Jake Hatton came by today, looking for a pint of whiskey. I told him never to come to the house, but to hide out in the woods by the creek and wait until he sees me out in the yard. He can whistle a hooty-owl call to me, and I will meet him down by the big sycamore.
It is the Great Depression, 10-year-old Pearl Wallace lives in the mountains of rural Tennessee. In this holler, she makes money by skimming off her daddy’s homemade whiskey, in a time when prohibition is in effect, this dabbling in criminal activity is a bit of a worry for her, after all Al Capone has the law after him and he bootlegs, and it’s a sin but going without nice shoes and being unable to give much-needed to gifts to her loved ones makes it a sort of necessity, if you will. Her best friend Darlene is a ‘white Negro’, whose step daddy is a mean bully, beating on her and her mamma. She fears for her daily, even if she is a catholic!
Emily Weston is a missionary come to save the hillbillies from their savage ignorance, to be a holy guiding light to the boys and girls of the holler so they can one day become God faring young men and women. She has led a privileged life in the city among the elite, and while heart is in the right place, she is the one blinded by ignorance. She will be shocked by their sins of drunkenness and humming, Halloween celebrations. The charm of this novel is that the telling alternates between both Pearl and Emily. Pearl makes is delightfully humorous and tender. Emily’s perspective is given through letters to her parents, much more reserved than the letters to her sister, and letters to Jonathan whom is in love with her. Pearl’s voice is heard through her journal entries for class (Miss Emily’s idea) and her own private, grittier version that she writes for herself. Her childlike innocence in not understanding why ‘kilts’ would scare ‘colored folks’ perfectly expresses childish naiveté. Emily will come off her high horse as she begins to see just how knowledgable these ‘hillbillies’ really are, their godliness is evident in their community, brotherhood. Some speak French, teach it to their children, not so uneducated as Emily thinks. Just like anywhere else, you have the good, bad and the ugly.
Emily is much more likable as the teacher becomes the student. Young herself, her heart is lost in confusion and she is all mixed up, with her feelings toward Jonathan in particular. Pearl wants so bad to be good herself, and is ashamed of her anger and sins (stealing and selling his moonshine), especially when she thinks life would be easier without her daddy and his drinking. To say times are lean is an enormous understatement, but the people of this community pull together to survive. Not everyone has someone to protect them, and sometimes standing up for someone who is different can endanger your own family. Pearl and her family have courage, even with the threat of violence, Pearl cannot allow fear to stand in the way of solving Darlene and her mamma’s troubles. Emily will be a changed woman, fall in love with the very people she once held in scorn, set out to save. There is a murder, and sometimes lies are necessary to save others.
Beautifully written, I felt like I was in the holler myself. I have a tender spot for mountain fiction, I’ve likely mentioned that so often that people are sick of hearing it. This book is a delight, but isn’t as light as it seems, it deals with some weighty topics of bygone days. Most people will love Pearl, she is a fierce little thing!
Publication Date: April 17, 2018
Light Messages Publishing