“This story of love, loss, and growing up under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable is beautifully written, superbly researched, emotionally engaging and gripping from first page to last. A must for old-school fans of historical fiction.” Booklist Starred Review
I killed a man the summer I turned thirteen . . .
Thus begins C. S. Harris’s haunting, lyrically beautiful tale of coming of age in Civil War-torn Louisiana. Eleven-year-old Amrie St. Pierre is catching tadpoles with her friend Finn O’Reilly when the Federal fleet first steams up the Mississippi River in the spring of 1862. With the surrender of New Orleans, Amrie’s sleepy little village of St. Francisville – strategically located between the last river outposts of Vicksburg and Port Hudson – is now frighteningly vulnerable. As the roar of canons inches ever closer and food, shoes, and life-giving medicines become increasingly scarce, Amrie is forced to grow up fast. But it is her own fateful encounter with a tall, golden-haired Union captain named Gabriel that threatens to destroy everything and everyone she holds most dear.
Told with rare compassion and insight, this is a gripping, heart-wrenching story of loss and survival; of the bonds that form amongst women and children left alone to face the hardships,depravations, and dangers of war; and of one unforgettable girl’s slow and painful recognition of the good and evil that exists within us all.
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Edition description:||First World Publication|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
C.S. Harris graduated with a degree in Classics before earning a Ph.D. in European history. A scholar of the French Revolution and 19th-century Europe, she has lived in Europe and various far-flung parts of the old British Empire. She now lives in New Orleans with her husband and two daughters.
Read an Excerpt
Good Time Coming
By C. S. Harris
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Two Talers, L.L.C.
All rights reserved.
I killed a man the summer I turned thirteen. Sometimes I still see him in my dreams, his eyes as blue as the Gulf on a clear spring morning, his cheeks reddened by the hot Louisiana sun. His face is always the same, ever young and vital. But the bones of his hands are bare and stained dark by the fetid mud of the swamps, and his scent is that of death.
Yet even worse are the nights when I lie awake, when a hot summer wind shifts the festoons of Spanish moss hanging from the arching branches of the live oaks down by the bayou and whispers through the canebrakes in a sibilant rush. That's when the fear comes to me, cold and soul-shriveling, and I find myself listening lest the hushed breath of the dead betray the secret of what we did that day.
I tell myself his mouth is filled with earth, his tongue turned to dust. But the dead don't need to speak to bear witness to the wrongs done them. And though I tell myself the wrongs were his, and that no just God could condemn my actions on that fateful morning, it is a desperate reassurance that brings no real rest. If this war has taught us anything, it is that convictions of righteous certitude can be soul-corrupting illusions that offer no dispensation from hell.
I first saw him late one hazy afternoon in the spring of 1862, when I was nearly twelve. Finn O'Reilly and I had come after school to splash around in the lagoon near Bayou Sara's train depot, using a broken copper dipper he'd found in a paddock to catch tadpoles. The warm water lapped pleasantly against our bare calves, the mud billowing up around us with each step as the fine silt squished between our toes. The light had taken on that golden, slanted quality that comes in the hours just before evening, and from up high in the nearby green curtain of vine-draped cypress and willow branches came an endless chorus of birdsong.
Thanks to the cracks in the dipper's bowl, the long-tailed pollywogs simply wriggled to freedom in the streams of water that escaped in a sun-sparkled rush every time we raised the dipper high.
'It's worse than a sieve!' I said, laughing out loud. Then I paused, aware of an unnatural hush that had fallen over the afternoon. The raucous shouts and laughter from the workmen down at the wharves stilled, along with the rattle of cartwheels and the click of the grist mill and the myriad other sounds that normally formed the background noise of our lives. Even old Toot Magill's liver-colored hound stopped his infernal barking. It was as if the entire town had suddenly paused to catch its collective breath.
A woman's high-pitched voice sang out, 'Oh, Lordy, Lordy, Lordy! They be acomin'!'
Finn's head jerked up, a heavy hank of dark hair falling into his eye, so that he had to put up a hand to shove it back. He was a year older than me but still short, his features sharp, his green eyes disconcertingly pale and tilted in a way that made him look vaguely exotic. He wore a pair of patched canvas trousers rolled up to his knees and a plaid shirt of homespun woven by his mama, the bare skin of his arms and legs sun-browned and still nearly hairless. After more than a year of the Federal blockade, shoes had become so precious that most folks put them on only when they went visiting or to church. But Finn had never worn shoes much anyway.
A lot of folks looked askance at the O'Reillys. They weren't just Irish, they were Black Irish. I wasn't sure exactly what that meant, but it sounded pretty darn bad. Finn confided to me once that he'd been born smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between Dublintown and New Orleans, in what his mama called a coffin ship. He said the Irish were packed in the hold so tight and with so little food and water that at least three or four died every day, their bodies thrown overboard to the schools of sharks that followed in their wake. Neither his mama nor his papa could read or write, and though they worked hard, they'd started from nothing and were still dirt poor. I often heard my classmates' mothers wondering aloud why my mama let me play with him. They usually came to the conclusion she must not know how much time Finn and I spent together. But when they tried to tell her, she'd just change the subject.
I'd been holding my skirts and pinafore bunched up in one fist, but as the shout from the waterfront was taken up by first one voice, then another, I let them slip so that they trailed in the water. 'Reckon it's the Yankees?'
Finn's gaze met mine. Tadpoles forgotten, we raced each other to the levee.
Finn and I lived on the outskirts of the town of St Francisville, which perched like a dainty lady high above the Mississippi on a narrow ridge overlooking the river. But the depot was half a mile below at the foot of the bluff, in a technically separate town called Bayou Sara. Once, Bayou Sara was the busiest port between New Orleans and Memphis. It's all gone now, its mile of brick warehouses reduced to blackened rubble, its bustling shops and banks, hotels and taverns, sawmills and livery stables only a memory marked here and there by a solitary chimney thrusting up from a tangle of vines. When the river is high, its raging brown floodwaters sluice over the crumbling levees and forgotten foundations, and creepers reclaim what were once streets and lovingly-tended rose gardens. Yet on that hot spring day, I thought it as permanent and eternal as the sky. I'd no notion, then, how quickly life can change, how ephemeral everything I took for granted around me actually was.
We climbed the levee to find the grassy slope thick with folks, knots of dockworkers and field hands in white jean cloth trousers and loose shirts mingling with hoop-skirted women and gray-whiskered men in black broadcloth coats and tall silk hats. The air was thick with the reek of working men's sweat and ladies' talcum powder and the stench of burning cotton as planters up and down the river set fire to their stores rather than see them confiscated by the enemy. We had to duck low under boney elbows and squeeze around wide hips, murmuring, "Scuse me, Mr Marks, 'scuse me, Miss Jane,' until we finally reached the water's edge.
The Mississippi was running treacherously high that year, a mile-wide torrent yellow-brown with mud. Great spreading trees, washed from distant banks to the north, swept along on the fast current, and a smoky haze muted the dazzle of the sun off the water as the wind kicked up choppy waves flecked with foam. But what made my breath catch and my scalp pull tight was the sight of a massive sloop of war, its high prow riding above the raging floodwaters, a colossus of gleaming wood and wind-snapped lines and deadly, dark-bored cannon mouths. In its wake steamed a flotilla of smaller, two-masted gunboats guarding a procession of confiscated paddle-wheelers that had been pressed into service as troop transports. Streams of white smoke belched from their stacks, joining the black smudge from the burning cotton.
'Holy mackerel,' whispered Finn. 'Look at 'em all.'
The wind off the river snatched at the loose hair from my braids and whipped it around my face, so that I had to put up both hands to catch it back. As the flotilla drew closer, I could see the flags and brightly-colored streamers that flew from every mast and peak, an incongruous note of gaiety that added one more bizarre element of unreality to the scene. From every deck, a thick horde of blue-coated men stared at us.
We stared silently back at them, as if they were some exotic species, as if we hadn't seen men in these familiar uniforms marching back and forth across the Baton Rouge parade ground all our lives, as if our own loved ones hadn't worn similar uniforms in the wars to wrest Texas and California from Mexico and the western territories from the Indians.
My own Uncle Bo still wore blue, although we didn't talk about him much – and not at all when my Grandmother Adelaide was around.
The first of the flotilla was drawing abreast of us now. Rolling swells curled away from the endless hulls and churning paddle-wheels to crash against the slope at our feet and throw up a fine spray that seemed to sting my cheeks.
'Reckon they're comin' here?' asked Mr James Marks, Bayou Sara's portly, middle-aged mayor. His face was soft and round and pink with the heat, his watery eyes blinking rapidly as if struggling to bring what he was seeing into focus.
'Not here. Vicksburg.'
The answer came from a tall, mahogany-bearded man in homespun who stood at the edge of the crowd. He had blade-like features and the hard, whipcord body of a man who spends his days in the saddle or on the march. He kept his slouch hat pulled low, his eyes narrowed against the sun as he cradled a new Enfield rifle in his arms. He wasn't from around here and I didn't know his name, although I had seen him before. I'd heard rumors that he was an observing officer sent by General Ruggles, but I knew better than to believe too much of what was said.
All kinds of wild talk had been flying up and down the river in the two weeks since New Orleans fell without a shot being fired in her defense. Oh, a fierce enough battle had raged lower down at the mouth of the Mississippi, a nightmare of screaming shells, choking fire, and sobbing, dying men that ended with the Federal fleet blasting its way past the two red-brick, star-shaped forts that guarded the river's access. Once Forts Jackson and St Philip surrendered, the city did, too.
'Jimminee, there's a mess o'em,' said the Widow Carlyle's Tom, his dark face shiny with sweat, his eyes hooded in that way habitual to those who must learn early to hide their feelings and reactions from the world. I looked over at him. But it wasn't until later that I found myself wondering what his thoughts were, watching that fleet.
'Reckon Vicksburg'll surrender without a shot, like New Orleans and Baton Rouge?' someone asked.
'If it does, the war is as good as lost,' said Bernard Henshaw, the gloomy, stoop-shouldered owner of the town's book and stationery store. But no one paid much attention to him beyond a few mutterings and foul glances. A fussy little Englishman with dainty features and gold-rimmed spectacles he was always pushing up with the pad of his thumb, Henshaw had been loudly prophesying ruin and defeat for over a year now.
'If them Yankees think Vicksburg's gonna surrender, they've got another think comin',' said William T. Mumford, the graying, barrel-chested proprietor of the grand China Grove Hotel. A bunch of the men nodded and grunted in agreement. But something about their posture and air of forced bravado reminded me of Finn sticking his hands in his pockets and whistling every time he had to pass a graveyard.
By now the fleet stretched out in both directions up and down the river. Folks were breathing easier, their shoulders sagging in relief. The slouch-hatted stranger was right; the Federals weren't coming to Bayou Sara. We were safe – at least for now.
Then the Reverend Samuel Sweeney, whose steepled, white clapboard Methodist church lay on Sun Street, said, 'Look at that boat – one of them low ones with the two masts. What's it doing?'
Executing a slow, ominous turn, the nearest gunboat swung wide to point its bow in towards shore, its whistle shrill as it pulled away from its fellows. We could see the name emblazoned on its side as it plowed toward us, and though the sun still shone hot and intense, I shivered.
'Holy cow,' said Finn. 'They're fixin' to tie up at our wharfboat!'CHAPTER 2
The rat-tat-tat of a drum floated to us from across the water as the gunboat steamed toward us. Singly or in groups of two or three, the assembled townsfolk on the levee began to melt away.
I glanced over at Mr Marks. The mayor's plump face was slick with sweat, and he kept opening and closing his mouth like a fish left stranded in a crevasse after the spring floodwaters receded. He was a journalist by trade, editor of The Bayou Sara Ledger, although lately his newspaper had been shrinking steadily as paper and ink grew harder and harder to get. From the looks of things, he'd rather be anyplace but where he was. Yet he stood his ground, a small, rotund man with widely spaced eyes, protuberant ears, and a dark stain of perspiration soaking the back of his threadbare coat.
The slouch-hatted man with the shiny new rifle had disappeared.
'Why you reckon they're stopping here?' asked one of the few men who'd chosen to stand with the mayor.
Mr Marks only shook his head, although I heard him mutter under his breath, 'Please God some young fool doesn't get it into his head to take a potshot at them.'
He moved to position himself in the muddy lane leading down to the ferry landing, the wind off the river fluttering his black tie and the tails of his coat. He'd always been something of a figure of fun to us children, with his earnest way of leaning forward when he talked and the plump, ink-stained hands he had a habit of fluttering in the air. But it occurred to me, watching him, that maybe I needed to reassess my estimation of Mr Marks.
The Katahdin didn't pull up to the wharfboat, but anchored off the ferry landing with a loud rattle and splash. We watched as a longboat full of seamen and marines began to pull toward us, its oars throwing up arcing cascades of water that glistened in the sunlight. One of the ship's officers, a slim lieutenant with a boy's smooth round face and turned-up nose, stood at the prow. But for some reason I found my gaze inexplicably drawn to the tall, golden-haired man at his side. The bugle embroidered on the front of his black felt hat and the light blue straps on the shoulders of his dark frock coat marked him as an infantry captain.
'Amrie,' whispered Finn, bumping his elbow against mine. 'Maybe we oughta go.'
I shook my head and took a step closer, drawn by something I couldn't begin to understand.
Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out if I'd listened to Finn, or if he and I had simply stayed catching tadpoles rather than running with everyone else to see the Federal fleet. What if the Katahdin had steamed on toward Vicksburg without turning into Bayou Sara? Would things have turned out differently? Or were we fated, this golden-haired man and I, to meet and play such a pivotal, tragic role in each other's lives?
The infantry captain looked to be somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties, his cheeks reddened by sun and wind, his lips so thin they seemed to disappear as he pressed them into a tight, determined line. I stared at him, and I knew the strangest sensation, as if this moment had happened before, as if I had seen him before, although I knew that I had not. And somehow I also knew, with that clear certainty that sometimes comes to us, that this was one of those moments I would always vividly recall long after an untold multitude of my life's moments had slipped irrevocably from my memory.
I watched him step ashore, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword, his head lifting as his gaze took in Bayou Sara's rows of sunbaked brick storerooms, the neat streets now quiet and eerily deserted. The pungent reek of burning cotton drifted to us on the breeze as another planter upriver set fire to his stores.
Mr Marks cleared his throat, his hat held in his hands. 'Gentlemen,' he said, his voice shaky, 'this is a trading town, full of women, children, and old men. Not a military instillation.'
The boy-faced lieutenant glanced at him, then turned pointedly to address the diminished crowd on the riverbank. 'We are here under orders from President Abraham Lincoln, Flag Officer David Farragut, and Major General Benjamin Butler.' He spoke loudly and clearly in formal, flowing periods he must have repeated dozens of times coming up the river. 'Know you that we are on this river for the purpose of enforcing the laws of our common country and protecting its loyal citizens. But understand this, as well: if any hostile demonstrations are made upon our vessels or transports as they pass before your town, you will be held responsible for such actions, and a terrible vengeance will be visited upon you all.'
The mayor's face hardened and took on a deep, angry hue. 'You would make war against innocent women and children? For the impulsive act of some hothead?'
'We do not make war on innocent persons, but on those in open rebellion against our mutual country. If there are any hotheads amongst you, I suggest you curb their zeal. The fate of your town is in your hands. Good day to you, sir.' The lieutenant started to turn away.
Excerpted from Good Time Coming by C. S. Harris. Copyright © 2016 Two Talers, L.L.C.. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Back in history, when the men left for war, the women were left behind to look after not only their families and their own work, but also that of their husbands, fathers, and son. Vulnerable, alone, this novel is a depiction of the courageous struggles facing southern women during the American Civil War. Farms pillaged and stripped bear, entire towns destroyed, homes plundered, people murdered, women raped, and the extreme hunger people faced as food became scarce. Terror and horror plagued those left behind. C.S. Harris has breathed life into a time long past, weaving together a brilliant recounting of the hardships and troubles for women and children, black and white alike. Each page of this compelling story kept me eagerly reading along. Heart-wrenching and bold, the author describes the horrors as well as the triumphs. For those who love this period of history, especially the American Civil War, this is a poignant rendering of what took place. Highly recommended.