A journey to Myrtle Beach, S.C., gives an elderly Southern mother the heartrending opportunity to share a painful, long-held secret with her gay son in Villas's eloquent fiction debut. The veteran food and wine writer (My Mother's Southern Kitchen) concocts a savory dish in Ella Dubose, a feisty 73-year-old widow who smokes, drinks, carries a gun in her purse and does what she wants, when she wants-just so long as Goldie Russell, her Cherokee companion, is riding shotgun. While vacationing at a seaside inn, and waiting for her famous author son to join them, Ella stumbles on a romantic surprise, vacationing Yankee Dr. Edmund O'Connor. When her son, Tyler, does arrive, Ella yearns to tell him about his real father-not her husband, Earl Dubose, father of Tyler's two siblings-but a Jewish WWII veteran driven to suicide. Tyler, however, also has a secret and a struggle of his own. Villas depicts Ella's dilemma and relationships with flair and a perceptive eye, capturing the Low Country's nostalgic allure with loving skill. (Oct.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Dancing In The Lowcountryby James Villas
Ella Dubose is a Southern lady of a certain age-an age at which memories of youth can rush in at every turn and overwhelm the present. But while Ella's two younger children are
From award-winning author James Villas comes a warm, witty, and poignant story of passion, friendship, and family set against the lush, mellow backdrop of the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Ella Dubose is a Southern lady of a certain age-an age at which memories of youth can rush in at every turn and overwhelm the present. But while Ella's two younger children are concerned for her health and want to limit her independence, Ella-elegant, unconventional, and unrepentantly willful-has very different ideas. And she's not about to be controlled by anyone, not when there are tasks she needs to complete and loose ends that must be tied.
The first step is to leave her family and take a road trip back to the places where key chapters of her life unfolded. Myrtle Beach has been overrun by theme restaurants and ocean-front condos, but the Priscilla is still the charming, shingled inn Ella remembers from visits long ago. At the Priscilla, Ella and her companion, Goldie, sip cocktails on the porch and dine on she-crab soup and fried oysters while awaiting the arrival of Ella's oldest son, Tyler, now a successful writer in New York. And there, too, Ella meets a dashing, attentive gentleman who will help her finally face her ghosts and determine which of the secrets she has carried for so long must be shared, and which are better left untold.
With its unforgettable and instantly loveable heroine and evocative portrayal of Southern life-past and present-Dancing in the Lowcountry is a beguiling, beautifully rendered novel about the places and people that stay with us, the courage it takes to live in the present, and the endless ways life can surprise us, over and over again.
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Dancing in the Lowcountry
By JAMES VILLAS KENSINGTON BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 James Villas
All right reserved.
Chapter One A FRESH PEACH
The week after Easter, Ella Dubose set about making preparations for her "incognito" jaunt in as normal a manner as possible for a Southern lady determined to fulfill a vital mission. She very attentively went through her wardrobe as she used to do so she'd have the right clothes for every occasion. She had Lucy give her a permanent at the beauty parlor on her regular day, then went to the bank to get plenty of cash. While Goldie filled the car with gas, went to the liquor store for booze, and refilled the prescription for Ella's heart pills, Ella dried a few marijuana leaves from the side porch in the oven, ground them finely in the blender, packed them firmly in a cigarette emptied of regular tobacco,and smoked a joint as part of her self-prescribed program to ward off glaucoma. She thought of everything, including getting the two old fishing rods and reels stored in the basement, checking to make sure the small gun in her pocketbook was loaded, and canceling delivery of the Observer so there'd be no newspapers in the drive to attract neighbors' attention. When, in fact, Goldie arrived the following Monday morning to pack the car, and the two finally got under way in the white Cadillac, it was as if Ella planned never to return to the house again.
* * *
Ella insistedon driving at least the first leg of the four-hour trip, and since Goldie was now wearing her hair in a long pigtail and sporting more exotic Indian ornaments, the sight of a slight, dignified, elderly lady in a pink silk blouse and pearl earrings behind the wheel and a stout, tan-skinned woman decked out in colored glass beads and flashy bracelets studying a road map was enough to catch anybody's eye-especially in rural North and South Carolina. At first, the two women had little to talk about, but the farther they drove through the flat, sandy Pee Dee countryside dotted with drab little farming towns, fields of young tobacco and cotton, and one Baptist church and trailer camp after another, the more Ella was inspired to tell Goldie about the region's history, and the giant watermelons and boiled goobers sold at roadside stands around Pageland during the summer months, and how she and Mr. Earl once stopped awhile in Bennettsville to witness a tobacco auction. Then, just outside Darlington, she suddenly slowed the car down and pulled off the road in front of a dilapidated wooden hut where an old black man was dozing in a lawn chair.
"What's wrong, Miss Ella?" Goldie exclaimed with alarm.
"Nothing's wrong, dear. I saw a sign back there that said PEACHES. It's still way too early, and I'm sure they're hard as rocks, but I'd give my eyetooth for a fresh peach."
With which she got out of the car with her pocketbook on her arm, approached the rack displaying small bags of yellowish pink, slightly fuzzy peaches, and squeezed one.
"Clings?" she asked the man.
"Yessum. Early Belles. The first."
"Yessum. Not bad. 'Course they ain't freestones, but not bad for this time of year."
Ella sniffed another peach, frowned when she squeezed it, but nevertheless dug into her pocketbook for money and paid for a bag.
Back in the car, she asked Goldie if she'd take over the driving, then, once they were on the road again, rummaged in the backseat for a small knife she'd put in her liquor bag to cut lemons for her drinks. She then spread several Kleenexes over her lap, peeled what looked and felt like the ripest peach, cut and tasted a wedge, and handed one to Goldie.
"Still a little mealy," Ella said, "but that Negro man was right when he said they have some flavor."
"Miss Ella, you better stop using that word," Goldie informed her politely.
"Why, I don't know what you're talking about," she said, popping another wedge in her mouth. "That's a perfectly respectable term, and you know I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body."
"All I know is what I hear on TV, and I heard the other night that the blacks don't like to ever be called Negroes and now want only to be called blacks or African-Americans."
"Why, I've never heard of anything so absurd. First, they're not Africans, they're Americans, and if I'd called a Negro a black when I was growing up in Charleston, I'd have gotten the worst whipping of my life." She removed some pulp from her mouth with her fingers and placed it on the Kleenex. "Lord, these are mealy."
"I'm just telling you what I heard on TV," Goldie went on, taking another wedge that Ella held out. "And, you know, more and more of us Indians are now calling ourselves Native Americans."
Ella glanced over at her with a puzzled expression on her face. "I know of no such thing, dear, and if you ask me, I think that really is crazy. I mean, you're an American Indian and should be proud of it. Plain and simple."
Goldie just laughed. "I really don't give it that much thought, ma'am."
"Honestly," Ella muttered dismissively, reaching for the map, "sometimes I don't know what this world's coming to." She studied the map, told Goldie to slow down so they wouldn't miss an important turn, then removed some more pulp from her mouth. "Yep, mealy, but Lord, there's still nothing like a fresh peach."
"No, ma'am," Goldie agreed, accepting still another wedge as she drove. "But I know how you love those Elbertas and Indian Reds."
"I certainly do," Ella declared, wrapping up the skins and pit in the messy Kleenex and cramming the bundle in the bag with the other peaches. "That wasn't bad; just what we needed to put us in the right mood. You know, I once met these folks up North who kept going on about their New Jersey peaches, and when I couldn't stand it one minute longer, I simply told them that there wasn't a peach in this country that could hold a candle to South Carolina and Georgia peaches. I didn't mean to be rude, but Yankees do have some strange ideas about what's good and not good. Of course, I have to admit that Mr. Earl and I used to eat wonderful peaches over in France-white ones almost as juicy as our Dixie Belles." She now appeared preoccupied with the memory, so much so, in fact, that she took her eyes off the map too long and failed to tell Goldie to make still another tricky turn on the confusing route leading into Florence.
"These roads are a disgrace," she huffed as they turned around. "You'd think that after fifty years there'd be a direct major highway from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach, but there's not been one iota of improvement since I began coming down here. It's a crime and disgrace, an absolute disgrace."
Her rant stopped when she noticed unexpectedly a magnificent antebellum home on a wooded rise in the far distance. "Lord have mercy,would you just look at that. Almost like some of our gracious old houses around Charleston-and stuck back here in this wasteland. I bet that place is two hundred years old. Sherman must have missed this area." She again seemed lost in her reveries as Goldie slowed down and tried to look.
"Now that, my dear, is what life was like when cotton was king and we had mansions all over South Carolina. Just look at that."
With no warning, a rusty tractor pulled out onto the two-lane road from a dusty drive that led to a crumbling shack with a glider on the porch, but before Ella could even gulp, Goldie had very expertly swung out around it.
"Crazy fool!" Ella yowled at the farmer. "You're a good driver, dear."
Since it was now coming on noon, and Ella feared the dining room at the Priscilla would be closed by the time they arrived and got settled, she told Goldie to begin looking for a respectable place where they could get a bite of lunch. Following a shiny black Buick on the approach to Marion, they both had just noticed the sign for a diner when, from nowhere, a large dog darted in front of the car ahead and was sent flying in the air to the side of the road.
"Oh my Lord, my Lord," Ella cried as Goldie slammed on the brakes and they watched the Buick simply drive on without so much as slowing down. Almost by instinct, and in a fraction of a second, Ella's eyes caught the number of the South Carolina license plate as Goldie uncontrollably bellowed "The bastard!" apologized for her language, and pulled over to the side.
"I got the license number," Ella said with rage in her voice, reaching above the visor for a pencil and jotting it down on the road map. "Go check on the poor dog and see if it's alive."
Blood was already draining from the dog's mouth when Goldie crept up on the motionless body, and it didn't take long to realize the animal was indeed dead. Anybody else, of course, would most likely have had a cell phone in the car to call for help, but since Ella's outmoded convictions precluded that possibility, all the two women could do was vent their anger. Almost sobbing with frustration, Ella sat still a few minutes longer, wondering what to do.
"This has to be reported, ma'am," Goldie said with conviction, "and there's gotta be a police station in that town."
"You're exactly right," Ella agreed as if she'd thought of the idea herself. "Let's go up there to that filling station and get directions to the Marion police."
In almost no time, they found the small, cinder-block building off Main Street and were standing in front of a high counter telling the uniformed, heavy-set officer what had happened.
"We'll take care of it, ma'am," the man drawled indifferently, eyeing Goldie suspiciously. "Happens all the time out there on the highway."
"Well, sir, I got the license-plate number of the car," Ella told him, pointing to the map, "and I'd like to know what you're going to do about finding the driver."
The officer ignored the scribbling on the map. "As I said, ma'am, we'll look into it and try to notify the dog's owner."
"Whoever did that oughta be arrested and put in jail," Goldie protested mildly at first, anxiously fingering one of her silver bracelets.
The man glared at the Indian. "I just said we'd check it out and notify the owner."
Ella's hand was shaking. "I don't think you understand, sir. Somebody in a big black Buick just killed somebody's dog and didn't even have the decency to stop to see if the poor animal was dead or alive. I call that hit-and-run, and we want that person prosecuted. We'll be happy to sign anything as witnesses."
The officer began shifting on his feet impatiently. "That won't be necessary, ma'am. It's only a dog, and we know how to handle these things."
"Only a dog?" Goldie then blared uncharacteristically, her dark eyes burning.
Ella now had real fury in her own eyes. "What do you mean, mister, only a dog? Just what on earth do you mean? A crime has been committed, an inexcusable crime, and if you can't assure me that it'll be fully investigated and this person found and made to pay ... I want you to know I have every intention of following up on this, and if it means reporting the incident to the state highway patrol, or the ASPCA, or any other authority, rest assured that's exactly what I'll do."
"Now, now, little lady, just calm yourself down. No need to get so keyed up," he said, obviously aware that this cranky woman with the weird-looking Indian meant business and could cause a real commotion. "We'll put out a search for the car, don't you worry, and notify you if we need a statement."
"No, no, I'll contact you," she said, fumbling in her pocketbook for her tiny leather notepad and gold ballpoint and asking him to jot down his phone number. "I won't be easy to reach."
All this time, Goldie stood fuming, and when the two walked out of the station, the officer simply turned to a young woman with big dangling earrings smoking a cigarette behind a desk and, shaking his head, commented, "Some rich old city gal with a damn redskin raising hell 'bout a dead dog. Can you beat it? Boy, what you see these days. Better call Henry 'bout gettin' that animal off the road."
In the diner farther down the highway, Goldie ordered macaroni and cheese and iced tea, but Ella was still so shaken by what had happened that she had an appetite for nothing more than one of her sneaky minibottles of whiskey in her pocketbook poured into the plastic glass of ice water, and one cat-head ham biscuit with gravy.
"Good thing I'm driving, ma'am," Goldie said mildly as Ella emptied the small bottle.
"Oh, hush, woman," Ella snorted, reaching back into her pocketbook, this time for the gold cigarette case.
Although the two women were by now as accustomed to one another as two sisters might be, never would either one have assumed that the relationship was in the least way intimate. Not, however, that this prevented Goldie from bringing up questions occasionally about things that intrigued her.
"Miss Ella, I've always thought that was the most beautiful cigarette case I've ever seen and hope you won't mind me asking where you found it."
Ella sat perfectly still for a moment, then took a sip of her doctored drink. "Of course not, dear. Mr. Earl gave me this case many years ago," she lied, a nervous expression coming over her delicate face.
"Oh, I've never seen one like it and always wondered where you got it. Mr. Earl did have such a wonderful eye for beautiful things, didn't he?"
"Yes, Goldie, he did."
Goldie fingered her cheap bead necklace. "Bud gave me this not long after we got married, and do you know Mr. Earl once complimented me on it?"
"Well, he should have. It's lovely, dear." She took another long sip. "I'm sure you still miss Bud a great deal."
"Oh, yes, I do. Not a day passes that I don't think of him and John. I sing to them every night-a sky song I learned when I was young."
"He was a fine person, Goldie. And John was such a fine young man. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
"Yes, ma'am, though the Sacred Spirits have reasons for everything," she replied cryptically, her eyes still fixed on the gold case. "And I also remember Mr. Earl every single night. He was so good to everybody."
Ella patted the back of her silver hair the way she often did when caught off guard by any unexpected statement or question pertaining to her personal life. "Yes, Mr. Earl was special, a very special and good man." She turned her head and stared out the window between the moving traffic at a cotton field across the road that extended far in the distance. "And he always loved this drive down to the beach, and the area's history and people. Why, he could go on for hours about every crop, and major battle of the war, and barbecue, and the pulp industry, and all the old plantations. Mercy, I don't know where he learned it all, but for me and the children it was like one long history lesson every time we made the trip." She hesitated when the waitress placed the food on the table. "You know,we could be sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris, or shopping for antiques in London, or riding on a train to Venice when we did all that traveling in Europe, and Mr. Earl would eventually say he was about ready to feel sand between his toes again and eat peach cobbler, and I'd know then that he was ready to come home. Funny how I happen to think about that now, but that's exactly what he'd say: that he wanted to feel sand between his toes."
Goldie, to whom the travel references meant nothing, took a fork to her macaroni and cheese, but it was still too hot to eat so she blew on it. "I know just how he must have felt, 'cause when it's hot and crazy in Charlotte, and I have to drive around fighting for a parking place in the shopping center, I sometimes remember what it was like in the cool air back on the reservation when my brother and I would go riding in the Nantahala Forest and all I'd hear were birds singing in all directions-just the birds and the sound of twigs cracking under the horses' feet. I've thought about that so many times."
Excerpted from Dancing in the Lowcountry by JAMES VILLAS
Copyright © 2008 by James Villas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James Villas was the food and wine editor of Town & Country magazine for twenty-seven years. His work has also appeared in Esquire, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Saveur, The New York Times, and the Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. Two of his cookbooks have been nominated for a James Beard Award. He has also won a James Beard Award twice for journalism and received Bon Appetit's Food Writer of the Year Award in 2003. James Villas is the author of more than a dozen cookbooks and books on food, including My Mother's Southern Kitchen and The Glory of Southern Cooking. He's currently working on his next novel. He lives in East Hampton, New York.
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A little slow in the beginning - thought I might not like it due to some of the storyline - but could not put it down as the story developed. Lots of authentic Charleston details (I don't live there but have visited and love the city). Flows smoothly - excellent writing. Really enjoyed it and highly recommend.
What a nostalgic look into my own past. Reminds me of my mother-in-law, and in many ways it mirrors my own life as well (although I was never so well-adjusted). A strong southern woman with a secret, and a bottomless capicity for love. Will leave you laughing and crying, and taking a secomd look at your own life and values. Highly recommend. Includes questions for book clubs.