Cover image for This side of the sky : a novel
This side of the sky : a novel
Singleton, Elyse.
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New York : BlueHen Books, [2002]

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326 pages ; 24 cm
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In her funny, moving, and ambitious debut, Elyse Singleton introduces us to two inseparable and hard-minded idealists. Young Lilian endures the tribulations of Nadir, Mississippi, on the purity of her faith in people and her growing belief in herself. Her best friend, Myraleen, gets by on her sharp tongue and her unwillingness to give in-and perhaps because Lilian is always with her. In this lifelong story, Lilian and Myraleen struggle through dramatically changing times: From the stark realities of life in rural Mississippi, through the different sort of racism they find in workaday Philadelphia and France during World War II. For these women, the road to maturity in the messy American century is long and ragged. Along the way, Myraleen falls for a Tuskeegee flier and Lilian for a German prisoner of war. And each time they reassert their oldest ideals, everything they believe in is tested again--most of all what love requires in such a world.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The country is torn by the Great Depression, but it makes very little impact on the African American population of Nadir, Mississippi, who have lived a lifetime of minimal opportunity and oppressed dreams. From the time Myraleen Chadham was placed next to Lilian Mayfield in their baby-sitter's yard, Myraleen scratched and clawed her way to feed her feelings of superiority over Lilian's quiet intellect. Lilian clings to kindness and education as her lifeboat in Nadir's stormy sea of segregation and poverty. She knows that if she holds on to her convictions long enough, she can leave the red dust of Mississippi's roads behind her. The unlikely duo of Myraleen and Lilian journey from childhood to womanhood suffering the chaos of World War II, the pain of discrimination, and basking in the joy of their accomplishments. Singleton takes her characters from Nadir to Philadelphia and into the U.S. Army in a spiraling mix of love, heartbreak, and humor with a novel that is a compassionate and compelling work of fiction written from the heart. --Elsa Gaztambide

Publisher's Weekly Review

This is a sprawling, ambitious saga about two women, lifelong friends, who live through World War II and its aftermath, and the men in their lives. That may sound overly familiar, but the novel offers a very important difference: the two women are black, from rural Mississippi; they spend the war as WACs in London and later in Europe and the lover of one of them is a thoroughly decent German prisoner of war sent to work in the fields in the Deep South. Lilian, the woman with the German lover, is very black, and also resolute and hard-working; her best friend from school days, Myraleen, is a light-skinned beauty who can, and often does, pass for white, and who is sharp, sardonic and unforgiving. Debut novelist Singleton has an economical, restrained style that is particularly effective in moments of high drama and wartime action, but which is otherwise a little laid back for the emotional punch her story often delivers and her chapters from the point of view of Kellner, the German POW, lack the conviction of the rest. Still, this is an often warming and poignant story of a seldom-visited side of the war, one that is well worth knowing. (Oct.) Forecast: BlueHen's program of discovery of new novelists has unearthed a writer whose book will certainly speak to black readers and should appeal to a range of white ones, too. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This lengthy debut novel by an award-winning journalist tells the life story of two independent-minded black women, Lilian and Myraleen, who were born in the early 20th century in Mississippi, where "being poor in Nadir didn't mean being starved to death; it meant being worried to death." The two become close friends and eventually move away from the restricting Southern environment to Philadelphia, where they discover the veiled segregation of the North. They work at menial jobs, refuse offers of marriage, and enlist in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. Events such as the bombings of London and life in postwar Paris are presented from their unique perspective. Myraleen eventually becomes romantically involved with a black pilot, while, in an odd set of circumstances, Lilian pursues a German POW she befriended in Nadir. Although this book presents an informed glimpse of segregation before and during the war, the characters are never completely developed, and many events feel too contrived. All the facts are here but not enough of the feelings. An optional purchase. [This book is dedicated to librarians, specifically those at the Denver P.L.-Ed.]-David A. Beron, Univ. of New Hampshire, Durham (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



KELLNER Russia 1951 LONG IN SUFFERING, QUICK IN LOSING-SEVEN YEARS. EVERY day, another season of winter whisked by, just like that. Did she think he had been killed? Or did she assume he had married someone who looked more like him? He knew that to her he had become a man of dead promises. Yet, he remembered her elegant mind, the deep blackness of her hair, the liquid brown of her eyes, and the way her pearl earrings drew his eyes to the curve of her neck. He did not know whether he would live out the day. And he had only one reason to care. The single thing that redeemed the world was that somewhere, she lived. Even now, in this endless winter, he could feel the warmth of her hand. LILIAN Mississippi 1930 ...a flight of unsung hearts... AS A GIRL, I LOVED ANYTHING WITH WHEELS OR WINGS-including Pontiacs, trains, bread trucks and hummingbirds-because they all had the power to get out of Mississippi. This is what I wanted to do, and couldn't do on the authority of my underage feet alone. But I swore to myself that once grown, I'd do anything to leave. If my legs were broken, I'd hobble. If my eyes were blind, I'd grope and stumble. If a cement wall stood at the state line, I'd defy natural laws, sprout great wings that flailed the thick air and beat the mighty odds so I could soar away-anything. I didn't know then that the highest fence might be my own mind. I did know, though, that in Mississippi, I was just killing time and mourning its passing. Away I could have adventures, cross oceans, sample cities and get a glamorous job. I could fall in love, resolve my deepest hurts, author my own life and write it as a gleaming epoch so that for one perpetual moment, I'd feel joy. One thing was certain: I'd go with Myraleen when I left. She felt as dead as I did in Mississippi and came to share my determination to escape a place where we'd been mismatched with our own lives. Miz Herdie was the first to get an inkling of it. She took care of us when we were little. When we first started walking, we walked with purpose, she said. Our stumbling steps weren't roundabout and nearsighted like the other babies'. We waddled out the door in a northeasterly direction, past the chickens, toward the mustard and turnip greens that thrived along the gate, and we probably would have left the property altogether if she'd let us. It was as if we were being pulled by a gossamer string. She knew it, she'd say later. One day we'd fly away, and it would be a flight of unsung hearts and untried legs, and if we smacked the ground and shed our lives in the attempt at living, well, that's just how things went sometimes. Myraleen and I stayed with Miz Herdie while our mothers worked. Myraleen's mother worked in a white lady's kitchen. Mine shucked oysters down near Gulfport. A wagon burdening two horses for one hour hauled her and some others to a house on the pier packed with wet buckets of grimy brown shellfish. What I remember most clearly from the earliest days was riding up to Miz Herdie's porch in Mudear's arms, and my face being pushed into the old woman's bosom. I knew better than to cry. Miz Herdie placed me on the floor beside a little girl with no color, who bit and scratched. People who came around looked at that child, reared back their chests and said, "Yeah, daylight done broke on that one all right, damn near white!" Myraleen had no clear reason to fight me. I'd be over in a corner, playing with a shoe box, and suddenly she'd be at my side, with those paper-thin nails poised for combat. This went on for a long time, it seemed, until I came to think Myraleen was punishing me for some unknown wrong. Mudear would get mad, and tell me I'd better learn to pick up my feet, instead of falling so much and getting all scratched up or she'd add a whipping to the scratches. Then one time Miz Herdie saw Myraleen race her nails down my bare arm. We were in the yard, and Miz Herdie was stepping fast behind a dirty-feathered chicken wise enough to run. As she grabbed it, she saw the mischief out of the corner of her eye. Suddenly, her coal-colored free hand came down to snatch up Myraleen's arm like a great hook from heaven, and she dragged her and the chicken to the porch steps. Dangling them both in front of her, she sat down. Her big black face butted up against the little white one. "Don't you ever let me catch you doing dat again, or I'm gon take dat belt and tear your li'l sun-kissed tail up." Myraleen turned a deep shade of pink. Then Miz Herdie looked behind her toward me, and seemed to get even madder. "Why didn't you say somepum? You old nuf to talk for yourself. Don't let people mistreat you like dat. Next time..." She tightened her grip on the chicken's head, twirled it around, flicked her wrist to give his body a twisted flip through the air, and he flopped dead on the porch. "Next time, I'm gon whip de two of you." Myraleen stopped scratching me and started playing with me. Miz Herdie had us weekdays and Saturdays until we were six and went off to school. Each morning, I'd wait for Myraleen at her gate. Within a minute, she'd come out of the splintery oak door that groaned when she opened it. She'd always wear outfits that featured pleats or a sailor collar or suspenders or a combination. They'd be erected in rock starch, transformed from weak-willed cotton to the militancy of timber. At lunchtime we pulled apart our sandwiches or chicken wings or whatever we had. Then we'd trade half for half to double the variety of our meals. Her oil-splotched bag always hosted butterscotch-colored planks of peanut brittle too, which she split with me though I had no sweets to offer her in return. We both were only children, the sole brotherless, sisterless youngsters in the colored part of town. "Play cousins" is what we told people we were. But we never said this in front of our mothers. "I don't know why you want to put yourself on people who don't like you," Mudear said. "You know that woman don't like you being up under her precious piss-colored child." It was true. Whenever I'd play in Myraleen's yard, her mother peered at me with a hard sideways glance, as if she'd just as soon stomp me as look at me. Mercy Chadham was a big haunted house of a woman. Her mouth didn't seem like other people's. A scar cut across the right side of her lips like a nowhere road on a map. Two gold teeth stabbed my eyes with an unexpected flash whenever she opened her mouth. When she smiled, it looked like two long pink worms lay curled and dead upon her face. Much of the time, though, her lips bore into each other in anger. Even her size was intimidating; she seemed as big and wide as bed linen and she was so light she had freckles. The way her mother saw the world didn't seem to have a big impact on Myraleen-at least not at first. Then, when we were thirteen, everything changed. One morning, I waited through the first promising minutes at the gate without seeing her. After fifteen minutes, the door still hadn't groaned. Maybe she was sick. From where I stood, I couldn't see inside the windows. And I certainly wasn't going to get caught peeping through Mrs. Chadham's curtains. I finally left. I ran, my thick underbraids spanking my shoulders as if to spur me, and made it to the schoolhouse only a half second before Mrs. Marsh's hand-slapping ruler was out for latecomers. Chairs and desks stood in straight rows she had realigned from the previous day's shifting. October 22, 1930, was written on the blackboard in fresh white chalk. Long after class had begun, my eyes kept drifting toward the door. "Better stop worrying about that door, and start worrying about your lesson, little Miss Lily Mayfield," Mrs. Marsh said. Playground talk solemnly swore that hidden in a secret closet, she had a "whipping machine," a contraption with a strap to batten down wrongdoers so an electric paddle could beat them for hours. A pupil blurted this out once, and it was the only time I ever saw Mrs. Marsh laugh. We were going into a whipping machine of a world, she'd taught us. If we learned to do everything correctly, that would lessen our licks. About every other day, she'd say to us, "As a rule, always be the exception." And once, she'd pulled me aside at the door as the rest of the children ran to catch the waning after-school part of the day. "You're a dark one," she said. "So at least you better be a smart one." I had no one to walk home with that October afternoon. Sometimes other girls would stroll along with us, listening to Myraleen make fun of everybody out of hearing range. "That Zelma got feet as big as baby caskets," she'd say, or "Miz Marsh's butt stick out so much you could set a table on it and serve Christmas dinner." But I had no sassy talk to attract the girls. So I walked along the red dirt road alone. Myraleen was the only person who'd listen to what I had to say. Where was she? Odd that I would think back to then, when yesterday was now. Old people used to say there comes a time when you remember fifty, sixty years ago as if it were last week, but damn if you can remember last week at all. They were right. Every generation thinks their time is the time and talks about the present as if it's some stable territory they can occupy indefinitely. Yet when we say now, by the time we get to the w sound, the n is in the past. Pallbearers haul the casket from the church into the damp day, and we stand watching and waiting for the car. A familiar shoulder rubs against mine in a by-now ancient gesture of comfort between two intimates, a touchstone to the moment. Still, my mind zigzags, traversing a century, two continents and four lives. MYRALEEN ...Mr. Cheevers was getting married... MY MAMA USED TO SAY, "I DON'T KNOW WHY YOU WANT TO be around that li'l tar baby. Her and her mammy's as black as a hopeless midnight." But Lily never got bold in my chest, like some of the other girls did and said, "You think you cute!" And I'd have to set 'em straight and say, "Naw, monkey face, I know I'm cute!" Lily's talk stayed stingless and nicey-nice. Plus she knew things in a town where folks didn't know pee from perfume and were proud of it. Strange, dark as she was, Lily was my only snatch of light. You could ask that girl anything, I swear. When God was handing out brains and everybody else was off picking their noses, Lilian with that polite look of hers stood holding out a bushel basket for extras. On the way home from school one day when we were about twelve or so, Edna Crawford told us how her cousin was eighteen before she got her period. "So my auntie took her to this lady who was like a nurse and the lady stuck a long needle up her you-know-what and made her period come down." The thought made my steps come to a stop in the red dirt and my thighs clap together to shut out evil. "Oooh, girl, no!" Edna and Lilian stopped when I did, in sympathy. Edna wasn't afraid of anything, and for some reason Lilian didn't look too concerned. "I should know. It happened to my own cousin." My knees moved forward again but my shoulders slouched in disgust. Periods were a secret only a few of us knew. Edna's older sister Johnnie started that year and thought the red pop she'd been drinking had leaked through. That's how we got a little of the lowdown about it. Why did such a nasty thing have to happen at all? I'd made up my mind I wouldn't start until I was at least nineteen. "I hate needles," I said. "That would be the worst thing in the worst place. But I don't want to get a period either." "I guess you damned if you do and damned if you don't then," Edna said. "Girl, damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't is the house where I live." About this time, Lilian, usually too shy to buck anybody, put her two cents in. "That doesn't sound right, Edna. Maybe you misunderstood." "And who was talking to you anyway, blacky?" I laughed. Generally, I enjoyed any bad-mouthing that wasn't aimed in my direction. "Well, I ain't no liar. That's what happened." "Look, I can't listen to no arguing. All that talk about needles gave me a nervous headache. I hate needles." Edna's mother was waiting at the gate with a list of chores long enough for Job and a what-took-you-so-long-you-always-lollygagging speech. Lilian and I had a ways more to walk. "Still got a headache?" Lilian asked down the road. "Yes indeedy." "Let's go to the library." I didn't see how that could possibly help a headache, only make me late enough so my mama would double my misery. "We'll be quick." "'Sides, that lady might not let me in." "We'll see. If not, I'll go in and you won't have to wait but a little while." Lilian had told me she walked into the white library when she was nine years old. Instead of getting her butt beat by both the lady in charge and her own mama, she got to stay. At first, the lady put the palm of her hand on top of Lilian's head, turned her in the direction of the door and pushed her until her little chin almost bumped the knob. She took her outside and pointed to the colored library that owned a used-up, old-fashioned pile of not-much and at least four Little Black Sambo books. But when Lilian was halfway down the street, the lady called her back. Only one of two folks showed up on weekdays, anyway. Lilian could come, she said, but never on Saturday and always through the back door. "If anybody's here and says anything, you beg their pardon and pity and then scat." Lilian said, "Yes, ma'am," and she's been going to the white library ever since. All books having anything to do with ladies' problems she swept off the shelves. She hauled them to a back table where the librarian couldn't see what we were doing. Her forefinger rode down the index of each book looking for the words needle, menstruation , or amenorrhea -whatever in the heck that meant. It sounded like somebody got the Holy Spirit and couldn't stop saying amen. She didn't find a paragraph or page (Lilian read bullet fast) that paired needle and menstruation or needle and amenorrhea . "Edna misheard something, that's all. When grown people are talking, they're half whispering, anyway. She just put wrong words in the empty spaces." My headache left. Lord, this girl had magic. EVEN THOUGH I prayed every night to keep it away, one morning when I was thirteen, I woke up with reddish brown stains in my underpants. After that, Mama complained more about the time I spent with Lilian, and any other children for that matter. "You don't need to be doing all that ripping and playing and foolishness. You too old for that mess." "Yes'um," I said and out of her eyeshot, I ripped, ran and hopscotched as much as I pleased. But all that soon stopped. When I got home from school one Thursday, Mr. Cheevers was sitting in the front room. He was a man with big, old, piano-key teeth, who worked as a house and barn painter in our county and the next. I figured he was waiting for my daddy to get home from work, so I passed right by him, headed for the kitchen. "Hidy," I said to my mama. She was making ham sandwiches. She stared at me in that knocking but steady way that made her eyeballs seem like fists bouncing off my face. That's the way it was with Mercy. With her, you never knew whether it was going to be the picnic or the flies. More and more, it was getting to be the flies. "Cain't you speak?" "Yes, ma'am. I spoke." "You ain't spoke to Mr. Cheevers." "Hello, Mr. Cheevers," I called. "Hiya doing this afternoon?" "Girl, go on in there and talk to the man like you got some sense." How to act around grown-ups could be tricky. I hadn't spoken to Mr. Cheevers in the first place because sometimes if girls spoke too easily to men, their mamas would say, "Shut yo' fast ass up. He grown; you ain't got no business talking to him." Mama had never before told me to talk to a man other than my father. Mr. Cheevers flashed those old piano keys in a wide grin. He was a long skinny man whose walk was wide legged and hard as if he was stomping a snake with each step. His voice was so deep it sounded as if it was coming from hell. He was maybe about thirty years old. "Come over here, girl, and sit down." He patted a spot on the couch right beside him. I sat three or four feet left of where he patted. "You still in school?" "Yes sir. I'm in the eighth grade." At this point I expected him to say I was smart, as most grown folks did when you told them you were in your right grade. He said nothing, though, so I went on. "I'm good at mathematics, history and geography, but I'm not that good at English." This is when adults would give advice on how to do better, even if they'd never gone to school themselves. "After you finish studying, sleep wit yo' books under yo' pillow at night," they'd say. Mr. Cheevers said a funny-sounding thing, though. "You don't have to worry about that no mo'," he said. Then my mother was bending over him, draping a starched cloth napkin over his lap, giving him a plate with a sandwich on it. "Here, William. Hope this'll hold you till supper time. We'll be eating as soon as Luther gets home." Talk around the dinner table that evening had a Sunday ring to it. Voices clanged against each other. Laughing rang through it all. Something special was going on. But I didn't know what, and if I asked, Mama might have told me not to mess in grown folks' business. "Yeah," she said to Mr. Cheevers, "I think she gonna be a pretty good old helpmate." She! She! Who was this "she" they were talking about? Most of the time I had no problem understanding adult conversations. It was pretty simple once you figured out the signal words they had for secret things like man-and-woman stuff, dying and sickness. I could understand the gist of it: Mr. Cheevers was getting married. But who in the hell would want him? Mama kept saying how well he'd be able to take care of the lady because his painting business was "in demand and up and coming." On the way out the door, Mr. Cheevers shook Daddy's hand. "I think we done made a square deal here, and thank you kindly, Mercy, for the nice dinner. "And you," he said to me. "I'll see you on Sunday." You old ugly-mouthed son-of-a-bitch, I thought. Who'd want to see your tail on the Lord's Day? What was in my mind must have shown on my face. Mr. Cheevers's head flew back in a laugh. "Don't you be frowning up at me, gal," he said and laughed again, closing the door. Mama hit me hard on my left shoulder. "Did you roll your eyes at him?" she said. "No, Mama. I just didn't know what he was talking about, that's all." "Ain't you got a nickel's worth of sense?" I knew there were two kinds of knowledge a child could have: too much and not enough. If you knew too much, you were a fast ass; not enough, and you were a stupid ass. Daddy drifted into the back room, as he always did when Mama was about to light into me. He was a "house-is-hers" man. Children came under the category of the house business, like cooking or deciding what kind of curtains to make, which came under the category of nothing he wanted to be bothered with. "Damn," Mama said, her face moving closer to mine. "You lucky we got somebody willing to marry your stupid ass." "Marry?" I looked at her harder than it was safe to do, searching for some sign she was just playing, messing with me. Her face said she wasn't kidding. Maybe I had known all along, and hoped that if I didn't think it, it wouldn't be true. "Mama, Mama. I'll be good. I'll do more work around here, and stop lollygagging on the way home from school. I promise. I promise. Please, Mama, I don't want to get married." "You don't want...," she said slowly. "You don't want." Then that line came across her face that was the opposite of what a smile should be, hatred happy with itself. Every time she said those words, her chest got bigger with strength to beat my ass. "You don't want? Who gives a damn what you want. You don't rule nobody here!" Then her hand sailed to my temple where she grabbed a handful of hair. She used it as a handle to yank me around the living room. "I try to make a way for you, and you got the nerve to come talking about what you want." She stressed each syllable with a short hard jerk of my head. "I know what you want, all right. You want to lie around here till one of these tail-sniffers notices you. So you'll end up with a bellyful of niggah and a cupboardful of nothing. FOO-OOL! IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?" "No, ma'am, Mama. No, ma'am, Mama." Tears met snot above my lips. Tiny streams blended at my gasping mouth, and droplets flew into the air. The room swirled and rocked. Floorboards, chair legs, my own legs and feet swept in and out of my view. The white blouse I was wearing lost its backbone, got damp and limp. "No, ma'am," I said, as she let me fall to the floor, wet and red and shaking. --from This Side of the Sky: A Novel by Elyse Singleton, Copyright © 2002 Blue Hen Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission Excerpted from This Side of the Sky by Elyse Singleton All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.