“An epic story of war and peace, love and fear, family and friendship.”—Lori Nelson Spielman
In New York Times bestselling author Jacqueline Sheehan’s evocative and emotionally compelling novel, a mother and her adopted daughter each embark on a journey of self-discovery in the wake of a stunning revelation.
How do you keep a secret so huge that it could devastate everyone you care about? For Kate Malloy, the answer is simple: one lie at a time. That’s how she has protected her daughter for more than a dozen years, shielding her from a terrible truth. Sofia, a fifteen-year-old soccer star living in New England, believes she was born in Mexico and legally adopted by Kate. But a posthumous letter from her stepfather tells Sofia a different story—one of civil unrest and bloodshed, death-defying heroism and child-smuggling, harrowing sacrifice and desperate decisions.
Sofia’s trust in her mother is shattered. At last Kate must do what she knows is right—accompany Sofia back to Guatemala, the place where Kate found horror and heartache but also the greatest joy of her life. As mother and daughter confront the damage done by years of dangerous yet necessary deceptions, they discover how much love, hope, and happiness may still remain—if they have the courage to face their past.
“A searing tale of love and desperate acts set against a backdrop of surreal beauty and unspeakable cruelty. Enthralling, exhilarating.”—Suzanne Chazin
“Page-turning storytelling . . . a deeply satisfying read. I loved this book.”—Randy Susan Meyers
“Sheehan’s writing is lively and vivid and her feel for historical detail is fine.”—The New York Times
“Sheehan uses her skills as both a psychologist and a writer to create a solid, insightful story.” —Kirkus Reviews
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Jacqueline Sheehan, Ph.D., is a fiction writer and essayist. She is also a psychologist. She is a New Englander through and through, but spent twenty years living in the western states of Oregon, California, and New Mexico doing a variety of things, including house painting, freelance photography, newspaper writing, clerking in a health food store, and directing a traveling troupe of high school puppeteers.
She is the acclaimed author of the novels The Comet’s Tale, a Novel about Sojourner Truth; Lost & Found; Now & Then; and Picture This. She has also published travel articles, short stories, and numerous essays and radio pieces. She lives near Northampton in central Massachusetts. Her website is www.jacquelinesheehan.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Center of the World
By Jacqueline Sheehan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Jacqueline Sheehan, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Sofia dropped her gym bag in the entryway and one soccer shoe fell out, streaked with a bright green grass stain from sliding past a defensive player. She had just returned from soccer practice and the late afternoon sun cut a warm slant of light through the kitchen window. She had run hard for two hours, one of the few things that felt good these days. The red message light on the answering machine blinked on the tiled counter. Probably a message from her mother. She hit the button.
The message was from her grandfather.
"I have a letter for you from your stepdad. It just arrived. I think it would be better for you to come down to the post office when it closes. Can you do that?"
How could her grandfather have information from her stepdad? The dead didn't send letters.
Sofia and her mother, Kate, were still reeling from the accident that had killed her stepdad, Martin. A student from UMass, who was set to graduate and start his life as an accountant for the city of Houston, had looked down for one instant to answer his phone while driving to his afternoon class. He said later that he'd been up all night studying for finals and swore that he never saw the guy on the bike in the intersection.
Martin had been biking home from his job at the middle school where he taught art. Sofia could picture her stepdad glancing up at the trees, smiling at something that he saw, something he'd tell his students about the next day, and they'd all try to paint the way afternoon sun glittered through the trees.
Sofia had been afraid that her mother's ribs would crack from crying. She'd never seen her mother cry the way that she did after coming back from the hospital in Northampton with her grandfather, the way something uncoiled from deep inside her. Sofia and her mother had slept together for the first month after Martin died, each one waking after a few hours of sleep from dreams where he was still alive, then realizing the horror of reality.
The small post office was an easy two-mile ride. Of course she could do that, now that her mother no longer forbade her from riding her bike and she had regained her ease of riding, the still-warm October wind on her face. Her grandfather had said, "Kate, it was an accident. Don't stop Sofia from living. Martin would never want that." Riding the light blue Schwinn Hybrid was as natural to Sofia as breathing. She parked behind her grandfather's office, looping a chain and a lock around the wheels.
The post office was officially closed but Grandpa would be finishing up.
She pushed open the door. "Grandpa? Where are you?"
She knew every inch of the back room, the heavy sacks of mail, the rows of small cubicles for private mailboxes, and her own childhood drawings plastered above the coat hooks. Even the sound was familiar for this time of day, the rattle of the mop bucket from the utility closet after he had cleaned the front room where customers lined up from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon.
Grandpa flipped up the counter gate that separated workers from customers. He smiled the second he saw Sofia, but the fold between his eyebrows did not unfurl, and Sofia's stomach tightened up. Sam was tall, "Six foot two and eyes of blue," he liked to say, and he still looked like a mountain. She stepped easily into his arms and his late-day stubble rubbed her cheek. He smelled uniquely grandfatherly; a mix of spearmint gum, cinnamon, and perspiration that had just turned the corner from fresh.
"Come sit down, sweetie," he said, taking her small brown hand in his pale hand, which had recently sprouted a few dark age spots. He dragged two metal folding chairs near the back entrance.
Sofia pulled her straight black hair into a ponytail.
"Just tell me, what is it?"
Her grandfather handed her a letter. The white envelope didn't have an address or a stamp on it, and it hadn't been sealed. Sofia pulled out the letter and unfolded it, quickly thumbing the top corner to see that it contained three pages. Her stepdad left her a three-page typed letter?
"Martin left this letter with a lawyer who just gave it to me today. After you read it, I'm going to call Kate. In fact, I should have called her first, but this is how Martin wanted it done, although for the life of me, I don't understand why Martin would have done this."
Sofia began to read the first page.
If you are reading this, it means I have died. My sweet, wonderful girl, I am so sorry not to be with you and Kate. The day that I met you two was the start of my life, the start of me learning to be a father and a husband, and my life was full in a way that I had never imagined it could be.
I am sorry that I won't be there for the rest of your life. I always had a funny feeling that my life was so rich, sort of condensed, that I might not get the full ride. I come from a line of people, both adopted and biological, who veer toward catastrophic events. That's why I left this letter with the lawyer. Well, that's one reason.
We were both adopted, but you know that. My parents always told me that they didn't know anything about my birth mother, or where I came from. I learned the truth when my mother was dying. Don't start smoking, Sofia. Lung cancer is a useless reason to die.
She finally told me that my birth mother was a teenager and had been raped. My birth mother made the choice to give me up and seal the records. My mother didn't want me to know that I was conceived in violence. But she was wrong, and the lie carved out a distance between us that I never could put words to, but I felt it.
I promised your mother that I would not tell you about your background as long as I was alive. In death, there is a kind of freedom from lies. And it also means that you aren't eighteen yet, because I had decided that when you were legally an adult, I would tell you in person. If you were old enough to vote, you were old enough to be told about your birth parents. Even now, whenever now is, you have your mother and grandpa for support, and I am counting on them to help you.
Here goes, and I hope that I'm right about doing this. You are Guatemalan. Your mother took you illegally from your home and, at great cost to her, obtained documents that listed you as a child of Mexico, lawfully adopted.
Sofia stopped reading. Her grandfather sat across from her on one of the few chairs; postal clerks were meant to stand, not sit. He tapped his fingers on his legs, waiting.
"Have you read this?" she asked.
"Yes, honey, I read it. Martin wrote the document and hired a lawyer to take possession of it with very precise instructions. Kate doesn't know yet that he wrote it. I'm going to call her now that you've read it. Maybe I should have called her first, but Martin went to great lengths to get this letter to you and he must have had a reason."
Sofia was fifteen and in her second year of high school. It wasn't right that she kept getting her legs kicked out from under her. Wasn't it enough that her stepdad had died? Did something else have to upend her life? Had her mother done something wrong?
"My birth family is from Guatemala?"
"Yes. That's what the letter says, but if this is true, I have never heard a word of it until today. It would be better if you read the whole thing. He explains a lot, as much as he knew. It's your mother who really knows all the details."
"What's all the hush-hush?" she asked. She thumbed through the three-page document. Words like civil war and massacre leapt up at her as if they were illuminated.
"What do civil wars and massacres have to do with me? Why didn't they want to tell me that I was born in Guatemala instead of Mexico?"
"It looks like it was your mom's choice. If this is true, your documents of identity and adoption are falsified. Technically, you are undocumented." He cleared his throat.
Sofia leaned forward. "You've got to be kidding. I grew up in Leverett. I was a Girl Scout. I'm on the varsity soccer team. What does this mean? Can I be sent away from you and Mom?"
Sofia's skin was golden, the color of light brown sugar. Her hands looked small pressed against the white paper. She had always referred to herself as "a person of some color," which had pleasantly confused her teachers.
"First, let's find out if this is true. Martin is gone, but Kate can answer everything."
Sam pushed up from his chair and stood up. "You probably have other questions; I know I do. Your stepdad went on to say that Kate has lived with a daily terror that you would be deported or that some other harm would come to you. According to this, she refused to allow him to disclose any of this to you. He also said your mother was the bravest person he'd ever known."
She loved how soft her grandfather's hair was, how gray, how predictable.
"Can I keep this?"
"Of course. It's yours. I have a copy," he said.
"Am I going to be deported? This is my home," she said. Sofia had the sense that the floor was shifting and everything she knew was slipping away.
"You are my granddaughter and this is your home. I swear to you that I didn't know any of this, not since the first day I saw you standing with your mother at Logan Airport."
"I want to talk to Mom first. Alone. Do you think that my father could have done this as a joke? He was a funny guy. He once dressed up as the tooth fairy, with a tutu and everything, and showed up in my bedroom when I woke up...."
She had never seen her grandfather so serious. "There is always the possibility that someone isn't telling the truth or that their version of the truth might not jibe with a videotaped version of an event. But I don't believe your stepdad would tell you anything but the truth. He loved you and Kate more than anything else in the world." Sam leaned forward and reached for Sofia's hands, covering them in his paper-roughened palms.
"There must be a good reason that Martin did this. I loved him like a son," said Sam, his eyes shutting for a moment.
"The lawyer said that Martin instructed that this letter be given to me no sooner than six months after his death with the hope that this news would be more tolerable to you. Martin wanted me to give you this letter because he knew that Kate wouldn't. Or couldn't. He didn't want to hurt you, but he believed that you deserved the truth. I'm trying to understand that this was complicated and difficult for him."
Her mother had taken her out of Guatemala illegally? Why? And if so, why had she lied to her?
"I have to go home now," she said, giving her grandpa's hands a squeeze.
She started to get up and her legs refused to cooperate. Sofia was an athlete, a soccer player who had already been contacted by a college recruiter. Unless she was injured, which she had been on numerous occasions in the course of her soccer career, her body was the surest thing in life. It never occurred to her that her body wouldn't obey a command to stand up. She put her hands on the arms of the chair and pushed. She got halfway up and fell back again.
"Hang on, Sweet Pea. You were probably holding your breath and you didn't know it. People do that with shocking news. Breathe deeply. I'll get you some water."
He got up and left the room. She heard the sound of a fridge opening and the rubber-sealed closing. Something squeaked in his shoes, otherwise she never would have heard him coming back. He handed her a plastic bottle of water. She twisted off the cap and took a sip.
"Tap water," she said in a whisper.
"This is just tap water in a fancy bottle. Don't waste your money or the plastic."
"You sound like your mother," he said.
She wanted to get out of the post office with its heavy scent of paper and glue, to breathe outside air.
"Maybe this isn't true," she said, feeling her legs again.
"Maybe," he said. "The lawyer said he was going to call your mother. I'll try to get to her first."
He plucked a business card from the envelope and peered at it as if the thing could speak. He pinched it between thumb and forefinger.
"We are family and I don't care what a piece of paper says. Do you understand me? Nothing has changed."
But everything had changed. Sofia hugged her grandfather and pressed her face into his large chest.
"Tell Mom I'm riding home," she said, pushing away from the safety of his chest.
Outside, she unlocked the Schwinn and hopped on. But as soon as she grabbed the handlebars, she shook with sudden tears that she had held back while reading the letter. Her stepdad helped her buy the bike, promising trail rides in the summer. Every time she touched the bike, she thought of him, smiling, riding next to her. But why had he done something as weird as this? Did she really know him at all?CHAPTER 2
Kate got the call while she was at work. The worst thing about being promoted in the Fish and Wildlife Department was that she spent two days of the week at the central office. Being indoors that much sent her happiness level below the tolerable line. Where it hovered until she could get back in the government-issued 4WD Ford pickup and head for the maze of dirt roads that skirted the Connecticut River. Or whatever was left of her happiness level, more like a blanket of cold, wet wool wrapped around her since Martin died.
For people who claimed to love the outdoors, those who worked for Fish and Wildlife had created terrible interior settings. When other workplaces had long ago upgraded from the old-fashioned flickering fluorescent tube lighting, their office maintained it. All the cracked Naugahyde furniture of the world had been shipped directly to their address.
Kate spent three days of the week along the wide river, which she loved more than anything, with the exception of her daughter, Sofia. And Martin, she had loved him. She never imagined that someone like Martin would come into her life, especially after Guatemala. Sofia had been eight when they married, after Kate had softened to the sweet unexpectedness of him. "Martin is a goodness generator," Sofia announced when she was eight, speaking with the unsullied clarity of a child.
Sometimes Kate felt Martin riding next to her in the truck, cracking jokes about the gearshift with electrical tape wrapped around it. His dark hair would have needed a haircut. As soon as she left the main roads, she parked the truck along the earth berms that flanked the river and talked to him, telling him about the university coaches who were recruiting Sofia.
"Martin, I want to be sure they care about Sofia, not just her crazy shots on goal. Please, could you tell me the best thing to do?"
Today she was headed to the Oxbow of the Connecticut River. The wide river was blessedly quiet on Wednesday afternoon, free of the weekend boaters with their roaring motors. The October light glittered off the maples with their Crayola-orange leaves. Martin would have loved this kind of day. He might have slipped a note into her lunch bag that said Remember to see how many kinds of orange are in the hills.I love you. Today, there had been nothing in her paper bag except a cheese sandwich, which she was unable to eat.
Kate pulled off the road and drove down the steep dirt road to the Oxbow, missing some of the ruts but hitting a big one that shook everything in the truck.
Her phone vibrated in the passenger seat. Fish and Wildlife had just equipped all the staff with cell phones. She wished that they had spent the money on better lighting in the office. Kate looked at the caller ID and saw that it was Martin's lawyer. She hadn't spoken with him since the last time they looked at the life insurance policies that Martin had put in place. Had she forgotten to sign something? She flipped open the cell phone.
"Hi, Vincent," she said, turning off the truck engine.
"Hello, Katherine," he said. "Sorry to call you at work, but this is important."
Kate realized that she didn't know much about Vincent, that every time she was in his office, the air was tinged with death, pockmarked with the deepest sorrow. But he had a family; photos on his green walls offered glimpses of two preadolescent girls with teeth that looked too large for their mouths.
"How are the girls?" she asked, desperate to slow down whatever train of bad news Vincent had.
"The girls are good; one is at a swim meet and the other is talking her mother into getting her ears pierced at the mall. I don't understand body piercing," he said.
Did he wish that he could say more about malls and daughters? Kate felt a twinge of sympathy for him with his ear-piercing daughter.
"I have just carried out instructions from Martin, something that he put in place about six years ago. It has nothing to do with his will. This is a separate document."
A dragonfly landed on her windshield. It was a Violet Dancer with a slender purple abdomen, resting briefly on her wiper blades. Whoever named dragonflies must have been a poet.
"Are you still there?" he said.
Kate took a breath. "I'm here. You're using your bad news voice, so I'm going to walk down to the river before you tell me that Martin had two other wives or something like that."
Excerpted from The Center of the World by Jacqueline Sheehan. Copyright © 2016 Jacqueline Sheehan, Inc.. 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.
Table of Contents
ContentsPraise for Jacqueline Sheehan and The Center of the World,
Part One - 2003 Massachusetts,
Part Two - 1990 Santiago Atitlá, Guatemala,
Part Three - 2003 Massachusetts,
Part Four - 2003 Guatemala,
THE CENTER OF THE WORLD,
THE TIGER IN THE HOUSE,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A beautiful novel. A captivating read. Sheehan's The Center of the World is an emotional and extraordinary story. Loved it!
U wont be sorry if u buy it
What would you do if you received a letter stating that the life you knew was all a lie? For fifteen year old Sofia, who was born in Mexico and adopted at a young age by her mother Kate, it happened after the passing of her stepfather, Martin. Martin was also adopted and learned the truth of his birth parents only when his mother was on her death bed. Knowing the pain it caused him, he vowed that as long as he was alive, he would keep the secret that Kate was hiding. But instead chose to write a letter outlining the events of her past, that were unknown to most, and give it to his attorney to deliver upon his passing. A past that included her real birthplace of Guatemala and the extreme measures Kate took to give this child the life she deserved and Kate the child she desperately desired. Upon learning the truth, Sofia’s trust in Kate is broken. Kate knows that she must bring Sofia to the place she was born, the place where violence ran high, the place where Kate found love in such devastation. Until Sofia learns the truth of her past, she won’t be able to understand the sacrifice and impossible decisions Kate made in smuggling her into the country. But is it too late to undo the damage and move forward? And will Kate be forced to return Sofia to her place of birth now that her secret has been revealed? In a moving and heart-wrenching book about love, heroism and the measures one will go to for the sake of a child, the author gives us a first-hand perspective of a war-torn country and the lives effected. I found myself emotionally involved in the story, crying one minute and rooting for the characters another. This was my first novel by Jacqueline Sheehan, but certainly won’t be the last.