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Root, Petal, Thorn

Root, Petal, Thorn

by Ella Joy Olsen


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"Provocative in the way it explodes and expands the category of historical fiction." —Salt Lake Tribune

In this beautifully written and powerful debut novel, Ella Joy Olsen traces the stories of five fascinating women who inhabit the same  historic home over the course of a century—braided stories of love, heartbreak and courage connect the women, even across generations.
Ivy Baygren has two great loves in her life: her husband, Adam, and the bungalow they buy together in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Salt Lake City, Utah. From the moment she and Adam lay eyes on the  home, Ivy is captivated by its quaint details—the old porch swing, ornate tiles, and especially  an heirloom rose bush bursting with snowy white blossoms.  Called the Emmeline Rose for the home’s original owner, it seems yet another sign that this place will be Ivy’s happily-ever-after…Until her dreams are shattered by Adam’s unexpected death.
Striving to be strong for her two children, Ivy decides to tackle the home-improvement projects she and Adam once planned. Day by day, as she attempts to rebuild her house and her resolve, she uncovers clues about previous inhabitants, from a half-embroidered sampler to buried wine bottles. And as Ivy learns about the women who came before her—the young Mormon torn between her heart and anti-polygamist beliefs, the Greek immigrant during World War II, a troubled single mother in the 1960s—she begins to uncover the lessons of her own journey. For every story has its sadness, but there is also the possibility of blooming again, even stronger and more resilient than before…

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496705624
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 08/30/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Ella Joy Olsen lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, in a century old brick bungalow with her husband and three children. She has spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library system (and even more years browsing the stacks), and is a member of Women's Fiction Writers and the best book club ever, (SLC Bibliophiles). Visit her website at, follow her on Twitter at @ellajoyolsen, and find her on Facebook.

Read an Excerpt

Root, Petal, Thorn

By Ella Joy Olsen


Copyright © 2016 Ella Joy Olsen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4967-0563-1



Downington Avenue

The sound was only mildly alarming, a persistent non-menacing scratch like bare branches against thin glass on a blustery December night. But it wasn't winter, the covers had been kicked to my ankles, and the house was July-muggy.

I reached over and tapped the mattress near my husband's head to wake him, knowing without opening my eyes our raccoon was back and nesting in the attic. Typically, it took both of us to triangulate her stealthy movements among the rafters, then come morning, we could easily locate her cozy mound of shredded cloth and insulation. We had a routine. With elbow-length gloves and face protection, Adam would catch the hissing female and lock her in our old puppy crate. If there were babies, I would hand him a towel I'd heated in the dryer, and he'd bundle her masked kits for transport. Together we'd drive them back into the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains near our home. There we'd shake the mama out of the cage (again), run for cover, and admonish her through the open windows of the minivan to stay in the woods where she belonged, or the next time we'd be forced to take more drastic measures.

I leaned closer to his sleeping form and whispered so my voice wouldn't muffle the sounds of the creature in the attic. "Adam, she's back. Listen."

The response was a lolling lick, wetting me from finger to forearm. Recoiling, I gasped, "Oh, God, Chloe. What are you doing on the bed?"

Wiping dog slobber onto the quilt, I foggily tried to recall Adam's whereabouts. Was this the bar convention in Sun Valley? Or that deposition he'd scheduled in Denver? And then with a nauseating punch I sat up in bed, hand to my mouth. Knowing. I glared at Chloe, willing her night-blurry canine silhouette to be my husband. But it wasn't. Her fringed tail thumped once against the mattress in response to my flinty stare. She sighed, perhaps in sympathy, and laid her head back on the pillow.

Sliding from the bed to the floor, moaning lightly with each breath, I reached under the skirt for the box I knew was there, all the while pleading it into nonexistence. But the tips of my fingers found the cardboard container my brother Stephen used to bury the items I couldn't look at, not even for a second. He was certain I'd want them someday. But I didn't. I didn't ever want them to be there, because if they were under the bed it meant —

"No, no, no, no, no," I whispered softly, my voice quivering as I tugged at the lid. "Please be empty, please be empty." I willed it with my words even as I recognized the intimately familiar contents. Lifting the red T-shirt, threadbare at neck and hem, I breathed in the lingering smell of laundry detergent and sweat, swiping at my cheeks with my shoulder so tears wouldn't tarnish the precious item. My heart was pounding behind my forehead, blurring the remaining contents as I groped inside the box with shaking hands. His gym shoes had been placed at the bottom, as free from impact as the morning he last tied them to his feet, and his socks, still crunchy from his run, were tucked inside. Holding the crumpled pair to my nose, they smelled antiseptic, like the floor of a hospital, but I inhaled until my lungs groaned with the effort.

"Where are you?" I whispered into the dark, imploring him to respond. Silence answered me. After shedding my pajama top I slipped into the worn red cotton, the last shirt he'd worn. We'd purchased it together, more than fifteen years earlier, high from cheap beer and victory after one of the best football games in all our years at the University of Utah. Late-season golden leaves swirled under our feet as we walked across campus to our apartment, swinging through the bookstore to buy it. Warmed from exhilaration, he'd stripped from the sweatshirt he'd worn that day and, boldly bare-chested, switched into the new shirt, his boyish abs turning to chicken skin with a rush of October air. Later that afternoon, he'd abandoned it in the corner of our newlywed bedroom, his skin smooth and warm against mine, pressed together under the down comforter.

I crossed my arms at the thought of him and crushed my hands into the sinew of my shoulders until my fingers ached. Embraced once again against the chest of my husband, I curled onto the floor and slept.

* * *

Porter was close to my face, his nose nearly touching mine, and his breath was tinged with his regular breakfast of Cheerios and chocolate milk. He jumped back as I opened my eyes, and I noticed the snail trail of slick tears across his cheeks. "Mom? Are you getting up? It's after lunchtime and ..."

I willed myself to look at him, to answer, to stand. But his eyes, the almond shape of them, the arc of his brow, though he was only eleven, they were Adam's. I pressed my lids together, shutting him out.

"I'm calling Uncle Stephen." Naomi's voice came from the kitchen, shrill and worried.

"She moved a second ago," Porter said. "Let me shake her again." He touched my arm, fingers cold and tentative.

Naomi's voice found me, speaking loudly from the kitchen. "She's on the floor in his shirt and she hasn't moved all morning. Yes, she's breathing, but ..." Her voice hitched the way it always did before she cried, and I could picture her bottom lip curling up in the center, like a bow, looking like it did when she was a toddler and crying was a daily occurrence.

Go to her! I screamed silently. Every impulse pushed me toward my daughter, arms surrounding her with familiar comfort before she could feel pain, but I couldn't move.

Her sobbing was real now. She hadn't cried openly since she entered the teen years, but this morning she was sniffing like a child between words, her voice clogged with tears. "There's a pot of oatmeal on the stove. It's rotten, there's mold all over the inside. I think it's from that day!" My daughter was coming unraveled, but heaviness bound me to the carpet as surely as stones. My heart raced like it did when I was seven and my brother, Stephen, buried me in the sand at the beach, my legs and arms paralyzed, fighting against a brain begging me to Move!

"He says he's on his way," Naomi said to Porter, hanging up the phone. Relief swept over me at her muffled words. Stephen could fix me if I couldn't fix myself.

* * *

"Ivy." Stephen pushed stiff threads of hair from my face and, using gentle hands, he pulled me into a sitting positon. "I wondered if this might happen." My brother crouched next to me still in his scrubs. "It's been a month, and until now, I haven't seen a single tear."

"If I cried, it would mean he was really gone." I spoke quietly, telling my brother what I'd realized only hours earlier. "But Stephen, I don't think he's coming back."

"No, honey, he's not." My brother held me until I could lift my face from his shoulder. He looked older than he had moments earlier. He loved Adam too. "So what happened? The kids found the oatmeal, and you're in his shirt —"

"The oatmeal?" What was he talking about? And then I remembered pulling it from the back of the cupboard, where I'd stashed it weeks earlier. Last night, the midnight kitchen was inky black, the yellow Post-it reading "oatmeal for you" left from that morning still stuck to the lid of my red ceramic pot. "Where are the kids now?" I asked, suddenly alarmed. They shouldn't see me this way. I pulled my hands through my hair, embarrassed at the snarled mess.

"Porter has a couple of buddies over. They're in the basement playing Call of Duty, and I had Naomi walk over to Amber's for the evening."

"They've been so strong," I said. "But you know, I hear Naomi crying most nights after I close her door. I've tried to get her to talk with me, but she hides her sorrow because she's being strong for me. Stephen, I'm the mom. If I don't pull myself together I'm going to scare her. I'll scare them both."

Stephen stood from the balls of his feet and extended me a hand. "I think you should take a shower. Nothing like the thump of hot water to give you a little clarity. However, you're right, when you get out we need to come up with a plan. You know, I wasn't sure you'd need it, but there are medications that might help smooth this transition. I could even prescribe —"

I shook my head. "I don't want my memories dulled. I just need to — I don't even know what I need to do." Finally standing, my legs felt like I'd run a marathon. I leaned into Stephen's shoulder, a safe haven where I'd sought shelter more than once.

When we were children, my brother was usually the one to tuck in my shirt, point out Oreo stuck in my teeth, hand me a tissue and dry my tears — because Stephen was more than a regular big brother, he'd been my solid my whole life. More handsome than the best-looking doctor on a television hospital drama, face lined with compassion, sandy blond hair graying with gravitas at the temples — that was Stephen. Swoon-worthy, my girlfriends called him. When he came out after college, I swear there was a cry heard round the dating world. But secretly I loved that my big brother was gay because, no matter what I did, I would always be Stephen's best girl.

After the shower I put on a long cardigan and leggings. Though it was July, I was shivering. Lingering on each aspect I could recall of my husband, and torturing myself with the timeline of events on the day he died, took every drop of hot water plus at least ten minutes of ice pouring from the pipes to drive me from the bathroom. Stephen had changed into shorts and a shirt from Adam's closet and was sitting at the dining room table when I emerged.

"I thought you'd drowned in there. I beat Porter and his friends in a round of Call of Duty and had time for a cup of tea before I heard the water shut off."

"I think I have a fever." I pressed my thumbs into my eyelids.

Stephen put his hand to my forehead. "I wouldn't doubt it. It's amazing what the brain can do to the body." He removed his hand. "But you feel fine to me. Now sit." He slid his lukewarm tea toward me. "And let's talk about Adam."

"I can't talk about him like he's gone. Not yet." In quiet moments since my husband died, when I hadn't pasted on an I'm-doing-fine face, I'd catch myself staring out the window at the quiet street in front of my house, incredulous the ash trees canopying our front walk still held the same leaves, alive and verdant, the same ones that graced the branches the day he died. With something as momentous as his death, it seemed unfair the neighbors could drop by with lasagna and go on with their lives, backing down their drives and leaving for work like the world hadn't shifted. In every corner of our fixer-upper bungalow, abandoned tools were idle without his able hands. And the oatmeal I'd made that morning waited for him to return for breakfast.

"Stephen, help me." I slid my chin into my hands, pushing back the tears. "Tell me it's going to be fine, like you did when we were kids and I'd come crying into your room after a fight with so-and-so. Tease me, rationalize with me. Say something funny. I feel like I'm crumbling."

He was quiet for several minutes, then he spoke with a self-assured tone he'd assume when he was sure he was going to beat me at Monopoly, or he'd diagnosed the symptoms in a mystifying medical case. "Today, before I leave, we're going to make you a plan — a list to help you when you can't figure out the next step. Like the study chart you used for calculus, remember?"

"Calculus was my worst subject." I rested my head on my folded arms.

"But you passed."

"Only because you kept bugging me to study."

"Using the chart." He was smiling now, and I couldn't help but smile back. "Get some paper and a nice pen. We're making you a chart, or an action plan, or a list, or whatever you want to call it."

"If that's what the doctor orders," I said with false stubbornness, but I was actually fizzing. My list-making skills had always been my inflatable water wings in choppy waters, and at this point my head was above water. But just barely. I could really use a plan.

I handed him several sheets of my nicest stationery, a pale green with intertwined leaves. I bought it in bulk, because it was my name paper — Ivy. I put the pen next to the paper in front of him.

"No, you hold the pen," Stephen said. "These are your words and your commitment. I can't do this for you. I can only help you with the tools."

I uncapped the pen and held it over the paper. "What's first?"

"You tell me. Don't you have some articles on grieving, some self-help books? I swear I saw a stack someone brought over after the funeral."

Suddenly inspired, and wanting to show Stephen I still had a wobbling sense of humor, I wrote: #1: If one glass of wine isn't enough, pour another. Stephen slid the paper over so he could see it.

"Yes, drinking is a coping skill," he said seriously. "But maybe not the healthiest. However, you should list anything you think of." Stephen stood. "I'm making more tea, do you want some? And maybe I'll figure out dinner for the kids since you're currently occupied." He cocked his head toward the task before me.

I put pen to paper as Stephen clunked about in the kitchen. The tea was taking an eternity, and I figured he had the gas on low to give me time to think. Stephen called his partner, Drew, and speaking in a hushed voice, told him he wouldn't be home for dinner. I immediately thought of all the times Adam would call me from the office, telling me he'd be late. But he always came home.

I wrote my second step, half listening as Stephen asked Porter and his buddies what they'd like on their pizza. Porter came upstairs, and I knew from their whispers my son had been deflected from looking for me by his uncle. Stephen ordered the pizza and called Naomi, who, after a few minutes of chatting, appeared to decide to have dinner with Amber.

By the time he returned with a National Geographic, half read, and my cup of tea, I had five steps:

# 1: If one glass of wine isn't enough, pour another (I won't erase this — wine does help)

# 2: Surround yourself with things you love (I'm thinking my family and my home)

# 3: Find a deeper meaning (not sure about this one, but it sounds good)

# 4: Get the dog to sleep on his side of the bed (Chloe started sleeping on his side after the funeral, which means I can immediately check something off)

# 5: Never forget (not sure if this is a step to recovery, but I must never forget Adam)

Stephen read the list slowly. "This is a good start," he finally said. "But I have at least one more suggestion."

"Okay," I agreed. Writing this list felt like reaching my arm out of the deep end of the pool and finding a ladder. Knowing I could use the rungs to hoist myself out of the water — still a little ungainly, but possible. I would write anything he suggested.

"One question first. Is 'get the dog to sleep on his side of the bed' even a skill?"

"If you've ever awakened from a dream, only to realize your perfectly alive dream-husband is actually dead, you'd understand. It comforts me to bury my hands in Chloe's fur. It's silly, I know."

"Not silly. It stays," he said. "Now, don't get offended, but I'm going to add number six, 'Get your house in order.' I can see, like always, you and Adam were in the middle of several fix-it-up projects." He swept his arm around him, palm up, indicating the dining room was a perfect case in point. "But you can't leave them half done forever. It might help you through the denial part of grief to admit he won't be finishing them."

"But I don't know how —" I protested logistics.

"Come on. You're capable," Stephen said, as he added Step #6 in pen. "I've seen you work a power drill with as much proficiency as most construction workers. You just don't want to finish them. And if you need actual help, call a professional."

"But if I change things ..."

"Ivy, you know I'm not the one who will sell you a bunch of bullshit. Adam's death is one of the truest tragedies I've seen. And I've seen a few, but ..." Stephen gazed at the hardwood under the table as he spoke, his own eyes brimming. "He's not coming home and you can't live in a shrine. First, it's unhealthy; second, with kids, it's impossible. Start by putting away the tools." He pointed to the jigsaw, a stack of sandpaper, and a level sitting in a dusty pile in the corner of the dining room. "If you clean up your house, you'll be able to see your way to the deeper issues. By the way, I like number three, 'Find a deeper meaning.' Let me know what you discover."

"Maybe I should move," I said, hoping for a reaction.

"Not a bad idea," he said slowly. "You and Adam put so much of yourselves into this place, it would be hard to leave, but maybe it would help." Stephen studied the corners of the room as he said it, likely remembering the days he spent helping Adam rewire the dining room and kitchen. He had memories here as well.


Excerpted from Root, Petal, Thorn by Ella Joy Olsen. Copyright © 2016 Ella Joy Olsen. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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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