Nameless, Kentucky, in 1969 is a hardscrabble community where jobs are few and poverty is a simple fact—just like the hot Appalachian breeze or the pests that can wipe out a tobacco field in days. RubyLyn Bishop is luckier than some. Her God-fearing uncle, Gunnar, has a short fuse and high expectations, but he's given her a good home ever since she was orphaned at the age of five. Yet now, a month shy of her sixteenth birthday, RubyLyn itches for more.
Maybe it's something to do with the paper fortunetellers RubyLyn has been making for townsfolk, each covered with beautifully wrought, prophetic drawings. Or perhaps it's because of Rainey Ford, an African-American neighbor who works alongside her in the tobacco field, and with whom she has a kinship, despite her uncle's worrisome shadow and the town's disapproval. RubyLyn's predictions are just wishful thinking, not magic at all, but through them she's imagining life as it could be, away from the prejudice and hardship that ripple through Nameless.
Atmospheric, poignant, and searingly honest, GodPretty in the Tobacco Field follows RubyLyn through the course of one blazing summer, as heartbreaking revelations and life-changing decisions propel her toward a future her fortunetellers never predicted.
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GodPretty in the Tobacco Field
By Kim Michele Richardson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Kim Michele Richardson
All rights reserved.
As sure as ugly is found in the morning addict waiting to score in the parking lot of a Kentucky Shake King, there is GodPretty in the child who toils in the tobacco field, her fingers whispering of arthritic days to come.
My uncle, Gunnar Royal, says I'm that child and that I'll find Salvation if I work hard enough. But it's doubtful. I've been working these fields since knee-high, and ain't nothing but all kinds of GodUgly keeps happening around here.
Now, every time we pass the Shake King my uncle points to the whores and hooligans who hang out there. That's what he worries on — what I might become and what my insolence could bring. That's what makes him pour the bitter herbs into my mouth, and why he sends me out to work the tobacco rows at daybreak. Gunnar says at fifteen I should know better, should have learned better, being that my sassy mouth-of-the-South has earned me buckets of punishment from his tincture of biting herbs steeped in moonshine.
When my uncle took me in ten years ago, I learned the widower scriptured his Jesus with moonshine, and he made it his sole purpose to chase out my parents' devils. If anyone could, I reckoned it'd be Gunnar. A feared man in these hills, he'd served as executioner and strapped no-telling-how-many Kentucky prison inmates into the ol' Sparky electric chair during the forties and fifties. And although it's 1969 and Gunnar's nearing sixty, lordy-jones that man can still set a full field and cut a look that's meant to do a'hurtin'.
Outside, a July rain dropped softly onto mountain shadows as the fog rolled through. I waited to be done with his latest by turning to the little windup clock on my nightstand. Keeping time to the soft ticks with steady taps on my knee, I glimpsed into childhood memories, searching for distraction from the mounting pain Gunnar'd dished out.
I studied my parents' photograph on the nightstand, my daddy looking on as Mama playfully wrapped the frayed cloth cord around me while pretending to talk to him on the toy telephone. A cottony memory whisked through my thoughts, easing the pain a little: She'd lightly poked my ribs and laughed softly into the tin mouthpiece. "Yes ... uh-huh, me and the kid's on the way ... Right, snugbug?" Mama had tickled me and put the red receiver up to my ear. "Tell Daddy we'll see him at the tent revival, sugar. Talk to Daddy, RubyLyn," she'd coaxed. I grabbed the old toy, raised the cord, and shook it at her, hissing like Daddy's church snakes.
"Little Miss Preach!" she'd teased, catching me by the ribbon of my dress. My toddler's giggles had lit across her singsong as she pulled me into the soft folds of her satin slip.
I'd found the family photograph tucked inside Mama's old pocketbook along with her tube of Rattle-My-Tattle red lipstick, a few coins, and a homemade paper fortune-teller that we had made together.
I slipped my thumb and forefingers into the worn paper pockets of the fortune-teller, opening and closing it several times. I ran a finger over the tiny penciled portraits she had sketched of us on two of its triangle flaps. The third folded apron showed her sketch of a tobacco leaf. She had saved the last blank spot for me. Resting a fingertip on the faded red heart with the strange streak through its center, I thought about my daddy's missing portrait, what could've been — and should've been.
It was a sad broken heart that I barely remembered coloring onto the empty space. But, yet, it was my crayoned drawing from a time before memories could snug root.
I clutched my chest and rolled slowly over to the side of my bed, dropping the fortune-teller onto the bedspread. A shadow spilled under the closed door and I cast a prayerful eye toward it and stood. He went on into his room.
I wiped a bead of sweat off my upper lip, the pain crawling into my head and sliding down my throat. If he didn't let me out soon, I feared I would never swallow again, talk again. I began to pace in front of my open window, forcing myself to breathe in the fresh air. Some days the bittersweet vine rooted with patches of morning glory that had been hugging this big old house since 1857 gripped more than the white-columned porch and paint-peeling boards. You couldn't escape it — him. Not even from outside. Especially like now when the heavy fog burdened, and the cradling mountains squeezed a little too tight.
Sinking back down onto the bed, I punched the mattress again and again, glancing back at the clock and fighting the nerves whittling me down. Reaching under the pillow, I pulled out my mama's snakeskin purse with its kissing-lock closure. I rubbed my fingers over the biscuit-colored skin, trailing the diamond paths darkened with age and oil from my smooth tips. Such a fine thing. I knew from town talk that my daddy had it made for her and the skin had come from one of his church snakes.
I flicked open the golden clasp and dug out her lipstick and streaked the red paint across my puffy left cheek and imagined a mother's velvet kiss left its sweet mark.
Once more, I eyed the clock, slapping my fist on a jiggling knee. I picked up the fortune-teller again, tracing the paper's speckled grain that had been produced from the pulp of the tobacco stalk, questioning ... Refusing to believe like some of the townsfolk — that there was anything magical in my fortune-tellers. Believing would mean I'd somehow heralded tragedy with this broken heart long ago....
Gunnar rapped on my bedroom door. I slipped the fortune-teller into her purse and shoved it back under my pillow. Cupping a hand over my face, I opened the door.
He frowned as I pushed past him down the hall and into the bathroom, my cramped jaws near splitting. Quickly, I spit out the mouthful of elixir he'd made me hold for fifteen minutes, the tang of moonshine burning my gums and widowing my sass — until the next time.
I touched my cheeks where the fires had leeched to tender skin, rubbing my tongue over the blistered lining of my jaws.
I spit again, blood this time that had me screaming. "G-Gunnar!" I looked at the sink in horror.
Gunnar rushed in beside me. "Good Lord," he said softly to himself, before going to get the goldenseal medicinal he'd concocted.
"Please," I cried. "I need to see a real doc. It's bad —"
"Rinse." He pushed the jar into my hand, watching me swish the antiseptic around in my mouth. "I've warned you not to use my paper for those sinful witch fortunes you call art," he chided.
"See what you made me do, Gunnar? See? ... You old ... executioner ..." I spit out more blood.
He backed out into the hall. "You're not going to waste my good paper making vulgar scrawls."
"And you're" — I spit once more — "you're not gonna execute me that easy ... dammit." Tears splatted down.
"Quiet that serpent tongue."
"Gunnar, help ... God, please help me. ..."
"Only the GodPretty in the tobacco field. Only the GodPretty, RubyLyn."
Gunnar's bedroom door clicked shut on my pleas.CHAPTER 2
Ugly ... I sucked on the cold cloth numbing my swollen tongue as dawn crept slowly into Nameless, the mountains holding the nights longer in these old hollars and dark hills. I'd sure found lots more of it ever since my daddy, the sin chaser and snake-handling pastor of Nameless, Kentucky's Mountain Tent Tabernacle, died when I was four, and six months later when Mama passed, too. You wouldn't think it could get any uglier than that. But I keep finding more of it in this hollow town that folks said wasn't worth naming — these tobacco fields where I'd toughened my Kentucky soles and sharpened my bluegrass-green eyes on the passing of seasons — from the long winter months of field preparation, my sneakers oozing in cold mud, to the summers of sticky-sap leaves scratching at my sunburned face, to the tobacco worms hitching onto my skirts, and Gunnar's mean potions leeching onto raw skin.
It weren't no surprise I had to dig for the pretty in these fortune-tellers. Making them helped me feel alive, kept me closer to Mama, and made me feel like the artist folks whispered I'd be one day.
I pulled up the edge of the mattress and looked at the books I'd hidden there — the beautiful art on worn covers. A thimble of hope bubbled. "Artist. My ticket out of here ... one day ... one day soon," I said fiercely, and dropped the mattress, afraid if I didn't poke the words they'd never see light.
Despite it being the Lord's day, and Gunnar's punishments, I was going to keep at the fortune-tellers — this time by looking to discover who I'd be swapping that important first spit with. The thrill of discovering who that might be made it that much more daring; the chances of it favoring my absolute true love made it real.
Stepping over to my bedroom windowsill, I slipped the latest fortune-teller I'd made into Mama's purse and parted the curtain. Below, Rainey Ford, our black field worker, carried two big bundles of tobacco sticks into the barn and dumped them. He walked back out, pausing to pet the old mama cat circling him. Rainey pulled out something from his jacket, likely a piece of chicken or some scrap he always thought to save for her, and dropped it. The cat hunkered down over the food, then snatched it up and took off into the barn.
Over the past ten years, when I wasn't looking, grace had snuck into Rainey's bones and muscled him into a fine man, tall, strong, but with a softness that made my heart sing.
As if snagging my thoughts, he peered up at the two-story window. I dropped the lace curtain. Shamed because he saw me and shamed because he'd showed up on Sunday to work for me again.
When Gunnar'd caught me drawing in the barn instead of helping clean it, Rainey stood up for me, saying, "It's only a minute break out of a very long day."
But Gunnar didn't care for Rainey's lip. "Been hearing a lot of fireball-sass this past year from my field worker since he's turned eighteen," Gunnar'd bit to Rainey before doubling his chores.
I peeked back out. Rainey tossed me a small, crooked smile. It was the same one he'd been giving me for years, but this one was different somehow. More grown-up than boyish, like there was a secret in it.
My eyes went to the bureau, sought out the keepsake that had once belonged to Daddy. My only memento of his, and a fitting spot to keep promises and secrets. I stepped over to the dresser and opened the small, hinged box. Daddy's snuff was long gone, replaced with memories: a tiny nest of rescued threads from Mama's clothes, along with the dried tobacco leaves and blooms that Rainey had given me with his promise.
We'd first met when he was eight and I was five, practically growing up together. When he turned ten he came calling with a pink tobacco bloom in one hand and a looped field clover blossom he'd fashioned into a ring in the other.
Boldly, he'd asked to marry me and then smacked my cheek with a kiss. Gunnar'd puffed up at that, and said, "Don't touch her kind, ever." And then he'd swatted Rainey's tail all the way down the tobacco rows, across the field, and parked him on his own front porch. Despite that, Rainey had stood up and, with a trembling lip, shouted out a promise, "My bride, my RubyLyn."
For a long while after that, Gunnar'd kept a watchful eye on us, harping on "social standing," cooling Rainey's declaration, with me tucking those blooms and leaves inside the keepsake.
Now, even before the day could catch its fire, I could hear Gunnar outside, breathing his own, needling Rainey for news on his tractor part he'd ordered from the traveling trader last month. "Miss Law's gotten a mite big for her girdle, taking her sweet time getting back to these parts. Should've been back with it yesterday," he said.
I rubbed the tobacco tin with shaky hands and anxious thoughts of escape. I inspected the dead clippings. Feelings for the land I'd loved, just as dead. Spent youth scattered in an old rusting tin — my destiny doomed, reflected in its pitted brass lid — my draining breaths spent on dying dreams of getting out.
A few minutes later the screen door slapped. Gunnar's feet hit the bottom landing, and he yelled up the stairs, "Hurry it."
I closed the lid on the tin and went over to the closet to grab my church dress for Sunday service.
Downstairs, Gunnar barked louder for his breakfast. Tossing the dress aside, I went down in my nightgown to light the oven.
He had an old wooden toolbox sitting on the table, still gnawing for his tractor part, biting for Rose's whereabouts.
"Not like Rose to be late," I said. "Hope she's all right." I glanced at him tapping the wrench against his long johns.
"Humph, even Satan wouldn't wrestle with that woman."
A loud horn poked the morning light. I ran to the front door and flung it open and saw the rusted jalopy coming down Royal Road.
"There she is now," I called to Gunnar. "Rose," I hollered out the screen door, waving. "Rose ..." I grabbed my sneakers from the foyer and pulled them on before barreling outside in my gown. Running alongside her big old green 1941 Dodge Canopy Express wagon, I ignored Gunnar's demands to stay put and fix his breakfast.
It had been nearly a month since I'd last seen the traveling trader. Rose Law was born in Nameless, and everything about her felt exciting and grand and what I imagined I'd find in the city. Miss Rose had a warm smile and a soft touch. Not a bit stuffy, when we'd first met, she'd pulled me into a hug and insisted I call her Rose, same as all the other youngsters.
Rose climbed out of the truck, shucking off her travels. She hiked up her skirt, peeling back a half-slip with flame-colored blooms and a lacy scalloped hem. She played with the suspender clips on her girdle, tugged at her drooping nylons.
"Hey, kid," she greeted, patting her haystack-high hairdo, wriggling down the gathers in her carrot-orange shimmery skirt and matching blouse.
Rose's arrivals were big, bright. She looked like one of those she-devils on the paperback covers that she kept hidden in the back of her truck and wouldn't lend me — what she called her "excitement books."
"Running a day late. My truck broke a belt in Louisville and I had to wait," she prattled, "but I got Gunnar's tractor part and —" Rose stopped and inspected my face. "Oh ... looks like you've been drinking the Jesus juice again, kid."
Heat curled around my face, licked at my ears and scalp. Every time Gunnar punished me with his homemade elixir, the insides of my cheeks and lips would swell an' tell for a week or more.
Rose gritted her teeth and muttered a curse.
"Gunnar's been growling for that tractor part since yesterday morning." I tried to change the subject.
"Been growling for a'smackin'," she chomped. "Lord, sometimes that fool man reminds me of my grandpap."
When Rose was thirteen, her parents were shot during a moonshine raid. Her drunk granddaddy took her in. But when he began beating her, Rose ran off to the city and stayed for ten years, coming back only after he'd passed.
"Come on round here, honey." She guided me to the back of the Dodge. "I got something at the Woolworth's to take care of your parts, too."
I helped her lower the tailgate. Rose dug through her boxes of books, secondhand clothes, stacks and cartons of many sizes, and then passed me a small paper bag.
I looked inside and gasped. A soft brassiere, satin undies, and a book. The daffodil-colored underwear had Wednesday embroidered across the front.
"New, too," Rose said as I held the undies. "The woman in the shop said the package split open during shipping. Grabbed the only one left for ya, kid."
"I saw these in one of your old catalogs ... Never owned any Days of the Week undies before," I marveled. "Thank you, Rose." I glanced back at the house for Gunnar, expecting him any minute to slip on his overalls and come out. "I'm going to get these on first thing. ... Reckon God won't mind if I wear these Wednesday undies to church today," I whispered.
"Don't reckon He will care much about toting Wednesday on a Sunday prayer bottom, honey." She nudged her chin to the countryside. "He loves Himself some pretty, too. Here, have a gander at the brassiere. See if it'll fit," Rose rushed.
I pulled it out and saw the white cotton fabric had a pretty pink rose in the center. Smiling, I pressed it to my chest. "I can't wait to wear it," I squealed. "This ol' one's been driving me mad, cutting into my skin for a long time."
"Heard tell a girl having mad boobies is worse than contracting the mad dog sickness," she snorted, and patted her big chest.
"It sure is pretty and all with the flower." I held it up to me, studying. "Perfect, Rose."
Excerpted from GodPretty in the Tobacco Field by Kim Michele Richardson. Copyright © 2016 Kim Michele Richardson. 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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Amazing read filled with true Kentucky scenery and imagery. Cast of characters makes me recall people i have met in life both good and bad. Kept me on my seat till the very end and wish it had continued on in another book as a potential series. One thing I learned overall from the story is how religion hurt.
This novel has been receiving rave reviews and it is no surprise why. Everything about it is fascinating, from the setting to the complex and ever-evolving characters, to the beauatiful prose and emotional atmosphere. A heart-wrencher, a tear-jerker, a emotional roller coaster, this book kept me enthralled from the first to the very last page. It is a coming of age tale about a young girl/woman who lives in extreme poverty and horribly harsh conditions in Kentucky during the late 1960's. Throughout it all, her dreams and perseverance prevail--to teach us all a lesson about overcoming adversity. I highly recommend this book, especially for book clubs! Utterly lovely! Thank you to the author and publisher. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for visiting my blog, http://greathistoricals.blogspot.ca, where the greatest historical fiction is reviewed! For fascinating women of history bios and women's fiction please visit http://www.historyandwomen.com.
I'm halfway through Kim Michele Richardson's "GodPretty in the Tobacco Field". I haven't been reading it at a fast pace. It's not a story to shoot through, it's a story to savor and feel and contemplate. The story takes place in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky in 1969, and the life, there, is not like any I've personally experienced. It’s a hard life and seemingly an unforgiving life. The author’s writing is fluid; these people of “Nameless” take the reader on a journey, pulling you along through their trials and tribulations, lived both fearlessly and in fear, and tugging at all those unwanted emotions - eliciting my hate and my anger, which I tried to avoid but couldn't. Compassion is another emotion, one that draws my heartstrings into a knot and plucks them at will. I wanted to reach out to these people; I wanted to defend and give back to them what since I could make out of the futility they made of their lives. My reading is most always an emotional journey, and not always an easy journey, but one to remember and learn from. A story is just a story, that is, until a truly gifted writer like Kim takes hold of it and sets it to print. I’m glad I came upon this novelist. Once I reached the halfway pages of this story, it was hard to put down...I turned my light out, trying to sleep but couldn't---three times, on went the light, and open went the book. My mind just couldn't let go of these people, and it was then that the truth to the words, "bitter sweet", came alive. This story speaks to the hardships of rural communities, the hills of Kentucky, the people who carry the grudges and the prejudices, and the hate filled memories throughout their lives...it’s learned and taught, and ingrained in the newborn, and then the hate is passed on with ignorance from one generation to the next. Although, love is not lost in this story, it’s the mainstay that holds onto hope; like glue, holding these people together. Family. Where would any of us be without hope? I wanted to fight alongside these people. I wanted to raise my fist to them, showing their injustice, but realized only new generations, and time and truth, could change the futures of these who are lost in their past. As I just now finished reading Kim's novel, I remembered this sentence from the first page.. “...there is GodPretty in the child who toils in the tobacco field, her fingers whispering of arthritic days to come.” An omen, a metaphor of sorts. The lump in my throat settles, and the tears stop threatening, but never forgetting the ever presence of what was then, is still prevalent in our United States today. But with hope, faith, love and perseverance, only time will tell.
Godpretty in the Tobacco Field by Kim Michele Richardson Thought the story in this book sounded good to me. We have traveled through the tobacco fileds of KY on our way from RI, OH, to TN to visit relatives and have often seen the smoke coming out of the houses, drying the leaves. Mother in law was going to stop and call for help thinking it was somebody's house that was on fire til the drying of the leaves was explained to her. Interesting to know what will events are in this book, for us to experience ourselves. Enjoyed this book because I learned so much about the tobacco leaves and fields. State fair was an added bonus for me-all the sights, sounds, and I can imagine the smells of food. Was so happy to learn that knitting was also a talent that would be granted ribbons or the best work. Ruby is able to get away to go with Rose and they each set up their booths. Terrifying neighbors and others selling babies-some things just don't sit well with me but it's the mountain life. Many tragedies occur and so many blame certain people til they find out the truth, then all the other truths shed light. For some it's a blessing for others it's the end as they know it... Especially liked the fortune teller notes and learning about the sketching. I received this book from The Kennsington Books in exchange for my honest review
5 stars! A beautiful story of wanting to be loved! The Southern flavor is eye-opening, heart breaking and hopeful! Kim Michele Richardson captures the spirit of a young girl in 1969 Kentucky. RubyLyn Bishop, daughter of a preacher who at a very young age will suffer heart-wrenching loss. Memories of happy times are overshadowed by the life she now leads on her uncle's tobacco farm. Fear of retribution (often very painful) leaves her at odds dreaming of a life in the city the minute she can walk away. An artist is what she wants to be for now she must settle for the hidden treasures she draws and hands out to those she loves. One person in particular though, is forbidden to her but does not stop her heart from beating for him stronger everyday.