Joe Martin Fire in the Rock

ISBN 13: 9780970897213

Fire in the Rock

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9780970897213: Fire in the Rock

In the summer of ’56, in a small southern town, sixteen-year-old Bo Fisher thought he had it made. With an easy job, the use of a truck, and plenty of free time to spend with lovely, long-legged Mae Maude and contagiously energetic Pollo, the season seemed to stretch before him like a dream. For a preacher’s son, it was a startling whiff of independence: a rare opportunity to hang around people his parents didn’t pick out for him. And though he had to mind the rules of propriety, Bo didn’t think twice about befriending Pollo, who just so happened to be black. Of course, not everyone was so open-minded. After a terrible incident cuts short the youthful carelessness of the summer, Bo assumed he would never see Pollo or Mae Maude again. But ten years later, trouble brings the two men together once more—older, wiser, changed. And in order to save the future for one of them, the haunting events of that time long ago must be unearthed.

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Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Sister Holy Ghost & the Fourth of July

Just about the time Sue Snoddy became a teenager, she decided that her name didn’t amount to much. So she changed it. From her mythology lessons at the kudzu-covered house up by the turn-off from the main road, she chose “Terpsi-chore, Goddess of Dance” as her new name, and she was dead serious about it. “Terpsi” would have been a perfect nickname for her even then, but Miz Snoddy Senior had asserted a mother’s rights and surrendered the old name only to the full thing — “Terpsi-chore” — or, for short, Cora. And Cora had stuck.

Years later, on the Fourth of July 1956, Cora at a very ripe thirty was back in the side yard of her mother’s house out at the end of Brickstore Road, absentmindedly doing handkerchief calisthenics with a limp lace rag high as she could reach up over her head — more of a pose, actually, than an activity. She looked like a too-delicate alabaster reproduction of the Statue of Liberty with her torch wilted in the heat. Crape myrtles at the edge of the yard framed her in deep red starbursts like so many skyrockets, their thunder muffled by the thick noontime humidity. There was no breeze at all. Nothing moved. Cora’s breasts, so clearly defined by a white cotton dress that clung like thin molten bronze to every moist curve and crevice, just as clearly did not seem to rise and fall. Her knees and bare ankles, bent in a near faint, did not buckle. Her skin glistened, but no sweat dropped. She was fixed in some strange dimension right there in front of us, bombs bursting in mid-air, Miss Liberty in mid-wilt. Cora had never looked lovelier.

As far as I could tell, Cora had not noticed us gathering in the shade of a one-sided tree like cattle from some mixed-breed herd: her daughter Mae Maude and me on the arms of a wooden lawn chair, our summer tans almost matching its natural oak finish, and Pollo (“rhymes with follow,” he would say, always adding, “follow Pollo,” although nobody really ever did) the bicycle boy from the store. Pollo, just turned sixteen, same age as us, was sitting on the ground with his bare chocolate-bronze back against the trunk of the tree. Then there was Cora’s mother Miz Snoddy Senior and the Young Senator standing under straw hats at the edge of the shade, both of them with pale white skin apparently never exposed to the sun — except for Miz Snoddy’s leathery hands, which looked like they belonged to somebody else — and finally Sister Holy Ghost, who stood black as an iron fencepost and just as ramrod straight at the end of an old wicker settee.

“You call her, Sister,” said the Young Senator in his low and reassuring voice. Leadership came easy and often to him, even when it didn’t work very well.

“Not me,” Sister Holy Ghost said. “She’ll just start it all up again.”

“Okay,” he said in his most thoughtfully sincere tone. “Miz Snoddy, you see if you can get her over here.”

“Terpsi-chore!” she called. “Get out of the sun. Come over here and have some tea. It’s got that sweet mint in it just like you like. Come on over here, Cora. It’s cooler in this shade.”

It was no surprise to anybody that Sister Holy Ghost was right about Cora starting it all up again. As soon as she moved toward us, the high nasal hum-singing began, in a tune we had heard many times: “Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe.”

“Uhnt uhvunh unhvunhree puhnluhnciz, uhnto unh wuhnld uhnv woe—”

Cora sang “woe” in a dragged-out, pouty-mouthed way, like Marilyn Monroe trying to say something more than she was really saying. When Cora got to “woe,” her eyes always locked in on somebody and then drifted off again as she went on. It was the loveliest, liltingest, sweetest sound I’d ever heard. When Cora sang, I could see Jesus floating down from his ivory palaces and landing smack in the middle of that world of woe where Cora lived so much of her life.

But it just made Sister Holy Ghost mad.

For one thing, she was used to better stuff. When she wanted music, she wanted it with punch. Rhythm. Energy. Bodies rocking and hands waving and clapping. I doubt they ever sang Cora’s song at Sister’s House of Prayer in town, but if they did, it would have started with a shout: “Out!(clap) of the I-(clap)-vor-y pa-(clap)-la-ces(clap clap), In!(clap)to a world(clap)of woe (clap clap clap)...”

And as for that fixed-eye stare, I had seen Sister Holy Ghost use it herself, at a frenzied House of Prayer Saturday service when I was twelve and I went to see Daddy Grace, “Sweet Daddy,” just to see if it was true that people would throw money at him or pay him for his handkerchief after he blew his nose in it or any of the wild things white people said colored people did. The whole place was rocking, throbbing to the drums and brass band and swaying with crowded bodies, except for Daddy Grace, who sat motionless on a red velvet throne fixed steady in the middle of that swirling mass, smiling, with his long black hair combed perfectly around his shoulders. Two light-brown women in pure white dresses and white feathered hats mopped his brow with little cloths they then handed out to people in two jumping writhing lines that snaked to the drumbeat past buckets filling with money while the horns blew louder and louder. Then Sister Holy Ghost fixed that stare on me, and I knew that I was in the wrong place and the Spirit had taken everybody but me, and I was a sinner for coming just to look and not to believe, and Daddy Grace was probably going to bring the whole place down on my head. I wanted to shout “Sweet Daddy, I’m sorry!” but somebody would be sure to tell my mother, and I wanted to run away but I could never outrun those shouting bouncing frenzied people, and Sister Holy Ghost still had that stare on me and I couldn’t even turn my eyes away, let alone my body. I was dead in sin, and I stood there paralyzed until things calmed down. I sneaked out while people were looking for their seats again, and I ran home, and nobody followed me except for that stare, and I knew that my sins had been seen, clean through. Sister Holy Ghost was really good.

Cora was just pathetic. Where Sister Holy Ghost drew sin right out of her victims, Cora seemed to be trying to explain something about her own self. Her stare didn’t even interest us very much. When she fixed those woebegone eyes on the Young Senator beneath our one-sided tree, we didn’t even look back at her; we looked at him. The Young Senator, far from freezing, fidgeted. He looked down at the ground and at Sister Holy Ghost and up at the tree and took his handkerchief out of his hip pocket and wiped the side of his neck and across his mouth and dabbed at his forehead.

“Cora,” he said, stuffing the handkerchief back in his pocket, “you know Sister.”

Cora smiled and settled slow motion onto the end of the wicker settee like a human antimacassar, her body draped across the curved arm, her legs crossed at the ankles and hooked around the ball-and-claw foot of the settee, her fingertips and handkerchief coming to rest on the dusty ground. Sister Holy Ghost sat down beside her, as starched as Cora was limp. The two of them were about the same age, but they couldn’t have been any more different if they had tried. Sister’s sensible black lace-up shoes were properly together in front of her; her black-stockinged legs, just slightly darker than her skin color, were perfectly vertical. With white-gloved hands, she smoothed her straight black skirt and arranged the ruffled high neck of her fresh white blouse, then rested her hands in her lap. Without moving her body, she turned her head precisely to look at Cora through the veil of a black pill-box hat. Cora only rolled her head back toward the Young Senator.

“Sister says she can help,” he said. “She’s a counselor. A minister, really, with her people in town. And she likes us. Lined up a ton of votes for me, you know. Everybody says, Sister, you turned the tide.” He winked and pointed at her with both hands, ignoring the fact that Sister’s voting bloc had been transferred from the Old Senator — the Real Senator — to the son for reasons that had nothing to do with the son. “Anyhow, Cora, she even knows hip-no-tism. Honest to God. She can help you get over that bad dream. If you know what it is you’re dreaming about, it’ll go away.”

“Come on, Cora, honey,” said Sister. “There’s no magic to it. We’ll just talk about it.” She took Cora’s hand. “Come on, let’s go to the house.”

Cora exhaled and somehow rose to an upright stance as if somebody had lifted her by strings attached to her shoulders, with her feet the very last parts of her body to come into line. Sister Holy Ghost nodded to Miz Snoddy Senior and marched off to the house with Cora sliding along beside her, the handkerchief now flying from fingertips held at right angles to her arm and swinging opposite to the movement of her body, like a flag of resistance to any forward progress.

Nobody had to recount Cora’s dream for us. Mae Maude and I had heard it direct from Cora, and we had told Pollo. Besides, Cora had told it everywhere: She would dream that her eyes were wide open, and she would see a brown slowly-swirling haze in front of her; she would try to wake up before it covered her, but she couldn’t take her eyes off it; then she would see the head of her ex-husband rolling with his eyes open and fixed in a dead stare and his face sliding into the brown bog, and s...

From School Library Journal:

Adult/High School-At its heart, Martin's first novel is about coming-of-age, racism, and the definitions of friendship. In the South in the 1950s and '60s, three teens spend what appears to be an idyllic summer swimming, riding around in a borrowed pick-up truck, and preparing a church camp in a woodsy setting. Bo and Mae Maude, who are white, and Pollo, who is black, barely feel the underlying restlessness that threatens the beauty of their summer. Bo, the narrator, doesn't think a lot about the Jim Crow laws and the narrow-minded thinking of the time and place. He doesn't give much thought to the "settlement," the socially invisible community of black people who provide domestic service and labor in his town. Then, Bubba arrives and claims Mae Maude as his, and when he finds that she has befriended Pollo, and defends him as well, the carefree summer takes a violent turn. Ten years pass. Pollo has become a minister, and, also, a target for the local Ku Klux Klan. After what starts out as a tense reunion with him, Bo begins to piece together the puzzle of what really happened at the end of that summer. This is a courageous and unsettling novel. It is fast paced and gripping, and the main characters, portrayed with compassion and occasional humor, have substance and vulnerabilities. History is both lived and revisited in this compelling story.
Susanne Bardelson, Arvada Public Library, Jefferson County, CO
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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