In the tradition of The Higher Power of Lucky and Because of Winn Dixie, a young girl deals with her mother’s suicide in this riveting debut novel that explores love, loss, family, friendship, and redemption.
In the summer of 1977, twelve-year-old Dulcie Louise Dixon arrives on the doorstep of her Aunt Bernie’s farmhouse in Shepherdsville, Ohio, with no voice, a spelling bee trophy, a Webster’s Dictionary, and a box full of ashes. She tries to adjust to her new situation, but can’t forget the words she left behind or the mother she’s lost to suicide.
One day, Dulcie discovers a secret place: a swan’s nest in the woods where at last, her broken world begins to mend. With the help of her surprising new friends—a guitar-playing runaway, a poetry-loving preacher, a one-armed gas station attendant, a singing seamstress, a chained-up hunting dog, and a family of swans—Dulcie is finally able to rise out of her sadness and grief to find her voice once again.
the sky, viewed poetically as a solid arch or vault
There I was, Mama, standing in the tall grass right next to Redeemer Baptist Church, the day after the Fourth of July, when I spied what I would have sworn on a heap of Bibles was an angel rising straight up to heaven. Enormous white wings spread and soared above me in a sunset so pink and gold, it promised miracles—even here in Shepherdsville, Ohio—a place badly in need of divine intervention, if you ask me.
I never imagined in all my life I’d end up there—the tail end of nowhere without even a Kmart in sight. If I’d had my druthers, Mama, I’d have stayed at home in Paint Creek at Lilac Trailer Court, but I couldn’t have said a thing about it, even if I’d wanted to. At the beginning of June, Ray dumped me at the farm with Aunt Bernie, like a stray pup without a basket.
Ray’s caterwauling about ditching me started a few weeks after you’d been gone. He’d gotten in the habit of parking me for days at his mom’s house while he was on the road. Old Shirleen didn’t have a say in it one way or the other either. She did her best—fed me stale-bread bologna sandwiches and Kool-Aid, trying without success to get me interested in Days of our Lives and General Hospital, fiddling with the rabbit ears wrapped in tinfoil on top of her old black-and-white TV.
One night Ray showed up, downright pie-eyed. He stumbled up Shirleen’s front steps and accidentally yanked the screen door off her house. He stared at that screen door like it had up and bit him, Mama.
“I am fed up trying to fix things, Dulcie.”
He laid his wobbly head down on Shirleen’s old dinette table and just gave up on me.
“I’m not your daddy, by God, so I can’t be responsible for you no more. You’d be better off with your own relations.”
Ray packed up the trailer on Lilac Court the next day. He moved his stuff to Shirleen’s house. Then he put your knickknacks in boxes, along with your clothes, and sent them to the Salvation Army. He hauled me out to the truck cab, my jeans and T-shirts packed in your old suitcase. He strapped Maybelle to the rear, her rusty spokes and handlebars poking out every which way, then loaded my first-place tri-county spelling bee trophy, along with my dictionary, into a Kroger bag and tossed it behind the driver’s seat.
He tucked the small wooden box with the brass plaque—LITTLETON FUNERAL HOME—between us on the seat and drove me to Shepherdsville in a thunderstorm, smoking Kools, while I looked out the window at endless cornfields, hoping he’d change his mind. I thought about what Ray had said about not being my daddy, how he couldn’t be responsible for me, and that I’d be better off someplace else. I wish I could have told him he was wrong on all counts. First off—though he wasn’t my daddy, he’d done a pretty good imitation of it for almost my whole life. Second—even if he wasn’t around as much as we wanted him to be, Mama, he always showed up to fix my bike tires, or make the best grilled cheese sandwiches, or if I’d had a bad day, cheer me up with a dumb joke and make me laugh so hard milk would shoot out my nose. Ray is the definition of responsible. Third, and most important of all—I knew I wasn’t going to be better off at Aunt Bernie’s farm. I didn’t know her from a stray cat. But I did know Ray. I knew he wasn’t going to change his mind and he wasn’t going to say another word. The only sound for a hundred miles was the squawking of his CB radio and the thunk-thunk-thunk of the windshield wipers.
When I showed up with Ray, first thing Aunt Bernie did—after looking me up and down like I’d fallen off a manure truck—was hand me a Bible and start a crusade for my soul—church every Sunday and Bible reading every night. She also threw in housecleaning, dish washing, and feeding the hogs, for good measure. I guess Aunt Bernie imagined it couldn’t hurt my chances at the Pearly Gates if I had suffered the burden of manual labor, in addition to having spiritual guidance.
Owing to her close personal relationship with the Lord, she figured I’d be a shoo-in with the Almighty if she dropped me off at Redeemer Baptist twice weekly in the evenings, for what has become my own personal abomination on this earth—Reverend Love’s Youth Bible Study Group.
Surrounded by endless talk about heaven and the hereafter, it’s no wonder I imagined an angel in the sky that night. According to Reverend Love, back in biblical times angels popped up like weeds all the time, appearing to people willy-nilly, here and there, with some kind of proclamation or other.
I didn’t expect one would show up in Shepherdsville, next to a dirt parking lot—smack in the middle of nowhere—in 1977, to deliver a message to a twelve-going-on-thirteen-year-old girl. Nope, I didn’t think even President Jimmy Carter could manage an angel on earth in modern times—though, Aunt Bernie suspected it wasn’t pure coincidence that the president and Jesus had the same initials.
If I hadn’t wandered away in the overgrown patch behind the building to find a cool breeze, wanting to escape the heat for just a minute before my descent into that dingy old church basement and the impending gloom of a long evening of Reverend Love droning on about eternal damnation and sin, I would have missed that swan.
For that’s what it was, Mama, only an earthly bird in flight, and not an angel at all. High above the treetops, rising like a rocket shot into the heavens, that majestic creature soared and took my heart along with it. Its wings gleamed, so pure and downy I wanted to reach up and touch them. The ease of that swan as it lifted into the sky made me want to climb aboard its back and fly away—far from Shepherdsville—back home to you, instead of standing by a ditch, next to a rickety church, clutching a raggedy Bible.
Redeemer Baptist probably hasn’t changed one iota since you were a girl, Mama. The church is still a mishmash of old white clapboards nailed together, leaning every which way. The tired dirt-brown doors hang catawampus, repainted so many times, they don’t close right. A rusty brass bell hangs near the entrance, with a long tattered cord that Reverend Love pulls to call us inside to worship. The oversize cross on top of the roof is downright pitiful in its need to call attention to itself, and makes the whole building seem to say, I know I don’t look like a church, but this here cross is proof.
Knowing you’d stood there, once upon a time, was a comfort. The landscape in front of me was like a faded watercolor: the waving field of patchy grass and poison oak; the weed-infested cemetery; the picnic area sprinkled with rickety tables; the rusty swingset leaning sideways in the gravel; the big oaks standing guard by the edge of the church property, surrounded by endless pasture. At the far end of the field, a broken-down fence with a NO TRESPASSING sign invited brave souls who might dare cross it.
For the first time in the days since you’d been gone, Mama, something joyful welled up inside me. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but a sliver of water seemed to appear beyond the thicket of trees, like a mirage shimmering in the distance, beckoning me away from there. The sky hinted of things to come; a tinge of possibility lingered, right there with me. I knew I’d best get inside before Bible study began, but I hesitated, held fast by my desire to rise into the coming night air, right out of my church shoes, held aloft by those giant wings.
Inside the church the choir began their practice for the service come Sunday. A current of air whispered to me, carrying the words of a hymn, their meaning as mysterious as the swan’s appearance.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee; . . .
When I soar to worlds unknown . . .
In a few weeks’ time, those voices would sing at my baptism—the event that Aunt Bernie and Reverend Love had arranged, Mama, in cahoots with the Lord, to save my soul and cure me of what they called my “affliction.”
I hadn’t spoken a word—not one—since you’d been gone, Mama. Not one sound in over two months. When I was called on to speak, I couldn’t. My words had dried up and blown away somewhere, and no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find them.
After not getting a peep out of me, Ray took me to the mental ward of the Ross County hospital. The nurses gave me little pink pills. When I wasn’t sleeping, people in white coats shined lights into my eyes, lodged tongue depressors in my mouth, inserted needles, and wreaked tests upon me for six days, like the deadly plagues in the Bible.
On the seventh day they brought me into an office. Ray sat in a wooden chair holding on to his International Harvester hat, his eyes blinking and twitching when he saw me.
“She’s had a trauma,” the doctor said. “Take her home.”
Then he handed me a small notebook with one of those yellow happy faces on it, and smiled.
“Write down what you want to say.” He shook hands with Ray. “Time will take care of it.”
Ray walked me out to Shirleen’s battered-up station wagon, muttering under his breath. “Time will take care of it, my butt.” He jerked the handle, opened the car door, and practically shoved me inside.
He got in and said, “If you don’t stop this right now, I am telling you . . .” He gripped the wheel, his knuckles white. “I can’t lose my dang job, calling in sick, taking you to doctors all over creation. You need somebody to watch over you proper. I got to go back on the road. Shirleen’s too old to help out much. I can’t be expected to take care of a girl by myself—especially one who doesn’t say a blessed word.”
I opened the notebook the doctor had given me and wrote: Go to H-E-double matchsticks, Ray. You’re not the boss of me. He said I was just stubborn. Maybe I was, because my voice was still on the loose, a runaway that had packed up and left.
Imagine, Mama. Me—winner of the Paint Creek spelling bee, pride of Ross County, tri-county regional winner—washed up. The girl who’d stood in a gymnasium full of people, armed with definitions, pronouncing words as loud as you please—speechless—struck dumb.
Dumb—that’s what they called me down in that church basement, along with a few other words I don’t care to repeat.
“Dumb.” Webster’s definition: “lacking the power of speech.”
Even when we didn’t have anything else, we always had words, didn’t we, Mama? All those nights with the television on the fritz, Ray off trucking somewhere, we traded the big blue Webster’s New World Dictionary back and forth, warming our feet next to the electric heater, going through the spelling lists, word after word.
We collected the best ones like pretty rocks, looking for the shiniest ones to put in our pockets like precious souvenirs. Those words, you said, were our magic spell against unpaid bills, mac-and-cheese dinners, and the holes in our shoes. You said they would circle us and keep us from wanting: “infinitesimal,” “ameliorate,” “miraculous,” “obsequious,” “grandiloquent,” “percolate,” “bellicose,” “mercurial.”
Like an incantation, the words conspired to get us out of the trailer court—sail us out of there. You wouldn’t have to serve another piece of pie at the Starliner Diner, or worry about Ray carousing at every honky-tonk on Highway 70, because I had a trick bag full of words.
We had a plan, Mama. With those infinitesimal words, I’d get a spot at Briarwood Academy, where the rich kids went. With those miraculous words, I’d go to college. With those grandiloquent words, we’d get out of the trailer court forever.
But you found your own way out of Lilac Court.
Without any warning, I lost you . . . and I lost all the words.
As I watched that swan disappear beyond the trees, my skin pricked into little bumps down my arms. Remember what you always told me, Mama?
Goose bumps are a sign that a thing is true-blue, a way your body tells your mind that something is real and right in front of you.
Nope, there was no angel with a message.
Even if Gabriel himself had come down into the parking lot, stood on a picnic table with a megaphone, and hollered, “Dulcie Louise Dixon, you need saving!” I wouldn’t have believed it.
I knew that swan was a sign, Mama. We both know the truth of it. There are some things you can’t be saved from.
Nobody was going to save me from that church basement.
Ann Schoenbohm lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and two children. She holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a BFA in acting from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. She currently volunteers with several organizations as a literary tutor and teaches writing in Minneapolis community education programs. Rising Above Shepherdsville is her debut novel.
Schoenbohm takes chances in her debut, weaving themes of spirituality and religion into a narrative about runaways and suicide. The story, set in the 1970s, is a superb balancing act, shifting effortlessly between Dulcie’s heartfelt hurt, descriptions of her new environment, and her awe in the presence of swans. The book’s many expressions of grace, despite the drama, are never over-the-top and always feel natural. Sensitive readers who enjoy tales of overcoming hardship will take Dulcie’s plight to heart. A stunning debut, highly recommended for all libraries.
– Booklist, Starred Review, May 1, 2019
The strongest moments bring the natural world and its creatures, feathered and human, to life through Dulcie's observant eyes.
– Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2019
There’s a Kate DiCamillo flavor to Dulcie’s narration, set in 1977, and the flavorful style and well-chosen detail effectively create the atmosphere.
– BCCB, June 2019
This story radiates a sense of comfort and warmth. Schoenbohm writes with rich, emotive language that envelops readers in a cozy hug and offers safety even in the face of heavy themes like depression, suicide, and domestic abuse (some readers may benefit from being able to talk through these subjects with a trusted friend or adult). Schoenbohm deftly captures the spirit of each character, from the wise and generous Evangeline to the feisty and untrusting Faith, who feel genuine as their layers are slowly revealed. VERDICT A moving tale in the vein of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie and Clare Vanderpool’s Moon over Manifest; sure to resonate with upper middle grade readers and adults.
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