Sean Dietrich—also known as Sean of the South—weaves together a humorous and heartfelt tale about the dignity of humanity and the value of enduring hope.
One child preacher traveling across the plains.
One young woman with a mysterious touch.
Two old friends, their baby, and their bloodhound.
And all the stars that shine above them.
When fifteen-year-old Marigold becomes pregnant amid the Great Depression, she is rejected by her family and forced to fend for herself. And when she loses her baby in the forest, her whole world turns upside down. She’s even more distraught upon discovering she has an inexplicable power that makes her both beautiful and terrifying—and something of a local legend.
Meanwhile, migrant workers Vern and Paul discover a violet-eyed baby and take it upon themselves to care for her. The men soon pair up with a widow and her two children, and the misfit family finds its way in fits and starts toward taking care of each other.
As survival brings one family together, a young boy finds himself with nary a friend to his name as the dust storms rage across Kansas. Fourteen-year-old Coot, a child preacher with a prodigy’s memory, is on the run with thousands of stolen dollars—and the only thing he’s sure of is that Mobile, Alabama, is his destination.
As the years pass and a world war looms, these stories intertwine in surprising ways, reminding us that when the dust clears, we can still see the stars.
Praise for Stars of Alabama:
“Sean Dietrich has given us an absolute treasure of a novel . . . Dietrich is an author who understands the hidden landscape of a soul; his voice both clear and authentic. The separate storylines are vivid and distinct yet they also move inexorably closer to each other in a world both cruel and beautiful. Healing and hope come alive in these characters, allowing it to come alive in us.” —Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis
“Sean Dietrich—you already love him. Prepare to love him even more for giving you this story—Stars of Alabama—the characters, human and canine, that will sew themselves to your very heart.” —Jill Conner Browne, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sweet Potato Queens series
“Sean Dietrich has woven together a rich tapestry of characters—some charming, some heartbreaking, all of them inspiring. Stars of Alabama is mesmerizing, a siren’s call that holds the reader in a world softly Southern, full of broken lives and the good souls who pick up the pieces and put them back together into a brilliant, wondrous new mosaic full of hope.” —Dana Chamblee Carpenter, award-winning author of the Bohemian Trilogy
- Stand-alone historical novel set in the twentieth century
- Book length: approximately 98,000 words
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, podcaster, speaker, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, The Bitter Southerner, Thom Magazine, and The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored ten books. Visit Sean online at seandietrich.com or @seanofthesouth on Instagram.
Read an Excerpt
Paul Foldger listened to Louisville bark. The dog's black-and-tan fur dripped with water that had turned her hair curly. The dog had been swimming in Rabbit Creek all morning. She loved to swim. Louisville was old, lean, all ears, long jowls, with some white around her snout.
The old girl howled for all she was worth, staring straight into the woods that sat behind the creek, which forked into the Mobile Bay. She was a tracking dog. The most obedient dog Paul had ever trained. If Paul would've told the dog to build a ten-foot-tall sandcastle, Louisville would've gone hunting for a shovel and bucket.
The morning air had an oyster taste to it. Not like a fresh oyster; more like a horrible canned oyster, the kind Paul's father ate. The air surrounding the bay always had that sort of taste. It was a smell that could gag a goat. A smell that only got worse when the weather got hot and the wind died. A day like today.
Louisville heard something. So did Paul. A high-pitched shriek cut the air. They listened to the screams together. Man and dog. Paul knew what Louisville was thinking. She wanted Paul to send her into the woods. But Paul was in no mood for tracking.
"Ain't nothing serious, Louise," said Paul. "Just simmer down."
They stood on a shore littered with brown seaweed where the creek began and the bay ended. The sand near the water's edge was so soft, a man's boots could sink halfway into the earth. Paul was up to his ankles in it.
He looked toward the bay, across the gray water, at the yellow grass that stretched sideways next to the great Mobile Bay. The morning sun was strong enough to fry your skin. Paul's pale face was freckled and ruined from a lifetime in this sunlight. He'd been a redhead long ago, before his hair turned white and the sun made his skin look like it was covered in buckshot.
Louisville barked. Though it was really more of a baying. Louisville was like most bloodhounds, she didn't bark. It was beneath her. Instead, she used her low voice, and it carried across the water, only to be interrupted by cicadas and crickets. The morning insect sounds were coming from all directions in swells. Loud, then soft. Loud. Soft. A man could get hypnotized if he closed his eyes.
"Quit it, Louise," said Paul. "Ain't got time for your yapping."
But Paul knew Louisville was never wrong. Paul was listening with his eyes closed and letting the sounds of the world swirl around him.
Vern stood straight and called down from the roof of the millhouse in the distance. "What's Lou barking about?"
"How should I know?"
Vern was the tallest black man Paul had ever known. And from high up on the roof where he stood, he looked like a portrait of John Henry, only skinnier.
Below the millhouse, the truck door was open so Vern could listen to the radio. It was Wednesday. Vern always listened to radio preaching on Wednesdays. And he listened to it at a volume that was loud enough to affect the weather. The sounds of a hollering voice from the tinny speaker competed with the baying from Louisville's throat. Her voice was as deep as that of a full-grown baritone man.
"Would you turn that radio off? Between that stupid preacher and Lou's barking, I can't hear nothing but hot air."
"Oh, sorry, Paul, I's sorry."
"Quit your sorryin', Vern. It's a bad habit."
Vern's bare feet gripped the roof while he walked. His lanky frame crawled the roofline like an acrobat. Paul watched him climb down, three rungs at a time. His sharp features made him look almost like a bronze statue. He lowered himself on the ladder and turned off the radio in the truck.
Vern stood beside Paul and cupped his ear. "What we listening for? Don't hear nothing."
"You wouldn't," said Paul. "You can't hear nothing."
"Exactly. That dadgum radio's made you deaf."
There was the sound again. It cut through the humidity.
Paul tugged Louisville's collar and said, "Okay, honey, I hear you." She stopped howling.
Then he looked across the creek one more time, making his ears as big as he could, like a dog would do. When he was a boy, his father used to say Paul was part dog. In some ways, this was true. Paul felt something kindred with the canine. And he had proven this by squandering his life breeding and training tracking dogs. It started as a boyhood hobby, but soon he was trailing escaped prisoners and missing children. And squirrels, foxes, and coons.
"Keep laying 'em shingles," yelled Paul. "I'd better go see what she's making a fuss about."
"You going into the woods alone?" Vern called back. "You's too old."
"Huh?" said Vern.
"I was askin' who you was callin' old," Paul hollered.
Vern was already unfastening his toolbelt. "I told you, I'll do it. Let me go."
"Now hold on, Vern. I ain't some old man. I was walking them woods before you were even a sniffle in your pa's nose."
"Better let me go, Paul. I's younger."
"You ain't that much younger."
Vern was at least twenty-five years Paul's junior.
"Something bad could happen to you out there, Paul. You could break a leg or somethin'."
"Vern, you stay where you is. Now that's an order."
"I said stay put," Paul hollered loud enough to break his own neck.
"Foot? Whose foot? Yours or mine?"
"You're either deaf or stubborn. I can't figure out which."
Vern ignored him and marched toward the woods in a straight line. Vern was middle-aged and quiet. But if it weren't for the gray on Vern's woolly temples, he would've seemed like a teenager. A stubborn teenager.
Louisville whimpered at Vern. She started trotting through the high grass toward the trees.
"Lou!" Paul hollered. "You stay here with me. If I can't go, then you can't go. We're a team."
Louisville paused to look at Paul. She was thinking about this. Then she glanced at Vern, who was moving farther away.
"Back here, girl." Paul clapped, then pointed at the ground by his feet. "Come here to me. Now."
Louisville was old. She had spent a lifetime doing whatever Paul told her. She blinked at him. Then she turned and followed Vern.CHAPTER 2
Louisville trotted ahead of Vern, pausing to sniff. She was a smart girl. Vern remembered when Paul had trained her as a puppy. The animal could track human scent and game — in the air or on the ground.
Louisville was getting white around her nose, and Vern could tell she wasn't as sharp as she used to be. She ran in hurried zigzags through the woods, looking, sniffing, sneezing, pawing, thinking, serious. Vern knew what she wanted. She wanted the praise that finding prizes would bring her. She wanted to come trotting out of the woods holding a dead squirrel in her mouth so that Paul would pat her head and say, "Good girl, Lou, good girl." Those three little words made Lou's whole life worth the trouble.
The high-pitched screaming cut the cricket noises. Vern didn't know which direction to walk, so he followed Rabbit Creek. He pointed his good ear toward the sound. He stopped every few steps to focus. He closed his eyes. The screams stopped.
The only sound he heard was a woodpecker smacking its nose against a tree. Maybe whatever was making the noise had gotten spooked and stopped hollering. Maybe it had worked itself free and escaped from whatever snare it was in. Or maybe it had died.
Vern thought about turning around and going back. But not Louisville. The old girl stopped and sniffed the air. She tilted her nose toward the sun and held her tail straight up.
The woodpecker made a sound again.
Louisville followed the bird sound. Then she took in more wind through her nose. She darted into the woods, head up, nose to the breeze, moving fast.
The morning sun was glaring at Vern. He could hardly see in the early light. He spotted the woodpecker making all the noise on a nearby limb. The bird was dotted with black spots and was blood red at the corners of its mouth with long, straight tail feathers. It opened its mouth and let out a loud sound, then flew away. He watched it soar above the trees, catching flashes of its red in the daylight.
Louisville lurched forward in a clumsy run. She ran like a dog who was ten years younger than she was.
Vern followed, moving as fast as his big legs would let him. He lost sight of Louisville in the green. He paused every few moments to listen for her baying, but none came.
So Vern stood in one place, waiting for a sound, cursing beneath his breath at his bad sense of hearing. He waited for nearly nineteen whole choruses of "Keep on the Sunny Side," watching the creek water before him move in strange patterns. He wanted to call for Lou, but that would've confused the dog. Besides, it didn't work that way. During a hunt, the dog calls you.
Then came howling.
He followed the sound. He saw something in the distance. Something big. A white square under the limbs of fat trees. Louisville was facing the white drop cloth slung over a low branch. It was a tent — the kind hobos used. Louisville howled louder when she saw Vern approaching.
He was moving slow, carrying a heavy pine branch he'd found, balancing it on his shoulder like a slugger. He didn't know what or who he was approaching. The last thing he wanted was to find unfriendly drifters who didn't care for his color.
He called out to them. "Hello!"
There was no answer.
"Anybody there?" said Vern. "We friendly."
"I'm friendly," Vern said again. "Ain't gonna hurt nobody."
When he neared the tent, Louisville was walking so close beside him she almost knocked him over. And then he saw it. The noise was coming from a little mouth.
Louisville wandered toward the child. She pressed her nose against the white, tiny thing that was squirming in a bed of pine needles. The baby's mop of orange hair was thick and messy. Its hands were outstretched. The child looked just like the sweet little Jesus Boy himself.
"Good girl, Lou," said Vern. "Good girl."CHAPTER 3
MARIGOLD THE MAGNIFICENT
She wasn't stealing. Or maybe she was. Marigold wasn't sure if this was, in fact, thievery, since this was her first time stealing. She'd never realized stealing was an actual skill until now. She had no idea it would be so difficult to behave naturally.
She grabbed two small sacks of pinto beans from the store shelf. She felt a charge travel through her body. A sickening jolt that made her hands tremble.
This was definitely not stealing. She was hungry, and that made it different. This was borrowing.
She glanced behind her, then stuffed the borrowed beans into her blouse.
The beans weighed more than she had thought they would. After adjusting the packages in her brassiere, her chest gained five inches on the left side. The lump in her blouse drooped halfway to her waist. She adjusted her renegade bosom, but it kept heading toward the floor.
She walked through the general store with careful steps and an unnatural smile on her face. She was larger than other fifteen-year-olds, and she was embarrassed by this. Her brothers had teased her about it. Her hips were too wide, her chest was too big, and her legs were thick around the ankles. God, in all his cruelty, had seen fit to top her off with a dollop of fire-red hair and freckles that looked like someone had rolled her in confetti.
Her brothers called her "Marigold the Magnificent," and she hated them for it. They might as well have called her the Great Wall of China. Her size, her skin, her hair were her curses.
"Why don't you go suck an egg!" she'd often advise her brothers just before she made a serious attempt to fracture important bones in their bodies. Mainly their ribs. Ribs were always a good choice. She almost broke her brother Tom's foot once by stomping on it. She hadn't meant to hurt him like that. But he never called her Marigold the Magnificent again.
Marigold had gotten bigger after she gave birth to Maggie. Her hips had become too big for the cotton dresses she wore. Her whole body had changed. In fact, she felt like a stranger in her own skin ever since Father had done the terrible thing he had done to her.
The baby had changed her. She had purple stretch marks on every part of her. When her milk came in, she got even bigger, and it made her feel like she was a household appliance from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.
She patted her brassiere, adjusting the beans. This was definitely not stealing. Stealing was what bad people did. She wasn't bad. When she wasn't breaking ribs or ankles, she was a good person. Honest, polite, courteous.
Without this food, Marigold would die in the woods, and what would happen to Maggie?
She wandered down the general store aisle. She let her fingers run along the canned goods on the shelves. She stopped at the canned herring and sardines. The hunger inside her was crippling. And she had strange cravings ever since she'd had Maggie. Pickles were at the top of her list. She caught herself dreaming about pickles sometimes. If she could've taken a bath in pickle juice, she would have.
And oysters, she craved those, even though she had only had them a few times in her life. She looked at the can of Acme Oysters. She wished she could smuggle them without being noticed, but her brassiere couldn't handle any more weight.
The man behind the counter was watching her. She could feel his eyes. A cigarette was between his lips and his arms were folded. "Do you need help?" he said.
"No, sir," she said.
The man's eyes didn't leave her. He only raised an eyebrow. "What're you looking for?"
"You must be hunting something. You've been pacing for nearly fifteen minutes."
The beans were tugging her collar downward. Her enormous chest was sinking. She wanted to leave the beans on the floor and run for the woods, head straight for Maggie. She wanted to forget all about this borrowing. She wanted to scoop her baby in her arms and get far away from this town and never come back.
But she stood still.
The man's face got harder. He removed his glasses. "Little girl, what's underneath your —"
She started for the door. She could feel the beans falling toward her ribs. She felt them slip past her belly. She made a strained face, willing the beans to stop sliding downward. A bag of beans dropped and plopped on the floor between her feet.
She ran as fast as she could.
He sprang after her. Caught her by the waist. To her horror, the man reached down her blouse and removed the remaining sack of beans. She moved by reflex. She heard a crack and was almost certain she'd broken his rib. He fell to the floor and held his side. His face was contorted with pain.
"Why, you thief!" he said, coughing. "You're trying to rip me off!"
"No, I'm not," she said. "I just wanted to try them out!"
She sprinted down the street. And she almost got away. But she ran face-first into a big man who was walking toward her. She collided with him so hard that she knocked him over and lost her balance.
"Stop her!" the store owner yelled.
The big man pinned Marigold to the ground. She spit at him until she ran out of saliva. "Go suck an egg!" she yelled.
"Get the sheriff!" the store owner hollered. "She's stealing."
"I wasn't stealing!"
When the store owner got near, the big man looked at Marigold with kind eyes. "If you behave, honey, I'll let you go," he said. "You promise to behave?"
Marigold could feel the sweetness in him. She could tell things about people that they didn't even know about themselves. It was a talent from her birth.
She nodded her head. "I swear I'll behave."
"Okay, then." The man let his weight off her and wore a sheepish look on his face. "I'm sorry if I hurt you, honey. Are you alright?"
She hit the man hard enough to break his ribs.
And that's how Marigold landed in jail for the night.CHAPTER 4
CHILD OF THE PLAINS
The Kansas prairie was wide and gold. And dry. The acres stretched for miles and miles, uninterrupted by even the smallest tree. The plains were hot and dusty. It was beautiful in some parts, but most areas were not. The scenery could be boring enough to drive a man nuts. The Kansan skies could get so blue they looked purple, and that was all a boy could see. Sky. Sky. And what's that in the distance? More sky.
Unless the dust storms were in the air. Then you couldn't see sky at all. In fact, you couldn't do anything but lock yourself in a closet with a wet rag over your face and pray. The dust could get so bad it killed young children. Child-sized caskets were common in this world. Dust pneumonia was killing kids, animals, and old people.
Fourteen-year-old Coot waited behind the canvas tent while the dust swirled in little drifts. It wasn't a bad storm. Only a minor sand storm. He thumbed through a pack of baseball cards. The last storm had been worse. It had destroyed parts of Deerfield. The wind was so hard it turned a car over on its side and ate the paint off the doors. Since then, the sky had been light blue, without clouds. But such pleasant skies never lasted for long.
The baseball cards came from Blake. It didn't matter which town they were preaching in, Blake always had a radio going or a newspaper unfolded in front of him. He was a baseball man, inside and out. He passed this weakness on to Coot.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stars of Alabama"
Copyright © 2019 Sean Dietrich.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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