The Last Road Home

The Last Road Home

by Danny Johnson


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"This novel is sure to join the rich canon of Southern literature." —Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August

From Pushcart Prize nominee Danny Johnson comes a powerful, lyrical debut novel that explores race relations, first love, and coming-of-age in North Carolina in the 1950s and '60s.

At eight years old, Raeford "Junebug" Hurley has known more than his share of hard lessons. After the sudden death of his parents, he goes to live with his grandparents on a farm surrounded by tobacco fields and lonesome woods. There he meets Fancy Stroud and her twin brother, Lightning, the children of black sharecroppers on a neighboring farm. As years pass, the friendship between Junebug and bright, compassionate Fancy takes on a deeper intensity. Junebug, aware of all the ways in which he and Fancy are more alike than different, habitually bucks against the casual bigotry that surrounds them—dangerous in a community ruled by the Klan.

On the brink of adulthood, Junebug is drawn into a moneymaking scheme that goes awry—and leaves him with a dark secret he must keep from those he loves. And as Fancy, tired of saying yes'um and living scared, tries to find her place in the world, Junebug embarks on a journey that will take him through loss and war toward a hard-won understanding.

At once tender and unflinching, The Last Road Home delves deep into the gritty, violent realities of the South's turbulent past, yet evokes the universal hunger for belonging.

Advance praise for The Last Road Home

"In this intense and well-written debut novel, Danny Johnson probes deep into the cauldron of racial relations in the 1960s South. The Last Road Home introduces an exciting new voice in Southern Literature." —Ron Rash, author of Above the Waterfall

"In The Last Road Home, Danny Johnson evokes a South that in many ways may be gone, thank the Lord. Yet Johnson's compelling and heartfelt rendering of Junebug and Fancy couldn't be more charged and alive. The long dramatic arc of their deep and ever evolving relationship traces a time and a place giving way to change in violent fits and starts. Yet this is no sociological treatise. It's a flesh and blood story about two people, who risk just about everything time and time again, for nothing more and nothing less than to love each other." —Tommy Hays, author of In The Family Way

"The Last Road Home took me straight into the heart of a wounded boy who becomes a complicated man. By the end of this stunning novel, I felt I'd come to understand humans better than I had before, how we come to be the way we are: tender and full of fury. I don't recall having such a reaction to a novel.  Author Danny Johnson shrinks from nothing. I say: read it!" —Peggy Payne, author of Cobalt Blue

"Johnson's moving novel beautifully portrays the ways in which his young characters struggle to overcome the history that has so fully shaped their lives." —John Gregory Brown, author of Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496702494
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 07/26/2016
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 754,658
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Danny Johnson writes novels and short stories whose characters tend to represent the disenfranchised in our culture, examining their struggles in a society that does not acknowledge their value. He is an active member of The North Carolina Writer's Network and has served as fiction judge for the Weymouth Center for Arts and Humanities Writing Contest. His work has appeared in Remembrances of Wars Past Anthology, South Writ Large, Sheepshead Review, A Southern Journal, and Fox Chase Review, among others.

Read an Excerpt

The Last Road Home

By Danny Johnson


Copyright © 2016 Danny Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4967-0250-0


Maybe it wasn't true. "Come on, Junebug, it's all right, don't be afraid." Grandma took my hand. Inside the house, a late-afternoon shadow stretched like a long rectangular arm across the living room carpet. The Coke bottle Daddy used for an ashtray was stuffed with cigarette butts and sat on the coffee table. Momma's rocking chair waited for her; I pushed on the painted wooden arm to hear it squeak.

Two applejacks left over from Friday sat in a plate on the kitchen stove; this time of day the house should smell like fresh-made sweet tea and supper cooking. I looked on the back porch, but nobody was there either. In the bathroom, I touched the last pencil line where Momma marked my height every year on my birthday. In their bedroom, I lay on the pillow to smell her. My head knew they were gone, but my eight-year-old heart didn't yet.

Grandma sat beside me, tears rolling down her face; she'd cried a lot in the last two days. "Let's go find what you want to carry home."

In my room, I got the cigar box from my closet while Grandma packed clothes in paper bags. When her arms were loaded, she stood at the door. "Ready to go?"

"In a minute." I went back to Momma and Daddy's room, looked in her jewelry box and found the silver gum wrapper necklace I'd made for her in school. "Okay." I stopped at the bottom of our steps and picked one of the red roses Momma had planted in the spring.

The next afternoon I sat under a tent in the graveyard, staring at blankets of flowers that covered the tops of two caskets. They smelled like Momma's rose. The preacher patted my head. "It was God's Will," he said. "They'll be waiting for you in heaven."

I blinked back angry tears. "Tell me why God would want to kill my momma and daddy?"

"Shhhh." Grandma squeezed my shoulders.

After the funeral, Granddaddy took me to talk under his woodshed. He sat on a stump used for splitting kindling, and I sat beside him on an upside-down peach basket. He laid his big hand on my shoulder. "Junebug, sometimes things just are, nobody to blame or no way to make sense of it. All a man can do is put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Do you understand?"

What was I supposed to understand? One day you're alive and the next you're dead? I went into the house and the bedroom where I slept when I stayed with them on the farm, the one that would now be mine forever. I pulled the cigar box from underneath the bed. Inside it were baseball cards I'd saved, a picture of Momma holding me when I was a baby, the silver dollar Granddaddy gave me last year for my seventh birthday, and the collar I'd taken off Grady's neck.

Daddy killed Grady on my birthday. We had gone to Grandma's for supper and I'd just blown out the six candles on my coconut birthday cake when we heard Granddaddy's dog start howling like something was killing him. By the time we ran outside, the taillights of a truck were rounding the curve of the road. Grady lay at the edge of the ditch, whining. Granddaddy knelt beside him. "Back's broke." He gently rubbed Grady's head.

"Be right back," Daddy said. He walked to the car and came back holding his big black pistol. "Y'all back up." He bent over and stuck the barrel close to Grady's head.

I yanked on Granddaddy's pants leg. "What's he going to do?"

He squatted beside me. "Junebug, when an animal is hurt bad like that you can't fix it, so it's better to put it out of its pain. Can you understand?" He laid his big hand against my head. "You don't need to watch."

Instead of turning away, I took off running and fell into the ditch with Grady, covering him with my body, pushing the gun away. "I'll help you, Grady." I lay with my eyes level with Grady, tears trailing across the bridge of my nose. "I'll fix you, don't you worry." Grady's soft brown eyes watched me, and then he reached to lick my face.

"Get out of the way, Junebug. Go in the house with your momma." Daddy grabbed me by the back of my shirt, pulled me up, and half-shoved, half-threw me back toward where Granddaddy stood. "Keep him out of the way."

"Easy, Roy, you ain't got to be so rough." Granddaddy reached down and picked me up.

"Then take him in the house with the women."

My crying had turned to hiccup sobs. "You leave Grady alone! I can take care of him."

Grady whined loud again. Then came the thunderous boom of Daddy's pistol, and Grady made the most awful screaming crying sound I'd ever heard. Then silence.

Granddaddy cussed at him. "Dammit, you could have waited 'til I got the boy in the house."

"Won't hurt him, he needs to understand life ain't always easy."

I hooked Momma's necklace inside Grady's collar, closed the box, and put it back under the bed.

* * *

"Come here a minute, Junebug." Grandma waved me to her. It was a hot August morning three weeks after my parents' funeral. The hard-packed sand on the dirt path in front of Mr. Wilson's barn was cool on my bare feet. We had come to help the neighbors harvest tobacco.

"Junebug, this is Fancy and her twin brother, Lightning. They live on Mr. and Mrs. Wilson's farm."

The girl was a lighter black than her brother. Her hair was bobby-pinned in little curls, and the boy's was cut right down to the skin. They both watched the ground. "Fancy, would you and your brother mind showing Junebug around and playing together while we work?"

The girl didn't look up. "Yes'um." Her brother didn't say anything. We waited in silence until the grown-ups headed to the fields, leaving us alone. Fancy stared at me, and she didn't look happy. She crooked her finger. They led me down a dirt path to the edge of the woods where a bucket of rocks sat alongside a line of tin cans on a log. The three of us stood apart, getting the measure of each other. I wiped sweat off my upper lip with the back of my finger.

Fancy stepped close, put her face up to mine, and balanced her hands on her hips. "How old are you?" She was bony thin, had a big head, and her upper teeth bowed out. The expression on her face was I ain't scared. I thought she might punch me if I didn't answer.

"Eight." I wiped again.

She thumbed back at Lightning. "Us too. Where'd you get a name like that?" Her brother watched.

"Momma give it to me."

"Where's your momma at?"

I studied the ground, shying away from her demanding tone. "Dead."

"Sure don't talk much. Ain't off in the head are you? How'd she die?"

"Car wreck."

"Your daddy too?" She moved even closer. If they jumped me, I'd have to try and outrun them.

"Yep." I closed the toes of my bare foot over a rock and tried to pick it up.

Fancy glanced at her brother, like she was asking a question. He shrugged. When she turned back around, her look was different. Her arm came up. I leaned sideways. But instead of punching me, Fancy grabbed my hand. "It'll be all right, Junebug."

Lightning walked over to the bucket and picked out a rock. He sent it flying at the cans and hit one. "Try it," Fancy said, and handed me a rock. I threw and missed everything.

We spent the next few hours trying to hit cans. Lightning showed me how to curve a rock, and Fancy was actually better at it than either of us.

After breakfast on Tuesday morning the following week, Granddaddy said, "Come on, Junebug, I need to smoke the barn." We stacked some kindling and an ax into a wheelbarrow.

"What do you mean 'smoke' the barn?"

"The Wilsons are coming to help us put in tobacco tomorrow, and the snakes need to be run out before we can hang it." Granddaddy was a big man, arms like posts, and a heavy belly. He was fair-faced with a leathery, sunburned neck, and was never without his wide-brimmed felt hat. At the barn he laid dry pine slabs in the firebox, struck a match to them, then cut down a couple of oak shoots. When the fire was burning good, he added the green leaves and sapling wood. Smoke began to fill the inside of the barn, some leaking from between the logs where the chink mud had come loose.

"How you going to catch the snakes?"

"Ain't. Snakes won't bother you unless you bother them." He started around the side of the barn, looking up to see how much smoke was coming out of the roof. I squatted in front of the fire and tossed in a handful of leaves.

I heard a yell and saw Granddaddy running around, cussing and slapping at his hat. A long black snake flew through the air. He chased and stomped at the snake, but it took off under some leaves.

"What happened?"

"Durn thing fell off the top of the barn square on my head."

I couldn't help laughing at him. "Didn't bother you, did he?"

He got red-faced. "Watch the fire, I need to go to the outhouse for a minute."

I told Grandma the snake story at dinner. She laughed so hard she got tears, and came over to hug my neck. Since the funeral, I'd heard her and Granddaddy whispering a lot at night when they thought I was asleep, and I caught her crying several times. My daddy was their son. I'd stayed with them a lot since the time I was a baby, so it wasn't hard to get used to living with them. It was good to see some happiness slip out from behind her blue eyes.

After dinner Granddaddy and me went back to the barn and used garden hoes to clean away poison ivy that had grown too close to the open shelter. I didn't really know what poison ivy was, but I chopped at anything I thought might need it. A few yards from the barn, I noticed a place the grass was worn down, like a path. "That a deer track?"

He came over to have a look. "Used to be a horse trail a long time ago, way back before anybody had cars or trucks." He pointed through the woods. "Comes out at the Wilson place."

The next morning after the grown-ups headed to the tobacco field, I showed Fancy and Lightning the path, thinking it might be an important contribution to the new friendship. "Granddaddy said it goes all the way to where y'all live." We followed the trail until the woods ended, and discovered it came out at a clover field behind the Wilson farm.

"I never knew this was here," said Lightning. Halfway along the trail, several trees had been cut, leaving good-sized stumps. Immediately, we agreed it was probably where Indians used to camp.

We sat across from each other. "How come you got a name like Junebug?" Fancy asked.

"It was the month I was born. My Christian name is Raeford Earl Hurley. Where'd y'all get the name Fancy and Lightning?"

Fancy stood up, put her hands behind her back, and started pacing like a preacher in a pulpit. "Well, I'll tell you about it. You see" — she imitated a deep voice — "there was this big storm that come over the land the night him and me was born." Fancy waved at the sky with both hands, eyes wide and fearful. "Thunder boomed like shotguns, and the wind howled like witches on Halloween." She pointed at Lightning. "He came first, then me. Daddy named him because of the awful lightning that caused three fires in the community." Her tone changed to sweet and cheerful. "But Momma said she always liked the name Fancy so it's what I got." She went back to the fierce look, dropping her voice low again. "Now, that's the way it was told to me." Fancy gripped her hands behind and went back to pacing, like she was considering. "But ... after all these years of thinking ..." She paused again. Lightning and I leaned forward, waiting to see what she was going to say. "I really think Daddy named Lightning Lightning because he knew what a big pain in the ass he'd always be." She ran in a circle pointing at Lightning, cackling.

"Very funny," said Lightning. "Keep it up and you're going to sure enough get struck by Lightning."

I had to hold my stomach from laughing so hard.

The stumps became our secret place.

Tobacco season had ended and school was set to begin in another couple of weeks. Fancy, Lightning, and me sat shooting the breeze. Lightning got to his feet and walked back and forth, like he was irritated. "I'm gone have enough money to do the bossing one of these days. The two of you will be working for me then." He marched around with a swelled chest. "Git in that kitchen and make me some food!" He waved his arm at Fancy like he might smack her.

"Try bossing me and I'll hit you in the head with a hammer when you go to sleep."

Lightning faked another swing, then went back to circle-walking. "I need to get some money before I go back to school, can't get no girlfriend if you ain't carrying no change. I want to go to the store just one time and reach in my pocket to find something other than a hole."

We sat thinking for a bit. "I went with Granddaddy to Markham's store the other day and he took back some empty Coke bottles. He got two cents apiece for them. Y'all got any bottles?"

Lightning stopped. "Heck, yeah. They's laying all over Mr. Wilson's barn shelter. We could take 'em and sell 'em. And I bet we could go around to other farms and ask if we could look; folks might be glad to get rid of 'em. That's a good idea, Junebug." He started counting on his fingers. "If we was to get a thousand bottles at two cents each, what would that come to?"

"Twenty dollars," Fancy said quickly. "How we going to carry that many bottles?"

Lightning smacked her on the head. "Feed sacks, stupid."

Fancy leaped to her feet. "Just touch me again!"

"Y'all quit fussing," I scolded.

Lightning was excited. "Meet here tomorrow early and everybody bring a sack. We'll visit every farm around 'til we fill 'em."

The next morning I rushed through breakfast. "Where you off to in such a hurry?" Granddaddy and Grandma smiled when I told them what we were going to do.

Fancy and me listened while Lightning laid out the plan. "I'll head to Mr. Ferrell's place. You two go the other way toward the Seagrove farm. When everybody gets a sack full, we'll meet back here and count 'em up."

The day started hot and got worse. Fancy and me, barefooted and no hat to keep off the sun, headed down the dirt road that led from in front of our house to Evergreen Baptist Church, which was near the Seagrove place. We had a skipping race for a ways. Fancy was lagging behind, and when I turned around she was gone. "Fancy?" I looked around the bushes. "Fancy, where the heck are you?"

A dirt clod hit me in the shoulder. I heard a giggle from Mr. Riggsbee's tobacco patch on the other side of the road. "Oh, want to play, huh?" I dived in between the rows, bombing her with dirt balls. I accidentally knocked over a tobacco stalk.

Fancy grabbed my hand. "Let's go. Folks don't like somebody tearing down their crop." We ran until we were out of breath.

An hour and a half later, we made it to the church, but it was still another half mile to Mr. Seagrove's farm. It never seemed this far riding in the truck. By the time we got there, both of us were worn out, soaked with dusty sweat, and in a foul mood. "Damn Lightning," Fancy said. "I know it ain't this far to Mr. Ferrell's place."

Fancy stood back in the yard while I walked up to Mr. Seagrove's door and knocked. His wife came to the porch, a big woman, thighs wide as two fat hams and a voice deep as a man's. She sang in the church choir and you could hear her a mile away. "Junebug, what are you doing here? Is your grandma with you?" She looked out at Fancy.

"No'um, she's at home. We're trying to collect some Coca-Cola bottles to sell, and wanted to see if we could look around your place."

"You're welcome to look. I'd try around the tobacco barn if I was you. Just go down that path." She pointed beside the house. "When y'all get through, stop and I'll have some iced tea for you."

When we reached the barn, we took a break in the shade of the overhanging shelter before starting the search. I heard a noise and looked up to see a dog standing in the path watching us. He reminded me of Grady.

"Junebug, if we get a sack load how the heck are we going to tote 'em?"

"Don't know, and right now I wish I'd never brought it up." We rambled in the bushes and briars around the barn, managing to find fifteen bottles that weren't broke and a lot more that were. Fancy came across an empty whiskey bottle, screwed off the top, and stuck her tongue inside to taste. "Aaah, that's nasty." She smacked her mouth in disgust, then pitched it back in the weeds.

I began to understand Granddaddy and Grandma's smile this morning. "I figure we've made about thirty cents."

The best thing we found was a blackberry patch. Each of us picked a couple of handfuls and sat on the dirt floor under the shelter to eat. Dark juice ran down our chins onto our clothes. The flies wanted a taste. We couldn't swat fast enough. Fancy got up. "Come on, I'm ready to go home, had enough of this dumb mess."

We didn't bother to stop at Mrs. Seagrove's house for tea; blackberry juice had quenched our thirst. I carried the half-full sack a ways and Fancy carried it a ways. She talked nonstop most of the walk home, about church or how she was anxious to go back to school so she could be around somebody other than Lightning. With Fancy, life was never lonesome.


Excerpted from The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson. Copyright © 2016 Danny Johnson. 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.
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The Last Road Home 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Made me cry, made me laugh - - Loved this novel!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Many thanks to NetGalley, the publisher and the author for a review copy. This is my honest opinion. A wonderful read! This is the sort of book that stays with you long after you've finished it. This was well written and most definitely recommended.
ReadersFavorite More than 1 year ago
Reviewed by Anne-Marie Reynolds for Readers' Favorite The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson is set in the deep South in the 50’s and 60’s. Junebug and Fancy become best friends at the age of eight. One is a white orphan, the other, a black sharecropper’s daughter. The story follows them as they grow and their relationship deepens when they come of age. Sex between a white boy and a black girl was a big no-no and it doesn’t take long for them to come to the attention of the KKK. They are threatened with terrible consequences if they don’t end their relationship. Fancy heads to New York, ending up in France, while Junebug becomes a sniper, fighting in Vietnam. They meet again and find that they still are in love with one another, but they cannot stay together. Fancy can't return to the South and goes back to France while Junebug moves to the isolation of the mountains. Will they meet again or will they each take the path they have chosen and ne’er the twain shall meet? The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson is an evocative and emotional story, delving deep into the issues of race relations in the deep South in the 50’s and 60’s, issues that are, for the most part, non-existent now. It is packed with history, a mixture of tension and tenderness, violence and love, taking us on a journey from childhood to adulthood, through tough decisions and realizations. The characters are brilliantly developed and because we follow them through their lives, we get to know them personally. The story is written in a believable way, with a unique plot and plenty to grab your attention. This is a powerful tale, gritty, dramatic and hard-hitting, not to mention emotional. Great story, I really enjoyed it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story about family, love, loss, and the will to live despite what life throws your way.
WhisperingStories More than 1 year ago
In The Last Road Home Danny Johnson has produced something very close to a masterpiece. Within 310 pages we have history, romance, family love and psychology. The book is extremely easy to read with short chapters that encourage you to read on. Told in the first person and with a limited number of strong characters, the plots are very easy to follow. This is a powerful tale which touches so many senses. It covers some tough subjects including racial inequality, alcohol abuse, drug supply and the Vietnam War; all with a no-holds-barred approach. At times, the descriptions of sex and violence are rather graphic but probably necessary for the story. Given that the book is set around one hundred years after the United States abolished slavery, and in my own lifetime, I was initially surprised at the level of segregation, abuse and bigotry against the black people of North Carolina. Then I recalled hearing stories of the members of the band Booker T and the MGs having to stay in separate hotels while on tour. I am also minded that there are currently millions of people in today’s world that are slaves in all but name. As a veteran of the Vietnam War, Danny Johnson is ideally positioned to use his personal observations and I was impressed by the contrasting ways that he and his two close colleagues handled the mental strains of their extremely challenging role in that conflict. But do not get too downhearted, as The Last Road Home is not all doom and gloom. I enjoyed the descriptions of life on a small farm in the 1950’s and 60’s where a mule still provided most of the heavy transport. Johnson also gives us wonderful touches of family affection, comradeship and of course, Junebug’s sisterly friendship and subsequent romance with Fancy. (I always say I don’t enjoy romance but.…) I am aware that Danny Johnson has had a number of short stories published but so far this appears to be his only full length novel. I look forward to more and have awarded The Last Road Home five stars.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
Danny Johnson brings us an excellent classic southern coming of age novel. Set in a small southern farming town in the 1950's where hardline discrimination is the norm and the klan is king, this is not an easy book to read though it is so compelling you cannot put it down. Even as we move into the 1960's and countrywide black/white discrimination is more of a casual sort the Vietnam war veterans join the mix and mix it up again. We know intellectually that we still have such a great way to go in achieving true equality, but it takes a book like The Last Road Home to underline just how far we have come. This is the debut novel in name only. Danny Johnson is an author to follow. I received a free electronic copy of this novel from Netgalley, Danny Johnson, and Kensington Publishers in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Touching comung of age story