Acts of courage come in all shapes and sizes.
In the tumultuous New Orleans of 1960, thirteen-year-old Louise Collins finds her world turned upside down when a stranger from the North arrives at her mother's boarding-house. Louise's mother spends her mornings at the local elementary school with a group of women known as the Cheerleaders, who harass the school's first black student, six-year-old Ruby Bridges, as she enters the building. One day a Chevy Bel Air with a New York license plate pulls up, and out steps Morgan Miller, a man whose mysterious past is eclipsed by his intellect and open-manner--qualities that enchant mother and daughter alike. For the first time, Louise feels as if someone cares what she thinks, even if she doesn't know what she believes. But when the reason for Morgan's visit is called into question, everything Louise thinks she knows about her mother, her world, and herself will change.
Set in 1960, Sharenow's debut novel begins just after the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional and Ruby Bridges became the first black student to attend William J. Frantz Elementary in New Orleans's Ninth Ward. Louise Collins is an overworked, 13-year-old loner who helps her alcoholic mother run a Ninth Ward rooming house, Rooms on Desire. After her mother pulls her out of school to protest integration, Louise has more time to assist with the boarders. (Louise notes that "my first reaction to the news that William Frantz was to be integrated was to wonder why the Negro kids wanted to go to such a crummy school.") Additionally, Louise's mother joins The Cheerleaders, a group of women who line up at the entrance of the school every morning and verbally harass first-grader Ruby, screaming racial epithets and even threatening her life. Into this tumultuous environment comes Morgan Miller, an attractive, educated book editor who resides in New York City but was raised in New Orleans. Miller has come to make peace with his brother, but he stirs up romantic feelings in both Louise and her mother and gets them to slowly reconsider the racial attitudes they've heretofore accepted. Through inquisitive Louise's perspective, readers get a wrenching look at the era's turmoil and pervasive racism. As secrets about Louise's family are revealed and Miller's attitudes attract the attention of local Klan members, teens should remain riveted right through the devastating conclusion to Sharenow's promising work of historical fiction. Ages 12-up. (May)
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January 26, 2009
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Excerpt from My Mother the Cheerleader by Robert Sharenow
"It's so easy to look back at another time and place and say to each other, 'what on earth were those people thinking?'But what if someone told us what those people were thinking, and showed us the personal earthquakes that had to occur before they could think something else?Maybe we would realize that we are all human beings. That's one of the things that happens when you read this important book."
- Lynne Rae Perkins, author of the Newbery Award winning Criss Cross
In the winter of 1960 I had just turned thirteen years old. Not many photographs of me exist from that period . . . thank the Lord. My mother tended to reserve use of the family Brownie for important occasions--like when she bought herself a new hat. It's a miracle I didn't become a fashion photographer, considering all the pictures I snapped of her accessories. Some of my best works include "Faux Alligator Handbag on Couch," "Green Leather Belt Reclining on Chaise," and her personal favorite, "Red Pumps with Black Straps in Open Box."
To be fair, I was not the most attractive kid on the block. I had dirty blond hair, pale gray-blue eyes, and glasses. I was unusually tall, flat-chested, and had yet to sprout one single hair between my legs or under my arms. I barely spoke above a whisper. And my lower front teeth were each of a slightly different height, which made the bottom rung of my mouth look like a small white saw. Still, it simply had to be damaging to my ego to know that my mother cherished photographs of her shoes more than photographs of me, her only child.
Like many young girls, I hated my own name. Louise. Louise Lorraine Collins. As you may have guessed from my physical description, I was not the most popular child. Most of the boys referred to me as "the Wheeze" or just "Wheezy."
I attended William J. Frantz Elementary, or I did until November of 1960, when my mother pulled me out to protest the integration of one first-grade Negro girl named Ruby Bridges. I must confess that I didn't mind one bit when my education was put on indefinite hold. I had only one real friend at school, Jez Robidoux. Like me, Jez was one of the smartest kids in our grade. But I didn't see too much of her after the school boycott took hold, because her parents made her go to an alternative school in the back room of a sad little church near the industrial canal while I became a full-time employee at my mother's rooming house.
The Ninth Ward never boasted the finest of anything, and the schools were no exception. Being one of the poorest wards meant we lacked many things other neighborhoods took for granted, like sidewalks or a proper sewage system. We barely had decent water to drink, never mind a decent school. Most of the streets were a series of potholes, and the air usually carried the faint odor of leftover fish bones and the sting of sulfur from the waste that traveled along the industrial canal.
I thought the teachers at Frantz were mostly time-card-punching half-wits who were just waiting to collect a state pension. On the eve of the court-ordered integration, my sixth-grade teacher, Miss Jollet, told the class, "This may be our last class together for quite a stretch, because the state wants to see if we can train monkeys in school." My first reaction to the news that William Frantz was to be integrated was to wonder why the Negro kids wanted to go to such a crummy school.
My mother ran a rooming house on the corner of Desire and North Galvez streets. Well, to say she ran it would be fairly generous. It pretty much ran itself with the help of an old Negro lady named Charlotte Dupree and me, as soon as I was old enough to make a bed.
I'm not sure our house had an official style like Victorian, Italian, Modern, Shotgun, or the like. It was just a plain pea-green wood house with white trim featuring three stories, six bedrooms, three bathrooms, one kitchen, and one large parlor in the front that my mother called "the Music Hall" because it housed the piano. Several of the original roof shingles were missing and had been patched with mismatched replacements. The pea-green paint peeled almost everywhere, and the whole structure seemed to sag in the middle from the heat. A set of concrete steps led up to the front door, and a small sign attached to a post on the front lawn announced:
Rooms on Desire Clean Accommodations
"Rooms on Desire" had only one regular boarder--a seventy-six-year-old shut-in named Cornelius Landroux. Mr. Landroux's health had been in steep decline since his arrival four years earlier. He was missing both his legs because of diabetes. His eyes didn't see very well and he had an unpleasant disposition. I guess if I were a seventy-six-year-old legless diabetic stuck in one room, I might not be too cheerful either. His children couldn't afford a proper old folks' home, and none of them had room to keep him. So for ten dollars a week he lived in the back room of the second floor and was given three hot meals a day cooked by Charlotte or me.
Our duties also included twice-daily bedpan cleaning. Serving a meal to Mr. Landroux was never rewarding, but changing his bedpan was simply horrifying. He'd ring a small bell that he kept on his bed stand and then watch as Charlotte or I did the emptying.
Mr. Landroux bore an unquenchable hatred for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Apparently, he was a prospect with the team when he was a young man, but he never made it to the big leagues. Every single day, summer or winter, he would inquire if the Cardinals had lost. If they lost, it was a good day. Given that most of the year the Cardinals didn't play--and when they did play, they won the majority of their games--Mr. Landroux almost never had a good day.
Charlotte and I dutifully endured the bedpan cleanings and Mr. Landroux's nasty disposition, because the $520 he brought in represented nearly one third of our annual income. As much as I hated him, I prayed for Mr. Landroux's good health and long life, because I had no idea how we'd get along without him.
Mother also did a fairly steady business with truck drivers who were looking for a friendly haven while passing through the city. Truck drivers were sort of her specialty. If I had been going to amend our sign, I would have added: Truckers Welcome. I always had to keep a stock of beer in the ice bin for the truckers. I also learned the fine art of making myself invisible on a moment's notice. But I was a born snoop, and there was rarely anything that happened inside the walls of Rooms on Desire that I didn't know about.
Mother spent the particular afternoon of Morgan Miller's arrival in much the same way she spent every other late afternoon--lounging in the rocking love seat in the backyard, slowly drinking an entire decanter of her famous Lime Julep. December is a hot month in New Orleans. Even in the coolest weather, Mother never missed her afternoon repast. Mother's famous lime julep recipe went something like this.
Chop three limes into half-inch pieces.
Place limes in glass decanter.
Add one and a half pints of bourbon.
Fill the rest of decanter with ice.
Add one or two mint leaves for show.
It was one of the very few things she prepared by herself in the kitchen. Most days she mixed the lime julep at three o'clock and then spent the rest of the afternoon rocking in the love seat, listening to the radio through the kitchen window until the decanter was empty save for the two mint leaves and a few stray pieces of lime.
I noticed she was asleep around four-thirty when I came downstairs via the kitchen to read Jane Eyre in the Music Hall. I'd already read the book twice. Jane was my favorite literary heroine, probably because I associated my plight with hers--a poor but incredibly bright and sensitive girl who was forced to live in an old house with a crazy woman.
Something about the way the sun was hitting my mother that day, dappling through the leaves from the tree above, made her look very peaceful. I stopped for a moment and watched her chest gently rise and fall. Small sweat beads dotted her cheeks just below her eyes. Despite her harsh ways my mother was beautiful, from her curled blond hair to her full lips, which barely needed lipstick, they were so red. She was tall, with long shapely legs, and she always carried herself with an unusually feminine air, back and neck perfectly poised like a proper princess, hips swaying like a burlesque queen.
She was particularly exhausted that day because of an encounter the night before with Royce Burke, one of her regular "gentleman callers." Tall and broad, with a long chin and short black hair, Royce worked as a mechanic at a filling station and garage near the canal. Something about his face, the heavy brow and the long chin, reminded me of an etching of a prehistoric man that I saw once in a book on natural history at the library. Mother hinted that Royce belonged to a "secret society" dedicated to preserving the southern way of life. At the time I didn't know very much about the Ku Klux Klan. But based on what I did know, I wasn't surprised that Royce Burke might be a member.
Royce had a younger sister named Haley, who was confined to a wheelchair due to a childhood bout of polio. Their parents had passed on, so Haley lived with Royce and he looked after her as best he could. I guess tragedy can either soften you or harden you. In Royce's case, the misfortune of losing both of his parents and needing to tend to his crippled sister had embittered him to the rest of the world, like he needed to let everyone know just how mean life could be.
The night before Morgan Miller's arrival, a Saturday, he'd stumbled into the house around ten-thirty. I heard him banging around in the Music Hall. He spoke with a full-blown Ninth Ward accent, bending all words beginning with a smooth th into sharp little ds.
My mother stirred in the kitchen, where she had been smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio.
She shuffled into the room.
"Well, look what the cat dragged in."
A loud kiss and then other moist sounds circled up to my room. I heard his heavy boots kick off and clatter across the floor and then the sound of clothes falling away. Royce grunted--a ragged snarl that grew more and more fierce.
"Royce . . . the shades," my mother gasped.
In these situations I tried to turn my ears to alarm mode after a certain point. Alarm mode was a system I had of blurring my hearing so I didn't have to endure the particulars. I always worried that Royce would really hurt my mother. His anger could rise fast. Many mornings after his visits, I saw bruises on her arms or legs, and once even a black eye.
I also needed to stay alert for my own protection. One night several weeks earlier, I had left my door open a crack. Royce stumbled upstairs to use the privy. By the time he reached the top of the stairs, it was too late for me to close my door all the way. I didn't want to risk drawing his attention. So I lay under the covers, still as I could and waited. I heard him sway down the hall, past the toilet. The floor creaked in front of my door. I could hear him breathing and then the door slammed open.
Royce flipped on the light, all bleary-eyed. I do believe he thought he was in the privy at first. But when his eyes adjusted and he saw me, his mouth curled up in a grin. He looked down at himself. He was naked from the waist down. He let the silence hang for a moment, trying to make eye contact with me. I looked down at my pillow.
"Nothin' to be scared of here, little girl," he said. He caught the look of horror and fear on my face and started to laugh. His laugh got harder and deeper until he couldn't control himself. He lost his balance and fell over onto the floor, landing with a hard, fleshy thump. By the time he hauled himself back up, he was too drunk and tired to bother any more with me.
I suppose most girls who grow up without knowing their father spend countless hours imagining what he must be like. They picture some elusive Prince Charming who was driven away by dire and mysterious circumstances. Not me. Because of Royce and the other men who came in and out of my mother's life, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Prince Charming didn't exist.
Now, as I watched through the window as the breath made my mother's chest rise and fall in a gentle wave, all these thoughts shot through my mind. Prince Charming. My evil and unknown father. Royce Burke. Lime juleps. My mother's perfect lips, so different from my own. The glow of the sun hitting her face through the leaves.