Years ago I met a nice man, Doyle Suit, at one of my writers groups here in St. Charles, MO. Doyle soon became a treasured member of our group. He read a little from his western a few short stories and bits and pieces of a memoir he's working on. In between all of this, he read maybe one chapter of his YA novel, Baker Mountain. After awhile I finally asked if this book was finished, because that little snippet had stuck with me. Yes, it was finished, and yes, he wanted to send it to me to see what I thought. I snatched it up with a contract as soon as I finished the last page. I sent the manuscript to Margo Dill Balinski, a freelance editor who also works for High Hill's Young Adult division. I didn't realize that Margo had edited Baker Mountain the year before. We worked on galleys for awhile, and finally, this month, Baker Mountain saw the light of day. Donna Volkenannt is giving away a copy of Baker Mountain if you stop by her blog and make a comment.
I've pasted the first chapter below so everyone can see what I saw on that first read. Baker Mountain is a terrific book, available now through High Hill, but on October 1st it will be available everywhere. The cover image is by Thereisa Housley, an Arkansas artist we often consult when looking for something original . The oil painting we used is the perfect cover for this book about the life of a 16 year-old-boy during the depression. He was moved from his happy city life in Louisiana after the death of his mother, to the center of the Ozarks in the Ouachita Mountains to live with grandparents he barely knew. Now read a little of Baker Mountain.
The Model A Ford quit the blacktop for a rutted gravel track through the foothills, and sixteen-year-old Gary Hill watched worn-out wiper blades struggle to remove splashing rain. Mr. Hill fought the wheel while the car bounced and skidded on the muddy road. Puddles hid rocks and patches of slippery red clay, making the surface treacherous in the gathering darkness. The trip from New Orleans had taken two days of hard driving, and he was on his way to live with grandparents he’d never met.
“Only thirteen more miles,” his father said.
Gary’s thin jacket soaked up the water squeezing through the leaky window. He wanted to ask if the old couple would welcome him, then he hesitated, not sure he’d like the answer. He’d find out soon enough. Having to leave his home and his friends just wasn’t fair. His mother wouldn’t have done this to him
Gary looked forward to his seventeenth birthday, but he wasn’t eager to be exiled in these backwoods Ouachita Mountains. He didn’t even know anyone in Arkansas. He missed his mom. In New Orleans, he’d been popular, playing basketball and baseball while boxing at the boys club. His grades ranked near the top of his class, and he needed only one more semester to graduate. Violin lessons had sparked his love of music. That life was gone now. He felt like a storm-tossed boat without a rudder.
After his mother died, he’d quit violin lessons. The boys club was the only place things went well. He’d been a promising lightweight boxer, undefeated in a dozen amateur fights. His manager encouraged him to turn pro, but he’d refused. He didn’t want to end up punch drunk like most old fighters he’d met.
After another mile, he swallowed to quell nerves that threatened to choke him. “Do Grandpa and Grandma Lee really want me, or did you tell them I needed a place to stay?”
His dad’s breath rattled like windblown dry leaves. “They loved your mother, even if she left home to marry me and make a different life for herself. I know you’re capable of making it on your own, but give your grandparents a chance to help you.”
Gary stared out the windshield without seeing. “I don’t know much about farms.”
The self-pity in his voice was evident, even to himself. But the void in his gut hurt like salt on open sores. His father drowned his grief in whiskey, lost his job, and sat home all day staring into space. He hadn’t done much to help Gary deal with the loss. Some days, there was no food in the house.
He didn’t know much about stock markets, but the 1929 crash sure messed up his life. Four million people were jobless. By 1931, his father’s savings had vanished. The sturdy little Ford was all they had left.
His newspaper route helped pay bills when his father drank up the rent money. He’d also worked a few days each month as a carpenter’s helper. Now, he’d have to start over. Maybe he could find another job, but that was probably wishful thinking. Jobs weren’t likely to exist in this wilderness.
His father finally acknowledged the treacherous road and slowed down. The car splashed through water-filled potholes and swollen creeks drenched by cold February rain. Gary didn’t see anything except hills and trees until his dad pointed out the general store at Crossroads.
The road narrowed. Ruts deepened, and the rocks grew larger as they approached Baker Mountain. The headlights revealed his grandparents’ name on the mailbox, and they turned into the lane to climb a three-quarter mile grade to the farm.
Wet leaves brushed the car from tree limbs attempting to reclaim the lane. His father drove carefully to avoid the red mud as the Ford negotiated the narrow path. When they topped the hill, the house that was to be Gary’s home stood silhouetted in the headlights. The weathered building looked old, built of pine logs with a lean-to wing on one side. His heart sank at the thought of living in a log house. Dense forest surrounded the dwelling. Weeping clouds completed a scene of misery.
A flat bed Model T truck huddled under a bare oak tree in the yard. The sagging barn nestled against a timbered flank of the mountain. It looked ready to cave in.
The smell of wood smoke filled the damp air. Gary grabbed his two small suitcases, and his father carried the cardboard box holding his violin and the rest of his belongings. Dodging puddles, they dashed to the porch where a pair of noisy black and tan hounds greeted them with suspicion. They stopped under the sheltering roof to brush off the clinging raindrops.
When Grandpa Lee pulled open the front door, he reminded Gary of a poster he’d seen about mountain men. “Hush, Rufus. Hush, Reb.”
Shaggy gray hair billowed over his ears. Suspenders held up wrinkled khakis on his lean frame. His battered boots rattled on the plank floor. He looked old. “Get in here before you drown.”
Grandma wasn’t far behind, grimacing with pain as she reached to hold open the door. She wiped her hands on an apron and looked up from her bent frame with a welcoming smile. Her long hair was gathered in a bun on the back of her head. “Come in and get those wet coats off before you catch your death.”
“We’re glad to be here, Henry. It’s been a long two days.” Gary’s dad shook hands with his father-in-law. “This is your grandson, Gary.”
Grandma hugged them both. “Welcome, Gary. Put your things in the front room of the lean-to. You’ll sleep there.”
“Evening, Nelda,” Gary’s dad said. “I appreciate everything you’re doing.”
“I’ll have supper ready in five minutes.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
Heat from the fireplace felt good. Gary warmed his chilled body before the open flames and examined the sparsely furnished room. He stood almost as tall as his father, but his wiry frame lacked forty pounds matching the man’s weight.
A colorful rag rug covered the wood floor. Rough oak chairs stood scattered about, and two kerosene lamps rested on small oak tables. When Grandpa threw on another log, wisps of steam rose from their clothing. Conversation dwindled until Grandma called them to supper.
After the blessing, she served warmed-up ham and fried potatoes with a glass of milk. It was simple fare, but hunger after the long trip made it taste good. Gary’s eyes remained downcast while the adults made uneasy small talk. Finally, his dad brought up the subject everyone had hesitated to mention.
“Ruth fought the cancer as long as she had strength.” His normally steady voice wobbled. “She told me before she died that she regretted not being able to visit. Gary and I have been lost without her.”
Gary’s grandpa tugged at his whiskered chin. “Losing our only daughter hurt bad. I’ll confess to blaming you for taking her away, Austin.”
His father’s adam’s apple bobbed visibly. “I ship out on a freighter Monday morning. I’m lucky to be hired, and I’ll be able to stay away from the bottle at sea.”
Grandma touched Gary’s arm with a trembling hand, her voice soft as lotion. “We’ll have lots of time to get acquainted.”
He felt his tight nerves unwind a bit and returned her touch.
“I can leave twenty dollars to help with the boy’s keep,” his father said. “It’s not much, but I’ll send more after I’m paid.”
Gary winced like he’d been hit in the stomach. It sounded like he was being sold. Would his dad ever come back for him?
“It don’t cost much to live here. We grow most of our food,” Grandpa said. “Besides, we can use extra help.”
Gary wished they’d stop talking about him as if he weren’t there.
“Roscoe Higgins still run the bootlegging business around here?” Austin asked.
Grandpa nodded. “Same as always.”
“I hope you won’t let Gary get mixed up with Roscoe. He’s bad news.”
“He’s more careful after two terms in the pen. He got a year when the sheriff found his still and three more for assaulting a deputy. There ain’t no need for the boy to get involved.”
“You still make shine, Henry?”
Gary wasn’t absolutely sure what bootlegging was about. It didn’t sound like anything he wanted to be around. These mountain people lived a different life. He had a lot to learn.
“Batch now and then,” Grandpa said. “There’s a big demand since the government passed prohibition. Roscoe leaves me alone, long as I sell it local—to people we know. Roscoe mostly sells his whiskey outside the county. The sheriff looks for big operations. He doesn’t come nosing around here.”
Gary sent his grandfather a questioning look.
“About bed time,” Austin said. “I’ll be leaving before sun up.”
Gary said goodnight and went to his room. The lean-to wasn’t heated, and he shivered under the quilts. The cot was narrow and harder than his bed at home. During occasional lightening flashes, he lay awake staring at the sloping roof. Raindrops pelted the wood shingles. Though he wasn’t used to praying, he mustered a few words of hope that his dad would stop drinking and keep his promise to come for him when the ship made port. His grandparents were strangers, and life in these mountains scared him.
It seemed like he’d just closed his eyes when his father shook him awake.
“It’ll be daylight soon. I’ll write when I get to a port where I can mail the letter. Don’t give your grandparents any trouble.” He clutched Gary in a hug and left.
“Bye, Dad.” Gary’s voice cracked, but he didn’t allow himself to cry.
If you'd like to purchase your copy of Baker Mountain now, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org