The author of the hit Redemption Song returns with a sparkling new novel about looking for love in all the wrong places—and with all the wrong people.
Bernita Brown is a quick-thinking, tireless social worker who is good at practically everything—except love. When her first marriage ends in divorce—a painful experience Bernita refuses to think about—she dives into a series of sad relationships and overwhelming commitments to community and church. But not even church can keep her from being courted by dogs. Bernita’ s married pastor begins making passes at her, then blames her for his backsliding. Along the way, the ghost of Bernita’s aunt Babe weighs in with plenty of advice (after all, Aunt Babe says, “You don’t need to be alive to tell folks how to live”). But when a marvelous man finally enters Bernita’s life, only time can tell whether she will be able to trust him.
Written with Berry’s signature warmth, When Love Calls, You Better Answer addresses a host of powerful topics, from abusive relationships to corrupt church leaders. Bernita’s story will inspire readers to find the love they need, especially the love that can only come from within.
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When Love Calls, You Better Answer
By Bertice Berry
Random HouseBertice Berry
All right reserved.
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When a painful story is told out loud, it sets somebody free. Sometimes it's the storyteller, most times though, it's the listener. They say that if we honor the ancestors with our lives, then will they honor us with their stories.
My name is Shoulda Been Wright. I married a Wright, but my daddy said that I should have been a boy, so he named me Shoulda Been. I'm dead. Been that way for some time now, but dead ain't never mean done-it just puts you closer to truth, closer to life.
The story I'm telling is not about me, but then again it is. My niece, Bernita, is the flip side of my coin. I had a lot of men because I was afraid that nobody would ever really love me. She had a lot 'cause she was afraid to really love. Bernita is the reason I'm here, 'cause what don't get done in this life is passed down to the next generation. If you ain't had no children of your own, then it's passed down to your family's children.
Bernita is my sister Buster's child. Now, don't get to thinking that I'm from a crazy family 'cause we got a bunch of funny names. What you name a child is important, but how you treat them is bigger. Having a different-sounding name ain't what makes you bad. Just think about people like Condoleezza, Oprah, and Colin. Them names ain't no different. We just don't have a problem saying difficult names if they attached to money and power. But now you take them young Shaniquas and Tyreeses-hey, I wonder if the plural of Tyreese is Tyerye-anyway, those kids get pulled into thinking that they are less than a Bob or Mary, and then they start to acting like they are. That's what they call a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whew, now that's a big one. Hearing me talk, you probably thinking I'm a ball of contradictions. But if you're really listening, then you know that wisdom don't just come from college classrooms.
Even though I didn't like school I always liked reading and learning, and I can still bust a verb with the best of them. It's good to be book smart, but it's even better to combine that with spirit and life. Anyway, my sister Buster had one child, and one child only. She had that child just to prove to my sister Ronnie that she could.
Bernita was born fussing. She cried day and night. The only thing that seemed to quiet her down was that baby buggy. Whenever I would walk with her, she got to cooing and smiling, like she was pure joy and light. I guess every child is. But I was just a kid myself, and when my sister Buster was working and come to think of it, even when she wasn't, I was the one who watched Bernita. I didn't like Bernita from day one. Mind you, I didn't hate her; I just didn't like her.
Before you get to thinking that I felt like that 'cause Bernita stole my place as the baby in the family, think on this-when you living in a house that's headed up by hate, ain't nobody the apple of anybody's eye. We were all too busy trying to judge my daddy's moods. My daddy-would say "rest his soul," but I know for a fact that his soul ain't resting-was mean as they came. He could be peaceful one minute and then he'd up and smack you for no cause at all. Maybe he had a reason, but we never knew what it was.
I was the last of eight girls. We lived in Sylvania, Georgia, in a house that was too big to be small and too small to be big. It was somewhere in the middle. That was the only thing that was average about us. Everything else was high drama. It wasn't the everyday soap opera kind. No sir, no ma'am. We had that Sunset Boulevard drama. Wasn't nothing normal. Sometimes he would come home cussing and fussing. Other times, he would drag in all slow, get a plate of food, and go to his room. I preferred the cussing. If he was dragging, it just meant that the storm was coming later. And storms that come in the night always seem bigger and blacker than if they come in the day.
By the time Bernita was born my daddy had settled down some. But that's like saying Hitler was nicer in his later years. Anyway, it was my job to try to keep Bernita quiet so she wouldn't set my daddy off. Since almost anything could set him off, I knew the best thing to do when he was there was to leave. I would take Bernita to the park in that buggy of hers where everybody would say how cute she was. Of course, that made me like her even less. But it was in the park that I found out that Bernita was good for something. Sometimes, grown men would come up and say how pretty she was. Sometimes, they would ask if she was mine. The first time someone asked, I told the man he must be crazy. I call him a man 'cause he looked past twenty, but not old enough to really be grown.
"I'm just a kid myself, mister," I said.
He looked at me real hard and got to grinning like he knew something I didn't. "Well," he said, still smiling with teeth that were too big for his own mouth, "sometimes, young girls like doing it."
Now back then, I didn't really know what "it" was. I'd heard my sisters talking about this "it," and I think I heard my mama and daddy doing "it." My sisters made this thing sound like you had to be a part of a secret organization that only older girls could get into before you could know what it was. There was something in the way they talked about "it" that made me think of something special, like mashed sweet potatoes on a Tuesday night. (We only had them on Sundays and Thanksgiving.) Some foods are all in the taste, but some are in how they feel too. Mashed sweets are like that. I would close my eyes and let that top layer of crispy buttery crust snap in my mouth, so the soft sweetness would melt through. Getting something like that on a regular Tuesday sure would have been nice.
The man in the park with the big teeth was smiling harder 'cause when he said that about young girls liking to do "it," I was thinking 'bout them mashed sweets, but he thought that I was thinking bout "it." I had one hand on Bernita's buggy and the other one on my hip when I heard him say, "You cute too."
He was the first man to show me any attention, and as it turned out, the first one I did "it" with. I was thirteen and Bernita wasn't no more than a year old. It sure changed me, and I know now that it changed her too. 'Cause when he took me to the park bathroom, Bernita was right there with me. She may have just been a baby, but believe me when I tell you, babies see what's going on.
Now if you asked most folks, they would say that man raped me. Considering the difference in our age and the wisdom he was supposed to have, I guess he did. But I'm gonna tell the truth, 'cause that's all I can tell you. I liked what he did. Not the physical part, 'cause that hurt me real hard. I liked that this man was being nice to me, and saying sweet things.
If a girl don't hear the kindness she needs to hear from the right man, she will look to hear it from any man.
The time I was with him wasn't that long. But he kept telling me that I was pretty and that he was going to do things for me, 'cause I deserved them. But after that, I never saw him again. I went to the park time and again hoping to find him, but he didn't come back. After a while I figured he must have found somebody that he liked better than me.
I never even knew his name.
Well, I said that I was gonna tell you about my niece Bernita, and I am. But you can't understand her life 'til you understand mine and see where hers came from. Bernita's mama, Buster, didn't like her daughter all that much neither. My sister was too much like her name, a regular buster. One day she started going to see a woman everybody said was funny. There wasn't nothing 'bout her that made me laugh though. That woman was tough like my daddy, but she was real sweet on Bernita. Which made her nothing like my daddy when I think of it, 'cause he wasn't sweet on nobody. Whenever my daddy was in one of his ways, Buster would go over to Miss Eudora's house.
"I'm outta here," she would say, walking just like my daddy. "I don't need to hear none of this mess. I work hard too. Babe, you take care of Bernie and make sure that she gets something to eat."
I wanted to tell her to feed her own child. But then I would remember the nameless man with the big grin and pretty words. I figured that it was Bernita that brought him to me the first time and maybe she could do it again.
Well, like I said, that man never did come back, but I met others. They all said the same stuff. But with them, I made sure I got a name first. I knew that most times it wasn't their real name, but at least I had a word to go with my thoughts. Later on I would imagine that I was Mrs. Jim Wilson, or Mrs. Clarence White. None of them men would've ever married me. I know that now, but I was just trying to have something to believe in.
In my mind, they were all the first man with the big grin. By the time I realized that they didn't care nothing about me, and that they were just getting what they wanted, I had nicknames, and a reputation to match. I was "Miss Hot Pants" or "Miss Too Hot to Trot." The girls were more creative than the boys and meaner too. They called me "Peanut Butter," because they said I spread easy.
Now, you may be wondering where my mother and sisters were when all of this was going on. You probably thinking that somebody in my house should have known something. Well, someone did, but by then, she was just five years old.
Ain't no hurt like an old hurt.
Folks say that childbirth is natural. I say it's a miracle. Ain't nothing natural or normal about what happens to women when they give birth. Now, I bet you wondering how I know about it since I ain't had no children of my own. That's something I need to tell you 'bout. You see, over here on the other side, we can see some of everything. We can call up a memory and see it from start to finish. Even if I wasn't dead when it happened. I can even get a hold of the thoughts of the folks I'm connected to. That sure is something. That's why it ain't right for the living to do too much meddling with the dead. It upsets the balance of life. If you could see and know all that we do from the other side, there really wouldn't be a reason to keep on living. Nor would you want to. There's no sorrow over here. But just because you shouldn't meddle too much doesn't mean we can't. No sir, more you learn about your ancestors, more you learn about yourself.
That's how I got to help my Bernita, but I'm a bit ahead of myself. I was telling you about my mama. After the birth of all her girls, my mama, rest her soul (I know for a fact she is resting real good. And she's in charge of the Bingo hall over here to boot), would go through what the old folks called "dark patches." After she had me, my daddy told her that I was gonna be just like her, good for nothing. From then on, her dark patches were more like the whole cloth. If I didn't know better, I would say that what my daddy prophesized had come true. But I know better, so I can tell you the truth; that he knew what was 'bout to happen because he made it happen. It's like somebody yelling, "Look out, you're gonna fall," then pushing you down. He did the same thing to me, but while his bitterness killed my mama, that same bitterness is what I used to live.
My daddy used to yell at my mama something fierce. To hear him tell it, she never moved fast enough, or did anything right. To make his matters worse (according to him), she went and brought him a bunch of girls when all my daddy wanted was a boy. Just one would have been enough. Well, one day my mama got the strength to tell him how low he was. She said that the only thing she done wrong was to marry him. And she only married him 'cause nobody else had asked her, and she was afraid that nobody else ever would. I'm sure you know people like that. I'm a tell you something that I learned late in life-don't settle for the "it'll do." That's what I call something that you just put up with, on account of you ain't got what you really need. You can't make somebody wrong for you into somebody right, and my mama found that out firsthand. She told my daddy all that and a bunch of other stuff too. She got herself real worked up. Just when my daddy was about to put a stop to all her sassing, God up and took her home. I guess she was kind of praying for that.
The doctor said that she died from a heart attack, but I know it wasn't nothing of the kind. Attacks come quick and take you by surprise. What killed my mama had been happening for some time.
You would think that my mama dying the way that she did would have done something to make my daddy change. Well, he did, but it sure wasn't for the better. My daddy kept his meanness, but then he started getting the same dark patches my mama had. He got worse and my sisters got gone until it was just me, Buster, and Bernita left, but Buster wasn't around that much. So it was really just me and the baby.
Bernita grew up in a house of pain. Her granddaddy was mean and mad. Her mother, my sister Buster, was usually nowhere to be found. And me, I was the town whore. Bernita was seeing me go from one bed to the next. At the time, I thought I was doing what I wanted to do and that all that bed hopping made me free. But all it did was give me more pain. With each man came another promise of lasting love, and for that moment, I lied to myself and tried to believe that maybe this one will stay. But it was always the same. People got to saying that Bernita was mine. They figured I was fast enough to have had plenty babies. But that was one thing I never went through. I know it was nobody but God that kept it from happening. The men who came around didn't like using no protection. They said that they wanted to feel all of my sweetness around them.
Wasn't nothing sweet about it, 'cause they pleasure was my sadness.
Excerpted from When Love Calls, You Better Answer by Bertice Berry Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
1. Did Aunt Babe remind you of any of your relatives or ancestors? How did your understanding of her change throughout the novel? What is the effect of having someone from the spirit world narrate Bernita’s story?
2. What do the “dogs” in Bernita’s life have in common? What similar tactics do they use to lure her? Have you ever fallen for these tactics?
3. At the beginning of chapter seven, Aunt Babe says that Tyrone’s marriage proposal was more like a business proposition. At the end of the novel, we learn about his childhood and how it put a gulf between his true self and the man his family expected him to be. What might have kept him from becoming so calculating? Why was Bernita willing to settle for such an un-romantic proposal?
4. Do you think Jimmymack a typical man? Is he typical of the men Bernita grew up with? What determines our expectations of the opposite sex? What is the best way to tell whether real love is calling?
5. Re Member spins fantastic stories about his past life and Bernita’s. What made his tales so appealing to her? What did she want to believe about her roots?
6. Are Van and Tricia able to separate fact from fiction? On some level, do they believe the lies they tell each other, and their congregation?
7. If you were to write a letter in the spirit of the ones written by Douglas and Bernita, would you write to yourself, someone in your future, someone from your past, or God? What would be the heart of the message in that letter?
8. Bernita’s first experiences away from family occur at college. How did this chapter prepare her for the world? What “education” could she only receive by facing her past?
9. Bernita struggles to break free from people who want to use her. What lessons does she have for communities and other segments of the world that strive to break free? How does she embody the process of liberation?
10. What do Douglas and Bernita share in terms of family history and dating? What finally gives Douglas the courage to pursue Bernita, instead of the other way around? Why does she hold out longer than he does?
11. Who is your version of MaBisha? What makes certain friendships outlast any separation?
12. Chapter twenty-two begins with Aunt Babe’s rules for communicating with the dead, which include “speak when spoken to, show respect, and don’t walk away until you’ve been dismissed.” When Lola at last brings Aunt Babe and Bernita together, the reunion falls short of those rules. How would you have reacted if you had been in Bernita’s shoes? Which of your ancestors would you most like to meet?
13. Chapters twenty-four and twenty-five feature Bernita’s ceremony of forgiveness. If you were to have a ceremony like hers, whose names would be on your forgiveness list?
14. The novel’s closing chapters return to Aunt Babe’s generation, with revelations about Goody and Buster in particular. What does this legacy mean for Bernita? What opportunities does she have for a fulfilling life–opportunities Aunt Babe could not enjoy?
15. When Douglas and Vernon discover that they are blood brothers, the novel’s family ties are complete. Douglas is also able to sell a painting for a million dollars (which Bernita uses to help those in need) while Van and Tricia face eviction. What would the world look like now if this much joy and justice could prevail? What can we do to answer the call of love–not just romantic love–and tap its true power?
16. How does When Love Calls, You Better Answer enhance the complete collection of Bertice Berry’s novels? How does its message compare to that of the other three?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book favors the writing style of Tina McElroy Ansa with it's spirits and humor. She is a gifted writer with profound messages in simple tales, using old adages, sayings, common sense and astute observations about people and human nature in general. The story was filled with hilarious commentary. I liked the message she conveyed that the spirits or our ancestors are partly responsible for putting us on the right path and are part of our decision making. While the novel was slower at some places than I would have liked, but overall, it was an enjoyable read.
Loved it. This story made me remember things about faith, love and family. What’s you see in front of you is not all there is. Ancestors wow.
I loved this book. I listened to the musical references and underlining passages. This book will especially speak to any woman who has left her twenties behind.
This book was a gift to me from my father. I finally got around to reading it and thought this is a little strange. It truly is a great story just not entirely my cup of tea. I enjoyed it and the message was thought provoking. The characters and all they went through stayed with me a few days after I closed the book. People who enjoy love-endures-it-all type novels will especially enjoy this book.
You have to read this omg ps. I love shania twain!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Love this book. I love this book. I love this book. I can't say it enough. I was walking pass a row of books at the library, when this book caught my attention. Boy, I'm I glad I decided to read it. I have never experience writing in this manner. This is the first book that I have read from this author, but it is safe to say that it will not be the last. What inspiration one is able to draw from after reading such an uplifting book. As I was reading this book I kept thinking about patience. Sometimes it's better to just wait. And let God work instead of us trying to help God out. I learned so much from this book, even about our love ones that have past on. I would recommend that everyone read this book, and then give a copy as a gift to a friend or relative, they will be so glad that you did.
She's now one of my favorite authors! I've read two of her books so far and loved them both! Great characters, great story, you will not be disappointed! I'm looking forward to her next novel, keep 'em coming!
This book was recommended to me and I thank God for the one who sewed it into my life. It made me think and appreciate the possibilities. I fell in love with Aunt Babe. All I can say is, read it. Thank you Bertice.
I must say at first I was skeptical about reading a book with a 'ghost' talking, but after I started to read more, I fell in love with the character, Bernice Brown. Berry has you rooting for the characters, as she brings to light every day experiences with great words of wisdom as this woman finds herself and possibly love! Great inspirational and funny! Great read!
Good good book. I feel in love with the characters, they were so well written.
This is by far one of the best books I have read. I was hooked from the first page & couldn't put it down. Ms. Berry has done a magnificant job of dealing with what love is all about.