Ella Baron runs her Texas boarding house with the efficiency of a ship’s captain and the grace of a gentlewoman. She cooks, cleans, launders, and cares for her ten-year-old son, Solly, a sweet but challenging child whose busy behavior and failure to speak elicits undesired advice from others in town. Ella’s plate is full from sunup to sundown. When a room in her boarding house opens up, the respected town doctor brings Ella a new boarder―the handsome and gallant Mr. David Rainwater—but Ella is immediately resistant to opening up her home to this mysterious stranger.
Even with assurances that Mr. Rainwater is a man of impeccable character, a former cotton broker and a victim of the Great Depression, Ella stiffens at the thought of taking him in. Dr. Kincaid tells Ella in confidence that Mr. Rainwater won’t require the room for long: he is dying. Begrudgingly, Ella accepts Mr. Rainwater’s application to board, but she knows that something is happening; she is being swept along by an unusual series of events. Soon, this strong-minded, independent woman will realize that the living that she has eked out for herself in the small bubble of her town is about to change, whether she likes it or not...
Racial tensions, the financial strain of livelihoods in cotton drying up into dust, and the threat of political instability swirl together into a tornado on the horizon. One thing is certain: the winds of change are blowing all over Texas—and through the cracks in the life that Ella Barron has painstakingly built. This is the story of a woman who takes her life’s circumstances in both hands, but who will be forced to reckon with the chaos of her historical circumstances..
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 12, 1948
Place of Birth:Waco, Texas
Education:Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Texas Christian University, 2008
Read an Excerpt
When Ella Barron woke up that morning, she didn’t expect it to be a momentous day.
Her sleep hadn’t been interrupted by a subconscious premonition. There had been no change in the weather, no sudden shift in the atmosphere, no unusual sound to startle her awake.
As on most mornings, sleep released her gradually a half hour before daylight. She yawned and stretched, her feet seeking cool spots between the sheets. But catching another forty winks was out of the question. To indulge in such a luxury would never have crossed her mind. She had responsibilities, chores that couldn’t be shirked or even postponed. She lay in bed only long enough to remember what day of the week it was. Wash day.
She quickly made her bed, then checked on Solly, who was still deep in slumber.
She dressed with customary efficiency. With no time for vanity, she hastily twisted her long hair into a bun on the back of her head and secured it with pins, then left her bedroom and made her way to the kitchen, moving quietly so as not to awaken the others in the house.
This was the only time of day when the kitchen was quiet and cool. As the day progressed, heat was produced by the cookstove. Heat seeped in from outside through the screened door and the window above the sink. Even Ella’s own energy acted as a generator.
Proportionately with the thermometer, the noise level rose, so that by suppertime, the kitchen, which was the heart of the house, took on a pulsating life of its own and didn’t settle into cool repose until Ella extinguished the overhead light for the final time, most often hours after her boarders had retired.
This morning, she didn’t pause to enjoy either the relative coolness or the silence. Having put on her apron, she lit the oven, put the coffee on to brew, then mixed the biscuit dough. Margaret arrived right on time, and after removing her hat and hanging it on the peg inside the door, and gratefully taking a tin cup of sweetened coffee from Ella, she went back outside to fill the washing machine with water for the first load of laundry.
The prospect of buying an electric-powered washing machine was so remote that Ella didn’t even dream about it. For her foreseeable future she must continue using the one with the hand-crank wringer that had been her mother’s. Suds and rinse water from the tub were drained into a ditch that ran alongside the shed where the washer was housed.
On a summer day like today, the washing shed became stifling by midmorning. But wet laundry seemed heavier when one’s hands were raw and numb from cold during the winter months. In any season, laundry days were dreaded. By nightfall her back would be aching.
Solly, still in his pajamas, wandered into the kitchen while she was frying bacon.
Breakfast was served at eight.
By nine o’clock everyone had been fed, the dishes washed, dried, and put away. Ella set a pot of mustard greens on the stove to simmer all day, cooked a pan of Faultless starch, then, taking Solly with her, went outside to hang up the first basket of laundry that Margaret had washed, rinsed, and wrung out.
It was almost eleven o’clock when she went inside to check on things in the kitchen. While she was adding a little more salt to the greens, someone pulled the bell at her front door. As she walked along the dim center hall, she dried her hands on her apron and glanced at herself in the wall mirror. Her face was flushed and damp from the heat, and her heavy bun had defied the pins and slipped down onto her nape, but she continued to the door without stopping to primp.
On the other side of the threshold, squinting at her through the screened door, was Dr. Kincaid. “Morning, Mrs. Barron.” His white straw hat had a natty red cloth band, striated with generations of sweat stains. He removed it and held it against his chest in a rather courtly manner.
She was surprised to see the doctor on her porch, but still nothing signaled her that this would be an extraordinary day.
Dr. Kincaid’s office was in the center of town on Hill Street, but he also made house calls, usually to deliver a baby, sometimes to keep a contagious patient from spreading his infection through Gilead, their town of two thousand.
Ella herself had summoned the doctor to the house a couple of years ago when one of her boarders fell out of his bed during the middle of the night. Mr. Blackwell, an elderly gentleman who fortunately had been more embarrassed than injured, protested even as Dr. Kincaid agreed with Ella that he probably should be thoroughly examined just as a precaution. Mr. Blackwell no longer lived with her. Shortly after that incident, his family had moved him to a home for the elderly in Waco. Mr. Blackwell had futilely protested his involuntary relocation, too.
Had one of her boarders sent for the doctor today? Little in the house escaped Ella’s notice, but she’d been outside most of the morning, so it was possible that one of the sisters had used the telephone without her knowledge.
“Good morning, Dr. Kincaid. Did one of the Dunnes send for you?”
“No. I’m not here on a sick call.”
“Then what can I do for you?”
“Is this a bad time?”
She thought of the clothes piled into baskets and ready to be starched, but the starch needed a while longer to cool. “Not at all. Come in.” She reached up to unlatch the screened door and pushed it open.
Dr. Kincaid turned to his right and made a come-forward motion with his hat. Ella was unaware of the other man’s presence until he stepped around the large fern at the side of the front door and into her range of vision.
Her first impression of him was how tall and lean he was. One could almost say he looked underfed. He was dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and black necktie, and was holding a black felt fedora. She thought his clothes looked severe and out of season for such a hot morning, especially compared to Dr. Kincaid’s seersucker suit and white hat with the red band.
The doctor made the introduction. “Mrs. Barron, this is Mr. Rainwater.”
He inclined his head. “Ma’am.”
She moved aside and indicated for them to come inside. Dr. Kincaid allowed the other man to go in ahead of him. A few steps into the foyer, he stopped to let his eyes adjust to the relative darkness. Then he took in his surroundings as he idly threaded the brim of his hat through long, slender fingers.
“In here, please.” Ella stepped around her two guests and motioned them into the formal parlor. “Have a seat.”
“We thought we heard the doorbell.”
The chirping voice brought Ella around. The Misses Dunne, Violet and Pearl, were standing on the bottom stair. In their pastel print dresses and old-fashioned shoes, they were virtually interchangeable. Each had a nimbus of white hair. Their veined, spotted hands clutched matching handkerchiefs, daintily hemmed and hand-embroidered by their mother, they’d told Ella.
With unabashed curiosity, the two were looking beyond Ella to catch a glimpse of the visitors. Having callers was an event.
“Is that Dr. Kincaid?” asked Pearl, the more inquisitive of the two. “Hello, Dr. Kincaid,” she called.
“Good morning, Miss Pearl.”
“Who’s that with you?”
Miss Violet frowned at her sister with reproof. “We were coming down to play gin rummy until lunch,” she whispered to Ella. “Will we disturb?”
“Not at all.”
Ella asked them to use the informal parlor and led them to it. When they were situated at the card table, she said, “Please excuse us, ladies,” and pulled together the heavy oak pocket doors that divided the large room in half. She rejoined the two men in the formal side, which overlooked the front porch. Despite her invitation for them to sit down, they had remained standing.
Dr. Kincaid was fanning himself with his hat. Ella switched on the fan on the table in the corner, directed the stream of air toward him, then motioned the men toward a pair of wingback chairs. “Please.”
They sat when she did.
This being summer, and wash day, she hadn’t put on stockings that morning. Embarrassed by her bare legs, she crossed her ankles and pulled her feet beneath the chair. “Would you like some lemonade? Or tea?”
“That sounds awfully good, Mrs. Barron, but I’m afraid I have to pass,” the doctor said. “I’ve got patients to see at the clinic.”
She looked at Mr. Rainwater.
“No thank you,” he said.
Returning to the kitchen would have given her an opportunity to remove her apron, which had a damp patch where she’d dried her hands, and to pin her bun more securely. But since her guests had declined the offer of a drink, she was stuck looking untidy for the remainder of their visit, the purpose of which hadn’t yet been stated. She wondered what Solly was up to and how long this unexpected meeting was going to take. She hoped Mr. Rainwater wasn’t a salesman. She didn’t have time to sit through his pitch, only to say no to whatever it was he was peddling.
The smell of simmering mustard greens was strong, even here in the front parlor. The doctor withdrew a large white handkerchief from his coat pocket and used it to blot sweat from his balding head. A yellow jacket flew into the window screen and continued angrily to try to go through it. The hum of the electric fan seemed as loud as a buzz saw.
She was relieved when Dr. Kincaid cleared his throat and said, “I heard you lost a boarder.”
“That’s right. Mrs. Morton went to live with an ailing sister. Somewhere in eastern Louisiana, I believe.”
“Quite a piece from here,” he remarked.
“Her nephew came to escort her on the train.”
“Nice for her, I’m sure. Have you had anyone speak for her room?”
“She only left the day before yesterday. I haven’t had time to advertise.”
“Well then, that’s good, that’s good,” the doctor said and began fanning himself enthusiastically, as though in celebration of something.
Discerning now the purpose for their call, she looked at Mr. Rainwater. He sat leaning slightly forward with both feet on the floor. His black shoes were shined, she noticed. His thick, dark hair was smoothed back off his face, but one strand, as straight and shiny as a satin ribbon, had defiantly flopped over his broad forehead. His cheekbones were pronounced, his eyebrows as sleek and black as crows’ wings. He had startling blue eyes, and they were steady on her.
“Are you interested in lodging, Mr. Rainwater?”
“Yes. I need a place to stay.”
“I haven’t had a chance to give the vacant room a thorough cleaning, but as soon as it’s ready, I’d be happy to show it to you.”
“I’m not particular.” He smiled, showing teeth that were very white, although slightly crooked on the top. “I’ll take the room as is.”
“Oh, I’m afraid I couldn’t let you have it now,” she said quickly. “Not until I’ve aired the bedding, scrubbed everything, polished the floor. I have very high standards.”
“For boarders or cleanliness?”
“Which is why I’ve brought him to you,” the doctor said hastily. “I told Mr. Rainwater that you keep an immaculate house and run a tight ship. To say nothing of the excellent meals your boarders enjoy. He desires a place that’s well maintained. A peaceful and quiet house.”
Just then, from the direction of the kitchen, came a terrible racket followed by a bloodcurdling scream.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Rainwater includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Ella Barron runs her Texas boardinghouse with an efficiency that ensures her life will be kept in perfect balance. When a new boarder moves in—the soft-spoken, insightful Mr. Rainwater—that careful balance is upset in ways that Ella could never have predicted. Faced with the challenges of rearing her autistic son alone and surviving the hardships imposed by economic crisis, the last thing Ella needs is an additional burden. But from Mr. Rainwater she learns a bittersweet truth—that love is worth whatever price one must pay for it.
1. What qualities does Ella Brown possess? What is her greatest strength? What is her greatest weakness? Which qualities are inherent and which do you attribute to her situation in life?
2. Rainwater is set in Depression-era Texas. What details does Brown use to create atmosphere? How does the setting affect the action of the story?
3. It’s clear from the beginning that Ella wants to prevent Solly’s odd behavior from being misunderstood and ridiculed, and to avoid a situation which would result in his being taken away from her and institutionalized. Why does Ella reject the advice of Dr. Kincaid and Mr. Rainwater? Is maternal love impeding her from making a decision.
4. Mr. Rainwater is an outsider, which automatically makes him an object of speculation and curiosity. Why does he want to keep his illness and his affluence a secret? What clues to both did you find? Did you have any unanswered questions about him?
5. The small-town grapevine plays a dramatic role in the story. Discuss the ways in which it was beneficial, and ways in which the effects of gossip were damaging. Would the story have unfolded differently had it been set in a larger city? How so?
6. The financial strain of the era influences the actions of the characters. How does Brown portray the dire straits of the poor? Did the kindness and charity of Ella, Margaret, and others surprise you?
7. The showdown between Conrad Ellis’s gang and the hungry mob is a pivotal scene. The actions and dialog of each character reveal much about that character. What is each party trying to protect or gain? Who is right and who is wrong?
8. Discuss how the relationship between Ella and Rainwater evolves from that of landlady and boarder into a loving one. How would you describe their relationship? Both of these characters are coping with a personal calamity—how does that influence their behavior toward each other? Would they have fallen in love had their circumstances not been as bleak?
9. What different kinds of prejudices did you find in the story and how were they expressed? Are there commonalities between the oppressed groups?
10. Describe the black community’s affection for Brother Calvin. What does he represent to them? Why is he so highly admired by people of both races?
11. Is Brother Calvin a hero? Is he a martyr? Are the qualities of a Depression-era hero different from a modern hero?
12. At the end of the novel, why does Mr. Rainwater take responsibility for Solly’s actions? Was he protecting Solly or punishing himself? Did his health or love for Ella factor into the decision? Is he a hero?
13. The novel is framed as a flashback. Did this add to the suspense?
14. Except for the prologue and epilogue, every scene is told from Ella’s point of view. Did you realize this as you were reading it? Did Brown do this intentionally? Why?
15. Do you see any parallels between the financial hardships then and those facing our nation now? How are they similar and how do they differ? In general, do people respond to differently now to setbacks than people who lived through the Great Depression did?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Explore the work of John Steinbeck—a novelist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his portrayal of the Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath. Visit the website of the National Steinbeck Center: http://www.Steinbeck.org
2. In Rainwater, Sandra Brown describes the delicious Southern meals cooked by Ella Barron. Create your own inspired feast by searching “Southern Recipes” on http://www.foodnetwork.com. Try “Hattie’s Fried Chicken” http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/throwdown-with-bobby-flay/hatties-southern-fried-chicken-recipe/index.html with “Traditional Biscuits” on http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/emeril-lagasse/traditional-southern-biscuits-recipe2/index.html
3. Learn more about Sandra Brown on her website: http://www.sandrabrown.net/
A Conversation with Sandra Brown
1. What was your inspiration for this novel?
A vivid memory of my father’s childhood occurred when he was about eight years old. His father, my grandfather, had a showdown with armed federal agents who arrived at his dairy farm demanding that he pour out milk he couldn’t sell because of an over-supplied market. My grandfather refused to waste good milk when so many families in the area were going hungry. Gun-toting relatives backed him up, and eventually the agents retreated. No shots were fired, but it was a tense situation that obviously made a lasting memory for my father. My grandfather continued giving away his surplus milk.
I also wanted to write about a fiercely independent and unhappy woman who is taught how to live by a man who is dying.
2. How was writing a historical novel different from the suspense novels you regularly write?
Writing Rainwater was a refreshing change of pace . . . a change of everything, in fact. Typically I have a fairly good grip on the plot of a suspense novel before I set about writing it. I must know beforehand how the mystery ultimately will be solved. With Rainwater, I began with Dr. Kincaid bringing David Rainwater to Ella’s door and then let the story unfold on its own.
3. How did your background as a Texan influence this novel?
Both sets of grandparents lived in the small Texas town that I used as my model for Gilead. When I was a little girl, it was a big treat to walk from their houses to “town” to get their mail from the post office or to pick up something from the grocery store, which was exactly like Mr. Randall’s. I was always fascinated by the stories my grandparents and parents told of surviving the Depression. For instance, my maternal grandfather worked on the Katy railroad. He made forty-eight dollars a month – and twelve of it paid the rent on the railroad-owned house in which the family lived. He supported a wife and five children on thirty-six dollars a month. Yet they were a happy, loving family. Those hard times didn’t make them bitter; it made them appreciative and strong.
4. Did you research the era before you set out writing? If so, what sources did you consult?
Yes, a lot of research was required, particularly into the various government programs – when they went into effect, when they were actively being carried out. The stories that were most wrenching were eyewitness accounts of livestock being shot, not just in Texas but in many plains states. Sometimes it was an entire herd; other times it was the family milk cow. People alive today remember how devastating it was to watch that heart-wrenching slaughter. I used the Internet for newspaper stories and tapped into various libraries to read journals and printed transcripts of interviews.
5. Did you feel a connection between yourself and Ella—as a woman or a mother?
As both. I fell as deeply in love with Rainwater as Ella did. As a mother, my heart ached for her. I could appreciate how terribly Solly’s rejection of her touch must have hurt. I get my feelings hurt when the kids don’t call! How horrible it must have been for Ella each time her son rebuffed her affections.
6. Have you had personal experience with prejudice? How did that affect your writing?
Again, I reference my grandfather, the railroad man. During the Depression, one of the men who worked on his crew, a black man, owed him some trifling debt. But he was unable to pay it. One day he came to my grandfather’s back door with a hen and offered it as payment. My grandfather said, “That’s a fine chicken, and I’ll accept it, but only if you bring it to me through the front door.” The lesson passed down from him through my mother was that everyone deserved to be treated with “front door” dignity.
7. What inspired your idea to make Solly an “idiot savant”?
This will sound strange, and probably a bit cheeky, but it wasn’t an idea that was inspired. That’s just what Solly was. I didn’t know it until he spilled the starch and had his violent fit. It was as surprising to me as it was to Rainwater, who witnessed his autistic behavior for the first time. Then, having researched autism and knowing how misunderstood it would have been during that time period, I realized how well it played into the story.
8. Did the current economic climate influence your novel at all?
That was rather a bizarre coincidence. I began writing Rainwater before the full impact of the recession had been felt, or even forecast.
9. Do you have any plans for another book? If so, what will it be about?
I’ve been requested to write another book in the vein of Rainwater. I’m seriously considering it. I’d very much like to if a story compels me the way this one did, and if the timing is right.
10. Your descriptions of Ella’s Southern cooking were so detailed—are you a cook yourself? If so, what are your favorite recipes?
I’m no cook, but I love to eat. Usually food tastes best when there isn’t a recipe, just a cook who knows what foods and seasonings go well together. I love the “country food” like I described in the book, because that’s what I grew up eating. Southern cooking isn’t healthy by today’s standards, but it’s delicious, mostly because of the liberal use of bacon grease for flavoring. And we put gravy on everything!
11. Solly’s brother refuses to sell his watch—a family heirloom from his father Mr. Rainwater. Are there any family relics or antiques that you hold onto?
My grandmother’s wedding ring, a solid gold band. Sacrificially, I think, my mother gave it to me. Whenever I wear it, I feel both of them with me.