Refuge: A Novel

Refuge: A Novel

by Dot Jackson

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“An intensely readable novel of the complexity of family ties . . . Dot Jackson is a true Southern voice, a master storyteller and an Appalachian treasure” (Dori Sanders, author of Clover and Her Own Place).
Early one morning in 1929, Mary Seneca Steele spontaneously packs a suitcase, gathers up her son and daughter, and drives away in her abusive and dissolute husband’s brand-new Auburn Phaeton automobile leaving her privileged life in Charleston behind. It is the beginning of a journey of enlightenment that leads Mary “Sen” to the mountains and mysteries of Appalachia where she will learn unexpected family secrets, create a new life for herself and her children, and finally experience love and happiness before tragedy will once again test her.
Written by Pulitzer Prize–nominated author, Dot Jackson has spun a story that will captivate readers looking for an entertaining saga of self-discovery, family, love, loss, and redemption.
Refuge is a wonderful story about the need to find one’s place in the world—and the price paid to remain there. With her narrative gift and keen ear for Appalachian speech, Dot Jackson gives her readers a beautifully rendered portrait of a lost time and place.” —Ron Rash, author of Serena and The Cove

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781635763423
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication date: 12/12/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 420
Sales rank: 3,408
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Dot Jackson was born to Appalachian parents in Miami, where she later gave up her college studies of music and dance to become a writer. Her work garnered Jackson several Pulitzer Prize nominations and a National Conservation Writer of the Year award. She also has collaborated on several acclaimed books of nonfiction.

Read an Excerpt



I THANK YOU THAT YOU'RE HERE, BELOVED BIRD. WE NEED TO HAVE A talk. There's something in the wind — I've not ever had such a feeling as has come over me today. I was sitting here sewing on this baby quilt a while ago; you were out fishing, tearing up ducks, whatever — which I thank you also for eating outside. Feathers and bloody mess scattered all over is not what we need this evening, on account of what I am about to tell you.

Which is, well, I don't quite know. A while ago I made this little fire. I go down for wood and I see it is running out, which is the first time that has happened, that it's not stovewood enough I'd say to get us through a week. And when the wind blew so hard a shower of rocks fell down the chimney; I know we ought not to use this fireplace but it got so chilly I was cold to my bones. That wind!

I get the fire going and I sit down here and must have, just a little bit, dozed off to sleep. And that old mournful wind howling down the gap, moaning in the hemlocks, playing the deep strings.

And I hear Isolde singing.

Now, I've heard plenty of strange singing on this place; heard it down the chimney, and out amidst the briers. But this was something else again. Nothing like that other. I've not heard Isolde in I guess thirty years, and now she wakes me with a jolt. Oh, it was glorious. I woke up with the tears just streaming.

First thing I thought, "It's my mother." Aw, no — my mother is lying dead for years and years, somewhere in France, beside that last old man she married — the tenor. I never can bring back his name.

Fact is, when I thought about it, my mother never was this good a singer. She tried. She aspired. But beside this she'd sound like a wind-up canary. And now it dawns on me: it's Pet. It's my daughter. Although you would never put us together. Pet is big-boned and blond — big chest. She has this Isolde voice my mother would have died for. And I bet she has (excuse me) pissed it away, in that snobby Episcopal choir. Maybe this was just the ghost of dead possibility.

Whatever else, my dear friend, it is a sign.

You have never seen my daughter but I think that's fixing soon to change. She has been real put out with me for quite some time, as I have probably told you. She thinks it is not civilized the way I live. I am an embarrassment, a family disgrace. The crazy old woman.

Can't say as I blame her. But since I put my dimestore glasses down somewhere I can't see to write worth a toot. If that nice old guy can't get up here with his logging truck, I can't get any mail and can't send any. I know it's been at least a month now. And Pet's off down there in Charleston with her step-ins in a wad.

Odds on, it's her all right, in my dream. I'll give you ten to one she's out there, wroth as the Queen of the Night, rolling this way. Pet and her sweet, fat man are in their big car, heading for a showdown. And this time I may be just too spent to fight her. Plus, she's got reason to act up. Last letter I got I made out that she is fixing to have another baby, at way past forty and her two girls nearly grown. Didn't sound thrilled. Maybe she does need me. Do you think I'm too absolutely crazy to be of any use?

Which brings up the saddest point: this may be goodbye for us, my dearest, best bird. You can have no notion what your companionship has meant to me. It is not just the fish and rabbits and things that you have brought to keep me alive. It's not just that you've literally saved my life more ways than one. All that was certainly a blessing these last years. That and having something live, something wise and kind as you to talk to. Without you I think I might have lost the power of speech. Maybe the rest of my mind, too.

Now, whether or not I wish it — and I can't say whether truthfully I do or do not — a change is on the wind. If you come home one evening soon and find your window closed, please understand a rumpus is going on, and just go on back into the birch grove, and make your life where my heart will always be.

What I have to think of, from this moment, is what I'm going to say to humankind. How will I explain a lot of things? Down in Charleston I have two granddaughters that I do not know at all. And another baby coming. Folks in high society. What will they make of this old wraith? What on earth do I say to them?

By their lights, nothing but softening of the brain would bring someone back up here to live this way. And they don't know the half of it. Am I to tell them why? Am I to tell them what it was I did? Bird, I did a dreadful thing. I came here desperate, and I thought my heart would break for the love of what I found. And then I would not rest until I destroyed it.

And you want to hear the worst? I would do it again. Oh yes, oh yes, I would do it. God forgive my soul, but I don't think I could help it.

Now, how am I going to put this so those girls will not despise me? And it still be every bit the truth? Go on to sleep, beloved. I have to study about this. I have to think.



I SAW THIS PLACE FOR THE FIRST TIME WHEN I WAS NEARLY middle- aged. The reason why it took so long was a bitter pill to swallow: the bare idea that I might belong here just mortified my mother. What is so strange now is seeing the thing played out again, with my own child and her children. Which seems to be the way. Kind of like a mechanical fountain, same old water under the bridge, again and again.

My daddy was Ivan McAllister Steele, born here in this house, like all the Caney Valley Steeles except me. Like none of the others, my daddy left. All the same he loved this house. Talked to me about it while he rocked me on our piazza, watching ships go out to sea. Of course, even little, I wondered why he left so magical a place, or why he never took us and went home. But he would never say, directly.

My mother explained it for him once. "There is nothing there for anyone who has ambition and intelligence," she said. Her nose tilted up when she said things like that. My daddy just raised his eyebrows and smiled a little smile at me. He knew what he was dealing with, with Mama. She had no idea what she was dealing with, in him.

She called him "Mackey." I did too — it was probably the first word I ever said, and if it bothered him he never did let on. He was a quiet man. Big tall handsome man. He had an open, good-hearted sort of face, broad and strong at the chin, wise about the eyes. If something got his goat you hardly ever knew it; he kept his feelings — hard ones, especially — to himself. I suspect that bored my mother. He seemed to have another life inside his head that she would never get to; that's why she kept clawing and hammering away. Better she should hurt him, to her way of thinking, than to be shut out.

My father was an artist. He built sailing ships, in his Charleston dry docks. His office had windows that opened on the Cooper River, nearly at the sea. It smelt of leather and salt air and smoke; it had paintings on the walls of schooners with their big sails full of wind; and a model of a clipper in a five-gallon jug up on a stand. His desk was always covered up with diagrams of whatever the carpenters were working on. People came to him, fishermen and sportsmen and people dripping with money; they brought their dreams and watched them materialize, first on paper, from his pen, and then in wood, from the ribs out, in the yards.

How he chose to go that route he never told me. He went away from here to go to college. When he left here for the last time he went into the Navy. He must have been stationed at Charleston because somehow he got to know the owners of the yacht works. It was an old business, not tremendous in the way of the big shipyards, but very particular, very respected. Eventually he ran it and was part owner. When he died, somebody took down the brass plate from his office door that said IVAN MCALLISTER STEELE, PRESIDENT, and gave it to Mama. It ended up in my little cedar box of very private things, with the rainbow-dyed hair ribbons and dried gardenia buds.

I know one thing was so: he had to be making money when he married Mama. He bought her a big house SOB, "south of Broad," the southern part of Charleston where the only poor folks were the ones that waited on the rich.

My mother's entire concept of the earth was SOB. No, that's not quite true — her parents left her the house on James Island where she was raised, but that didn't do much to broaden her perspective. Her father was a lawyer who never worked at it a lot; he spent thirty-two years in the state legislature.

My Charleston grandfather's name was Henry Seneca Twyning. I never knew him except by his portrait, ruddy and hook-nosed and stout and stern, in his gray waistcoat, with a whoosh of fine white hair making wings out from his temples. He was up in years when my mother was born; his first wife died childless when they were middle-aged, and he married an old maid, a German immigrant named Maria Hardmann, who had been his first wife's nurse.

I remember Grandma Twyning just a little bit. She had some wasting disease that made her look even older than she was; she sat on pillows in her chair with a shawl over her lap and had her hair braided and knotted up so tight it looked like agony, to me. Her face was thin and sharp, her eyes were dull blue and clouded under the hoods of papery-thin eyelids. She was like a fragile, sweet old bird. I am not sure she ever knew me.

My mother was Natalie Twyning, those two old people's only child, brought up by ancient aunts and nursemaids to be one of the belles of Charleston. She was a little spoiled. It would make her very mad when my father told somebody how he had met her — so it pleasured him to tell it, several times. Before he got married, Mackey lived at Miss Charnley's Residence Hotel. Miss Charnley had a butler named Campbell Hillhouse, a virtuous mortal if one ever drew breath, but out of Miss Charnley's reach he sure could pick the banjo. I need to say that whatever else my father did, what he did the best was fiddle. He and Camp Hillhouse made a friendship that lived as long as they did. In the evenings after supper, Camp retired to one black alley or another, where he was kin to people who played music. Mackey took to going with him.

One rainy night real late they were in a buggy coming home from one of these events, and they came upon a surrey that was down with a broken axle. There was a young couple in it, coming all dressed up from a fancy party. The gentleman didn't want to get wet and dirty so they had been sitting there for quite some time when Camp and Mackey stopped to help. Well the young man may be there yet, but the lady was annoyed and ready to go home. Camp was always skinny; he scrooched down on the footboard, at Mackey's feet, and gave the girl his seat. Mackey had his funny little fiddle case beside him, and she noticed.

My daddy teased her about it ever after; he would put on this high voice with dimples in it and say, "Oh, sir! You play the VIOLIN!" Well, no, Mackey didn't "play the violin" — he was a fiddler. But that was lost on her.

"After a fashion," he said to her.

It was only the polite thing that when he had escorted her to her door and safely into the care of her mother, she invited him to a recital the next Saturday. She was going to sing. To refuse her anything at all would have been rude and cruel.

Seven weeks later, they were married in the Twynings' parlor. The bride was barely eighteen, round and blond and extremely pretty, with half a bloodline blue as indigo. The groom was well past thirty, a fine- looking man as silent as he was clearly solvent. But he was also from a family and a place on the dark edge of the universe, so far from SOB that if either his home or his family might be shown to actually exist, on a map somewhere, it would still be of no consequence at all.

These were my parents. The only thing they ever had in common was me. When I was born, a year after that wedding, Mama named me Mary Seneca, for her mother and daddy.

In one thing, my daddy had his way. Before he brought my mother into their new house, he sent for Camp Hillhouse and his wife, Mittie, to come live in the servants' quarters, on the alley. Aunt Mit began to wait on Mama and do the cooking. Uncle Camp actually ran the house and did everything else for us.

Secretly, Mackey and Uncle Camp played a game between them that I dearly loved. My mother went to lots of teas and meetings of the Daughters of the Confederacy and sang for something at the Episcopal Church every time the doors were opened. Mackey would drive her anywhere she wished to go, then find pressing business elsewhere until it was time to pick her up. The "business" was most always in our kitchen.

As soon as Mama was safely delivered, Camp would come trotting in the kitchen door with his banjo in a croaker sack and Mackey would get his "violin" and the stolen Culture Hour would get underway. Oh, it was wonderful. Camp wore a grin, the livelong time, flashing his gold tooth. Mackey's face would give off light like he was seeing Heaven. He wouldn't let Mit put me to bed till time to go get Mama. "It's the only chance she'll ever have," he said one time. There was something sad about the way he said it.

What we did, those nights, was dance. In a certain way. "Now pretend you and me are up at Caney Forks, and this is a Saturday night," he would say. And he would get Camp to pick "Bile Them Cabbage Down," and he would hold my hands in his, expecting me to follow. "Don't go braggin' this around the neighborhood," he'd say behind his hand. "And don't show it off to your mama."

She must have caught on about it; she at least suspected. Not long after I started to school, a woman came to town and set up a dancing studio. She called herself "Madame Alexandra." Mama sent me to her. The first day, Camp drove Aunt Mit and me over in the carriage. Mit went in with me. On the way back, after I had spent an hour with some other little girls squatting and waving my arms, one of us was as mystified as the other.

Mit sat with her mouth poked out and finally she said, "What kine a' dancin' do 'e be, when 'e ain' fuh make no noise?" We decided not to ask my mother that question, lest she ask us some. The last thing I ever wanted to do in all my life was to cause Mackey Steele any more trouble than I knew by instinct that he had already.

If it was not over one thing, it was over something else. One thing that drew brimstone from my mother was what he called "valley talk." It was the primary language of Big Caney; he spoke it comfortably to Camp, who talked so comfortably to him in Gullah. Each fully understood by the other. It was a language that probably would have slowly died, at our house, if "valley talk" had not come so easily to me.

Oh, my. She would catch us. One time, I must have been four or five, Mackey was helping me get ready to go to Sunday School. And I said to him, "I ain't a-goin' to wear them old white shoes that pinches."

Mama was standing in the door. She glared at him. "I had hoped," she said, "that my child would never have to KNOW that she is half po' buckra — much less show it." Mackey didn't swat her. Don't know why; he just looked bland and amused and went on pulling up my socks.

But she won. I never saw this valley or any of my father's "buckra" family until I had two children of my own. My mother never saw it. Her vision of it was enough: it was a foul, incestuous backwoods place, diseased and preyed upon by wolves and bears, landlocked and ignorant and so far from the crab-pots that no dinner could possibly be safe. Wilderness, dreadful, like in the Bible. A dwelling place of savages.

Mackey had a different idea of what was Wilderness.

IN THE EVENINGS he would hold me close to him, we would rock and watch the ships move up and down the channel, watch the gulls dipping for their supper, flocking and circling in the sundown light. What I loved the best was the stories he would tell. Sometimes he would need, I think, to tell about what all he had loved and left behind.

Big Caney River was something mystical to him. He was raised in the big woods up and down this river. I had never seen such woods as these; I had never seen a swift, clear river you could play in and not think of dark things lurking at the bottom. All of that was twice as wondrous to me. So were the people. He talked about his mother — it seemed to please him that I looked like her, even if Mama did call me "my little darkie" because I had black hair.

Mackey's father was a great fiddler; his name was Ben Ivan Steele. His mother's name was Daisy and she had a sister named Panama. With the accent in the middle. Pa-NAM-a. I thought that was funny. I thought it was funny about the old woman that climbed out on the roof and crowed to wake the roosters, every morning, and the little boy that sneaked out in his long nightgown at night to ride bareback on his daddy's fire-breathing dragon of a mare. Oh law, I envied that little boy; I envied the freedom and the daring.


Excerpted from "Refuge"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Dot Jackson.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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