Cover image for Sins of the seventh sister : a novel based on a true story of the gothic South
Sins of the seventh sister : a novel based on a true story of the gothic South
Curtiss, Huston.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harmony Books, [2003]

Physical Description:
358 pages ; 25 cm
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How many times have you thought, "this has got to be true--no one could make this up?" Well, in 1929, Huston Curtiss was seven years old, living with his beautiful, opinionated mother (whose image is on the cover of this book), and surrounded by their romantic, fiercely independent, and often certifiably insane relatives. Huston has never before written about that time--an era of racism and repression, a time when this country was still relatively young, an age of quirky individualism and almost frontier-style freedom that largely has ceased to exist. Fearful he would not be believed, on one hand, but desirous of the freedom to embellish, on the other, Curtiss chronicles that time in Sins of the Seventh Sister, a book he characterizes as "a novel based on a true story of the gothic South." It is his story and the story of the people of Elkins, West Virginia, a small town whose inhabitants included his mother, Billy-Pearl Curtiss, and her many sisters--all stunning blondes. Billy-Pearl would prove to be an irresistibly romantic figure in her son's life. She was the seventh of eleven children, all girls to her father's consternation. By the time of her arrival, her father felt he had been patient enough and insisted on calling her Billy; he taught her everything he had intended to impart to his firstborn son. She would grow up to be one of the most beautiful women in the county, but also one of the most opinionated and liberal. Her aim was so precise that she was barred from the local turkey shoot because none of the men had a chance against her. When a Klansman accused her of attempted homicide after she shot him through the shoulder to stop him from setting fire to the home of her black neighbors, she told the sheriff, "If I had meant to kill him, he'd be dead." And with that defense, she was exonerated. Curtiss Farm was large and the house had many rooms, which Billy-Pearl got in the habit of gathering people to fill, especially the downtrodden who had nowhere to go. In May 1929, Billy-Pearl brought home a boy from the local orphanage. Stanley was sixteen, the age at which the orphanage kicked children out, and Billy-Pearl, knowing his sad history, could not allow him to end up on the streets. Stanley had witnessed his father beat his mother to death in a drunken rage and had taken a straight razor and slit his father's throat while he slept. A country judge had the boy castrated to control his aggressive ways. Not a boy, but not yet a man, Stanley was tall, willowy, and frightened as a colt upon his arrival at Curtiss Farm--not at all the playmate for whom Huston had hoped. But quickly a friendship developed between the two that would last a lifetime--a friendship that would survive murder, suicide, madness, and Stanley's eventual transformation into Stella, a singer who would live her adult life as a glamorous woman. Sins of the Seventh Sister is brilliantly conceived and masterfully written, as alive with flamboyant characters and wildly uncontained emotions as any book to come out of the South.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The seventh sister of the title is Curtiss' mother, Billy Pearl, the seventh out of 10 daughters. An unconventional woman, to say the least, Billy ran the family farm in West Virginia after she separated from Curtiss' father, an alcoholic and a philanderer. Curtiss was only seven in 1929 when Billy took in Stanley, a quiet, 16-year-old boy who murdered his abusive father and was castrated on the order of a cruel judge. Determined to give Stanley a good life, Billy taught him to be a horse trainer and also indulged his desire to sing--dressed up as a woman. Billy constantly championed the rights of the oppressed and fought against the Ku Klux Klan members plaguing the area. When necessary, Billy went as far as committing murder. Alhough Curtiss purports in the introduction to tell the story of his life growing up with Stanley, who later became the famous opera singer Stella Roman, most of his memoir is devoted to his extraordinary mother and her eccentric family. A quirky, unique look at a bygone era. --Kristine Huntley

Publisher's Weekly Review

Nestled in a web of murder, rape, abuse and adultery is the often happy and always loving home of Huston ("Hughie") Curtiss. His memoir, which roots itself in the events of 1929, when he's only seven years old, reveals a slice of the eccentric life of one white West Virginian family. Hughie's mother, the powerful, progressive and indefatigable Billy-Pearl, heads the family and has a knack for attracting the desperate and destitute. She adopts a motley crew, including a castrated orphan who becomes a successful opera singer, a black family running from the KKK and a homeless schoolteacher. The seventh of 11 daughters, Billy tries her best-with the help of her ever-expanding extended family-to eradicate prejudice, abuse and poverty. Together the extended family struggles through the '29 stock market collapse and the dangerous racism plaguing the South, resorting to measures as drastic as murder to keep themselves safe. Hughie's seven-year-old's perspective-from which much of the book is written-often colors the tale. Like other children his age, Hughie sees his mother as larger than life and capable of saving the world. But this bias is tempered by Hughie's slight resentment toward her as he vies for her attention. The author draws himself as a sometimes selfish but caring child who has to learn that the world needs Billy as much as he does. This vibrant and unsentimental account intertwines the fates of dozens of unique characters and moves smoothly from one remarkable-and often unbelievable-story to the next. (On sale Feb. 18) Forecast: An evocative photograph of the author's mother, along with national publicity, a national radio campaign and an author tour will grab browsers' interest. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Curtiss, about whom we know nothing except that he lives in Los Angeles, presents what he claims to be a memoir of his childhood in West Virginia. Most of the book covers events in 1929, when Curtiss was seven. He claims to have kept a journal upon which he bases this book, but even if that were true, he shows remarkable recall. This one year includes many killings (three by his mother), a couple of suicides, and several rapes, all involving his circle of family and friends. The few factual claims presented cannot be corroborated. For example, Curtiss states that his aunt had a 40-year affair with a married senator named Burton (no first name is given), but there was no married senator named Burton in Congress at the time. His most incredible claims are about an opera star whom he never fully names but implies is Stella Roman (Library of Congress CIP information lists the same). None of the assertions he makes match information found in reputable reference sources about Roman. Further, Curtiss's storytelling is needlessly sensationalistic and self-referential and has little to recommend it in terms of style or level of interest. Not recommended.-Debra Moore, Cerritos Coll., Norwalk, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



May 10, 1929 My Journal Begins* One evening early in the summer, conversation was going around Grandmother Curtiss's dinner table, as it was wont to do. Earlier dinner conversations had turned into yelling matches, with each person talking louder than the last and sometimes pounding the table. As there were always at least twelve of us at the table on Friday nights, it made quite a clamor. So my grandmother had instigated new rules. Starting with Papa Curtiss, each person got his chance to tell what he had done in the previous week, followed by a short question-and-answer period, before the attention moved on to the next person. Papa Curtiss sat at the end of the table with his chair pushed back to make room for his expanding girth. He liked the look of my mother in the candlelight, with her long, thin patrician neck and her head crowned by a massive braid of golden hair. It had never been cut. Papa Curtiss spoke of the wisdom of converting all our liquid assets into stock, and he named the stock of the moment. Then he made a little "humph" that meant "The master has spoken," and he nodded to my mother, giving her the floor. But tonight my mother seemed hesitant to speak. She hemmed and hawed, which was unusual for her, and we all pretended not to notice. Finally she said, "I'll stand up. I want you all to hear me." By now she had everyone's full attention, even that of my father, who was on his third glass of wine, in spite of my grandmother's disapproving looks. "As you know, I've been spending Friday afternoons at the county orphanage." My grandmother nodded her approval. "The school year's almost over, and the state doesn't educate children beyond their sixteenth year. Then it pushes them out to the waiting vultures." My mother was given to dramatic turns of phrase. Here my grandmother interrupted, disobeying her own rule. "You're not going to ask me to take in another of those children. I've already got one of your girls in my kitchen and a boy delivering for the store." Papa Curtiss echoed, "No more; enough!" "Let me go on. This year there are six children too old to stay according to that dreadful state law, which should be changed." Here she looked directly at our county judge, Judge Brown, who was tonight's guest of honor. My mother became more resolute and raised her voice, which was unnecessary since it carried like a deep-toned bell. "There's a boy, I'm sure you'll recognize his name: Stanley Black. He's sixteen, and I'm going to take him home." There was dead silence. Judge Brown was the first to recover; nothing shocked him anymore. "Isn't he the kid who killed his father?" My mother's voice now turned from a bell to a very sharp knife. "You know very well he went through your court. At the hearing, he was never even accused. He was just a ten-year-old unlucky enough to be in the room when his father stabbed his mother and then killed himself." Now it was just my mother and Judge Brown. "The sheriff said the kid had blood all over him." It was an unfortunate time to mention blood, as Matthew's knife was just then cutting through the rare beef roast. "Your inquest decreed that Stanley's father killed himself." Judge Brown shrugged. "It was the easiest thing to do. What are you going to do with a ten-year-old boy, send him to the electric chair?" My father was now unpleasantly drunk and ignored everyone but my mother. "You might have talked to me about this." "I need someone to help train the horses for Lexington." My mother seemed to be talking to herself. "You know Zeke and Hannibal aren't up to the job." "And I suppose I'm not?" My father's slurred words could hardly reach the far end of the table. Grandmother Curtiss pulled him back into his seat and emptied his wineglass into the floral arrangement. "We'll talk about it on the way home." My mother helped herself to the green beans and began to cut her meat. "Assuming you're coming home tonight." "Who's running the farm, anyway?" My father was now belligerent. My mother went on chewing her green beans. My grandmother leaned close to my father's ear. Her lips were pulled back, and I thought she was going to bite him. "You know very well that Billy-Pearl runs that farm while you chase every whore in the county. Now, sit down and be still or leave my table." She turned back to her guests and smiled, patting the sides of her shining black hair. "I had my hair bobbed today, and not one of you said a thing." A murmur of belated compliments went around the table. "I want to look like the times and not some old fuddy-duddy, and the next time you see me, I'm going to have horn-rimmed glasses." She turned to her younger half brother, my great-uncle Alvin, for help. Alvin had been trained by an expert to pick up the social ball. "It's just what you need to set off your raven hair." Smiling, he gave the whole table the benefit of his charm. "I've decided to have my portrait painted." My Aunt Opal's specialty was needling Alvin. "What a surprise. Do you think there's enough gold paint in town to do it?" For just a moment I thought everyone at the table was angry with him, jealous because he really was golden: golden hair, golden skin, golden eyes. "I'm going to have Eddie Horner do it. He's quite good." Papa Curtiss sputtered until the bloody beef juices ran down his chin. "I've heard he's a fairy." Alvin kept his tone level. "His personal sex habits have nothing to do with his ability as a painter. After all, I'm not going to sleep with him. You should have him do your portrait, Billy, you'd make a beautiful subject." My mother only smiled. I knew why he admired her: it was a kind of ego, since she was golden-haired like he was, and everyone else at the table was dark-haired except for me and Aunt Emma. Emma was Alvin's sister, but she didn't count, for she was a ghost of a woman. Their mother must have saved up her color for her golden boy, for Emma had none at all. She was albino, completely white, with no pigment in her hair or skin. Even the long sweep of her lashes was white, framing the kind of blue in her eyes that you could paint with watercolors only if you added a great deal of water. Emma never went out, except for these Friday night dinners. She was afraid of the sidewalks and the streets and would not have come even here, except that she and Alvin lived in a great house on Park Avenue, back to back with the Curtiss house, and she could come through the orchard they shared. Now my grandmother smiled at me. "Hughie." (I was Hughie, my father was Hugh, and my grandfather was Huston, so we didn't have to be one, two, and three.) "Would you like to tell us what you did this week?" I felt my father's sudden apprehension, for quite often my recitals involved him. I stood up. It was my moment. "Yesterday I went swimming down at the cement bridge with four of my cousins." (My father was alert now, reaching for his money clip.) "We were all up on the bridge, lookin' down, when here comes a boat, just drifting, and guess who was in it?" Opal looked impatient. "Tell us, Hughie. This isn't a guessing game." My father was showing the corner of a dollar bill in his vest pocket. "It was Sylvia Tingler--all by herself, floating down the river." My grandmother said, "I don't want that woman's name spoken at this table!" I sat down. The strawberry tarts were being served. I could still feel the shame of the day before. My cousins were all lined up at the bridge rail when the boat floated under the bridge, and it was my father stretched out with his pants down, his white butt going up and down as he thrust himself into the fat, spread-eagled Sylvia Tingler. It was worth more than a dollar to keep still about that, and I knew it. I would collect later. Alvin and Emma always left right after dinner. Emma began to feel afraid if she was away from home too long. Grandmother watched them go out through the kitchen and take the path through the orchard. They were her father's children, and yet she felt no kinship. She had never understood or liked her stepmother, who had always seemed removed, with her German accent, her pale coloring, and the vast amount of money and things, rooms and rooms of things that she brought with her. Now her stepmother was dead, and her father was gone, and these two otherworldly beings walked through the rooms like museum pieces moving through their gilded setting. My father had had two more glasses of wine in spite of his mother and had gone to pass out on a couch in the foyer. My grandmother Virginia did her hostess duties sitting on her green velvet recamier. She poured the after-dinner coffee from a silver pot shaped like a melon into thin little demitasse cups the size of eggshells. With it were thimble-size goblets of cognac. Billy-Pearl sat in a claret-red velvet wing chair, with the light from a Tiffany-shaded lamp falling on her in splotches of soft color. Her mother-in-law said to her, "Pearl, you really should have your portrait painted. You're quite beautiful, you know, and it doesn't last." She ran her hand along the line of her jaw, not quite as firm as it had been. Pearl drank her liqueur and held the glass before her and studied the way the light refracted through the cut glass. She knew the social graces well enough, and she truly liked Virginia, it wasn't a sham. "We are a mutual admiration society, you and I. I was just sitting here thinking how becoming your new cut is to you. But I would like to see the sides swept back like raven's wings, to accent your eyes." "I'll try--tomorrow." Bea and Opal had gone into the music room, their two dark heads close together at the piano. They were practicing a two-handed rendition of "I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate." They did not really like their beautiful blond sister-in-law and did not understand their mother's attraction to her, any more than they understood the worship of the "crown prince," their younger brother, my father, Hugh. They were four and five when he was born, and they were ignored in the hullabaloo over the family heir. They crept into the nursery, newly painted blue, and over to the polished brass crib. Little Hugh was sleeping soundly and did not wake when they unpinned his diaper and examined the part that set him apart from them. That little thing sticking out of the front of him was no bigger than their little finger. Surely it couldn't make as much difference as all that. They would just get the scissors and snip that little thing off--then they would all receive equal amounts of love! They were about to carry out the deed when Tuba caught them. She took one under each of her fat arms and went to the kitchen. They were sure their little bottoms were going to be smacked with the pancake turner, but instead they were each given a bowl of fresh-picked raspberries and cream, and a warm sugar cookie. Judge Brown's wife's name was Daisy. She was seventy-two years old and looked every day of it. Grandmother knew her age because it had been in the church bulletin last Sunday: "Mrs. Hiram Brown was seventy-two on the 12th. Happy birthday, Mrs. Brown!" No happy birthday, Daisy. It was as though she belonged tooth and bone to that arrogant, despicable man and couldn't even have her own first name. Grandmother had objected to inviting him to her table, but Grandfather had said, "You never know when you're going to need a politician in power. And he does have power." "A crooked politician, you mean?" "Is there any other kind?" Now Daisy sat in the middle of the couch, her voluminous pale pink dress spread out around her, as though she wanted everyone to see the large bulge over her stomach and that Cheshire cat smile. When Virginia handed her the cognac goblet, she said, "I better not." And continued to smile and pat her stomach. "Dear Daisy, let me wish you a belated happy birthday. I read it in the church bulletin." "Thank you. I was in hopes the little one would come on my birthday, but he's as stubborn as his daddy. I was twenty-four, you know, the perfect age to become a mother: not too soon, not too late." Her hands made wavering motions through the air as though rocking a baby. Virginia and Pearl exchanged questioning glances with their eyebrows raised. All the guests were leaving, and Virginia was bidding them good night at the door. Pearl was carrying Hughie out to the car, leaving Hugh to sleep fitfully. Daisy had skipped on across the portico. Virginia took Judge Brown's hand and smiled. "Judge, it looks like you are going to have to send Daisy down to Weston. She's nutty as a fruitcake, you know."* Now the judge stared at her. Her teeth were too even and too white for a woman her age. Virginia continued walking with him to the steps, taking his arm as though concerned. "It will be easy for you, after all the poor souls you have had committed to that place." Excerpted from Sins of the Seventh Sister: A Memoir of the Gothic South by Huston Curtiss 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.