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It's 1960 in the Panhandle town of Charnelle, Texas—a year and a half since sixteen-year-old Laura Tate's mother boarded a bus and mysteriously disappeared. Assuming responsibility for the Tate household, Laura cares for her father and three brothers and outwardly maintains a sense of calm. But her balance is upset and the repercussions of her family's struggles are revealed when a chance encounter with a married man leads Laura into a complicated relationship for which she is unprepared. As Kennedy battles Nixon for the White House, Laura must navigate complex emotional terrain and choose whether she, too, will flee Charnelle.
A heartfelt portrait of a young woman's reckoning with the paradoxes of love—eloquent, tender, and heart-wrenching—K. L. Cook's unforgettable debut novel marks the arrival of a significant new voice in American fiction.
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About the Author
K. L. Cook won the inaugural Prairie Schooner Book Prize for his collection of linked stories, Last Call. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Poets & Writers, Threepenny Review, Shenandoah, Witness, and American Short Fiction. He has won an Arizona Commission on the Arts fellowship for fiction, the grand prize in the Santa Fe Writers' Project Literary Arts Series, and residency fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. He lives in Arizona and teaches at Prescott College and Spalding University's MFA Program in Writing.
Read an Excerpt
The Girl from CharnelleA Novel
By K. Cook
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright ©2006 K. Cook
All right reserved.
Laura watched the thunderstorm from the living room window. The clouds bloated and darkened, common in the Panhandle during late afternoons, and then it poured -- a gusty, whipsaw wind driving the rain sideways against the house. The rain hardened into thick white hail, which soon sheeted the yard. Her younger brothers, Gene and Rich, joined her at the window, and their mother stopped cooking in the kitchen and stood behind them, drying her hands on a dish towel.
The boys soon tired of the show, but Laura and her mother continued to stare at the white pellets pouring down -- dumped, it seemed, from a huge bucket in the clouds. Lightning crinkled the gray sky, and to gauge the distance, Laura counted slowly until she heard the thunder. One, two, three, four, BOOM! The time between the light and the sound shortened, and then in an instant the hail stopped, the sky opened up, and a bright beam of sunshine shone on the street. They squinted.
A moment later, simultaneous thunder and a flash of silver heat cracked in their yard. The house shook as if bulldozed. Rich screamed. Laura was blinded for a few seconds. Her body vibrated, jangled, and her teeth kept clicking, as if she were sending asignal in code.
Her mother stood in front of the window, frozen, her face cut by the sudden shadows after the light. Gene led Laura to the couch.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"The . . . the tree," Laura stuttered, "the tree."
Her mother opened the door and went outside. The old oak was split in half, a bright black burn down the center, the heavy-leaved top branches strewn across the white-pelleted lawn and porch. The ends touched the door.
"My God," Mrs. Tate said, shuffling through the melting hail. She placed her hands on the dark center of the trunk. "It's hot," she said. "It's still hot."
Laura moved to the door, the muscles in her thighs and calves quivering, the joints of her knees still vibrating. Her teeth wouldn't stop clicking. Small lines of blinking silver crosshatched her vision. The sky darkened again. She and her brothers stood on the porch, afraid to move into the yard.
Their mother touched the trunk, the branches, the leaves, as if searching for a heartbeat. "So hot," she muttered, "so hot."
The next morning, the destroyed oak lay about the yard like a huge, stricken animal. Mr. Tate and Laura's older brother, Manny, had cleared away some of the debris that night, but the large job of cutting the heavy branches and uprooting the burned base of the trunk would take longer and would require special equipment. Leaving for school, they had to maneuver carefully around the fallen branches and the blackened husk of the split trunk. It was a mess.
Coming home on her bicycle later, Laura rounded the curve, saw the tree, and felt again the lightning in her body. Faint silver lines again blurred her vision. Her teeth involuntarily clicked. All this triggered, miraculously, by the presence of the tree.
She got off her bike in the front yard and wheeled it around to the side of the house. The front door was slightly ajar, and she pushed it open.
"I'm home." No one answered. "Momma? Rich?"
Still no answer, which made her nervous. She went through the kitchen and opened the kitchen door, expecting them to be in the backyard. But all she saw was Fay, scratching around the fences.
"Where's everybody?" she called.
Fay trotted over. Laura patted the old dog's coat and head, careful around the wounds that their younger dog, Greta, had gouged in her face. Fay licked Laura's wrists and cheek with her bad breath. Inside, on the kitchen table, Laura found the note, quickly scrawled, in her mother's crooked handwriting: "Rich is at Mrs. Ambling's."
"Where did my mother go?" Laura asked old Mrs. Ambling.
"I was wondering the same thing. She just asked me if I would watch Rich until all of you kids got home. She seemed in a hurry. She headed down the road with a suitcase."
"Yes, a brown one. Not that big."
Laura inhaled sharply. She knew the suitcase, could picture it clearly in the back of her mother's closet, rarely used. It had a hole in the bottom, patched with duct tape, and one of the grips was frayed and threatening to come loose. Laura thanked Mrs. Ambling and grabbed Rich's hand.
"Ouch!" he whined as they walked across the yard to their house. "You're squeezing too hard."
She went into her parents' room, not something she usually did without invitation, and opened her mother's dresser drawers, found them half empty. From the closet, six of her mother's ten dresses were gone, the brown suitcase gone, the wedding picture on the end table (the only picture in their house) gone, the postcard of a cathedral in Rome that her older sister, Gloria, had sent just last month, gone. Maybe something's happened to Aunt Velma, Laura thought. Maybe she went to Amarillo. She sat on her parents' bed and closed her eyes for a few moments. She could smell her mother's presence in the room -- a faint whiff of sweat and talcum powder.
The front door opened. It was Manny. He came to the bedroom, an apple from Mrs. Ambling's front yard in hand, a greased black curl falling over his forehead.
"You ain't supposed to be in here." He smirked, leaning against the doorjamb.
He doesn't know either, she thought.
"Where's Momma?" he said, chomping the apple.
"I don't know."
Rich appeared beside Manny's legs, watched his brother's mouth working slowly over the fruit. "I'm hungry," he said.
"Where's your mother?" Mr. Tate asked when he and Gene got home.
"We thought you were going to tell us," Manny said.
"She left Rich with Mrs. Ambling and told her we would pick him up when we got home. Laura found the note. Give it to him, Laura."
Excerpted from The Girl from Charnelle by K. Cook Copyright ©2006 by K. Cook. Excerpted by permission.
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