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Sweeping up Glass

by Carolyn Wall

This powerful, unforgettable first novel from an excellent new writer is set in Aurora, a small town which sprawled at the foothills of mountains in rural Kentucky. It is the 1920s or 30s. The rich white speculators and landowners are long gone, leaving the poor whites and the freed slaves to make out as they could.

Olivia Harker is born to white parents. Her mother, Ida, a wannabe good-time girl with a taste for pretty clothes and much brighter lights than she could hope for, is so unhappy with her lot that, had she been a cat, she would have eaten her young. Ida's post natal depression takes the form of religious fanaticism, hatred and fear of black and coloured people, and a thorough dislike of her own daughter. Ida's husband, Tate Harker, does his best for her, but once he has at last given up and left her in the care of the state institution for the mentally ill, he gets on with the task of surviving and rearing Olivia.

Their small grocery store serves their racially divided community: whites are served on Tuesday and Thursday, coloureds Monday, Wednesday and Friday. By six years old Olivia can take stock of the bins and shelves and line up the last cans of lima beans. Tate earns a little extra, paid mostly in home grown fruit and veg or a setting hen, by helping with the delivery of breeched foals or calves and doctoring other sick animals. He has the gift of calming his patients and a good deal of skill at curing them. With the goats for milk and laying hens out back, Tate and Olivia get by. Olivia is bird happy and Tate is held in high regard everywhere in the neighbourhood. Their store is also the unofficial post office, and Olivia can sort the letters, knows all the names and addresses, sells penny stamps and can put the right money for their bills into an envelope, address it, and drop a penny from the ancient copper and brass register into the box for a stamp. Her Pap teaches her the mysteries of mange and footrot. On Fridays they hitch the old mule, braying and bellyaching, to the wagon and deliver groceries, or haul bales of hay from one field to another. Pap runs his distillery in the woods back of the shed and supplies the best local moonshine, which Olivia is never allowed to touch. If he and a few friends have a little party occasionally Olivia has to go to bed right after supper. From Sunday to Sunday, Tate keeps the still fired up and Olivia learns the value of a brown glass jug.

Left to her own devices, Olivia’s black neighbours become her friends and playmates and it is at the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the music fills the cracks in the floor and makes the whole place throb with rapture, that she learns all about sin and redemption. Yessir. Yessir.

Olivia's mother comes home from the asylum as bitter as gall. There is tragedy and mayhem in Pope County. A branch of the Klu Klux Klan rides the countryside. Olivia's happy and innocent life of under-age sex with the love of her life takes a savage turn for the worse. Carolyn Wall has written an authoritative and riveting novel with fire in her belly, but with love and understanding for the characters in her book. Yessir. Yessir. Amen.

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