|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Susan Wittig Albert is the NYT best-selling author of over 100 books. Her work includes four mystery series: China Bayles, the Darling Dahlias, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and the Robin Paige Victorian mysteries. She has published three award-winning historical novels, as well as YA fiction, memoirs, and nonfiction. Susan currently serves as an editor of StoryCircleBookReviews and helps to coordinate SCN's online class program. She and her husband Bill live in the Texas Hill Country, where she writes, gardens, and raises a varying assortment of barnyard creatures.
Date of Birth:1940
Place of Birth:Danville, Illinois
Education:Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley
Read an Excerpt
"NOTHING UNUSUAL EVER HAPPENS IN DARLING"
Friday, December 14, 1934
"I don't think I heard that right," Elizabeth Lacy said as she began setting up the card table in the front room of the Darling Dahlias' white-frame clubhouse (the parlor, when club founder Dahlia Blackstone had lived in the old house). "Earlynne and Mildred are opening a bakery?"
"It's true," Aunt Hetty Little replied energetically. "I heard it from Beulah at the Beauty Bower yesterday morning. Beulah said she heard it from Alice Ann, who got the word straight from Mildred herself, when she came into the bank to open the bakery's checking account."
Past eighty and the oldest member of the club, white-haired Aunt Hetty sometimes complained of arthritis in her knees and often walked with a cane, fancifully carved by her nephew, Billy Ray. But she was full of pep and vinegar and could be found out in her garden at the crack of dawn on a sunny day, planting, pruning, and picking.
"Earlynne started baking when she could stand on a stool to reach the top of the table," Bessie Bloodworth said. She added doubtfully, "But baking for a hobby is not the same thing as baking for a business. And Mildred isn't much of a cook. She admits that herself."
Aunt Hetty chuckled. "Well, you know Earlynne. She's got enough confidence for the two of them. Not to mention that hoard of recipes. That woman has more recipes than Carter has little liver pills."
"Confidence is one thing, stick-to-it is something else," Verna Tidwell said skeptically. "Earlynne never met a new project she didn't love — for a week or two. Not to be critical," she added. "Just stating a fact."
"Well, we'll just have to wait and see, won't we?" Aunt Hetty said. "Verna, did you bring your magnifying glass?"
"Here it is," Verna said, putting it on the table. Slender and olive-skinned, Verna kept her dark hair short in an easy-care style. She was the first woman in the entire state of Alabama to be elected to the important job of Cypress County probate clerk and county treasurer. She was not one to waste time putting on makeup — a quick dash of vivid red lipstick was usually enough for her, and sometimes she didn't even bother with that. "I'm not sure the rules allow us to use a magnifying glass, though," she added.
"Well, I don't know whyever not," Aunt Hetty replied tartly. "Some puzzle pieces are so itsy-bitsy that they're impossible to see. We're allowed to wear our eyeglasses, aren't we? What's the difference between wearing eyeglasses and using a magnifying glass?"
"A magnifying glass ought to be okay," Elizabeth Lacy said. "But I'll ask Miss Rogers. She's the one who's making the rules."
"Dorothy Rogers makes too many rules, if you ask me," Aunt Hetty muttered.
Liz (as her friends called her) tried not to smile, but it was true. Miss Rogers had read about the jigsaw puzzle tournaments that were all the rage across the nation and decided that a competition would be a good wintertime community activity for their little town. And since she was the town's librarian and the puzzle contest was her bright idea, she had decided to set it up as a fundraiser for the library, which was perennially short of money for new books.
As the organizer of the tournament, Miss Rogers had made all the rules: sixteen of them, to be exact, because she always liked to have things spelled out. There was a three-dollar nonrefundable entry fee for each four-person team, and so far, six teams had entered. The first team to finish its puzzle in the two-hour contest period would win. If no teams were completely finished at the end of two hours, the team that had assembled the most pieces would win. The prize was a big box of items donated by local merchants, to be shared by the winning team.
"Probably won't amount to a hill of beans," Aunt Hetty had grumbled. "They won't want to give away anything they think they might sell." But Liz had reminded her that the contest was a fundraiser, and that the prize wasn't the most important thing.
When the Dahlias learned about the competition, they voted to sponsor a team. Bessie, Liz, Ophelia Snow, and Aunt Hetty (all avid puzzlers) volunteered, and Liz was chosen as the team leader. Then Ophelia — who worked three days a week at the Darling Dispatch and two days at the new CCC camp, outside of town — got an offer of a full-time job from the camp's commandant.
"I hate to drop out," she told Liz, "but I don't think I should take on anything else right now." Luckily, Verna was as passionate about puzzles as Ophelia and agreed to take her place.
The Dahlias' team tried out a long list of possible names and finally agreed on Verna's suggestion: the Darling Dahlias Puzzle Divas. Tonight was their second practice session, with a fivehundred-piece puzzle they had rented from Lima's Drugstore for five cents a day. (If you want a three-hundred-piece puzzle, Mr. Lima will rent it to you for just three cents a day. If you're looking for a thousand-piece puzzle, expect to pay a dime.)
A few years before, game manufacturers had begun marketing cheap, mass-produced cardboard jigsaw puzzles, replacing the expensive, hand-cut wooden ones. The new low price created a puzzle mania that swept the country, with sales peaking at an incredible ten million a week. The most popular of these new cardboard puzzles was the Picture Puzzle Weekly — a different puzzle was released each week — which was sold as the "perfect family entertainment." Depending on the size, the Puzzle Weeklies sold for ten to twenty-five cents, and people rushed to buy them. Adding to the interest, retail stores had begun offering free advertising puzzles with the purchase of a toothbrush, a flashlight, a can of Dauntless cherries, or a box of Cremo five-cent cigars. What better (if more devious) way to help customers remember your brand name than to put them to work assembling a picture of your product?
Some suggested that puzzles were popular because they gave millions of unemployed people a cheap, absorbing way to fill the empty hours. But Lizzy thought it was more than that. You might be out of a job, but you could tell yourself that you were "at work" on the puzzle. Finishing a puzzle could give you a sense of accomplishment that was hard to come by when you weren't bringing a paycheck home every week. You might even begin to feel that you were in control of something, at a time when most people felt that they were at the mercy of outside forces.
"Who's got a wristwatch?" Liz asked, as she began setting the four folding chairs around the card table. The last time they did a five-hundred-piece puzzle, it had taken them over two hours to finish it. To be competitive, they would have to work much faster. But this was only their second practice, and the tournament was over a week away.
"I'll time us, Liz," Verna volunteered, taking her wristwatch off and putting it on the table. "How many pieces are there in this puzzle?"
Bessie — comfortably round, with graying curls, a little fringe of gray bangs, and a ready smile — leaned across the table and picked up the box. "This one has straight border edges, not like that crazy round one we practiced with last week. Miss Rogers says the one we'll be doing for the tournament will have straight edges."
"And all the teams will get the same puzzle, I hope." Aunt Hetty adjusted her eyeglasses. "Since we're racing against one another, it wouldn't be fair if some of us got an easy one and some got a hard one."
"Yes," Liz replied. "Everybody gets the same puzzle, although poor Miss Rogers is going a little crazy." She pulled out a chair and sat down. "There are seven teams, so she's trying to round up seven copies of the same five-hundred-piece puzzle — with no missing pieces." That was the frustrating problem with "used" puzzles. They were inevitably missing a piece or two.
Bessie sat down in the chair to Liz's right. Changing the subject, she said, "Does anybody know the name of Earlynne and Mildred's new bakery?"
"Mildred and Earlynne's Folly?" Verna suggested drily.
"Now, you be charitable, Verna." Aunt Hetty hung her wooden cane on the back of a chair and sat down. "Last I heard, they were still debating what to call it, Bessie. But they've rented a place to put it."
"Earlynne Biddle and Mildred Kilgore, in business together. Now that will be something to see." Bessie put her elbows on the table. Those two bicker, bicker, bicker, all the livelong day."
"You say they've rented a place, Aunt Hetty?" Verna sat across from Bessie. "Where?"
"That old frame building next to Fannie Champaign's hat shop," Aunt Hetty said.
Verna settled herself. "Oh, that's where AdaJean LeRoy used to have her cake shop. Remember that place? The front part is about the size of a bathtub. Put three or four customers in there at once, and you'll have a crowd. But as I remember, there's a nice big oven in the kitchen, and a sink and an icebox."
"They've got their work cut out for them, then." Bessie shook her head. "Nobody's been in that building since poor AdaJean broke her hip and went to live with her nephew up in Montgomery. And that was ... oh, three years ago, at least."
"More than that," Aunt Hetty said. "I know, because I got a Christmas card from her last year. She mentioned that she'd missed five Darling Christmases and wished she could be here for the holiday." She sighed reminiscently. "I told her we missed her, too. She made the best gingerbread. Maybe I'll write tonight and ask her for her recipe. Earlynne and Mildred might want to add it to their list."
"I wonder if they've got my recipe for Red Velvet Cake," Verna mused.
Liz cleared her throat, feeling that if she didn't take charge, they would never get around to working on the puzzle. "Shall we get started?" She held up the puzzle box so everybody could see the picture on the cover. "This one is Milton Bradley's Dutch Bargain. Two little Dutch girls are trading dolls — and it looks like the bigger girl is taking advantage of the smaller one."
"So that's what 'dutch bargain' means," Bessie mused thoughtfully. "Somebody taking advantage of somebody else. Seems like life is full of dutch bargains."
"It looks pretty easy," Liz said. She dumped the pieces in the middle of the table, then propped up the lid where everybody could see the picture.
"Let's turn all the pieces right-side up first," Verna said, always the organizer. "And we don't have to stay in our chairs. We can walk around the table for a better view."
"I'll stay where I am and work on the border," Aunt Hetty said. "Once I get the corners, the rest will go faster."
"I'll sort the sky and the grass," Bessie said. "Looks like those are mostly greens and blues."
"I'll work on the windmill." Verna pointed to the picture on the box cover. "Orange, brown, black, and a little yellow."
"I'll look for the girls' pieces," Liz said, and made a note of the time on Verna's watch. "On your mark, ready, set, go."
You're probably curious about the Dahlias' clubhouse and gardens, so while the Darling Divas are working on their puzzle, we'll have a quick look around.
The Puzzle Divas are meeting in the little four-room frame house that Mrs. Dahlia Blackstone bequeathed to Darling's garden club. Last year, the club members — who call themselves the Dahlias, in honor of their founder — tore down the wall between the two front rooms to make a bigger space for their meetings and other get-togethers. They stacked up several brick-and-board shelves in the back room for their gardening library and seed collection. And they installed new linoleum in the kitchen, where they make jams and jellies and can homegrown vegetables. The Depression has been hard on everybody, so they donate their canned goods to the Darling Blessing Box, to help folks who can't garden and need a little help putting a meal on the table.
Behind the house, a wide lawn — brown now, after the early-winter frosts — sweeps down toward a clump of woods, a large magnolia tree, and a clear spring smothered in ferns, bog iris, and pitcher plants. There are curving perennial borders on both sides of the lawn, and several "island" gardens of lilies and roses. The garden had once been so beautiful that it was featured regularly in magazines and newspapers across the South. But as Mrs. Blackstone grew older and infirm, the more self-assertive plants had taken advantage, crowding out their smaller, meeker neighbors and (as you might expect) turning the garden into a jungle.
When the Dahlias inherited the garden, they launched a salvage operation. They pulled the weeds (mostly dog fennel, henbit, ground ivy, and Johnson grass) out of the perennial borders, permitting the scruffy phlox, larkspur, iris, asters, and Shasta daisies to shake themselves, take a deep breath, and begin their new lives. They disciplined the roses — the climbers, the teas, the ramblers, the shrubs, and a charmingly frowsy yellow Lady Banks — and more. They dug and replanted the unkempt Easter lilies and the orange ditch lilies, which had leapfrogged over the spider lilies and landed in the oxblood lilies' bed. They restrained the rowdy cardinal climber and cross vine and mandevilla on the fence and repaired the trellis so the confused Confederate jasmine could stretch up and out. Gardens are always a labor of love, and every time a Dahlia set foot on the place, she saw something new to love. As Aunt Hetty likes to say, when its sleeves are rolled up, love can always find something else to do.
And that's what happened. Once they got the garden beds cleaned up, the Dahlias hired Mr. Norris to bring his old horse Racer and plow up the large empty lot on the corner. In the early spring, they planted peas, carrots, green onions, and lettuce. A month later, it was time to plant green beans, eggplant, okra, sweet corn, watermelons, squash, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. As the summer wore on, people from all over town came to work in the garden, watering, hoeing, and pulling weeds in return for all the vegetables they could pick. Mrs. Blackstone, the Dahlias thought, would be pleased — and there was always more than enough okra to go around.
In the house, the Divas were still at work, each one paying attention to her own sections of puzzle but occasionally putting a piece or two in elsewhere. They were so engrossed that they didn't speak much, except to say things like "Here's another windmill piece for you, Verna," or "Liz, I think this must be part of the little girl's apron."
They even forgot to check the time until finally, Bessie plugged in the last piece of green grass. "Jigsaw!" she exclaimed — which, according to Miss Rogers' rules, was what you were supposed to say when your team put in the very last piece. "How long did it take us, Verna?"
Verna consulted her wristwatch. "One hour and thirty-two minutes."
"That's quite an improvement over last time, girls," Liz said encouragingly. "We're getting faster."
Aunt Hetty frowned. "But we still need to shave off — how much?"
"At least a half hour," Liz replied. "How about if I return this puzzle and rent another from Mr. Lima. Tomorrow's Saturday. Would you be able to practice again then?"
"If we do it in the afternoon." Aunt Hetty began to take the puzzle apart. "I have choir in the morning — we're practicing carols for the Christmas Eve service."
"I promised to help Mrs. Bechtel with her recitation for the Ladies Club," Bessie said, "but I can squeeze in a couple of hours in the afternoon." Bessie owned and managed the Magnolia Manor, next door to the Dahlias' clubhouse. Mrs. Bechtel was one of the four elderly ladies who rented rooms from her.
"Works for me," Verna said cheerfully, scooping up the puzzle pieces and putting them back in the box. "Al and I are going to the movies, but that's later." Alvin Duffy, the president of Darling Savings and Trust, was Verna's more-or-less-steady boyfriend. Verna's friends sometimes wondered why they didn't get married, but when they asked her, she just smiled.
"What do I want with a husband?" she would say with that faintly ironic smile of hers. "My job pays the bills, I have plenty of books and time for reading, and Clyde snuggles up next to me in bed. What more could I want?" Clyde was Verna's bossy black Scottie. He and Al got along about as well as two bulls in the same pasture, which might be one reason for Verna's hesitation.
Bessie folded her chair and leaned it against the wall. "What I want to know is when Earlynne and Mildred are going to open their new bakery. Has anybody heard?"
"Before Christmas, Mildred said." Aunt Hetty reached for her cane.
"They'd better hope for a Christmas miracle, then," Verna remarked, folding up Aunt Hetty's chair. "The last time I looked through the front window, AdaJean's old shop was a mess. Must be wall-to-wall spiders and mice, not to mention cockroaches."
"Well, you know Mildred," Aunt Hetty said, winding her scarf around her throat. "If anybody can whomp up a miracle, she's the one. I never did see such a fine organizer."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Darling Dahlias and the Poinsettia Puzzle"
Copyright © 2018 Susan Wittig Albert.
Excerpted by permission of Persevero Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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