It's 1948 in Rippling Creek, Louisiana, and Tate P. Ellerbee's new teacher has just given her class an assignment—learning the art of letter-writing. Luckily, Tate has the perfect pen pal in mind: Hank Williams, a country music singer whose star has just begun to rise. Tate and her great-aunt and -uncle listen to him on the radio every Saturday night, and Tate just knows that she and Hank are kindred spirits.
Told entirely through Tate's hopeful letters, this beautifully drawn novel from National Book Award–winning author Kimberly Willis Holt gradually unfolds a story of family love, overcoming tragedy, and an insightful girl learning to find her voice.
This title has Common Core connections.
|Publisher:||Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)|
|File size:||857 KB|
|Age Range:||9 - 12 Years|
About the Author
Twenty three years ago Kimberly Willis Holt stopped talking about wanting to be a writer and started to pursue her dream. Because of her family's Louisiana roots she considers herself a southerner, but her father's military career took her to places beyond the South, including Paris and Guam.
She's the author of more than fifteen books for a wide range of ages, many of which have won awards and honors. Her third novel, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. She writes and gardens in Texas.
Read an Excerpt
Dear Hank Williams
By Kimberly Willis Holt
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Kimberly Willis Holt
All rights reserved.
September 1, 1948
Dear Hank Williams,
Welcome to the great state of Louisiana! My name is Tate P. Ellerbee, and I'm writing you from Rippling Creek in Rapides Parish. That's a long way from Shreveport, but our radio is tuned to KWKH every Saturday night. I've been listening to you on the Louisiana Hayride ever since you first performed on the show last month. When you sang "Move It On Over," swear to sweet Sally, I felt a wiggle travel down my whole body. The upbeat chorus made my little brother, Frog, and me dance around the room. Uncle Jolly said he'd heard better singers, but don't pay him no mind. He's a lovesick man.
Aunt Patty Cake liked your song too. She stared up from her copy of True Confessions and asked, "What do you reckon he looks like?"
Today was the first day of school. My new teacher, Mrs. Kipler, has glasses as thick as Coca-Cola bottles. I guess she's real smart and wore out her eyes from all that reading. I had to bite my tongue to resist the urge to suggest Delightfully Devine's black eyeliner. It would be just the thing to bring out her brown eyes.
Now, here's the exciting part of this letter. Mrs. Kipler told the class, "This year new worlds will unfold in front of you, and you'll see your own world through fresh eyes." Right that minute I was ready to pack a suitcase for the trip. Then she said it would happen through writing letters to a pen pal.
Some of my classmates groaned. Wallace Scott groaned the loudest, but he's a bully and I guess he wanted to start the year off reminding us of that fact.
Mrs. Kipler told us we could pick our own pen pal but that she hoped we'd let her assign each of us one. She promised they would be from a special place.
That minute I knew exactly who my pen pal was going to be. Guess who, Hank Williams? I've picked you! Since you sing on the Louisiana Hayride and I'm going to sing at the Rippling Creek May Festival Talent Contest, we already have something in common. You and I are going to be great buddies. It's funny how things work out, because before Mrs. Kipler told us about our pen pal project, I'd planned to write you a letter. The Monday after I heard you sing, I rode my bicycle over to the post office and asked the postmaster, Mr. Snyder, to look up the address for the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium. He finally gave it to me, but not before I answered a bunch of nosy questions about why I wanted it. (If you ask me, Mr. Snyder knows entirely too much about everyone around Rippling Creek.)
This letter will have to be top secret because Mrs. Kipler asked us not to write yet. She's assigning topics for our first few letters so that we can learn to write interesting correspondence. She clearly doesn't know a thing about me, because I am an interesting person. And interesting people always have something curious to write about.
I'll write again, real soon (probably tomorrow).
Your fan and new pen pal,
Tate P. Ellerbee
September 2, 1948
Dear Hank Williams,
Today Mrs. Kipler asked if any of us had chosen a pen pal. You'll never believe this: I was the only kid who'd picked one. A lot of people in this world don't have gumption, but I do. Here's the funny thing, though. When I told her your name, Mrs. Kipler scrunched up her face and asked, "Is he a distant cousin?" I had to explain that you sang every Saturday night on the Louisiana Hayride. She looked as dumb as a bell without a ring.
"Don't you have a radio?" I asked her. She didn't answer. She kept asking me questions, wanting to know how I knew you. "I'm going to get to know him," I told her, "because we're going to be pen pals."
Her voice got all soft. "Tate, let's talk about this at recess."
Then Mrs. Kipler faced the class and told them she had a very important announcement about who their pen pals could be. Somehow she'd made connections with a teacher all the way over in Japan who had students who wanted to write to American children.
Wallace Scott stood. "Japan?"
"Correct," Mrs. Kipler said. "Now sit down, Wallace."
He was not happy about that choice. Wallace's daddy's uncle died in Pearl Harbor, so I guess you can't blame him for thinking that way.
Mrs. Kipler's brains must have frizzled from her last perm. We just got out of a war with those folks. I'm not about to share my life with the enemy. I remember when I was four years old, the soldiers from Camp Claiborne marched past our house in the mornings. Aunt Patty Cake would have a pot of coffee ready for them. Before we saw them, we heard the stomp, stomp sounds of their boots pounding the road. When we did, we'd walk outside, Aunt Patty Cake with the coffee, Momma with the cups and cream, and me with the spoons.
The men's leader would yell, "At ease!" and the men would settle on the side of the road. Aunt Patty Cake made her way down the line pouring coffee. They'd have to take turns with the cups because we only had five, but they didn't seem to mind. Nobody had ever asked us to do it. Aunt Patty Cake said it was a small way of doing our part.
Once, one of the soldiers lifted me and settled me on his shoulders. He marched up and down the stretch of road in front of our house. Stomp, stomp, stomp. I remember noticing tears in his eyes when he put me down. Later I asked Aunt Patty Cake and Momma, "Why was that man crying?" Aunt Patty Cake said, "He probably has a little girl like you at home, Tate."
So you see, Mr. Williams, even if you weren't my pen pal, I couldn't write someone from Japan. I'd feel like I was betraying those men who passed by our house every morning.
Which brings me to the next point. Mrs. Kipler said in our first letter we should tell you about ourselves and where we live. She said, "You may not think you live in a fascinating place, but to other people, especially those living across the world, Rippling Creek is exotic."
Exotic? I'm an optimist. I look at a glass half-full, but Mrs. Kipler must see it all fogged up. Rippling Creek is anything but exotic. And despite that Mrs. Kipler tried to convince me at recess that writing you was a waste of time when I could be learning about another culture, I'm going to keep you as my pen pal. So don't worry, Hank Williams. You and I will be closer than double-first cousins because we'll learn about each other and how much we have in common. So without any delay, I'll tell you a little about me and the anything-but-exotic Rippling Creek.
First of all, I've got plain brown hair and brown eyes, which seems ordinary, but people say I'm starting to look like my momma. My prayers must be working. I know I'm supposed to pray for the sick and the lost souls, but I can't help it. Every night I squeeze my eyes shut and whisper to heaven, "Please let me be beautiful and sing pretty like Momma." Since I'm only eleven, there's hope for me yet. By the way, what do you look like, Hank Williams?
Rippling Creek is a speck on the Louisiana state map about eighteen miles south of Alexandria. Don't picture a busy place like New York City or New Orleans. Most of us live in the country. Hardly anyone lives in town. The town of Rippling Creek has a post office and one gas station. You can't include Hazel's Cut and Curl, because her shop is inside her house on Fish Hatchery Road.
Rippling Creek has tall longleaf pine trees everywhere that give off a clean scent like fresh-cut grass. Even though it's named Rippling Creek, we don't have a creek here named that. There is Hurricane Creek, Catfish Creek, Marty Porter Creek, Boot Creek, and No-Name Creek. If I was mayor, I'd call No-Name Creek Rippling Creek, but I'm not mayor. When I am, that's the first thing I'll do.
For now, I live on Canton Cemetery Road, straight across from the cemetery. Our home is the little red brick house with the torn screen porch door (that Uncle Jolly never gets around to fixing).
Living a stone's throw from the cemetery may seem depressing to you, but the location is actually prime real estate. It's the only place you'll eventually see almost everyone from these here parts. Every few weeks someone is bound to die, and practically everybody around Rippling Creek attends their funeral. Not me. I don't go to funerals. It's not because I'm afraid I'll cry, either. I'm not the crying type. I like to think of the deceased before they became that way. I reckon they'd like me to remember them that way too.
That doesn't stop other people in this house from going, though. Aunt Patty Cake is the queen of funeral-goers. Every time someone dies, she'll not only go to their funeral, she'll show up at their family's house later with a pecan pie. And when Uncle Jolly isn't working as a supervisor at Hopkins' Azalea Nursery (where they grow the prettiest azaleas in central Louisiana), he's the weekend cemetery groundskeeper. Saturdays, he mows the lawn and tidies up the grave sites. He tries to enlist me as his helper. "No sirree," I tell him. I don't want to spend my Saturdays throwing away dead flowers.
Uncle Jolly's not the only person asking me to go to the cemetery on a regular basis. Mrs. Applebud, who lives next door, wants me to accompany her on her two o'clock visits. I feel awful bad about her husband dying, but whenever she asks, I always tell her, "No, ma'am. Thank you, kindly." I can see all I want of the cemetery from my front yard. That doesn't stop her from asking, though. Whenever I notice it's almost two o'clock, I hide. Thank goodness she's predictable like everything else in Rippling Creek.
Here's what I mean. Every morning, at seven o'clock, Mr. Gayle Rockfire drops by for a quick cup of coffee with Uncle Jolly and Aunt Patty Cake. And each school day, Frog and I catch the bus out front at eight o'clock. The Missouri Pacific passes through our town at nine thirty, one o'clock, and five o'clock and in the middle of the night at three thirty a.m. And in case you forget, the engineer sounds that awful whistle at the crossings. Rudy Branson throws the Alexandria Town Talk at the end of our driveway at four o'clock every afternoon except Sunday. And come Sunday, every person I've ever known in my entire life (except Uncle Jolly) is sitting on a pew in Rippling Creek Southern Baptist Church. So as you can see, life in Rippling Creek is predictable, predictable, predictable.
Frog is the biggest eight-year-old pest in Rapides Parish, but if it weren't for my little brother, I'd die of boredom. And since Aunt Patty Cake won't let me have a dog, he'll have to do.
Trying not to suffer from my predictable surroundings,
Tate P. Ellerbee
September 3, 1948
Dear Hank Williams,
Mrs. Kipler's big plan about getting Japanese pen pals for everyone didn't seem to go like she'd hoped. Almost every kid came to class today with a different pen pal in mind. Everyone except Coolie Roberts and Theo Grace Thibodeaux, but they always forget their homework anyway. Mrs. Kipler looked like someone who didn't get any cards in her Valentine box. I have to admit, when the kids shared their pen pals' names, I could see why she was disappointed.
Verbia Calhoon picked her grandmother who lives in an old plantation home in Baton Rouge. Big deal! Most of the other kids selected their uncles, aunts, or cousins who live around Louisiana. The only person who picked someone out of state was Wallace Scott, who chose a cousin from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
You could have heard a fly land on the windowsill when Wallace puffed out his chest and said, "My daddy said you're a Red communist if you choose to write anyone from Japan." He narrowed his eyes and stared around the class like he was daring someone to object.
The room grew quiet except for the sound of a few nervous kids' desks scraping against the floor.
Mrs. Kipler stared at Wallace. She said, "The war is over."
Wallace stared back. Nobody can do the staredown like Wallace. He didn't blink once.
Finally Mrs. Kipler turned away and told us to get out our arithmetic books. None of my classmates selected anybody near as exciting as you, Hank Williams, someone who I believe will be very famous one day. I have a radar for good talent. You can bank on it.
Banking on the future of the sure-to-be-famous Hank Williams,
Tate P. Ellerbee
PS — Please write back soon.
September 8, 1948
Dear Hank Williams,
I asked Mrs. Kipler if we had to share our letters with her, and she said, "No, though I hope you will. I think we will all grow from learning about other people, but I realize letters are personal possessions." That's what she said. Here's what I think: Mrs. Kipler is like most people around Rippling Creek — nosy about other folks' business. But she knows that reading other people's mail is against the law. Plain and simple. Mrs. Kipler doesn't want to get arrested.
Don't worry, Hank Williams, I won't share our letters. Who knows what could happen after we've been writing for a while? I might tell you some big secret, or you might tell me something that happens behind the scenes during the Louisiana Hayride. So feel free to write any and all gossip.
The only person who has had a response from her pen pal is Verbia Calhoon. Wouldn't you know it? As expected, she came to school and bragged, bragged, bragged. She asked Mrs. Kipler if she could read hers aloud. Mrs. Kipler looked as pleased as punch and said, "Why, certainly, Verbia."
Verbia made such a production of standing, smoothing her skirt, tossing her blond curls, and reading her letter filled with boring details. How interesting could an old lady be? Her grandmother wrote about how she got her hair done and went to lunch with her old-lady friends at the Capitol's cafeteria. Mrs. Kipler got a big kick out of that part. She stopped Verbia's reading and reminded us that it was our state Capitol in Baton Rouge where Verbia's grandmother had eaten. When I got home, I told Frog about her letter. He fell fast asleep. The only interesting part was when her grandmother said she was going to buy her a French poodle. I hate to admit it, but that part made me jealous. It's not fair that somebody like Verbia can get a dog and I don't have a chance in the world of owning one. I'd be the perfect dog owner.
Mrs. Kipler said this week we're supposed to write to our pen pals about our family. My family would take a dozen letters to explain, but I'll do my best to squeeze it into one. Here we go!
My momma is in the picture-show business. That's why she's been away so long. She's busy starring in a film. When she comes home, she will buy me all kinds of pretty dresses and shoes. The kind that Verbia Calhoon wears. I'd tell you Momma's name, but Aunt Patty Cake doesn't like me to talk about her to anyone. I guess she thinks it's bragging. And I wouldn't want to ever be accused of boasting like those Calhoons.
I can tell you this. Momma always smells like gardenias, and she's beautiful. She has the sort of hair that women ask for at Hazel's Cut and Curl but walk out of the beauty shop looking like young chickens starting to shed their soft feathers. They look kind of blotchy. That's because they made the mistake of agreeing to a Toni perm from Hazel. Some folks say Momma's a dead ringer for Vivien Leigh. And she can sing so pretty. That's where I get my talent. She always seems to have another life going on inside her head. Sometimes I'll catch her in a daze, wearing a mysterious smile. Whenever I ask, "Momma, what are you thinking about?" she'll usually say, "Oh, I guess I was a million miles over yonder." Now it feels that way because she's been gone so long.
My daddy is a photographer, and he travels the world, taking pictures of lions in Africa and blue-ribbon jars of bread-and-butter pickles at state fairs. You've probably seen his photographs in Life magazine or National Geographic. He forgot to pack his pair of lace- up boots, and Frog insists on wearing them everywhere, but they are too big for him. I'd reveal who my daddy is, but again, I can't because of Aunt Patty Cake. She's the boss. With both of our parents away most of the year, Frog and me live with her and Uncle Jolly.
Are you wondering why we're living with my great-aunt and -uncle instead of our grandparents? Well, it's because of the most tragic story. You see, Momma is not the only famous singer in our family. My grandparents were well known in the church world. They were Dewright and Dottie, the Gospel Sweethearts. On their way home from singing at a revival in Waxahaxie, Texas, their car got a flat. As if that wasn't bad enough, they had the sour luck of it happening right around the bend in the road. A grocery truck didn't see their car and swerved toward them. Grandpa and Grandma were killed instantly.
Once, I asked Uncle Jolly about that evening. His eyes got all watery, and he said, "I still can't step foot in a church for fear that I'll hear the choir singing 'Just a Little Talk with Jesus.'" That was my grandparents' theme song. The offering plate overflowed whenever they sang it. Sad subjects tend to stay buried in this house, so I never ask about them anymore.
After they died, Aunt Patty Cake raised Momma. She was already raising her little brother, my uncle Jolly. He's a lot younger than Aunt Patty Cake and more like a big brother to Momma than an uncle.
Excerpted from Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt. Copyright © 2015 Kimberly Willis Holt. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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.
Table of Contents
September 1, 1948,
September 2, 1948,
September 3, 1948,
September 8, 1948,
September 9, 1948,
September 11, 1948,
September 13, 1948,
September 14, 1948,
September 15, 1948,
September 18, 1948,
September 20, 1948,
September 23, 1948,
September 27, 1948,
October 1, 1948,
October 3, 1948,
October 6, 1948,
October 11, 1948,
October 18, 1948,
October 19, 1948,
October 26, 1948,
November 4, 1948,
November 12, 1948,
November 16, 1948,
November 20, 1948,
November 21, 1948,
November 22, 1948,
November 26, 1948,
November 29, 1948,
December 3, 1948,
December 5, 1948,
December 9, 1948,
December 15, 1948,
December 20, 1948,
Christmas night, 1948,
December 26, 1948,
December 29, 1948,
January 1, 1949,
January 8, 1949,
January 14, 1949,
January 22, 1949,
February 3, 1949,
February 12, 1949,
February 19, 1949,
February 23, 1949,
February 25, 1949,
March 2, 1949,
March 6, 1949,
March 12, 1949,
March 18, 1949,
March 25, 1949,
April 5, 1949,
April 21, 1949,
April 22, 1949,
April 25, 1949,
April 27, 1949,
April 30, 1949,
May 8, 1949,
May 15, 1949,
June 5, 1949,
About the Author,
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