About Joelle's life before she was found - brought in from the railway depot, a scrawny five-year-old child - there isn't a lot known for sure. "And don't ask me! I can't remember anything", she snaps at anyone who pries, including the weird kid named Carlos who sits in the back row in Spanish class. But when Carlos, collector of arrowheads and Native American lore, tells her she looks like a girl in an old painting of Rhode Island's Narragansett Indians, Joelle can't help sneaking a look. She's surprised by a flicker of recognition. It's Carlos who leads her through the forest to the ancient Crying Rocks, where howls on windy days are thought to be the spirit voices of children long ago, flung from the boulders to early death. The terrible story draws Joelle into the downdraft of her own memory, to a window, a shadowy mother, a freight train escape from Chicago. It also leads her toward the history of a lost American people, and the discovery of a rare kind of courage that runs deep in her family.
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Janet Taylor Lisle's novels for young readers include five selected as Best Books of the Year by School Library Journal: Sirens and Spies, The Lampfish of Twill, Forest, A Message from the Match Girl (from the Investigators of the Unknown series), and Afternoon of the Elves, a Newbery Honor Book. Her most recent title for Atheneum is The Art of Keeping Cool, a Horn Book Fanfare title and winner of the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. She lives with her family of the coast of Rhode Island.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Every morning before Joelle comes out of the house to go to school, there is little Misti Martin waiting for her on the sidewalk. She stands behind the low prickly hedge, dangling her lunch box in one hand and staring with worshipful eyes at Joelle's front door, whose paint is peeling off and screen is ripped.
"That China girl is out there again," Aunt Mary Louise calls, catching sight of her figure from the upstairs window. "What's she want with you, anyway, a little kid like that?"
"Nothing," Joelle yells back, "and don't bother to come down. I'm making my own breakfast."
Aunt Mary Louise hasn't been feeling up to par since summer. First it was her back. Now her legs are giving her trouble. She used to get up at 6:00 A.M. to fix Vernon something to eat before he left for work at the turkey ranch. Lately, she's not even making it downstairs before Joelle has to leave.
The moment Joelle appears at the door, Misti's mouth drops open an inch or so. Her fine-rimmed eyes widen, as if she's seen something marvelous. Joelle strides across the beat-up lawn on her long legs and pushes through the prickly hedge, now bristling with the red berries of fall.
"How's it going, Misti?"
"Okay," she says.
"So what's for lunch today?" Joelle asks, looking down at the lunch box.
"A bologna sandwich without mustard, and a boiled egg," Misti barely breathes, collapsed with shyness.
"Well, that's a surprise," Joelle says, trying to keep things light. "That is truly a big surprise."
Misti nods. She eats the same thing for lunch every day. Seven days a week, four weeks a month, twelve months a year, a bologna sandwich without mustard, and a boiled egg. Joelle could say something mean about this if she wanted, but she holds back. Misti is too little to rag on.
"Do you have art today?" she asks instead, stooping over to speak as they begin to walk along. Misti, who is eight, is very small for her age, while Joelle, at thirteen, has grown unusually tall, five feet nine inches at last measurement and still going. There must have been a church steeple somewhere back in her family tree, Aunt Mary Louise often jokes.
"No art today," Misti answers, just above a whisper. She has coal black hair like Joelle, but shiny and sleek instead of thick. As best she can, she's wearing it the same way Joelle's wearing hers, pinned back with barrettes behind the ears.
"Oh yeah, I forgot. Only on Fridays, right? That's terrible, art just once a week. They should have it more. Especially for people like us, who really love it."
"You like it too?" Misti dares to ask. She's not really Chinese, but Japanese. Or rather, half Japanese. Aunt Mary Louise knows this, she just doesn't always remember to make the distinction. Misti's mother came from Japan when she was a child herself, and later met and married her father, who is an American. Misti was born and has lived her whole life so far just down the street.
"I used to," Joelle says, "when I was your age. I remember we made necklaces out of beer tabs one time. And another time we carved pendants out of wood. You know what a pendant is, right? It's like a charm you wear around your neck? I've still got mine somewhere. Do they let you do jewelry?"
Misti doesn't answer. She peeks up at Joelle, then glances away fast, as if she's walking with the sun or, anyway, with something too bright to look at for very long.
"Are you really a lost royal princess?" she blurts out suddenly. "Penny Perrino said you are but you don't want to tell people."
Joelle comes to a stop and looks down. "A what?" she explodes. "A lost what?"
"Listen, don't ask me that stuff," Joelle yells at her. "I don't want to hear that stuff anymore, okay?"
Misti's mouth quivers and she stares at the ground.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell." Joelle puts her arm around Misti's narrow shoulders. They start walking again. "I'm just tired of questions like that, all right? I don't even want to think about questions like that."
Misti nods sadly. Soon her sunstruck face is glancing up, though. Both of them know that tomorrow morning she'll be standing outside Joelle's house, waiting to walk with her again.
As everyone in school and many people in the small town of Marshfield, Rhode Island, are aware, Joelle is adopted. Aunt Mary Louise was open about it right from the beginning, though she needn't have said a word and anyone could have guessed. Joelle has never looked the least thing like her, or like Vernon, her adoptive father, for that matter. Where they are sandy-colored, Joelle is dark. Where they are heavy and earthbound, she is agile and quick. Joelle carries herself with a brisk aloofness that bears no resemblance to her aunt's hearty manner. Perhaps it's these differences that have inspired people to speculate about Joelle's background over the years. She's sick of it. This new rumor of royal blood is particularly crazy. Misti's friend, Penny, probably picked up a strand of gossip at school this fall. Now, in the girls' minds, and also in the minds of a number of their friends, Joelle has become something exotic and fascinating.
On her way home from school Joelle often sees this group of girls huddled across the street in front of their elementary school, watching for her. They're the walkers, the ones who live close enough so their parents don't worry about them coming and going by themselves. They're there when she walks by this afternoon, whispering frantically behind their hands.
She told me she doesn't like to talk about being a princess, Joelle imagines Misti saying. Which must mean she is one!
Misti must have passed along some story since this morning because everyone falls silent and follows Joelle with knowing eyes as she goes by. Joelle doesn't speak to them. She holds her head up and strides on. It's become embarrassing, this pack of little girls always on her tail. She stands out enough as it is, and not in a way that's any good to stand out.
In her own class Joelle isn't popular. There her height is a sign of weirdness. The boys are all shorter. Besides, people notice her skin. It's a dusty auburn color unlike anyone else's. The black kids know she's not one of them. She doesn't look Hispanic or Asian, either.
"Where do you think you're from?" someone asked her just the other day, the girl named Melinda, who wears black eyeliner and high-heeled boots to class.
"Where do you think you're from, Playboy magazine?" Joelle had fired back, loudly, so everyone would hear.
She has a talent for saying the perfect terrible thing to stop people in their tracks. To keep them away. The "in" girls avoid her like the plague. Even the older boys are wary, ever since she told Buddy Guinn, the football captain, his fly was open and he actually looked down.
"Get lost, okay?" Joelle shouts over her shoulder to Misti and her troop, who are sneaking along in her wake. She flashes around the corner and heads down the first of three long blocks toward home. There on the sidewalk ahead of her is the kid Carlos, who's in her Spanish class. You'd think with a name like Carlos he could already speak Spanish, but he can't. He's at square one, the buenos días-muchas gracias level, with her.
Just as she's about to catch up and pass him, he leans way over and grabs something off the ground. Then he crouches down to look at it in his hand.
Joelle doesn't especially want to talk to him, but there he is, blocking her path, so she says, "Excuse me!" in a sarcastic voice.
The kid leaps a mile and spins around. "Sorry! I didn't think anyone was behind me."
"Well, they were," Joelle says, stepping out to go around him. She tries to see what's in his hand, but he snaps his palm shut, practically on her nose.
"The crown jewels?" she asks, coming to a halt.
Carlos shakes his head, embarrassed. He has a long, thin face and, when he looks up at her, gray eyes.
"Scientific research?" Joelle suggests next. "Mutant ants? Killer worms?"
"Ha-ha," Carlos says, not laughing. He opens his hand and lets Joelle peer in.
"A stone," she says. "Brilliant."
"Not a stone, an arrowhead."
"No kidding." Joelle bends closer.
"See this edge? It's been honed."
"Sharpened. It's man-made, but a long time ago. You can see the striations of a sharpening tool, most likely another rock. Indians were all around here, you know. This is Narragansett, probably."
Joelle steps away. Carlos is at least two inches shorter than she is, and his hand is muddy. She remembers him from class, one of the hyperserious morons who live in the back row.
"So what is this? You go around collecting Indian stuff? It's just lying on the ground after all these years? You can lean over and there's an arrowhead?" She looks at him skeptically.
"Yes, you can," Carlos says, staring back. "Anyone can find them. Here and in the forest." He swings his arm wide to indicate the back-roads area that starts about a mile down the main road. "I have a bunch of these. I found an ax head one time."
"An ax head. Well, no thank you," Joelle says. "I'm not into Indians at the moment. I'm into keeping a move on so the posse doesn't catch up with me." She points over his shoulder to where a bustle of little-girl feet is just rounding the corner.
"Hasta la vista," she tells Carlos, and takes off. The last she sees of him, he's turned around and is taking stock of Misti and her approaching troop, as if they're some weirdly interesting collectible phenomenon in their own right.
About Joelle's life before she was adopted, there isn't a lot known for sure.
This is probably a good thing, Aunt Mary Louise has said, since the few facts that have turned up are not exactly happy, and they point off in directions that could end up being worse. Aunt Mary Louise still gets indignant just thinking about the whole situation.
What would have happened if Joelle hadn't been rescued when she was? Where would she be now if Vernon and Aunt Mary Louise hadn't been there, practically on the spot, when she was brought in from the railway depot? A scrawny five-year-old child, abandoned by the world!
Joelle doesn't like this kind of question any more than the one Misti asked about being a princess.
"Don't ask me! I can't remember anything," she snaps at Aunt Mary Louise. It's the truth, she can't. Whatever happened during those first five years, there's no trace of it left in her mind. She has feelings sometimes, odd flashes of having done something or been somewhere before, but they never lead anywhere. Still, she keeps her ears open whenever the subject comes up. There's always the chance some fresh clue might surface, a fragment of a truth that she could plug into the scanty body of her larger truth.
Joelle has never told anyone this, but over the years she's woven together a story about herself based on the few facts Aunt Mary Louise has been able to supply. It's about how this little baby was born in Chicago to a mother who couldn't take care of it. She tried, for four years she tried, but she was too young, or too poor, or maybe she got sick, who knows? Whatever, she ended up penniless, on welfare, living in a series of bad apartments, and while she was in one of them her child, in a moment of senselessness, was thrown out a third-story window.
"Me?" Joelle had asked when she first heard this. "I was thrown?"
"Cast to the winds," Aunt Mary Louise declared. "What you must think of the world!"
Joelle had known right away it couldn't have happened that way. No mother on Earth would cast her child to any wind. The way Joelle imagines it, she got pushed out by accident or crawled too far over the sill. She can't prove it, though, because after the window episode, the facts in the story get even sketchier.
The mother vanishes from the scene while the child, apparently recovered from her fall, ends up in an orphanage, then disappears from Chicago altogether. Nothing more is known about her.
"So, how did I get here?" Joelle had naturally asked.
"They say you rode east on a freight train," is all Aunt Mary Louise can come up with.
"A freight train! Why?"
Aunt Mary Louise shrugs. No explanation has come to light. Was the trip a result of falling out the window? Was the child being delivered to another family? No one knows. Time has passed. Layers of other facts have settled over the first facts, sealing them off, holding them, for the moment, incommunicado.
When the child surfaces again she is living in a wooden crate near a railway depot in southern Connecticut, under the care of an elderly woman who has taught her to scavenge for half-smoked cigarettes and cigar stubs along the tracks.
"That's what you used to do for a living," Aunt Mary Louise teases Joelle whenever she tells this part of the story, which suddenly blooms with detail -- whether real or an extension of Aunt Mary Louise's colorful imagination, is unclear. "You'd get sent out every day to look for butts lying in the dirt. Only when you found enough -- say, ten or so -- were you allowed to come back and give them to the old lady. Who was a nutcake, I guess. Probably one of those loonies they let out of the state bin. Then she'd give you a piece of candy or a pack of crackers. If you didn't find any butts, I suppose you wouldn't get anything to eat."
"Well, I can't remember," Joelle replies.
0 "Just as well," Aunt Mary Louise says, lighting up a cigarette of her own. She's always got her pack nearby.
"I can't remember being born in Chicago, or falling out the window, or riding the freight train, either," Joelle announces. "You keep saying I did all that, but how do I know?"
"Oh, you did it all right." Aunt Mary Louise nods. "Family Services checked up on you before the papers got signed. They said we should know what we were letting ourselves in for."
This is another joke Aunt Mary Louise likes to tell, the "what we were letting ourselves in for" joke. And Joelle had always allowed it to go by. She hadn't liked it, but she let it go, until last week when hearing it one more time, she'd surprised herself by getting furious.
"You made that up!" she'd yelled at Aunt Mary Louise. "Family Services never would've said that. It's too mean to the little child. Anyway, I wasn't the only one they had to check out before the papers got signed. They checked out you and Vernon, too. They don't just hand kids over like a fruit basket, you know!"
Aunt Mary Louise was astonished.
"Sweetie, don't get so upset. Of course they checked us out," she'd answered, tapping her cigarette in midair by mistake and dripping ashes down the front of her sweater.
For some reason, this had made Joelle even madder.
"Why don't you quit that smoking?" she'd yelled at her. "It's making you sick. Sick!" She'd run into her room and slammed the door.
But later she'd come out and put her arms around Aunt Mary Louise's neck and hugged her.
"I guess I was more upset than I thought," she whispered.
"I shouldn't wonder," Aunt Mary Louise said, "after all you've been through." She forgave her and hugged her back.
"And don't you worry, there's nothing wrong with me," she'd told Joelle. "I'm just tired, sweetie. I'm taking a little rest. I'll be back to my old self in no time, you'll see."
Copyright © 2003 by Janet Taylor Lisle
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