Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree

Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree

by Lillah Lawson


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It's an unusually warm autumn, 1929, and O.T. Lawrence is about as content as a cotton farmer can be in Five Forks, Georgia. Nothing—not poverty, drought, or even the boll weevi—can spoil the idyllic life he shares with his doting wife and children and his beloved twin brother Walt. Until illness and Black Tuesday take everything O.T. ever held dear in one fell swoop. Grieving, drinking, and careening toward homelessness, O.T. is on the brink of ending it all when he receives an odd letter from a teenage acquaintance, the enigmatic Sivvy Hargrove, who is locked away in Milledgeville’s asylum for the insane. Traveling through desperate antebellum towns, O.T. and his daughter Ginny are determined to find Sivvy and discover her story. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree is a love story to Georgia and the spirit of its people—a story of family, unconditional love, poverty, injustice, and finding the strength inside to keep on going when all is lost.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781947548282
Publisher: Regal House Publishing
Publication date: 09/20/2019
Edition description: None
Pages: 381
Sales rank: 590,665
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lillah Lawson lives in North Georgia, not far from Five Forks, with her husband and son, a silly dog, and two slightly evil cats. When she’s not writing, you can find her baking, playing bass, marathoning 1980s sitcoms, or riding her bike. She is currently working on another historical fiction novel, set in the late 1960s.

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August, 1916
Five Forks, Georgia

Two monarch butterflies were dancing on the mid-afternoon breeze as O.T. Lawrence and his brother, Walt, sweated in the field. One butterfly was orange, the other blue. O.T. paid them no mind, but Walt stood up from his work for a minute, watching the two insects air-dance, a blade of grass jutting from between his lips. He chewed on blades of grass pretty much round the clock, especially when he felt a nervous spell coming on or if he was concentrating hard. He stared at the butterflies so long that finally O.T. stopped too, leaning on his hoe, looking at his brother with exasperation.

"If'n you don't hop to it, we ain't gon' be done in time for the tent revival," he reminded Walt, but his tone was gentle. "What you lookin' at, anyhow?"

"Them butterflies," Walt replied. "One of 'em is orange, and one blue. Ain't that something?"

"Not partic-ly." O.T. went back to his work. The ground was harder than it should have been this time of year. The drought had just about ruined the dirt — it had no nutrients, no moisture. How anything could grow in it was beyond him. What else could they do, though? Cotton farmers was what they were, and planting seed was what folks did. He wished Walt would just hop to it. O.T. was itching to get done, to get in the house for a bath, and to spruce up before the revival tonight. Betty Lou Pittman was going to be there. At this rate, by the time they got in the house the water in the wash tub would be ice cold. He wasn't studying on butterflies.

"It is, though," Walt insisted, still chewing on the blade of grass. He reminded O.T. of a calf chewing its cud. His mouth worked side to side, the blade of grass now a lime-green pulp. "You rarely see the two together. Orange and blue, I mean."

"They's both monarchs, ain't they?"

"Yeah, but the two colors don't usually mix comp'ny."

"Like people, I reckon," O.T. said, with a smirk.

"What you mean?" Walt asked, the joke sailing past him.

"Nothin'. Last I checked, you wadn't no butterfly expert." O.T. enjoyed teasing his brother, though Lord knew why, because most of the time Walt didn't even know when he was being teased. He just carried on in that far-off voice about whatever it was that had struck his fancy. Once he got on his prattling, there was no use in trying to pick at him or get a word in edgeways. If O.T. didn't respond, though, let Walt know he was listening, Walt'd get upset, and it was hard to bring him back down once he got that way. Because Walt was the sweetest, kindest boy you ever did meet, hurting Walt's feelings was like kicking a puppy dog — cruel. Walt was smart, O.T. knew; probably smarter than anybody O.T'd ever met, but he was "off with the faeries," as their older sister, Hazel, always said. Hazel's husband, Tom, was less kind. "He's teched," he'd say with a smug smirk. Well, maybe Walt was touched, O.T. thought, but who cared, anyhow?

"No expert, naw," Walt replied, finally looking down at his hoe, as if considering it. He took things quite literally. "But I like t'observe things."

"Observe that cotton patch, then," O.T. barked. "I'd like to get finished 'fore next year, if'n you please." O.T. didn't want to look at the butterflies anyhow; they brought him bad feelings, dumb as that seemed.

Walt went back to work, and O.T. breathed a sigh of relief. Any other time he'd be glad to chew the fat with Walt about any old thing he wanted, because he loved his brother and indulged him, but not today. O.T. was positively twitterpated today. Everybody in Five Forks had been looking forward to the tent revival, and the fish fry afterward at Misrus Maybelle's, for a solid month. That would have been enough for O.T. — just the possibility of getting out of the house for an evening, out from under Hazel's stern, watchful eye — but adding to his excitement was the fact that Betty Lou was going to be there.

Betty Lou Pittman was O.T.'s sweetheart, but she didn't know it yet. O.T.'d decided he was just about ready to start courting her, if she'd have him. There was no other girl in all of Five Forks that he liked so well as Betty Lou. He wasn't really good enough for her; he knew it, her parents knew it, but he sure hoped Betty Lou didn't know it. O.T. figured he had just enough charm and good looks to coast on, maybe. If I could get into a not-cold washtub and scrub my behind, that is.

O.T. was itching to get out from his sister and Tom's house and make it on his own. He wanted nothing more than to be a man, have a house and family to call his own. And Betty Lou was just as pretty as a speckled pup under a red wagon, as the old timers used to say. With her light blonde, almost white hair — he'd heard her pa affectionately call her "cotton top" while patting her on her delicate head, and he'd been jealous as hell — and cool blue eyes, she made his heart skip a beat. She always smelled like talcum powder and roses, and her sack dresses were the cleanest and best pressed in the county. Yeah, he reckoned he was in love with Betty Lou Pittman.

Walt, who often read his brother's thoughts, interrupted O.T.'s reverie. "You gonna borrow some of Tom's pomade tonight, you reckon? Did you ask Hazel to press yer good shirt? 'Cause y'know Betty Lou is going to be there." Walt stabbed his hoe into the ground and dragged it over the roots, cutting his eyes at O.T. in a mock-flirtatious fashion. Walt wasn't much for teasing, but it was different with O.T. Not only would Walt look his brother directly in the eye, but he'd mock him while doing it.

O.T. pretended not to notice. "Yeah, reckon she'll be there. Don't go giving me hell about it, neither."

"I ain't," Walt said, still cutting his eyes at his brother. They had the same wide-set, light-gray eyes, and both were lean and wiry, just like their daddy had been. Walt and O.T. were identical twins, the only ones in Five Forks, or anywhere nearby, far as they knew. A birthmark below O.T.'s right ear was the only feature that distinguished them, and nobody had ever noticed that but Ma. They had the same dark-blond hair, fine and shaggy, which Walt wore in an unruly mop, with cowlicks and a mess of tangles down about his ears. O.T. — who was nothing if not in tune with his future lady's tastes — would neatly slick his hair back with pomade when he could get it. Their hair was how most folks told them apart. "I just got to figuring you gon' marry that girl and leave us. You gon' leave me, brother?"

Walt's voice was teasing, but O.T. could hear the worry in it. Walt wouldn't do well alone with Tom and Hazel. Tom was rough as a cob, didn't like boys to be soft, and was not inclined to spare the rod, not on the boys, and not on their sister, either.

"If'n me and Hazel ever have a son," Tom liked to boast to Walt and O.T. at the dinner table, "he wouldn't be soft. No sirree. You boys is raised soft as an ol' egg."

Every time Hazel's husband took a switch to Walt's tender skin — which was often, since Walt just couldn't help acting so funny — O.T. would dig his fingernails into his hands to keep from crying himself. Walt didn't like to be touched anyhow, but Tom had to go and hurt him.

"Don't worry 'bout that," O.T. said, gesturing at Walt to keep digging. "Anywhere I go, you go too. If'n you want to, that is." "Really? You mean it? You'd let me live with you and yer ol' lady?"

"Why, sure."

"Even if'n you all have a bunch of young'uns?"

"'Specially then. You can watch after 'em while me and the missus go drink Co-Colas in town."

Walt didn't laugh. "I can really stay with y'all?"

"Accorse. Yer my twin brother, dummy. I ain't leaving you." O.T. grinned. "Unless you keep slacking on yer work, that is. Jee-ma-nee, Walt, could you hop to it?" O.T. could see Walt's relieved grin out of the corner of his eye, as he resumed his digging. "Anyhow, I figger you might up and leave me soon."

"How you figger that?" Walt asked, perplexed.

"I hear'd that there's a right purdy girl traveling with the tent revival. You remember that preacher man, that guy they call Billy Rev?"

"Yeah, I 'member. Tall man, real skinny. Like a string bean. Wears white suits and a big ol' hat, bigger'n his head," Walt replied. "What about 'im?"

"This year he's got a new apprentice, a gal. His niece, I heard tell. They say she's right purdy. And our age."

Walt shrugged. "What's that got to do with me?"

"Nothing atall, I don't reckon. Since you're too fool to go and talk to her."

"I ain't."

"You are."

"You calling me yaller?"

"Reckon so."

"I ain't."

"Prove it, then," O.T. said. "You go on up to her tonight, introduce yerself. Bet you cain't."

"I'll go right on up and say how-do," Walt said, still chewing. "That'll fix yer waggin'."

"Yep, that'll fix me but good," O.T. said, turning his head to hide his smile.

The two butterflies were still flitting over their heads, orange and blue, light and dark. As the midday sun crept through the sky toward dusk, one twin dug his hoe into the unforgiving soil, while the other chewed a fresh blade of grass, turning his lips green.

* * *

Walt pushed his hair down nervously, licking at his green-tinged mouth. "Hand me that comb," he said to O.T., holding out his hand. "I'm going to go get some water from the kitchen and wet it down good. It won't stay for nothin'."

"If you'd get you a proper haircut and comb that rat's nest from time to time," O.T. said with a grin, "you wouldn't be havin' this problem."

"You just hush, brother," Walt replied, with a nervous smile. "I don't like haircuts. You knowed that."

"What's so skeery about a haircut, anyhow?" O.T. asked, tucking in his good shirt and buckling his brown belt. The right leg of his best pants was mud-stained, and nothing he or Hazel might do now could get it out. O.T. was mightily embarrassed about it. "Hazel's good at cuttin' hair. She ain't never nicked my ears, not once. Not like that fool barber."

One of O.T.'s earliest memories was of Ma, having saved her pennies, taking him and Walt for their first real haircuts in town. The barber had onion breath, rusty scissors, and no patience for Walt's nervous squirming. He'd shoved a towel around Walt's neck and started anyway. The end result had been a chopped-up mess and a bleeding ear. Walt hadn't let a barber near his head since.

"I just don't like 'em." Walt disappeared into the kitchen with the comb. O.T. wished he'd hurry up; he needed to use the comb himself. He'd managed to filch himself a dab of Tom's pomade without him noticing, and he wanted to slick back his own hair just before they left for Misrus Maybelle's. He was itching to go. Hazel and Tom wouldn't appear till sometime later, after supper, but most of the young folks went down early to help set up. He knew his friends were already there, and Betty Lou and her sisters were likely to show up before long. Unless they came down with their ma and daddy in the motorcar, which was possible. Betty Lou's daddy loved to be seen with his family in the motorcar, a black '16 Model T Touring with high-back seats, the only one of its kind anybody had ever seen in these parts. He'd bought it right off the lot, people said. The Pittmans all looked pretty as pictures, sitting up in the thing, just as nice as you please. Betty Lou's pa, Mr. Pittman, was what Hazel called "right hoity toity." He owned a whole bunch of land all over Madison County, farming a few acres himself and sharecropping the rest. He'd even hired workers. Mr. Pittman had made Hazel and Tom several offers on their property — willed to Hazel when their parents had died — but so far she'd held out. O.T. didn't hate Mr. Pittman like his sister did, though. He figured that if he were a successful businessman with a comely, respectable wife and a bunch of pretty white-headed daughters, he'd put on an air or two himself. And he was mighty jealous of that car. O.T. aimed to buy an even better one for Betty Lou one day, after she was his bride.

"Bring that dang comb back here, would ya?"

"Keep yer hat on," Walt said, returning to the bedroom the two of them shared. The light was dim, and without a mirror they had to rely on each other. Walt looked his brother up and down, still chewing his blade of grass. "You got a mud stain on yer good britches there," he pointed out.

"Yeah, I knowed that, dummy," O.T. scowled. If Walt had noticed the stain, as off with the faeries as he was, Betty Lou was sure to notice, too. "And you got a big green stain on yer face. Oh wait, that's yer dang mouth."

"I think I got my hair to lay down some," Walt said, shoving his hands in and out of his pants pockets. "Does it look like yers, brother?"

"Purdy much," O.T. answered, glancing at Walt distractedly. His twin looked as presentable as he had in a long spell — probably since Ma's funeral five years before. Both brothers had dressed in their very best that morning; Hazel made sure of it. That might have been the last time, before tonight, that they'd looked downright identical.

O.T. didn't want to get to thinking about Ma. It led to other thoughts — Pa falling down the well and dying in pain; Ma losing the baby she'd been carrying; Hazel leaving off with Tom — "I don't like a daughter of mine to git married at fourteen," Ma had said, her eyes red-rimmed, "but the Good Lord knows Tom can afford to feed ya better than I can." Not to mention the drought and the boll weevil working in cahoots to destroy their cotton crop. Despite it all, Ma had tried to hold the farm and the house together on her own for the boys' sake, often going without meals so they could stay fed; but the pellagra claimed her in the end, after three years of fighting, just like it did everyone else.

Then, suddenly, the boys were thirteen and she was gone. O.T. didn't know if his ma had let herself starve and sicken from grief or from martyrdom. Maybe both. But he'd never forget the look of her — the odd, almost beautiful butterfly-shaped rash that had appeared on her cheeks and the bridge of her nose when she'd first taken ill. It would come and go every few months, redder and redder on her sunken cheeks as she was dying. The telltale sign of pellagra, the butterfly rash. He hoped never to see it on another body again.

"O.T," Walt's reedy voice shook him from his thoughts. "I said is you ready to go, brother?"

"Yeah, yeah," O.T. said, wishing he had the use of a mirror and that he and his brother didn't have on the exact same white shirt and dark slacks. "Does it look okay?"

"You look right handsome," Walt said, with a smile. "Like you on the way to Bible Study."

O.T. groaned. "Don't say that." The last thing he wanted was to look like some daggum preacher boy in front of Betty Lou. He would rather look older, handsome, a little bit dangerous. He knew that was the kind of boys teenage girls liked. He'd seen Betty Lou cutting her eyes at Hank Scarborough more than once, a much older guy who hung around the school.

"Well, it is a revival we're going to, ain't it?" Walt asked.

O.T. grabbed the comb and put it in his pocket as they walked out of the bedroom, their hard-soled black shoes clacking against the wooden floor. Neither of them wore shoes most days, preferring to work the farm barefoot. Shoes were hard to come by, expensive, and easily ruined in the red Georgia clay.

"Yeah, I reckon so. If I recall correck-ly, that Billy Rev is going to preach a sermon, and there will be some sangin' and dancin', like they done last year. People will stand up and give their test'mony, and when that's done the fish fry'll start." O.T.'s mouth watered, thinking of Misrus Maybelle's hush puppies. He hadn't had a taste of fried fish in well over a year. All the boys and a few of the girls had been fishing themselves silly in the creeks around Five Forks all week long, getting up enough fish to fry. Misrus Maybelle always sprang for a big ice block to keep them all cool. Everyone looked more forward to the fish fry than they did the revival, but of course nobody would admit it, especially not to Billy Rev, who had traveled so far to give them the Word of the Lord. "Got to run by the barn affore we leave, and git my banjo. They ast me to play."

"That reverend gon' do the baptisms again this year?" Walt asked as they stepped off the porch and began the walk into town. The sun had receded into the west, leaving just the faintest orange glimmer on the horizon. Hazel and Tom must have been out back, still taking their baths in the wash tub, O.T. thought to himself. They'd never admit it, but they were probably just as excited at the prospect of a night off as the young folks.

"Yeah, I reckon so," O.T. replied, retrieving a tin of snuff from his pocket. "He'll probably stay on a spell with folks' that'll show him hospitality. And then, after church on Sundy, he'll do all the savin' and baptisin'."


Excerpted from "Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Lillah Lawson.
Excerpted by permission of Regal House Publishing, LLC.
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.

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