PRAISE FOR THE WHISPERING OF THE WILLOWS:
Best book I have read in a while. Didn't want it to end. Great and different story line. - Christine
This is a fantastic book that had me examining my own personal spiritual journey. Kudos to the author for writing such a heartfelt, inspiring work. - Verified Amazon Reader
I absolutely loved the characters and the story. Their faith in God helped them through the trials they faced. The story is engrossing and very believable. Hope this book is a winner for the author. - Verified Purchaser
The Whispering of the Willows is an inspiring story full of twists and turns, freedom and redemption, the expected and unexpected. This book brings to light the struggles of young woman past and present. God’s goodness and provision flow from each page. --Linda Bottoms, Rocky Mountain Ministry Network Women’s Ministries Director
A 1920s' saga of Emerald Ashby coming of age. Set against the superstitions and old time religion in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, author Tonya Jewel Blessing tells a difficult, yet redemptive story of a blossoming young woman who is accompanied by her friends and her foes on a journey towards hope and healing.
Love weaves through gut-wrenching circumstances and dismal poverty where Emerald Ashby grows strong despite grievous wrongs committed against her. In this desperate historical setting, mysterious disappearances lead to traps set for the innocent.
Eighth grade Emie is about to learn some hard lessons when a disturbed young man is thrust into her life by her abusive father and enabling mother. Now, when key individuals begin carving out a rescue plan, Emerald Ashby sets a few of her own traps. It's a page turner. In this ailing town. What will be their measure of success?
Cleverly suspenseful and sweetly spoken, the storyteller's unassuming voice transforms an Appalachian trail of tears into holy terror against an evil that stalks the innocent. In The Whispering of the Willows, an Appalachian marriage practice might be compared to the modern sex trade which exploits young females.If you like the emotive movie, Nell, or the writing of Chris Fabry's Dogwood, (a Lifetime movie) you will love The Whispering of the Willows.
LCSH: Teenage girls--Abuse of--Fiction. | Rape victims--Fiction. | Abusive men--Fiction. | Poverty--Appalachian Region--Fiction. | Appalachian Region--History--20th century--Fiction. | Historical fiction. | Bildungsromans.
|Edition description:||Second Edtion ed.|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.84(d)|
About the Author
Published books: • Changing the World through Media Education (1998) • Media Alert! 200 Activities to Create Media-savvy Kids (2000) • EYE SPY Program (Early Youth Education Program): An Interactive Coloring Book (2000) • Get Them Thinking! Use Media Literacy to Prepare Students for State Assessments (2005)
Read an Excerpt
"Beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes clear to the bone." (Appalachian Folk Belief)
Ernie was hiding in the barn loft. Well, not really hiding, since her two brothers and six sisters knew exactly where she would be.
She could hear the piglets below. The pregnant sows and those who had experienced the recent pangs of birth were sheltered in the bam. The males were relentless in their pursuits. Ernie wondered why nature at times seemed to be so cruel, especially to mamas and babies. She could hear the piglets suckling. Their soft snorts coupled with the gentle sighs of the sows brought a fading smile to her face. She couldn't see the tenderness, her hiding place was in the dark corner of the loft, but her imagination allowed her to ponder the bond between the givers of life and nourishment and the always hungry young recipients.
The hay she generally used for a pillow was sparse. Winter had depleted the supply and harvest was still a few weeks in coming. From the shadows she could see out the barn window. The willows by Big Creek were still leafing. Big Creek was swollen like the sow bellies below waiting to deliver. The snow melt from the hills caused the creek to expand in width and depth. She loved this time of year in the holler. The stench from the hogs and the outhouse was diminished by the lilac bushes, blue bells, and yellow daffodils, mama's favorite. Her two brothers were responsible for enlarging the toilet holes, but spring births kept them busy. Even now she had to pee. Her full bladder called for attention, but the voice of fear inside her head called even louder.
"Emie, Emie!" She could hear Ernest in the distance. She shuddered knowing the inevitable was to come. A switch from one of the willows would be laying on her father's dresser. Daddy would be sitting in his wheelchair yelling for the girlie to come; his paralyzed legs covered in a quilt hand stitched with scraps from threadbare cast off family clothes, his bald head reflecting light from the bedroom window, and his prickly beard ready to be shaved. Mama razored the sparse and soft, yellowish-gray hair from his head each week, but it was the job of Emie and her sisters to bathe and shave Daddy daily. Seven sisters - one for each day of the week, at least that's what it would be like when the young ones grew a little.
If she cut Daddy with the straight edge razor, the switch was used on her legs and bottom; Daddy said it was a reminder to respect your elders. Emie thought the punishment had more to do with Daddy's anger at the world.
The willows brought both comfort and pain to Emie. Through the loft window they danced in the breeze. Branches raised in worship of the sun. Small green leaves and buds adding color to the dance. Delicate purple flags grew wild at their feet.
She thought only about the sting of the willow switch on her legs and shuddered. If today was an especially angry day, Emie knew the stripes would draw red welts and even blood.
"Emie, girlie - get down from the loft. Daddy's waitin'. He's been waiting too long. You'll only make it worse."
She could see Ernest on the floor of the bam. At least it was Ernest, not Lester, who'd come to fetch her. Lester with his gruff voice and even gruffer hand would have already drug her from the loft into Daddy's room. He would have proudly presented her, waiting for Daddy's approval for doing his bidding. Neither Lester nor Daddy would care about the bruises left on her arm.
"You're not making this easy for any of us," Ernest pleaded.
Both the softness of his voice and the gentle reminder that her foot dragging held not only consequences for her, but for Mama as well, brought her down from the loft.
"I'll walk you to the house, Emie." She loved Ernest. In fact, she loved him earnestly. The play on words was something shared between her mind and heart. Never out loud. Ernest would blush, and if Daddy or Lester ever heard – poor Ernest would again be the butt of their cruel jokes.
Ernest draped his arm around her shoulders. Emie found the weight comforting. Not a word passed between them as they made their trek from the bam, past the hog pens, past the outhouse, down the narrow dirt path toward the small worn out house that sat in a tiny gully.
At the back door of the kitchen, Ernest gently squeezed her shoulder and left her to face the consequences of her hesitations. Emie knew that Ernest wished there was something he could do, but Daddy was like a big black bear – no one crossed him.
The twins, Ruby and Garnett, were still cleaning the breakfast dishes, and said nothing as she entered through the door. Having experienced the switch themselves, they knew what waited. From the other room, she could hear Mama trying to soothe Daddy; Mama's voice soft and Daddy's loud. "It won't be just the switch today, but my belt, Alma. I'm tired of waitin'." Next came the loud slap.
Mama should know better than to get too close to Daddy when he's like this, Emie thought. Fate waited. She walked from the kitchen to the small narrow bedroom quickly. The red handprint on Mama's face was already raised. Ashamed, Mama lifted her hand to hide the mark. Adding insult to injury, Daddy hollered, "Dump the shitter, woman, and get the girlie here warm water! I won't be bathed in cold water!"
Mama carefully grabbed the white porcelain bucket of human waste. Her eyes full of pity, she glanced briefly at her daughter before she exited the room. Mama knew, as well as Emie, that Daddy always got his way. His meanness overshadowed their family and daily lives, like the West Virginia thunderstorms that caused Big Creek to suddenly rise and flood the holler, destroying everything in its path.
"Get the switch, girlie."
Emie obeyed. He struck her legs, beginning at the knees and rising to the thighs. Her bottom was next. The thin cotton dress passed down from sister to sister, and the worn, holey panties offered no protection. Emie thought of Big Creek. She pictured the tadpoles, trout, and nesting birds in the willows. She wasn't sure if her thoughts diminished the pain, or if pain upon pain numbed her skin until the feeling in her legs ceased. Her bladder released, and pee flooded her feet and the floor.
Mama entered the room carrying the cleaned bucket, placing it back in its resting place. Next came the pitcher of warm bathing water. Emie was faintly aware of Mama taking her shoulders and pulling her from Daddy's reach. "Enough," was all Mama said, taking the willow switch from her husband's hand.
Anger spent, Daddy wilted. His lips were white from exertion and his face flushed. The rage was over. His victim was pale-faced, a faint line of blood dripping down her legs to her bare feet, seeping into the cracked linoleum. Mama moved the wheelchair to the corner of the room and wiped the urine and blood from the floor.
Emie took the worn washrag, dipped it into the water and lathered it with the bacon grease soap her mama made each season. She washed her daddy's feet and legs. She instinctively turned her back as Daddy washed his sensitive areas. As was his routine, he lifted the night shirt to wash his private parts, and then slipped the shirt from his arms and chest, managing to cover what was foreign to a young girl. Emie re-wet and soaped her cloth, moving to his chest and arms.
Emie handed him the shaving cloth and lathered bar of soap. He washed his own face and neck, and then applied a thick layer of soap to his face for shaving. She took the straight edge in her right hand and shaving cloth in the left, and began her ministrations. Her hands were shaking from fear and pain. She nicked his chin twice, drawing a thin line of blood each time. He winced with each cut. Emie prepared herself for the worst, but when she finished, her daddy simply said, "Leave me, girlie."
The church pew hurt Emie's legs and backside. Yesterday, her mama had washed her wounds and applied salve to the red welts. The salve was a mixture of rendered hog fat and plants Auntie Ada made for Mama. Auntie lived on the other side of Big Creek. A swinging bridge, tied to the willows on either side of the creek, made passage possible to her tiny cabin hidden in the Appalachian woods. The bridge's planks came from walnut trees up in the hills, and the sides were a combination of bent willow limbs and rope. Emie loved the bridge. When the wind blew, which was a constant in the holler, it seemed to sing and sway right along with the willows.
The salve stank worse than the hog pens, but Mama had insisted. Like the seasons of summer and winter, her mama's touch was gentle – so opposite of Daddy. Emie had lain over the feathered bed she shared with her four sisters, while Mama applied the medicine. It numbed the stinging stripes, opened her sinuses, and drew the flies. She hoped her smell wasn't offensive to Ernest, who sat on her right and Garnet, who sat on her left. Of course, the Ashby family wasn't overly sensitive to smells. They ran a hog farm after all, and while Mama and Daddy washed daily, the children bathed once a week, sometimes even in the creek.
The Ashby family lined an entire pew; Lester on the far end, then Mama, Ernest, Emie, and her sisters. Church was a requirement, not an option – except for Daddy. Only on rare occasions would he allow his chair to be pushed up the hillside by the house, onto the rutted dirt road that led to the country church. It would take both Ernest and Lester switching turns and pushing with all their might to get Daddy to the house of worship. Daddy would, of course, take the lead, boys behind, then Mama and the girls.
On those occasions, Emmie thought they must look like a circus train. Not that she'd ever seen a circus train; she'd only read about them in her school primer. But she vividly remembered the picture of elephants stirring up clouds of dust as they walked.
The walk to church took some time. When it rained or snowed, the red clay was slippery. But in the summer, when it was dry, the red cloud rested on them like Mama sprinkling paprika on her deviled eggs.
As far as Emie was concerned, Pastor Eugene, her daddy's second cousin, had basically three messages:
1. hell with all its fire and brimstone,
2. women listening to the pastor and their husbands, and
3. the need for children to be disciplined with the rod.
When Pastor Eugene got on a roll, there was no stopping him – sometimes he preached all three sermons at once.
When the Ashby family returned home, Daddy would insist one of the boys share the entire message. It had to be the boys because women weren't to instruct men in spiritual matters. Emie thought Ernest did the best. His voice was soft and tender. He would quote the verses from memory. He even closed his eyes when reciting the Scriptures. It was obvious, however, Daddy preferred Lester's booming voice. Mama said, "Like father, like son."
Church was ready to begin when Pastor Eugene stretched over Lester to talk to Mama, "Alma, how's Ahab this momin'?"
"Why he's fine, pastor, wishin' he could be with us this Sunday."
"Good, good, good to hear. Please let him know I'll be over this week to discuss our unfinished business."
Then Daddy's cousin did the oddest thing. He looked at Emie, spoke her given name, "Emerald," and with a slight nod, just walked away.
Something was wrong. She just knew it. Even Ernest sensed that something was out of place. His breathing changed and Mama was folding and unfolding her hands in her lap. Emie leaned toward her brother and began to whisper. Ernest shushed her just as the music began.
Tell me the story of Jesus. Write on my heart every word. Tell me the story most precious, sweetest that was ever heard. Tell how the angels in chorus, sang as they welcomed his birth. Glory to God in the highest! Peace and good tidings to earth ...
Emie felt peace wash over her. Somehow being in church brought her a sense of well-being. Ernest said it was Jesus showing her His love. Mama told her that Jesus loved her, but life in the holler was hard. Life in the Ashby family seemed especially hard. Where was God's love? Auntie Ada told her once to look at the willows – cuz they even praised God.
Tell of the cross where they nailed Him, writhing in anguish and pain. Tell of the grave where they laid Him. Tell how He liveth again. Love in that story so tender, clearer than ever I see. Stay, let me weep while you whisper. Love paid the ransom for me.
Auntie Ada was right – the willows did weep with us and whisper about the love of God. Even in the holler, the story of Jesus was tender. Moved by the music and her thoughts of the willows, Emie sighed and prayed in her heart, Lord, help me.
"If your lips itch, it means you want to be kissed." (Appalachian Folk Belief)
"Mama, where are Ruby and Garnett?" Emie asked as she poked a hole with her right index finger in the red soil. She then dropped in a com seed. Emie enjoyed outdoor work far more than the tedious tasks of cooking, cleaning, and then cooking again, but gardening was generally reserved for the older girls.
Mama prided herself in the vegetables she raised for her large family. Last summer when Emie had pleaded to help, Mama had hushed her and said, "Your turn will come."
The vegetables they grew sustained the family throughout the year. The potatoes and onions were placed in the root cellar. Other vegetables were eaten fresh, and then later in the summer, they were canned and stored in the pantry. In late fall, any wilted greens left in the garden went to the pigs.
Apple, peach, and plum trees dotted the green meadow between the Ashby barn and Big Creek. Blackberries and raspberries grew in the wooded areas this side of Auntie Ada's home, but vegetables had to be planted and tended. Emie enjoyed the cool morning breeze. The sun was shining, but it was not directly overhead.
Mama avoiding Emie's question, chuckled as she worked alongside her daughter. "Them boys of mine sure eat like mules. I'm glad Lester took the time to plow the garden. Today's a fine day for plantin' seeds."
Lester had mixed the red clay with manure a few weeks earlier. The manure, baked in the sun, would break down and add nutrients to the West Virginia clay.
Mama often compared the boys to mules: they ate like mules, they stomped their feet like mules, and even fluffed like mules. "Fluffed" was Mama's word for passing gas. Emie didn't see the mule comparisons as compliments, but Ernest and Lester didn't find offense. They both laughed easily with Mama, especially when Daddy wasn't around.
Mama wasn't answering her question. Emie knew she'd heard her. It seemed Mama could hear her children fussing a mile away. With Emie standing right next to her, Mama had heard loud and clear.
"Why aren't Ruby and Garnett helpin'?" Emie tried again.
"Baby girl, some things are best left unsaid. But bein' your mama and all, I know you won't let up till I explain. Ruby and Garnett are off courtin'. Your daddy's done made arrangements for them to marry the Houston boys up the holler," Mama answered.
"The twins aren't even sixteen yet. They ain't old enough to marry," Emie interjected, not trying to hide the exasperation in her voice.
"Girlie, you know how things are done in these hills. Once a girl is through eighth grade, and has started her menses, it's time to marry. The daddies talk among themselves and make the matches. We've been tradin' our pork for beef with the Houstons for years. It's a good match," Mama explained.
"Don't Ruby and Garnett get a say?" Emie asked indignantly. "I've seen them Houston boys. They're none too handsome! I think Eugene might even be cross-eyed."
"Emie, mind what you say," Mama said, shaking her head. "The twins know how things is done. They'll farm and raise babies with their husbands. Now hush and get to work. The sun will be hot before you know it."
Emie and Mama continued their work in silence – both enjoying the spring morning in the holler. Emie worked as hard as a grown woman. There was no complaining or making excuses. Even when the outhouse called, she continued her planting. She didn't want to disappoint Mama. Hard work was a given in the hills - just like marrying young and raising a family.
Emie was fourteen. She'd finish eighth grade in just a few weeks. She wasn't sure what "menses" was, but now didn't seem the time to ask. Mama was preoccupied with her thoughts. Emie enjoyed seeing the smile on her mother's face. Mama had told her once that working in the garden was better than church any day. "I can pray clearer and worship sweeter with my hands in the red clay," were her mother's words.
Excerpted from "The Whispering of the Willows"
Copyright © 2017 Tonya Jewel Blessing.
Excerpted by permission of Capture Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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