers have boys off in the war, just like the white workers. That's one of the reasons there's some real friendship between the whites and colored, when they're at the mill. Of course, at night, when they shut off the saws, the whites go home to Manning, or some other place nearby. They ride four or five to a car, mostly, to save gasoline.
The colored don't have as far to go. They just walk back to the shacks Mr. Tyler built for them. He just charges them enough to break even on the rent. Not only that, he fixed up some showers for the colored workers—actually a row of spigots in a little shed right next to the mill, so those colored who want to can smell better. Makes it easier for the white workers, too. The colored seem happy enough, getting up with the sun, working at the mill, buying tobacco at the company store, getting drunk on peach wine, and getting up with the sun the next morning to do it again. Over and over.
We're talking about the men, of course. The women work even harder, probably, finding energy from God knows where, taking care of the young and finding time to raise vegetables next to the shacks. It's the women, mostly, who go to Green Hill Negro Church, singing and praying loud enough for their whole families, making up for the men, who would rather drink and chew tobacco.
This is a good time of year to be working at the mill. For that matter, it's a pretty time all over South Carolina. Winter is just about gone, and even when the sun is yellow and bright, at its highest point in the sky, there is no hint of that smothering heat that makes the mill workers sweat so much the dust sticks to their skin all day.
Way up north, there's still snow on the ground, some places. But here, it's already spring. Flowers are out.CHAPTER 2
Cindy Lou Ellerby was surprised and very happy when her paper came back with a gold star, and the teacher told her, loud enough for the class to hear, that she had enjoyed reading it, especially the part about how the world "feels like it has a runny nose" in the winter. The class had laughed at that. Cindy Lou thought those words were the reason she got the star, because writing wasn't that easy for her. If she could do whatever she wanted in school, she would spend all day with the crayons and paintbox.
It was a Friday in late March, and getting the paper back with the star on it gave Cindy Lou a second reason to be happy. The first was just that it was Friday, and Friday afternoon after school was her favorite time in the world.
Sometimes she went into Manning with her parents. Her father had told her once that three thousand people lived in Manning, or right around it, but she could not picture that many people. She sure couldn't picture all the people who lived in Columbia, which was a lot bigger even than Manning. She thought she would like to go there, maybe with her parents, or with her big sister, Marcia, who was nine years older than Cindy Lou, or her brother, Roy, who was two years older still.
Sometimes Cindy Lou prayed for a baby brother or sister so she wouldn't be the littlest. She had asked her mother and father whether God would send her a baby brother or sister. Sometimes her mother and father thought it was funny, when Cindy Lou asked that. Other times they hushed her. She didn't understand all the way why God couldn't do that, if she prayed as hard as she could. After all, God saw the sky and everything under it and could make the pines seem like they were on fire when the sun went down. If He could do that ...
But Sue Ellen Clark was almost like her little sister. Sue Ellen was three years younger but was still her best friend. Cindy Lou liked the way Sue Ellen followed her almost anywhere she wanted to go and took her word for almost anything and never told on her when they did something they weren't supposed to. Sometimes Cindy Lou teased Sue Ellen, telling her things that weren't true just to scare her or make her mad. But Cindy Lou almost always stopped before Sue Ellen got really mad. And Cindy Lou looked out for Sue Ellen on the playground.
"Come on, Sue Ellen," Cindy Lou said, after school that Friday afternoon, getting on her bicycle and holding it straight while Sue Ellen slid onto the back fender. Cindy Lou hooked their lunch pails over the handlebars, stood up while pedaling until they got going, then sat down. It felt good riding the bike, with a breeze in her face and Sue Ellen's arms around her waist. The breeze tasted good; it smelled like grass and mud and ... spring.
"Let's go and pick flowers," Cindy Lou said.
"I have to ask my mom."
They rode to Cindy Lou's house first, and she asked her mother if she could go with Sue Ellen to pick flowers down past the shacks and the mill. Her mother said yes, but that they should both be careful not to get their clothes dirty and not to cut themselves on bushes or on cinders near the tracks. Cindy Lou knew her mother would say yes, as long as she promised to be home for supper, because they had gone down past the shacks and mill before.
Cindy Lou left her lunch pail at her house and went to the bathroom, and then she ran to her bicycle, and Sue Ellen got on the fender again (even though Cindy Lou's mother and father had told her it was not a good idea to let her ride on the fender, because it could get bent), and Cindy Lou pedaled hard. She was eager to get to the flowers and was glad that Sue Ellen was in her house, for only a minute to talk to her mother and go to the bathroom.
The breeze blew gently into Cindy Lou's face and up her dress as she turned the bicycle onto the dirt road that led past the mill and the shacks. She could smell cut wood and pine sap. Cindy Lou could see colored men balancing on logs, and she heard the rumble from the mill. She was proud of her father; he must be very brave to work in such a place and not be afraid.
The shacks were a faded gray (Cindy Lou made the same color at school by dipping her brush in black when it was very wet, then running it again and again over the paper till the paper was almost soaked through), and Cindy Lou could smell colored people's food cooking. She knew the smells were from garden things and animals that white people usually didn't eat (except maybe to keep from hurting the feelings of colored people who were especially courteous and helpful), but they were good smells all the same.
Cindy Lou could hear shouts of children playing, barking and growling from dogs, and here and there a cry from a colored child whose behind had just been spanked.
It made Cindy Lou nervous to ride through the colored shacks, but it was the shortest way to get to the mill. Her parents had told her not to stop to talk to any of the colored, nor to make them angry by teasing them, but just to go straight through minding her own business. If anyone tried to stop her, she was to shout for help as loud as she could, and one of the mill foremen would hear her. He would be able to tell it was a white girl calling for help, and he would ride up quickly on his horse.
Actually, she was more afraid of the foremen than she was of the colored. The foremen wore clothes dark from sweat, and they looked mean on top of their horses as they rode from shack to shack. Cindy Lou didn't understand what the foremen did, except that they talked mean to the colored families. Her parents had explained that it was up to the foremen to collect money from the colored and take it to the mill or to the store right next to the mill. The money was what the colored had to pay to live in the shacks and what they owed the store; it was no wonder the foremen looked grumpy, her parents had said, because they not only had to make the colored pay what they owed, but they had to make sure the colored men went to work on time and didn't lie about being sick.
Now they were past the shacks; the cooking smells were gone, and the breeze in Cindy Lou's face smelled only like spring and wood again. She had to stand up on the pedals to make the bicycle go up the hill for a short distance. Now she was on level ground again.
"Good for you, Cindy Lou," Sue Ellen said.
"Good for me. Good for me," Cindy Lou panted, and laughed with her friend. It was what they always said to each other when they were riding the bicycle and Cindy Lou had to pedal uphill.
Cindy Lou turned the handlebars to make the bike go down the road to Green Hill Negro Church. The church was on their left, a low wooden white building with a small graveyard next to it. The girls had heard the hymn-singing and shouting from the church on Sunday mornings. The first time she heard it, Cindy Lou laughed and told her parents how funny she thought the sounds were. But her parents had told her that that was the way good colored people talked to God, and that God heard them, because the colored people who went to church were sincere in their hearts and meant well.
Past the church they went, Cindy Lou stopping her pedaling, resting her legs and getting ready to work the brakes when the bicycle got to the bottom of a little hill where the old tracks ran off to the left, cutting through patches of woods and fields of clover.
Blossom was enjoying herself in the clover. Linus Bragg held her tether loosely, letting the patient old cow nibble at her own pace. She was in no hurry, and neither was he. His mama had told him to give the cow a good walk and feed and never mind hurrying back, 'cause it wouldn't make supper come any faster. What I care when supper come? Linus had asked, knowing that was a game. Mama, knowing too, had said, 'cause you like catfish and onions and buttered tater skins, and there be a nickel for you to get a strawberry ice cream cone with for dessert at the company store. That's why. That good enough, Linus had said.
Linus had liked catfish and onions and buttered tater skins for as long as he could remember (his brother and sister teased him about it). At fourteen, he still liked them. Who needed a reason? The only times he got mad at the teasing was when his brother and sister made fun of his size. He had hardly grown since he was twelve, and other boys his age in the mill shacks were at least a head taller. Never mind none, mama and daddy said. Some people grew early, and some grew later.
There were things about his body that Linus thought he would never understand. No one had told him that he would begin to have fun touching himself a certain way; this frightened and puzzled him, even though it was more fun than anything else, enough fun to make him blink.
He knew it was what animals did on farms, and he knew that people did the same thing. His mama and daddy ...
Impatiently, Linus yanked on Blossom's rope. The cow tugged back; the line went taut across his coveralls, flicking him where the magic feelings came from. He put his hand inside his coveralls and felt himself growing. The grass and dirt were cool under his feet.
Spring rode on the gentle breeze that licked his face. The birds felt it too; they sang in the trees when the breeze went by them.
Linus was startled when he heard the voices and laughter. He pulled his hand out of his coveralls. More voices, girls' voices, and the rattle of a bicycle. Now he saw them, off to his left, a white girl a few years younger than he pedaling a smaller girl. The older girl's hair was blonde and trailed behind her in the breeze. The older girl's dress blew up for a moment, showing Linus milk-white thighs and a glimpse, almost faster than he could see, of white underpants.
What he saw made Linus gasp. But it frightened him, too, and made his face burn, because of what his mama had told him once. You don't even look at white girls, she had said. You sit far away if you see them playing, because you don't want any habits that get you in big trouble later, when you closer to being a man.
What you mean? Linus had asked.
Tell you plain, his mama had said. You even look at a white girl like you might like her, some white boy, white man, gonna come after you eventually. You see them little white girls playing, jumping around, you walk the other way, far away. 'Course it should be up to their mamas to keep them acting proper, but that don't matter none, far as you're concerned.
You even look at a white girl like you might like her, some white boy or white man gonna cut your thing. And once you're older and look at a white woman, God help you. You really gonna get cut then. Cut so bad, ain't nobody gonna be able to sew you up.
Linus was embarrassed and frightened when his mama told him that, and it didn't help much when she saw how bad he felt and laughed and cuffed him behind the head, playfully, to make him feel better. He had never forgotten what she said.
Now, he had just looked at a white girl's underpants. He wondered if anyone had seen him.
Linus felt the magic start up in him.
Cindy Lou saw the boy holding the cow, saw by his face that he was a few years older than she, although not much bigger. She was not afraid, for her parents had told her how to talk to colored people. They are creatures of God, too; just speak up, firmly but kindly, so there's no misunderstanding, like you know your place. They'll almost surely know theirs, assuming they're the good colored, her parents had said. And there's nothing wrong with being extra kind, extra friendly to them once in a while, so long as there's no misunderstanding.
Cindy Lou was tired from the pedaling and braking, and so she stopped near the colored boy.
"That's a pretty cow you have," Cindy Lou said. "What's her name?"
"Blossom," the boy said, just loud enough for Cindy Lou to hear.
"I'll bet she gives a lot of milk for your family," Cindy Lou said.
"Yessum," the boy mumbled. Cindy Lou thought he looked very shy. His eyes were large and maroon.
Cindy Lou's legs were spread as she straddled the bicycle bar. The breeze came by again, lifting her dress slightly, and she smoothed it down with her hand.
"We're going to pick flowers now," she said. "Take good care of Blossom, and she'll give good milk for years. Watch she doesn't eat any strong weeds."
"This be clover here," the boy said.
"Bye, now," Cindy Lou said, pedaling off again.
Excerpted from Carolina Skeletons by David Stout. Copyright © 1988 David Stout. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
“This sensitive, well-written book is full of compassion and understanding.” —The New York Times
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I saw the movie and cried because it's so chilling. It sent shivers up my spine. The movie is sad because a 14 year old black boy died for something he didn't do. Sad. And what makes it even sadder is the fact that it takes 40 years for justice in that case. Anyway, i recommened this book and I'm sure it will send shivers and tears. The author writes so good and I really thought this was a good book. Be sure to see the movie too!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Sincerely with honesty and trust, Anonymous
I totally agree with the previous rateing! Awesome form the first to the last page! Only pick this book up if you have several hours of free time, very hard to put down, deserves more than 5 stars! Enjoy!!!!!!!!!
Great book, I loved it! Sad, sad history for us South Carolinians.
Started off good but ended up losing my interest. Was offended by the excessive use of a specific racial slur (N@#$%R). Felt there should have been more details on the actual case.