Power in the Blood: Land, Memory and a Southern Family

Power in the Blood: Land, Memory and a Southern Family

Hardcover(1 ED)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060182694
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/01/1997
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.41(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.11(d)

About the Author

John Bentley Mays lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter. He is also the author of Power in the Blood; An Odyssey of Discovery in the American South.

Read an Excerpt

It was Zoe who found their mother dead. The boys were still asleep, wrapped in blankets in their corner of the room. Zoe slept alongside her mother in the only bed, and the first light of morning told her Nettie Dugan was dead. She was already cold, so it had happened in the night.

Zoe didn't want to touch her mother again after that first hesitant poke, just a fingertip against the sharp cheekbone; her finger had jerked away as if burned. Mama's eyes were open, her bluish lips slightly parted, the familiar gaps of missing teeth visible. It was almost a smile. Zoe hadn't been so close to death since she'd seen an old man fall down directly in front of her on Union Street last winter, so near to her a coin in his hand had rolled and hit her shoe. She'd picked up the coin before anyone else saw it, and hurried away. Only a nickel, but it was hers. Zoe had considered spending it solely on herself, then reconsidered and presented it to Nettie, who told her she was the goodest girl there ever was.

Drew was stirring. The youngest, he usually woke first. Zoe was three years older, and Clayton was three years older than her, plus a month. Despite this, Zoe knew she was the one in charge whenever Nettie got sick, no matter how Clay might insist he was the boss. Now that Nettie was gone, who would be the leader? It worried Zoe almost as much as her mother's passing.

Zoe sat up and beckoned Drew over. He slid from beneath the blanket covering himself and Clay and approached the bed, squinting the way he always did when he first got up. The squint pulled his round face into a smile that indicated nothing more than semi wakefulness. He was already clutching the tip of his penis underthe grimy shirt he wore day and night; Drew always needed to pee immediately on rising. He pulled the pot from beneath Zoe's side of the bed and deposited more urine in it. Today was Clay's turn to empty it. Zoe assumed her mother's death wouldn't change that.

"She's dead ...," Zoe whispered.


"Mama died. Look at her if you don't believe me."

Drew lowered his shirt and walked around to the bed's far side. He stared at his mother for some time. "No she's not," he said.

"She is, because there's no breathing. Touch her, I dare you."

Drew's fingers reached, felt the cold skin and were pulled back. Zoe saw with satisfaction that he believed her now.

"Why did she die?" Drew asked.

"She was sick," Zoe reminded him, "and she must've gotten sicker, so she died."

The squinting smile on Drew's face grew inappropriately broader. Zoe knew this meant he was close to tears; everything about Drew was backwards, but he was only seven after all. "Make her come back," he whispered.

"I can't, stupid. She's dead."

Sure enough, tears began rolling down Drew's face. He was beyond speech, beyond understanding. Zoe felt more sorry for him than for Mama; at least Mama would have understood the fact of her dying, the irreversible nature of it. Drew's tears were contagious, though, so she found herself crying too, and their combined sobbing finally woke Clay.

Scowling, he came to the bed. "What?" he said, conveying in one word his authority and annoyance. He appeared not to notice Nettie's unnatural stillness at all. His sister and brother, now that Clay was awake, allowed themselves to howl unashamedly, irritating him further. "What!" he demanded. Zoe's glance at their mother made him look closer at the head on the pillow, and then he knew.

The effort required to keep from crying himself made Clay feel sick. He'd been expecting this thing, this death; Nettie had warned him of its approach and drilled him on what to do when it happened. Clay knew he had to tell Mrs. Smalley down the hall, and that is what he did.

Having been deserted by her own husband, Mrs. Smalley regarded herself and Nettie Dugan as sisters in suffering. They had worked in the same mill for several years, then Mr. Smalley had died and left his wife a small insurance policy, which enabled her to stop working and ease the pain in her failing legs. Nettie had continued at the mill until she became sick.

The death was not unexpected, and Mrs. Smalley resolved to waste no time in unproductive mourning but to concentrate on the problem of burial, and the greater issue of what to do with Nettie's children.

She could not take them into her own room, not with her drunkard son and his wife there, so she told Clayton to keep his brother and sister inside their mother's room while she arranged a five-dollar funeral through Schenectady's lowliest church.

That took two days. She escorted the children to the graveyard and stood behind them as Nettie was lowered into the earth. Heart failure, the death certificate asserted, but Mrs. Smalley knew it was sorrow over no money and no man that had done it. The cheap wooden marker would last no more than a few years, and they'd likely bury some other pauper on top of her then. But that was of less concern than it might have been, for Mrs. Smalley was a planner by inclination, and although her planning had borne no fruit within her own family, she was determined that her talent for organization should benefit the three souls Nettie Dugan had left behind. If all went as intended, the children would be far away before the mound had settled on their mother's grave.

In answer to prompt inquiries launched by Mrs. Smalley, she was informed by a letter from the Children's Aid Society in New York City that places had been found for Clayton, Zoe and Drew on the next orphan train, scheduled to depart Albany for points west on May 19. The children would have less than a week to prepare themselves for something Mrs. Smalley convinced them would be an adventure, the answer to their need for family and a place in the sun.

"They'll be children such as yourselves," she assured them, "and with unhappiness the same as you've known just recent, or maybe worse. There's some of 'em been running around in the big town without a mother or father for years, and now you'll all be taken together to the west, where there's folks as have had their children took from 'em by sickness, like you've had your ma took the same way.

"They're wanting new children in Ohio and Illinois, so you'll be appreciated by folks out there. You're the lucky ones, you should know, getting a chance like this to start over, and all because my cousin's married to a good man on the railroad as knows about these things. A prayer answered is what it is, so now we'll bow our heads and give thanks for God's mercy on us all."

Clay was not ungrateful for Mrs. Smalley's help. He knew that in the west everyone rode a horse and carried a gun to shoot wolves and Indians and buffalo. That sounded all right to Clay; he just hoped the places Mrs. Smalley mentioned were far enough west. It would suit Drew as well, and they would find someone to marry Zoe so she could be happy too. Her husband would stand by Zoe and be good to her. That was definite. Clay wasn't going to let his sister suffer as his mother had. Zoe's husband wouldn't run off and leave her the way Mama's had done, or Clay would go after him and kill him. He'd be sure and make that point before the wedding ceremony, just so everyone knew how matters stood.

Drew appeared content to believe Clay's promises, but Zoe demurred; as usual, Clay was running things to please himself. Zoe was troubled by an apparent lack of sadness among all three children since the burial. Somehow they seemed to have put Mama behind them too soon. Zoe herself was guilty of this, yet she knew she had loved their mother. The boys' talk of ponies and pistols was annoying, and so she was not disposed to reward Clay for his self-serving plans by appearing interested, or even anxious to be away from Schenectady, a place she'd despised all her short life. In the days remaining until they entrained for the west, Zoe kept herself to herself, and was dismayed that the boys accepted her aloofness without comment.

Mrs. Smalley organized the hiring of a cart to take them to the station at Albany, and stood with them on the platform. An hour before noon, an unruly herd of children, at least fifty of them, crowded into the station. They had marched in ragged file from the riverfront, having been brought up the Hudson from New York City by overnight steamer. In charge were a rather stern young woman and a one-armed man who, despite this disadvantage, carried a large wicker basket on his back.

Mrs. Smalley had been expecting fewer children under broader adult supervision. She introduced herself and her charges to the custodians, who in turn gave their name as Canby, Mr. and Mrs. Then it was time for stilted good-byes.

"These nice people will take care of you till you find a home. You be sure and heed them, and be good always, promise me now."

"Yes," said Zoe.

The boys simply nodded, their attention on the newcomers flocking around. Clay was already testing with his eyes the resolution of anyone who cared to match his gaze. He liked the idea of being top dog of this so-called orphan train, even though it was obvious from all the grown-up passengers milling around that orphans would constitute only a small portion of the payload.

What People are Saying About This

Anne Rivers Siddons

"John Bentley Mays is one of the most powerful voices to speak of and out of the deep south. Power In the Blood chronicles a journey of immense poignancy and resonance."

Terry Kay

"John Bentley Mays may have found his place in Canada but his blood is thick with deep South truth. Power In the Blood is simply a remarkable book--brilliantly written and as accurate a portrayal of the south as anyone is ever likely to pen."

The Globe and Mail

"In writing about his won family, Mays has illuminated a much larger experience, one that is rigorously researched and poetically rendered. Power in the Blood dispels the myths surrounding the South and demonstrates that the truth can hold the same elegiac allure."

Lois Battle

"Both passionate and reflective, romantic and well-researched. An odyssey of roots and change."

Janice Daugherty

"John Bentley Mays give us a new view of the South, unbiased by the old view. It's as if he read everything written about the South and forget it, or dismissed it all as clich_. Power In the Blood is a memoir of quivering beauty and truth."

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