How much would you risk to stand up for your beliefs?
When Duncan and Sarah Powell move with their daughter, May, to Savannah Georgia in 1947, they hope against hope that they’ll be welcomed. But they’re Yankees and worse, they’re civil rights advocates almost a decade too early.
At first May can pretend they’re the same as everyone else. It means keeping quiet when she knows she should speak up, but it’s worth the sacrifice to win friends. Unfortunately her parents are soon putting their beliefs into action. And when they wake to find that they’re the only family on the block with a Ku Klux Klan cross blazing on their front lawn, the time comes for them to finally decide between what’s easy and what’s right.
Kindly Note: This is not a Rom Com like Michele Gorman’s books under her own name. It’s an atmospheric coming-of-age novel set in the 1940s segregated American South and contains adult themes that some readers may find uncomfortable.
Fifty–five years has made me a Savannahian by inclination if not origin. Everyone who meets me hears the taffy pull drawl of a native and feels the Southern hospitality for which we are known. They are surprised to find that I was once a Yankee, so well have I acclimated. The process began when we moved, but will never really be complete. In unguarded moments memories of Mount Greylock or white Christmases still sneak up on me and make me homesick. Even after so long.
I’d be lying if I said my conversion came easy. It was a long, tender process to pick apart the beliefs I’d knitted together growing up, to decide which threads to follow and which to cut away. It wasn’t until we moved that there was anything to decide. There’s no need for self–examination where everyone thinks like you. It was only when I looked around and didn’t see myself reflected back that the questioning began.
It was my parents’ fault that we had to move in the first place, not necessarily to Savannah but at least away from my hometown. Being card–carrying pacifists during the Second World War while the rest of the country whipped itself into a patriotic froth made us unpopular. Duncan’s pig–headed desire to share his views made us despicable. He served up his anti–war rants over dinner more often than Ma did her pot roast and potatoes. At home his warnings played to a narrow audience, but in his history lectures they got him into trouble. By the time Williams College introduced military classes to make soldiers of its students, Duncan had had enough of the war and the Dean had had enough of Duncan. Fortunately, all the young professors were off fighting, so he couldn’t fire my father outright. Instead he killed his career by inches. Anger and hurt feelings were liberally shared around. Word went out that we didn’t support the war or the brave boys fighting it. Subtly and not so subtly we felt the change. In town, smiles were less friendly and a general mistrust settled upon our neighbors. A decade later, Senator McCarthy would officially call us un–American, but at the time it was the beginning of the end of our days in the little town nestled in the Berkshire Hills. It took Duncan the better part of five years to leave his dead–end job for another. So eventually we moved, when I was fifteen, in nineteen forty–seven. We were likely to be as welcome in the South as monkeys in church.
We drove to our new home. Those were the days before I–95 was built, so our move was almost as uncomfortable physically as it was emotionally. We made our way along busy two lane roads that tied themselves in knots around the cities. For Duncan the trip was bursting with educational promise. He regaled us with geographic trivia, recalculated our gas mileage at each filling station and reported hourly on our progress towards Savannah. After the first couple of hours I stopped humoring him. Ma did enough of that for both of us, so much so that I suspected Doc Ewing gave her something to improve her outlook. I preferred to let a strong case of resentment cheer me up, so I busied myself in the back seat wishing all manner of minor tragedy on her, as fitting punishment for letting Duncan get us into this mess. It was, after all, her job to make him behave like a responsible adult. That was one of their problems. No one wanted to be the grownup.
After four long days, I was almost grateful to see South Carolina’s piney woods drift into marshland as we approached Georgia. Duncan started making won’t–be–long–now promises when we crossed the bridge and left the rest of the country behind to become Savannahians. Downtown was shaggy and sun–bleached. Live oaks, oil palms and palmettos shaded the walkways, and mansions skirted the squares that the city is now so famous for. They didn’t make for such a pretty picture then. At least half the houses were abandoned, boarded up and falling down. The squares were trampled flat and strewn with rubbish. I pitied the few azaleas and banana trees trying to maintain their dignity in the face of so much decay. Duncan said that just the year before Lady Astor visited Savannah and liked what she saw. The city, she said, was like a beautiful lady with a dirty face. She was either near–sighted or remarkably charitable.
The hand–drawn map sent by the lawyer left us in no doubt about his cartography skills. He’d forgotten a few things, like the detail that Savannah’s streets only wind in one direction around the squares, and that a large park with no through roads separated us from our new house. We made a fairly comprehensive tour of town over the next few hours. After several stops to ask directions, Ma started crying in the front seat. Doc Ewing’s pills were simply no match for the geographic challenge of Savannah’s roads.
Our house was in the Victorian district, the first suburb I’d ever seen. The streets were wide and straight with houses sitting on both sides like polite diners at a very long table. Everyone had a little yard with flowers and a sidewalk running to their front door. What a difference from my home town. Our houses were built along one–time cart paths that meandered through the hills. Nothing about them indicated a predisposition for planning. I liked the idea of moving into a real neighborhood. As I watched Ma sniffle, an unexpected spoonful of pity mixed with the ample pot of resentment I was brewing. She didn’t want to be there any more than I did, though she’d never said so to me. Parents didn’t unburden themselves on their kids then, but I was an accomplished snoop and listened behind enough doors to know the move wasn’t as uncontested as they let on.
When we spilled sweating from the car to inspect our new address Ma grabbed my arm, leaving Duncan to lope ahead. ‘May,’ she hissed with tears still in her eyes. ‘I know this has been difficult for you, but I want you to remember that it’s important to your father. So don’t be too hard on him today, okay?’
I didn’t plan to stick around long enough to be hard on anyone. When I said okay she squeezed my arm. ‘Good girl.’ Taking a deep, ragged breath she hoisted her face into a smile and went to join Duncan as he peered at the sagging steps.
‘It’s a nice porch, Duncan. A good scrub and a couple coats of paint and it’ll be just like home.’
‘You think so?’
‘Really?’ His voice was unused to accommodating doubt.
‘Just fine, you’ll see.’
She was a good sport. They stood with linked arms, Ma smiling and Duncan looking grateful as he fished around his pockets for the house keys. ‘Ready? Here we go!’ He pushed open the door and ushered us into our new home.
‘What on earth. Duncan,’ Ma said. ‘Are you sure she’s gone?’
‘Sweet Jesus.’ The house was full of the old lady’s belongings. Heavy dark furniture crowded the living room. The sofa and every chair were covered with afghans that clashed with their fabrics. Crocheted doilies still protected the tabletops from the bric–a–brac that hovered on them. Almost every inch of wall was covered with little pictures, paintings, lithographs and photos. Considering that she’d taken her curtain call almost a year earlier I didn’t expect my new home to look quite so lived in. She might have merely stepped out for a loaf of bread.
‘Well, it’s not exactly our style is it?’ Ma asked.
I squinted into a dusty bell–shaped glass where a tattered blue jay perched. ‘Do we have to keep all this stuff?’
‘Good gracious, I hope not. We don’t … do we?’
‘No, the place is ours,’ Duncan confirmed. ‘We can do whatever we want with it.’
But we were caught in limbo by the furnishings, our own left behind in the faculty house, no doubt being viewed with suspicion by some new professor’s family. Until I began packing for the move, no one bothered telling me that everything I thought we owned, right down to the pots and pans, belonged to the school. My parents were honest people but their penchant for disclosure was rough around the edges. Our shortage of earthly belongings left us with no choice but to find a place already furnished. We were hostages to the old woman’s taste. Ma walked around the living room picking things up and carefully putting them down again. ‘Why didn’t the family take her things?’ She wondered. ‘Look at all these photographs. Do you think they’ll come back for any of it?’
Duncan shook his head. ‘The lawyer was very clear about it. There aren’t any kids, only a sister and she doesn’t want any of it. It’s all ours, like it or not!’ He gave Ma a playful squeeze and smiled at me just as an incessant buzz ricocheted through the house.
‘What on earth is that?’ Ma cried.
‘Must be the doorbell. Probably one of the neighbors come over to be neighborly. May, please go see who it is.’
I hadn’t heard a doorbell in all my years in Williamstown. It was a rude thing; as if we needed a warning to stop getting up to whatever the ringer was afraid we were getting up to. What good were neighbors if you couldn’t walk in on them unannounced?
Jamie Scott is the pen name of Michele Gorman, the Sunday Times and USA Today bestselling author of eight romantic comedies. Born and raised in the US, Michele has lived in London for 17 years. She is very fond of naps, ice cream and Richard Curtis films but objects to spiders and the word “portion”.