A courageous young woman comes of age in the midst of an historical tragedy, from the author of Dark Water Rising.
Mercy Kaplan doesn't want to be like her mother, saddled with crying kids and failing crops for the rest of her life. Mercy longs to be on her ownuntil her wish comes true in the worst possible way. It is 1918 and a deadly flu epidemic ravages the country, leaving her utterly alone and penniless.
Mercy soon finds a job with Mrs. Wilder. But there's something unsettling about the woman, whose brother died under mysterious circumstances. And then there's Daniel, who could sweep a girl off her feet if she isn't careful.
“The historyof the epidemic and of early feminismcreates a dramatic story, and Mercy’s personal struggle for independence is universal.” Booklist
“Mercy tells her story in a gentle, cadenced voice filled with youthful hope, simple wisdom and gritty endurance. Perfect similes capture the flavor of Mercy's bittersweet life during the epidemic of 1918.” Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Marian Hale is the author of acclaimed historical novels for young adults including The Truth About Sparrows and Dark Water Rising. She lives with her husband, daughter, and grandbabies on the Texas Coast.
Read an Excerpt
The Goodbye Season
By Marian Hale
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2009 Marian Hale
All rights reserved.
I'M A FIRSTBORN, like my mama and my gramma before me.
"Whether you like it or not, Mercy Kaplan," Mama is always telling me, "the eldest gets called on to do things that don't seem fair."
I cleaned grits from baby Honor's chubby face, then dropped to my knees to mop up the rest of her breakfast. Four-year-old Justice giggled, seeing me scoot around the floor like a hound hunting for scraps, and when I looked up, I saw him wipe his mouth on his sleeve. I grimaced. Another shirt to wash. And for a kid who'll probably never use a scrub board a day in his life.
Mama was right about the curse of being the eldest, and right about another thing, too. None of it was fair.
Charity sat next to Justice at the table, picking over a mound of pinto beans, her grits-smeared bowl pushed back, left for me to clear away. At fourteen, she was only two years younger than me, old enough by far to carry her fair share of chores, but Mama didn't seem to notice.
I gave Justice's sleeve a quick swipe with my rag and snatched Charity's bowl from the table. She shot me a surprised look, full of hurt, then ducked her head and went back to her beans.
I didn't mean to hurt her feelings, but I was tired of picking up after everyone. Getting beans ready for the pot seemed to be the only thing she did well enough to satisfy Mama, a fact that appeared to escape everyone but me. If I hadn't always tried to please, maybe I would've had less work, too.
I felt Mama's eyes on me and tossed her a quick glance. I guess my irritation had shown all over me, because she rested her mending in her lap and gave me a long look. I braced myself for some stinging words, but she didn't say a thing till I'd finished my chores and sat Honor on the floor to play. Then I heard her sigh.
"Remember, Mercy," she said, her words as threadbare as the overalls she was mending. "Each burden comes with its own blessing."
She picked up her needle, leaving me to ponder what that blessing might be and whether I'd be lucky enough to get it in this life or have to wait till the next. There sure hadn't been any reward for all the cleaning, laundry, and tending kids she expected me to do. In fact, I'd come to believe this was all I'd ever get out of life.
Lately, I'd been mulling over the prospect of leaving home. I was old enough, almost seventeen, but hard as I tried, I couldn't see how a girl could break free and make a life for herself without marrying some fool boy. Even if I did manage to find a decent boy my age to marry, how would I keep from ending up like Mama, saddled with four kids, all of us named after virtues, like prayers to God, instead of for grammas and grampas, like everyone else in the world?
Uh-uh. That was not going to happen to me. I was not going to be like Mama.
Something waited for me; I could feel it, especially at night, when everyone was asleep. The promise sat on my chest like a big tabby cat, warm and velvety, purring about the happy future that might be mine if I could just figure out how to get there from here. Only how was a Texas sharecropper's daughter supposed to set her sights on something better if she didn't even know what was out there in the world? At least one thing was clear. My life would never be different from Mama's if I married.
When I thought back, it seemed to me there'd always been something standing in the way of better times. Like the war with Germany. "A war to end all wars," everyone said. Papa shipped off to fight the Kaiser like everyone else, and Mama had to work every day, taking in laundry and ironing, to keep enough food on the table. When he was wounded and sent home, we all looked on it like a miracle straight from heaven. Papa was alive, and he was home safe. The last two fingers on his right hand were missing, but he was whole in every other way, and life could be better at last. And for a while, it was.
Early this past spring, we celebrated the chance to sharecrop Mr. Gurtry's rich land just outside of Canton. When the rains came and Papa's cotton bushed out green and beautiful, I thought we'd finally reap that blessing Mama was so fond of talking about, but I should've known better. The boll weevils found us, and though we all worked hard to save the crop, in the end there was nothing to do but give up.
By September, Papa had returned Mr. Gurtry's team of mules, and this morning he rode our old Tucker into Canton to look for work. When he finally came home at dusk, something about him had changed. Everything out of his mouth sounded strained and far away, like he'd buried his words so deep he could hardly summon them up anymore. Seeing his cotton crop fail day by day had worried deep shadows around his eyes, and tonight they seemed even darker. The kids swarmed around his knees, trying to cheer him up, but nothing helped for long, not even Honor's crooked grins. Papa's brow soon furrowed again, and the shadows deepened.
Papa ate his beans slow, his arms resting around his bowl after each bite. When we were done, I cleaned up the supper dishes, hoping he'd read to us awhile, make everything feel right again, but it was clear he had too much on his mind. I couldn't help wondering how things went in town, but I knew he'd speak of it only to Mama.
I pulled Honor's nightgown over her head and handed her to Mama. I guess she'd spoiled us all, one by one, singing us to sleep. Even now, as old as I was, her songs could comfort me like nothing else. I pushed Justice up the loft ladder and heard her voice, whisper-soft, behind me.
"Hush, little baby, don't say a word."
The slow creak-creak of the rocker kept time with her words.
"Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird."
In the loft, a gusty wind whistled through cracks in the siding, weaving itself like a ghost through Mama's lullaby, but it did little to lessen the late-summer heat. We changed into our nightclothes, rolled out our pallets, and lay down, already sticky with sweat.
Before long I heard Justice's and Charity's deep breathing behind me. While listening to the rhythmic creak of Mama's rocker, I felt myself drifting away, too. But Papa's voice reached right through the dozy comfort I'd found, and, like a big hand, it snatched me back.
I eased up and glanced behind me, wondering if the kids had roused, too. Hot as it was, Justice had worked his way off his pallet and spooned against Charity's back, tight as a tick on a hound, but they were both still asleep. I lay back down, staring at the way light flickered like fairy wings across the rafters, and soon Papa's words drifted up to me, tangled in the wispy smoke from the kerosene lamp and the blustery heat of a dying summer.
"There's no work for me in town, Lydie," he said.
His words sounded chafed and raw, pulled from some sore place only Papa knew.
"I've gotta leave. There won't be enough food to get us through the winter if I don't."
I heard a muffled sound and knew Mama was trying not to cry.
"Mr. Gurtry said you and the children were welcome to glean his fields. The sweet potatoes and rabbit traps should see you through till I find work and can send money home. If it gets too bad, you can sell old Tucker."
I swallowed hard. We'd eaten a lot of sweet potatoes lately. I wasn't sure I could stomach them morning, noon, and night, but even that wouldn't be as bad as being without Papa.
In a voice so soft I almost missed the words, Mama said, "Don't worry, Jess. We'll be all right."
Papa didn't answer. His silence, thick and heavy, pulled me closer to the rail. I heard him draw a ragged breath and waited for more.
"Lydie," he said, "Mr. Gurtry told me that Beulah Bonner could use someone to help around their place. She said she'd take our Mercy for a while if it would help out."
Papa had spoken the words with such tenderness it took a moment for the meaning to soak in. When it hit me, I sucked in a breath, then covered my mouth, afraid he'd heard. But he hadn't. He went right on talking about the Bonners while every foolish fancy I'd ever had about leaving flew plumb out of my head.
"She can't pay wages, but she said Mercy could work for her keep till I get back for spring planting."
"But, Jess," Mama said, "the Bonner place is twelve miles away, and there'll be only Miz Beulah to watch out for her. A sixteen-year-old girl needs her mother."
"There'll be one less to feed, Lydie. Besides, she'll be seventeen next month, and she's a good girl. She can do this."
The thought of living with strangers squirmed sick inside me. This wasn't the way I'd pictured things at all. I'd always thought that leaving would be my doing, not Mama's or Papa's.
I rolled over and peered down at them from the edge of the loft. Papa sat at the table, his face pale as winter butter. Mama, clutching a sleeping Honor, rose from her rocker. "She'll not leave," she said.
Papa leaned in to the table and covered his face with his hands. Mama watched, her lips drawn thin and tight, and for a moment, I felt safe. But, like a slender birch in an icy wind, Mama shuddered. She fell back onto her rocker and buried her tears in Honor's nightgown.
I shrank from the edge of the loft and lay back down beside Charity. Mama's sobs had left me numb, inside and out, and empty as Papa's pockets.CHAPTER 2
I'D NEVER SPENT a night away from home. Not one. That much about my life had always been predictable, and by day's end, no matter where we lived, Charity slept right beside me. I could always count on Mama to use the same wooden mixing bowl and black pot. Her crocheted pineapple tablecloth covered every table we'd ever had, and her four china teacups always sat on a shelf or a mantel alongside Papa's harmonica. I never realized what a good thing all that was till now.
Before daylight, the warm breeze died, and the cabin grew close and quiet. I lay there listening to myself breathe, and when I couldn't stand the sound another minute, I pulled off my nightgown, dressed, and headed for the loft ladder.
Guided by stars and the outline of trees against a sleeping sky, I made my way to the creek and eased myself onto the rocks I'd nestled together when we'd first arrived. The stony seat was cool and hard. It would be here long after I was gone, long after we were all gone. The creek bubbled its agreement and churned through the woods.
I felt foolish. All this time I thought leaving was what I'd wanted, but being without Mama and Papa, missing out on Honor's giggles and Justice's shines, wasn't what I wanted at all. And what about Charity, with her long chestnut braids and big doe eyes? I remembered the hurt look she gave me when I snatched her bowl from the table, and guilt skittered through me, full of sharp edges.
Why did I do things like that? I didn't resent her nearly as much as I let on. She was my sister, my best and only friend. We told each other things we'd never breathe to another soul.
Unlike me, Charity had known all along what she wanted to do when she grew up. She wanted to write books. She'd filled every sheet of paper in the house with her stories, and I was the only one she'd shown them to. For my sixteenth birthday, she'd spent weeks embroidering a bookmark for me, sneaking off to the barn to work so she wouldn't spoil the surprise. And just days ago, she'd spoken up for me, sharing the blame when Mama fussed about letting the water barrel get too low.
I picked up a smooth, round pebble and rolled it in the palm of my hand. I should've been a better sister to her.
Charity was the only one who knew how badly I wanted my life to be different from Mama's. We'd talked way into the night many times, whispering about the girls we'd known who had let themselves get swept away by handsome, sweet- talking boys promising the moon. It seemed to me that Mama hadn't been much different. I knew she loved Papa, but I often wondered if she'd ever regretted her decision to marry. After all, she had a fine education. She could've done anything she wanted. Why would she let herself get buried under endless piles of diapers, dishes, and laundry? True, she was quick to put on a smiling face most days, but I figured she had to know we'd never have more than we had right now, and that scared me. So far, my life had been as empty as Mama's, barren as Papa's cotton fields, and I wasn't at all sure I could change it. The only thing I knew was that I had to be smarter than Mama or I'd end up just like her, and then I'd never know what might've been.
I tossed the smooth stone toward the creek just to hear it plop, but it missed and hit the pebbled bank. It was too dark to see it tumble down, but I felt it rattling against the growing emptiness inside me.
"Life's always gonna bring change, Mercy," Mama told me long ago. "It's up to each of us to get shed of old regrets and watch for the good coming."
The trifling bit of good I'd seen lately could hardly be measured, but as much as I wanted to blame someone, I really couldn't point a finger at Mama or Papa. No one had worked harder than they had.
I closed my eyes, already knowing what to watch for. I saw the creek grow full from soft spring rains, and sunshine sparkle across the rushing water like rhinestones I'd seen in a store window once. The air, full of honeybees and shimmering dragon-flies, smelled sweet with the new green of a plentiful crop. I breathed in the picture and felt it loosen the knot inside me. Papa's spring planting wasn't so far away. I'd be back home in time to help him sow the seeds, and then maybe I could figure out what the world had waiting for me.
When I finally opened my eyes, morning had crept across the land in feathery, russet golds. I needed to get back home. Mama would be worried.
I hurried to the cabin and heard a distant whack split the early quiet. Others followed, echoing across the fields. I knew the bin at the back of the cabin was already full, but Papa was out there somewhere, cutting more wood.
Mama stood at the table when I came in, pouring the last of our flour into her wooden mixing bowl. I wondered if she would tell me what she'd learned last night, but she just nodded toward the black kettle on the stove.
"Hurry and eat, now. I need you to take Charity and Justice up to Mr. Gurtry's fields, see if you can dig up enough potatoes to last us awhile."
"Yes, ma'am." I pulled a still-warm potato out of the pot and swallowed hard. I was sick of boiled sweet potatoes, but I was hungry. I bit into the sticky orange flesh and watched Mama add salt and water to her flour. I figured she must be making hardtack for Papa's journey. I waited, thinking she'd say something about his leaving, about my working for the Bonners, but she just kept on mixing, never once looking up from her bowl.
Charity returned with two buckets of fresh water, and while she fetched tow sacks from the barn, I rolled up three of the six remaining sweet potatoes in a cup towel. I grabbed a ladle for dipping from the creek, poked the handle through the knotted cloth, and swung the bundle across my shoulder.
Justice wrapped his short arms around Mama's skirt and peered up at her through ginger-brown locks. "Mercy says we're gonna see who can find the most taters today, and I think it's gonna be me."
Mama smiled, wiped her hands on her apron, and pushed the ringlets from his forehead. "I wouldn't be at all surprised." She leaned close to his ear. "You're bound to win," she whispered. "You're a lot closer to the ground than she is."
He beamed a triumphant smile at me.
When Charity showed up, we herded Justice out of the house and up the long footpath to the road. Before we reached the bend in the trail, I glanced back and saw Mama still standing in the doorway, watching. I couldn't help but wonder why she hadn't said anything about my leaving, but I was glad of it. Her silence had kindled a spark of hope in me. Maybe something had changed. Maybe I wouldn't have to go after all.
The sun crept above the tree line, taking the dew with it, and our bare feet kicked up dust that drifted in the still morning like fog. Justice talked about trapping rabbits, while Charity rattled on and on about Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, her latest favorite book.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if one of us actually found a job as governess for a man like Mr. Rochester?" she asked.
Excerpted from The Goodbye Season by Marian Hale. Copyright © 2009 Marian Hale. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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