This novel takes place 10 years after HOW I FOUND THE STRONG ended and deals with the reconstruction and race relations after the war. Told from the point of view of 13 year old Addy, who is abandoned by her redneck family and taken in by Shanks (from STRONG) and his new wife. There Addy learns she can make different decisions than those dictated by her own racist family. Vivid scenes involving the Ku Klux Klan, a school burning and attempted lynching add drama to this riveting coming of age historical novel. Author, Margaret McMullen captures the hardship and hardscrabble feel of this post-Civil War time as well as the hopeful rebuilding of southern communities.
Margaret McMullan is the acclaimed author of When I Crossed No-Bob and How I Found the Strong, as well as the adult novels In My Mother’s House and When Warhol Was Still Alive. Her work has appeared in such publications as Glamour, the Chicago Tribune, and Michigan Quarterly Review. She is a professor and the chair of the English department at the University of Evansville in Indiana.
Read an Excerpt
Some folks say if you marry wearing a brown dress, you’ll live in the country, so I guess this new bride I see in front of us will live in town even though we don’t have a town anymore.
She’s wearing a white dress Momma says is made of cashmere with a hoop skirt made out of grapevines and her name is Irene. The one-room schoolhouse folks also use for church is open, and Momma and I can see this Irene walking up the middle of the room with a big man.
Momma and I are the only O’Donnells around and she bends to whisper in my ear. “Addy O’Donnell, you mind me and stay close.”
This Irene, she looks to be the kind of lady who grew up in one of those big two-story houses, with columns, and a separate kitchen and dining room built of logs set apart from the main house. While cooks kept busy all day cooking, this Irene, she probably had a slave fanning her to sleep. Before the war, that is. Back when they had slaves.
This big man is walking Irene to her beau, who is a tall man with sandy hair, and he looks happy- scared, his eyes crinkly from smiling. I know him to be the schoolteacher. His name is Mr. Frank Russell and both he and Miss Irene are lucky because they’re getting married and they have all their teeth.
In the front-row pews I can see Mr. Frank’s pa with one arm and Mr. Frank’s ma who has both her armsone of them around her little boy and the other around the flower girl who I know is called Little Bit.
“By golly, I wish that Irene’d marry me,” says Mr. McCollum, standing outside near us, wearing his fancy pants that hang from his bony body.
Miss Irene’s uncle gives her away because her pa died in the war. Her uncle must weigh as much as a good cow and I wonder how Mr. Frank, who looks to weigh not much over 120, summoned the courage to ask that big man for his only niece’s hand in marriage. What gave him that kind of brave?
We all watch Miss Irene and Mr. Frank smiling with their teeth, their foreheads touching while Brother Davenport says words. They say their vows and when they kiss, I don’t look away. I wonder if their love is fierce like Momma says her love for Pappy is. I wonder if Mr. Frank will ever go away to Texas like my pappy did.
When Pappy left, the misery attacked Momma and she turned into a different person. I know what to do when Momma has a cold or the stomach cramps. I fix her up with a nice cup of life-everlasting tea the way she taught me. And if the chills or fevers come, I dig up some horsemint to add to the tea. But I can’t heal this hurt she’s had since Pappy left us, and she hasn’t even asked me to try. I wish for once she would just ask me.
Somebody somewhere inside is playing a sweet song on the harmonica.
Their neighbors come out happy and spread out the cloths to make for a fine feast. These ladies must have been making pound cakes for more than a week. Even though we were not invited and most likely should not be here, Momma and I pretend to be happy too, though it is not hard with all this food and happiness before us. Momma teaches me to do like her. We straighten our thin brown calico dresses and smile, both of us hoping for chicken and cake.
She bends down, spits on a rag, and rubs hard on the scar that runs down the side of my nose. Dirt always goes there first.
If you look closely, you can see that Momma was pretty once. Now, her face is sunken in and lined up with worry, sorrow, anger, and hunger. When Pappy left, her hair went from blond to brown to white all in one year, and her eyes are always puffy from crying.
I recognize most everybody from church. We O’Donnells all attend Sunday services. Around here, if you don’t go to church, you’re not a person at all, but an animal. Around here, if you don’t go to church, the elders come and get you and make you go to church, and if you still don’t go, you are shunned, which is worse than being an animal. The O’Donnells pride ourselves on going to church. The O’Donnell men stand their guns in the corner of the church during preaching. People have gotten used to us all coming in barefooted.
There is a pit dug out in the ground with Mr. Pig in there front and center, spinning and roasting, and chicken pies like I’ve never seen. Everywhere I look, I see flowers and children playing at marbles, hopscotch, run-and-catch, climbing trees, gathering nuts. Ard Reacy is playing “Turkey in the Straw” on his fiddle, and after his dog, Old Shep, looks up from his sleep, he starts in on “Molly Put the Kettle On.”
So many of the men have stumps for arms or cane legs made from timber. They siit on benches from the schoolhouse, split logs with pegs for legs, pegs just like the ones they wear. After the war was over, they all came crawling back to Smith County half-dead or half-alive.
When Pappy was here, he told meeeee stories about the war and the world too.
After the war, after the gunfire and the cannons and the fires, O’Donnells and Smith County folks both, soldiers and deserters, straggled back all ragtag after fighting at Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and others. They all came back with the guns they kept even though they were supposed to give them up and promise never ever to take up arms against the government of the United States again. After the war almost every family was armed.
After the North burned our country and moved on, the Yankees put the state under martial law and had an army of colored soldiers stationed in Jackson. Their watchword was “White man, bottom rail’s on top now.”
So here we are, ten years later in this time called peace, when folks still sometimes walk around like they are sleeping, half clothed, half fed, one ear or both still ringing from the four years of war noise.
Pappy said after the war, the light was different. Most all of the trees were gone from fire or used for lumber and there was hardly any shade to be had. It turned hotter in the summer, colder in the winter. After the war, Pappy said we were all worse off.
Ard Reacy fiddles out “Dixie” and someone yells for him to quit, then someone else says no, go on. The wedding party falls silent and we all listen to Ard while we think on what all we’ve lost.
Every morning we still wake up and see nothing but ruinsruined towns, ruined railroads, ruined trees, ruined houses. Where there was once a house, maybe there’s a chimney or some steps leading to nowhere. You get to feeling ruined yourself. Hollow. With nobody coming to help. Nobody from the North. You look up at the sky and wonder if someone or something is going to just plop down and give a hand. Some cornmeal would be a mighty sight. And you know by the time anybody or anything comes, you’ll be too angry to say thank you. This hollow feeling is worse than mad. It’s a no-feeling that doesn’t feel human-like.
After the war, after the Yankees came and left, Pappy said they took all our horses and mules and killed all our cows and chickens and pigs. They didn’t leave us nothing to eat and we’re likely to starve to death. Everybody in these parts was mad and hungry and armed. Momma and me, we still use parched potato peels to make coffee, and every day I dig up the dirt in the smokehouse, drip that through the hopper, then boil it to get the salt. We’re lucky, though. Least we’re not eating dirt and green corn like I seen Walt O’Donnell’s children do.
Ard Reacy finishes playing “Dixie” and a few people clap.
Some of the people look our way and I steady myself for the mumbling. Some folks even back away. I know what they see: These here are beggars and they are white! Some might not even see our skin on account of some of the dirt I missed. Are they backing away because they are afraid of me, a twelve-year-old half their size? We know what they say about us. They say the O’Donnells is no better than termites. We only do harm and you can’t get rid of us.
It’s true what they say about the O’Donnells harnessing people instead of mules in No-Bob. Pappy and Anse plowed their own brother Garner and at noon put him in a mule stall and fed him hay and corn. Of course, he didn’t eat, but I guess if they’d have told him to, he would have tried.
That’s just the O’Donnell way.
Nona Dewitt prances my way and says, “Why don’t you find your brother or your pa and marry him. That’s what all you people do.”
“I don’t got no brother and my pappy’s gone.”
“Hush,” Momma says. Nona Dewitt and her followers laugh because I don’t get whatever joke Nona has just told.
“Stand up proud,” Momma says. “You’re an O’Donnell.”
These people here at the wedding never walk the plank that crosses the stream into No-Bob because they figure like Bob, they won’t come out.
Momma told me the story about how No-Bob got its name. One day, after the war, a freed black man named Bob, looking for some land to stake a claim, took a wrong turn and wandered into O’Donnell territory. The O’Donnells banded together. To take the colored situation in hand, they said. Bob never left. To set an example for Yankee justice, the sheriff in Smith County sent out a search party. People were everywhere looking, but they couldn’t find Bob. They were so tired and distraught when they came out of the hollow, they just said, “No Bob,” and that’s what the people of Smith County have called the place ever since. No-Bob.
Pappy liked that people were fearful of him and all the other O’Donnells. “We have a history,” he used to say. I puff out my chest and try on some of that O’Donnell scare. I try it on to make myself feel better around the likes of Nona Dewitt.
I can see that Momma is listening to the talk about the newlyweds. They got some land and a dwelling house. She tells me to pay attention and listen for silver in people’s purses and pockets and point those people out to her.
Momma is talking to a man with a mule and a wagon. I hear her, but I’m not listening. I’m still looking at all the food, wondering, When do we eat? I pull on Momma’s dress.
“Leave us alone now,” the man says to me.
“You heard him,” Momma says. “Now go on.”
Momma is telling the man with the mule her burdens and sorrows I’ve heard her tell people before. She says the word “Texas,” and when the man starts to nod, I have to turn away.
After Pappy got into a brawl with Garner O’Donnell, the brother he plowed, Garner shot Pappy in the arm. Pappy stood awhile, bleeding in front of Garner, saying how dare he shoot him with little itty-bitty buckshot. It was an insult. Momma sewed Pappy up and declared him leadproof.
That’s when Pappy left us for Texas. He said he would send for us when he could, but that was so many years ago, I can hardly remember his face.
Some folks say after being in the war for so long, Pappy got to missing the war and all the roaming around and all the bloody battles.
Momma looks away from the man with the mule toward me. She looks at me differently, like I’m a sack of bricks she’s tired of hauling.
I sneak food and eat under a clump of trees. People notice and pretend not to see or not to mind.
The girl they call Little Bit is not so little. She’s tall and blond like her mother and I catch her peachy smell as she passes. I tell her hey. She asks me my name and I tell her.
“Addy O’Donnell,” I say. “I’m twelve.”
She tells me she’s thirteen.
“I know a trick,” she says, and she makes the exact same sound as a crow.
“How you do that?”
“My big brother Frank taught me. He can teach anything. You want a cake?” She gives me one. We go and eat cakes standing down near the creek people say runs into the Tallahala. It’s the same creek that divides No-Bob and the rest of Smith County. Across the creek, we see two Choctaw women cutting cane to use to make their baskets. They are quiet and even though me and Little Bit watch, they don’t look over at us.
They are what they were before the war, ever since they gave up their land at the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, when Mississippians took away their homes. They’re not slaves, not landowners, not white, not black. They’re squatters.
One of the Choctaw women looks up at me, and for a minute, it feels like we recognize each other.
Little Bit’s talking about all the land her pa and her brother have just bought, most of it Indian land, and she’s all smug in her pink and white dress and ribbons. She talks more than plenty. In the water, our faces are side by side, same size but nothing alike. She’s light-skinned and light-haired; I’m ruddy-skinned with dull hair and dark eyes that people say make me look devilish. I am dirty, it’s true, and Little Bit has shoes and I do not.
“My ma was baptized in the Tangipahoa River in Magnolia,” she says. “I was baptized here. Where were you baptized?”
I don’t say nothing.
“What happened to your nose?” Little Bit asks me. “How did you get that scar?”
I don’t want to tell this pretty little girl that I haven’t been baptized yet and that my pappy swiped me with a poplar stick because I was up to no good, not after she told me what her big brother can teach her.
“I’m from a family,” I say right proud. “About the meanest family there ever was.”
I don’t know what gets into me. Momma always says it’s the devilment I get from Pappy, but I take to splashing Little Bit a little bit, and then a lot. She tells me to quit it and I don’t. And all of a sudden, she’s mad and I’m mad, and we’re on the banks and we’re down in it, fighting, and I’m painting that clean little pink face with mud and this Little Bit? She’s no little chip. She’s scratching and punching and we go at it, and all the while I’m thinking, This here wedding is big funjust like an O’Donnell wedding.
But then they come screaming. They all do. The whole wedding party comes running down to the creek, screaming all at once. They don’t mumble but say outright that I’m bad bad bad. Evil. Painting a white girl black like that, and then trying to drown her. Little Bit cries to hear them and her mother holds her tight.
In all the fuss, I can’t find Momma.
Only the menfolk hold me by the arms. No one else will touch me. They don’t want to get themselves dirty. I lean this way and that, trying to find the man with the mule. Maybe he knows where Momma is.
“Someone get this girl’s momma,” Mr. Frank Russell says.
Everyone nods, mumbling yes, that’s what should be done. A few women take their sons and daughters aside, like they don’t want their children to see the likes of me. They head out to help pack away the food and fold the linens.
Nobody seems to know where my momma is.
I am the last one at the wedding picnic and nobody knows what to do with me. I’m old enough to set out on my own, so that is just what I do. I start out alone on the road. People loading up their wagons, looking at me passing, shake their heads. Brother Davenport is talking with Mr. Frank when Miss Irene, the newlywed bride, stops me and takes my hand. She tells her new husband they’ll take me home. She says she knows where I live.
I can see that it angers and pleases Mr. Frank at once. He looks at me and frowns, and then looks at his new wife, who is smiling a soft, lippy smile that makes me ashamed of myself and the way I look. He hitches up his wagon to his mule and we three climb in, ready to go to No-Bob.
When I Crossed No-Bob 4.4 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
i read how i found the strong and the theme is amazing, i lovee it i loovee the auuthorr. i give it 1100%
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
This book is filled with distinct imagery, enjoyable characters and all the drama that a YA book could ask for. Durning this read, you run the gamet of emotions - happiness, excitment, sadness, heartbreak, anger, victory.
Ms. McMullan captured the post-Civil War South in its shame and glory from a child's eyes. I highly recommend this book.
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
I first read WHEN I CROSSED NO-BOB to help review it for our school library. It was so well-written and so full of thoughtful questions that I decided to read it as a read aloud in my fifth grade language arts classes. My students were on the edge of their seats the whole time. The development of the main character, Addy, is wonderful. The setting itself becomes a character in the story and experiences its own character arc that leaves you wondering if it's for the better or worse. I highly recommend this book to anyone! I told my students that I wouldn't be surprised if this was considered a classic someday!
More than 1 year ago
Margaret McMullan's WHEN I CROSSED NO-BOB is a beautiful, lyrical and uplifting novel for young readers (though adults will surely enjoy it, too). The story begins several years after the end of the novel's prequel, HOW I FOUND THE STRONG, at Shanks' (Frank Russell) wedding where twelve-year old Addy O'Donnell (of the famous and feared O'Donnell clan) is abandoned by her mother. Frank and his new bride take Addy in and Addy does everything she can to fit in with her new family. But Addy's past, in the form of her father, comes back to claim her and bring her back into the fold. Addy must conquer her fears and search deep into her soul to find the courage to do the right thing. It's a terrific story.
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