Title: Lace Curtain
Author: Jeanne Charters
Genre: Historical Fiction
Book Heat Level: 3
Nellie Kelly is young, intelligent and inspiring. Will love for a bad boy alter the course of her glowing future? Or will a trip to Ireland set her on a new course—one she never dreamed of.
BLURB: Lace Curtain
Nellie is the daughter of Shanty-Irish parents, now risen to Lace Curtain middle class. Will Nellie possess the wisdom and perseverance of her mother, Mar Boland? Or will she succumb to sexual attraction and convention and wed a scoundrel?
Neo is the son of African slaves, now one of the richest black sons in America. Will Neo break free from the white supremacy mindset in America? Or die at the end of a rope?
Will a return to Ireland change the course of each of their lives?
EXCERPT: Lace Curtain
My mother pulls me into her arms as if she’ll never let go. “Did they hurt you? Did they?” She tips my face up and looks into my eyes. Her chin trembles and her eyes glisten with unshed tears. My mother never cries and seeing her this close to crying frightens me.
“No, Mother. I’m fine, but they beat Neo up pretty bad.”
“Kam will know what to do with Neo. You’re my concern.” She touches my face gently. “Did that boy touch you in any way?”
“No, Mother. Da came along just in time.”
“Thank God.” She takes my hand and leads me to the table where we sit down opposite each other, my hand still cradled in hers.
Since she seems so relieved that I’m all right, this might be a good time to find out the truth about what Fiona said. How will I do that without letting her know what I’m asking? I’ll be sneaky, that’s how. I’ll change the subject.
“Mother,” I say, cupping her hand in mine tenderly. “You never talk about the ship that brought you over from Ireland. All I know about it is that it’s where you met Uncle Kam. What was it like?”
She darts a quick look at my father. “What makes you ask about that now?” She stands and gets her apron from the drawer. “This is not a good time for that discussion. We have different fish to fry this night.” She ties the apron around her waist. “Are you certain that boy didn’t touch you?” The tears spill out, and it hurts me to see them. She doesn’t want to talk about the ship now. Perhaps tomorrow.
“I’m sure, Mother.” My voice is calm and reassuring. “Nothing happened to me. I’m fine.”
She stares into my eyes for a long moment, then says, “I’ll bring dinner,” and heads for the stove. From the way she stomps her feet, I can tell she’s not through with me.
My da sits in his usual place, slipping me a sideways grin. “You’re in for it, girl.”
She slams the platter of stew down, fills my milk glass and mutters, “Daniel, say grace, please.”
Why is she still upset? Nothing happened to me.
She doesn’t waste any time after the Amen. “How many times have I told you to be careful, Nellie?” Her jaw is clamped so tight, her chin quivers.
“I was careful, Mother.” I grit my teeth right back at her and fold my napkin onto my lap. It wasn’t my fault what happened, but if I argue with her, my father will bellow at me louder than the three o’clock whistle at the iron factory.
He calmly eats his stew; his beer dark and foamy beside the bowl.
“Careful doesn’t get you dragged into an alley in broad daylight. Do you have any idea what might have happened to you?”
In all honesty, I don’t. I shake my head, wordless.
“I guess it’s time we had the talk.” She takes a deep breath.
As she leans closer, I catch the scent, chloride. She smells like Kathleen’s Haven, the birthing center. I begin to breathe through my mouth. Do I need to confess to the priest that the smell of my mother makes me sick? I hope not. Father Ruzzo thinks she walks on water, like Jesus Himself. Well, I’ll never smell like that when I’m a teacher or a trapeze artist.
We finish our dinner in silence. When she does look at me, she shakes her head again; reliving something awful. She tells me to brush my teeth and get to bed. I run to the yard to pump the water. Tears of frustration mingle with the water in the bucket. It’s so unfair. All I did was ride in Neo’s carriage. What’s wrong with that?
Not one of my friends has to brush her teeth two times a day. When I complain, my mother tells me I’m lucky to have a toothbrush, that when she was a girl in Ireland, they used birch branches. Just imagine. Birch branches. She got her first toothbrush when her father traded a salmon to a British sailor for it. I rinse and spit.
Some of the Irish here don’t have teeth. My family’s teeth are perfect, and so are the O’Hallorans. Kathleen O’Halloran was the first one to give my mother work. She and Tommy had two girls, Shannon and Molly, and my mother helped bring them up. When Kathleen was nearly fifty, she had another baby. My mother knew she was too old to deliver safely. Mother did all she could to try to save the woman. In the end, though, all she could save was the baby. Baby Sean, named after Sean Boland, my mother’s father. I don’t think my mother ever really got over losing Kathleen O’Halloran in childbirth. That’s why she named the clinic Kathleen’s Haven. Her picture hangs in the front hall. She’s a big, happy-looking woman with a rolling pin in her hand. It’s a funny picture, but everyone who knew Kathleen loves it.
Sean doesn’t look a bit like Kathleen nor Tommy. He’s so handsome and they’re rather plain. When Sean graduates, he’ll go to Harvard next year. Everyone says he’s brilliant...and spoiled rotten. At least that’s what my parents say. They would not approve if they knew Sean is the one boy who makes my heart beat faster each time I see him.
Sean’s sister, Shannon, is married and has five children already. His sister, Molly, works with my mother and is just about the smartest person I know. I think Molly knows I have a crush on her brother, and once she cautioned me, “Sean is mean, Nellie. Don’t set your sights on him. He’s a heartbreaker.”
I laughed at her. “I think all boys have cooties, Molly. Sean, too. Don’t you worry about me.” In truth, though, he’s the only boy I like in a special way. I adore Neo, of course, but he’s like a brother. Sean is nothing like a brother.
I am thinking about all this as I put the lid back on the baking soda and put it away in the kitchen. Passing through, I give my parents a quick kiss on the cheek. My mother doesn’t speak to me but doesn’t pull her face away either.
Brushing my locks its usual hundred strokes. I part it in several sections and look at my scalp. Some girls in town have head lice, and the thought of those little white bugs roaming around my head is enough to make me itch all over.
In bed, I pull my old rag doll close to my heart, then toss her to the floor. I’m a big girl now. But she looks up at me so sadly I pick her up and put her beside me on my pillow. I loved her so much when I was a child, but a girl shouldn’t be playing with baby things when she’s almost fourteen, now should she?
After lighting the kerosene lamp, I pick up Little Womenfrom the table. The second volume arrived at the library yesterday. I loved the first book, I want to be just like Jo when I grow up, strong and smart.
Tonight, I can’t get interested in the story, though. What happened today scared me more than I want to admit. What would’ve become of me if my father hadn’t been walking by? What would they have done to me in that alley? I’m strong, but not strong enough. I shudder and turn off the lamp.
My eyes won’t close. I still feel Porcupine boy’s rough hands pushing me down. It was dark in the alley. Neo was helpless. What if Da hadn’t shown up? He did, but what if he hadn’t?
The shudder turns into trembling all over, and I almost cry out for my mother. Stop it, Nellie. Only babies scream for their mothers. Rolling over, I bite my pillow, hug my doll, and begin to pray. Hail Mary, full of grace...
I close my eyes tight, but they fly open when I remember. At breakfast tomorrow, I have to tell my mother Sister Sarah is expecting her after school. How will I explain that? Maybe I’ll tell her I had an argument at school with Fiona but leave out the part about making her nose bleed. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. My mother will be upset. She knows Fiona’s mother, Agnes. The Doggetts have given lots of money to Kathleen’s Haven.
Why did Fiona tell such an awful lie?