When Wabash Steel had orders and there was work, the fine, black soot from the mill lay on the porch steps each morning like an overnight snow. Deborah Cole was sweeping it away on a June morning in 1932 when her mother appeared before her, panting, saying, “Come on now, hon. Maybe you can help with Aunt Berenice.” Deborah leaned her broom against the front screen and followed her mother along the street, running, past the narrow shotgun houses and then the semidetached flats, into her mother’s own street of clapboard two-stories and on down toward Aunt Berenice’s place.
As she approached, Deborah could see Aunt Della and Aunt Adah beneath the sugar maple on the verge of Berenice’s lawn. They were looking up into the tree until Deborah was very near and they turned.
“Maybe you can talk to her,” Della said to Deborah.
“Miriam,” Adah said to Deborah’s mother, who came up now, breathing heavily, she’s going too far.”
“Yes,” Della said with a sharp little laugh, “she’s ignoring Adah.”
Deborah watched Adah’s face pinch in irritation like a child’s and then her hand rise to push with a defiant pride at her newly marcelled hair, the flaxen waves turned almost completely white.
Deborah looked into the tree. Ten feet up, Aunt Berenice sat straddling a limb that looked too thin to hold her. She was wearing a flower-print housedress which she’d tucked modestly around her legs that dangled down with one foot slippered, one foot bare. Deborah glanced at the ground and Della seemed to read her thoughts. “Over there,” Della said. By the trunk was Berenice’s other slipper. “Adah threw a rock,” Della said.
“Reads like a thriller, though its considerably better than most contemporary thrillers. It’s earnest, sincere, and its characters… are presented as real human beings… Written in a controlled voice that is poetic without drawing attention to itself.”
– Robert Ward, The Washington Post
“Moving… Butler has created two appealing characters the reader wants to be happy. [Butler’s]… talent… is amply demonstrated on every page of this ambitious, thoughtful novel.”
– Wendy Smith, New York Newsday
“Poignant… Tough… Honest… It’s more than a little strange how a novel of stark want can convey so much more powerfully a sense of what it means to be human than all the novels that hunt for the same quarry with larger and larger doses of affluence, drugs and sex.”
– Seymor Epstein, Denver Post