Described as a “heartwrenching multigenerational tale of love, loss, and family” by Publishers Weekly, I’ve been utterly fascinated with this book from the moment I read the blurb. So I’m honoured to be able to share with you an awesome excerpt, as well as a chance to win a signed copy!
You did not,” Jo said to Lynnette Bobeck as they walked around the track at Bellwood High.
“I did.” Lynnette sounded smug. “It’s kind of perfect when you think about it. He’s happy, and I’m still a virgin.” It was Monday afternoon in gym class, the last period of the day, and the girls were dressed in baggy blue shorts and white cotton shirts. Normally, Jo would have gotten the story of her best friend’s Saturday-night adventures with Bobby Carver on Sunday, but on that Sunday her mother had woken her and Bethie up early, with her hair tied back with a kerchief and an even sterner-than-usual look on her face. “Spring cleaning,” she’d announced, handing them both a pile of rags and a bottle apiece—Jo got Windex; Bethie got Endust. They’d vacuumed all the carpets and scrubbed the oven, dusting the living room and wiping down the plastic that still covered the living-room couch, and at the end of the day, their father had taken them to the Shangri-La for pork fried rice and spareribs.
“Did it taste gross?” Jo asked.
“You don’t swallow it, dummy,” said Lynnette, as they rounded the bend of the track. For the last thirty minutes, they’d been doing laps under the indifferent eye of Coach Krantz, who coached the boys’ football, basketball, and baseball teams and had little patience for girls. The May sunshine was warm on their bare legs, and every time the wind gusted, it sent a shower of dogwood petals raining down.
“First of all, it’s got a million calories.” Lynnette was short and busty, with hazel eyes and creamy skin that flushed pink whenever she was excited, and she was always watching her figure. Every time she and Jo went out, either by themselves or on a double date, Lynnette would virtuously order a salad, or the Dieter’s Plate of cottage cheese and a plain broiled burger, and seltzer water to drink. Jo understood that it was her job to order the French fries and an egg cream or a malted for Lynnette to share. Her friend would sneak fries off Jo’s plate or poke her own straw into Jo’s glass.
“Was there a lot of it?” Jo was imagining an untended garden hose, thrashing and spewing water into the street.
Lynnette shrugged. “I don’t know. I spit it out.”
“Where?” Jo asked. “On him?” She was picturing Lynnette and Bobby in the back seat of Lynnette’s father’s Lincoln Continental, with Lynnette’s bra shoved around her neck and Bobby’s pants down around his ankles and his penis bobbing around like a candy apple on a stick. She dropped her voice to a whisper.“Did he do it to you?”
“Ew!” Lynnette said. “God! Like I’d ever let a boy put his face down there.”
“You put your face down there,” Jo pointed out.
“That’s different,” Lynnette said. “Besides, I don’t even think that’s a thing, the other way around.”
Jo thought that sounded unfair, but decided not to say so. “So how was it?”
Lynnette pressed her lips together. She was wearing Cherries in the Snow lipstick, and her short, dark-blond hair was carefully curled. Jo sometimes thought that the rest of the girls at Bellwood High were like squirrels, plump and sleek and chittering, scurrying this way and that, waving their fluffy tails, racing up trees and down again for no reason at all. She felt like a crow, a big, ungainly misfit, flapping her wings, perching on a power line, sending all the squirrels running. At five foot eight, she was taller than almost all of her female classmates and a not-inconsiderable number of the male ones. Her body was unfashionably narrow-hipped and angular, with long legs made strong from years of running up and down basketball and tennis courts and barely enough bosom for a B cup. On the basketball court, or with a tennis racquet in her hand, Jo was graceful enough, and that was the place where she felt most comfortable. She’d become friends, or at least friendly, with three of the Negro girls who were the team’s starters. LaDonna and LaDrea Moore were seniors, identical twins, shorter than Jo, wiry and quick, with freckled, medium-brown skin, French-braided hair, and mischievous smiles that reminded her of her old friend Frieda. Vernita Clinkscale, whose family had moved to Detroit from North Carolina the year before, had a twangy Southern accent and was almost six feet tall, with skin lighter than Jo’s, straight, shoulder-length black hair, and a gold cross on a necklace that she kissed before making her free throws.
Negro kids made up less than a quarter of the high school’s population, and the unofficial rule was that they sat by themselves at lunch, but the rule was relaxed somewhat for teammates, and so sometimes, when she and Lynnie didn’t have the same lunch period, Jo would sit with the basketball starters. She’d listen to Vernita moon over her boyfriend, who still lived in North Carolina, and to LaDrea and LaDonna, who went to the church where Aretha Franklin’s father was the preacher and had met Aretha herself and Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks had moved to Detroit after her arrest for failing to move to the back of the bus in Mont- gomery, Alabama, and had spoken at the Moore family’s church. “She said, ‘People thought I wouldn’t give up my seat because I was tired,’ but that wasn’t true,” LaDrea said. “She said . . .”
And here her sister chimed in, “ ‘The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.’ ”
“Wow.” Jo tried to imagine being brave enough to do what Rosa Parks had done, to get herself arrested and put in jail. “I bet she’s glad to be up here and not down South.”
The three girls exchanged a look. “What?” Jo asked.
“You think it’s better here?” LaDrea asked, eyebrows raised. “Ask me how many white people live in my apartment building.”
“Or on our street,” said LaDonna. “Or how many go to our little brother’s school.”
“Um . . .”
“None. Zero. That’s how many. Detroit’s just as segregated as any place down South. The only difference is, it’s not against the law.”
Jo bit a carrot stick, remembering the feeling of her mother’s hands on her shoulders, her eight-year-old bottom being pushed onto the plastic slipcovered couch. Birds of a feather must flock together. “That isn’t fair,” she said.
The girls exchanged another look. LaDonna rolled her eyes.
LaDrea sucked her teeth.
“Can we change the subject, please?” Vernita asked. “Ya’ll are making my head hurt. And you know we’ve got to run suicide drills this afternoon.” She leaned forward, so that her cross gleamed in the fluorescent light, and pointed at the lemon bar Jo had brought from home. “You planning on eating that?”
Jo handed over her dessert. She was thinking about Mae and Frieda. “It isn’t fair,” she said again, but the bell rang, and everyone got up to throw away their trash and get to class.
Later, after practice, LaDrea approached her in the locker room. “You know,” she began, “if you’re serious about doing something . . .”
“I am,” said Jo.
“There are pickets every Saturday at Crystal Pool, on Greenfield and Eight Mile. Crystal Pool’s segregated. A bunch of us go.” She looked at Jo, her expression neutral. She was holding a basketball tucked against her hip, and a lock of hair had worked its way out of her braid.“We meet here at the school at ten o’clock and carpool over.”
Jo nodded. Her heart was beating hard. Her mother, she knew, wouldn’t want her at anything like a picket. Her parents believed in equality—at least, that’s what they said. “The Jewish people have been oppressed too much to oppress anyone else,” Jo’s father said. But he’d also moved them away from the old neighborhood, saying it was changing, and Jo was old enough now to understand that changing meant Negros coming in. Then there was Sarah, who said things like Don’t ruffle any feathers, and Don’t stir the pot. Showing up at a picket was nothing if not pot-stirring.
On Saturday morning, Jo got up early and told Sarah that she was going to the high school to practice her free throws.
“Be home by four,” her mother said without looking at her, so Jo climbed on her bike and pedaled to school.
“Didn’t think you’d be here,” LaDonna said, and LaDrea said, “C’mon, you need a sign.” There were about a dozen kids, black and white, with squares of posterboard, using black paint to write EQUALITY NOW and INTEGRATE and LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL. Jo pulled in a deep breath and dipped her brush in the paint. “Is Vernita coming?” she asked as she wrote the word EQUALITY and hoped her hand wouldn’t shake.
“Pssht, Vernita,” LaDonna said, waving one of the long- fingered hands that let her grip a basketball so easily. “Forget her.”
Jo rode in the Moore sisters’ 1959 Mercury. She marched in a circle in front of the pool’s chain-link fence as cars drove past. A few would honk in support, but most of them would just look the other way. When it was over, she met Lynnette at the beauty shop, where Lynnie was getting her hair washed and set, teased high in the back, with bangs that curled over her forehead. “What’d you do today?” Lynnette asked as she held a plastic fan in front of her face so the hairdresser’s assistant could mist Elnett hairspray from the crown of her head to the tips that curled against her cheeks.
“Oh, nothing,” Jo said.
Sometimes Jo wondered if Lynnette liked her because she was taller and ungainly and less attractive, the ugly duckling to Lyn- nette’s swan. The two of them did not have much in common. Jo was a strong student; Lynnette struggled, especially in math class. Jo was an athlete; Lynnette would get winded the single time each year that Coach Krantz actually did make her run a quarter mile. Lynnette loved clothes—wearing them, shopping for them, talking about the ones she wanted to shop for and wear next—while Jo just grabbed whatever was nearby and relatively clean. What they shared was a sense of mischief, a love of disruption and fun. Lynnette had gotten Jo drunk for the first time when they were both fifteen, and Jo had convinced Lynnette to cut school sophomore year. They’d climbed into Sarah’s car with the boy upon whom Lynnette had been bestowing her affections at the time, and one of his tall friends for Jo, and driven to a bowling alley, where they’d ordered pitchers of beer and plates of French fries and laughed about their classmates, stuck back at school for a pep rally. Lynnette sighed over Jo’s slender figure—“you can wear anything,” she would say—and Jo was similarly appreciative of Lynnette’s curves, even when Lynnette despaired about her hips and what she claimed was her double chin. Lynnette had taught Jo how to smoke, and Jo had taught Lynnette how to swim, and they told each other everything . . . except for the increasingly frequent daydreams Jo had been having about their weekly sleepovers, a daydream in which, instead of one of her silk nightgowns, Lynnie would come to bed wearing nothing at all.
“Does he want to go all the way?” Jo asked, careful to keep her voice neutral.
“He tried to put his hand down my pants, but I told him to forget it.” Lynnette wagged her finger in Bobby’s imaginary face. “I said, ‘Mr. Bobby Carver, not until there’s a ring on my finger.’ ” She touched the class ring that she wore around her neck, as if to reassure herself of Bobby’s commitment, and how one ring would lead to another.
“Did you like it?” Jo asked. Lynnette tilted her head sideways as she considered.
“It was kind of like brushing my teeth,” she finally said. “Or, no, that’s not quite it. Maybe it was like clapping. Just, you know. Clap clap clap squirt. Then it’s over.” Their sneakered feet crunched against the cinders. “I don’t know,” Lynnette said, sighing. “It was kind of exciting to see how excited he was, you know? To know that I could make him feel like that. But I didn’t really feel anything at all.” She sighed again. “Maybe real sex will feel better.”
“Maybe.” Jo was secretly relieved that Lynnette hadn’t enjoyed ministering to Bobby Carver. Lynnette interpreted her response as an indication of Jo’s frustration over her own lackluster love life.
“It’s going to happen for you,” she said, reaching up to pat Jo’s shoulder. “You’ll find the right guy.”
Jo shrugged. She’d been out with plenty of boys, usually on double dates with Lynnette. She knew their moves. At the movie shows, the Redford or the Senate, the boy would stretch his arm up high, then casually drape it around her shoulders. At the Bel-Air drive-in, they’d try to get her into the back seat, and at school dances, they’d ask if she needed some fresh air, but their clammy hands on her shoulders, their cool, wormy lips against her mouth had all left her feeling less than nothing.
“Have you ever . . .” Lynnette looked at her, a brief glance from underneath her curled bangs. Jo saw her cheeks blushing pink. “Have you ever touched yourself?”
“Sometimes,” she said, after making sure there was no chance that any of their classmates would be able to hear them. A few times, when she’d been fastening a sanitary napkin to her belt, her fingers would drift over the soft triangle of hair between her legs. There was, she had discovered, a tender place right at the top, and when her fingers brushed against it, jolts of pleasure would shoot through her lower belly, making her nipples get hard. The feeling was so strong that it frightened her, and she would hastily take her fingers away. She looked at her friend, gathering her nerve. “Have you?”
Lynnette’s lipsticked mouth curved up in a smile, and when she spoke, her voice was so low that Jo could hardly hear. “When I went to Camp Tanuga last summer,” she began. Jo moved so close that their shoulders were touching. “One of the counselors there really liked me.”
Jo nodded, unsurprised. Everyone liked Lynnette. When she realized what Lynnette meant, about this girl who’d really liked her, she felt her body flush again, this time with jealousy.
“She had something that she let me borrow.”
“What?” Jo asked. “What is it?” She felt envious of this counselor, angry that Lynnette had waited all this time to tell her, and, above everything else, desperate to keep Lynnette talking.
“I can’t tell you.” Lynnette giggled. She’d turned a color past pink, closer to red. “But I can show you. After school,” she said, and gave Jo a saucy smile. “My house. I am going to change your life.”