Last in a Long Line of Rebels
Lisa Lewis Tyre
Sheila Turnage meets Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie in this debut about a small town and a young girl who discovers some old family secrets.
Lou might be only twelve, but she’s never been one to take things sitting down. So when her Civil War-era house is about to be condemned, she’s determined to save it—either by getting it deemed a historic landmark or by finding the stash of gold rumored to be hidden nearby during the war. As Lou digs into the past, her eyes are opened when she finds that her ancestors ran the gamut of slave owners, renegades, thieves and abolitionists. Meanwhile, some incidents in her town show her that many Civil War era prejudices still survive and that the past can keep repeating itself if we let it. Digging into her past shows Lou that it’s never too late to fight injustice, and she starts to see the real value of understanding and exploring her roots.
Excerpt from Last in a Long Line of Rebels
“In Honor of My Engagement, Father Has Planned a Grand Celebration. the House Has Been Painted a Gleaming White, and Tables, Replete with Wild Flowers Are Scattered on the Lawn. the Whole Effect Is Worthy of a Charles Heath Illustration and I Can Barely Contain My Excitement at the Sound of Approaching Carriages.”
– From the diary of Louise Duncan Mayhew
Being the junkman’s daughter isn’t always as cool as it might sound. Sure I get first dibs on all kinds of good stuff—I now have three perfectly good 10-speed bikes—but it comes with a price. As soon as I saw Daddy’s dump truck sitting in the car line, shaking and rattling like it was about to throw a rod, I knew Sally Martin would have something snide to say. Mama usually drives me home, but Daddy had mentioned at breakfast that he had to pick up an old bleacher from the football field and might as well save her a trip. I could see a rusty end of it sticking up behind the cab.
“Nice ride, Louise,” she said. “You headed to the dump?” A couple of kids laughed and I calculated the chances of getting suspended for fighting on the last day of school.
Benjamin Zerto, my best friend, leaned closer and whispered, “You won’t have to see her for the whole summer. Take a deep breath and count to ten.” As if.
I looked at Sally and smirked. “You better stand back. My dad’s used to picking up useless crap and hauling it away. You could be next.”
I was rewarded with a gasp from Sally and a grin from Benzer, a win-win.
The car line moved and I could hear the roar of the truck as it lumbered forward. Normally the car line would be packed with kids, and I’d have some backup in addition to Benzer. But most kids left early, as soon as they had report cards and attendance awards. Even my cousin Patty and Franklin, the brains of our group, were gone.
“I don’t know how you stand it,” Sally sighed. “Being surrounded by junk would be bad enough, but it looks like your house is about to fall down around your ears. My father says it’s a crime to have such an eyesore right smack in the middle of town.”
I rolled my eyes. My house was a common target with Sally. I’d told her before that it looked old because it was—it had its 150th birthday last year. I wouldn’t waste my breath mentioning it again.
Sally smoothed down her skirt with one hand and smiled.
I swallowed hard. When Sally smiled, bad things usually followed.
“Benzer,” she said sweetly, turning to face him. “Are you coming to the pool this weekend? My dad is having a cookout for all the kids.” She looked at me. “All the kids in the neighborhood, I mean.”
Benzer and Sally lived in the only subdivision in town, or as my grandmother called it, “the Yankee enclave.” It was full of new, brick homes, and had a swimming pool and tennis courts with no cracks in them like the ones at the city park.
“I doubt it,” Benzer answered. “I’m helping Lou’s dad over the weekend.”
Sally pouted. “Oh, that’s too bad. I guess you’re going to have another boring summer. What did you write last year for your “My Summer Vacation” essay?” She laughed. “Oh, yeah. “Watching Paint Peel with Lou and Other Adventures in Boredom.”
I could feel my face turning red. Last year, the essay had seemed funny. Mine had been titled, “War Between the States—My Summer with A Yankee.” But after hearing everyone read about going to Disney, or renting houseboats for the summer, it had felt kind of lame. I looked for my dad. He had moved another few feet and if all went well, I’d be sitting in his truck and away from this in about ninety seconds.
“That was a joke,” Benzer said. “I like hanging out at Lou’s. It’s like something out of a R.L. Stine story.”
Benzer is a book-worm, but that doesn’t hurt him socially. He’s the most athletic boy in the entire sixth grade. He’s considered a northerner by some since he was born in New York City, even though he’s lived here in Zollicoffer since he was four, and considers himself a local. We’ve been best friends since Kindergarten when I sat on top of David Pinto until he promised to stop making fun of Benzer’s accent.
“R.L who?” Sally asked.
“Why don’t you spend the summer reading a book?” I asked.
Sally pulled a small mirror from her backpack and checked her hair. “I’ll be much too busy,” she said. “We’re going on a cruise in a few weeks. But I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to read while you’re sitting around watching the paint peel.”
Dad pulled to the curb and I moved to leave, but Sally’s smug smile did me in. “Benzer and I have exciting plans too, Sally. Sorry you’ll miss it all on your dopey cruise.” I caught Benzer’s startled look out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t stop. “I guess you’ll hear all about it when you get back. If you don’t read about it in the newspaper first.”
Sally laughed. “Oh, really? I can hardly wait.”
I ignored Benzer’s stare and opened the dump truck’s door. It gave a loud screech and I slammed it shut. Sally murmured something to the girls around her about “Lou and her active imagination”. I could hear them all laughing as we pulled away.
My first morning of summer vacation was ruined when I woke up thinking about Sally Martin. My alarm clock—the clang-clang sound of metal hitting metal—signaled the scrap mountain of junk outside was getting bigger, and I looked out the window in time to see a rusty piece of tin join the pile. Great, more mess for Sally to make fun of.
Daddy inherited the house and the junk from his daddy, but he’s the one that made it into a business. He says that until he got it, it was just a dump. The good things—push mowers, freezers, stoves, and so on—were in the same pile with broken toilets and rusty tin. Now we don’t just pick up stuff, but resell it, too. Everything’s separated into four piles: the saleable, the fixable, the recyclable and Mama’s things. She’s an enviro-artist, which means she welds the junk together, and makes a bigger pile, called “art.”
I was in my bedroom laying on one of the fixables, a cast-iron bed Daddy had welded back together, when Mama called me down to breakfast. I lay there, listening to the sounds from below. I pictured my pregnant Mama standing at the stove cooking grits, her tummy so big she had to stretch her arm almost straight to stir. Bertie, my grandmother, would be sitting at the table drinking coffee, gossiping, and complaining how “Yankees are just everywhere I turn nowadays”. She says Yankees move to Tennessee regularly, but they don’t tend to stay long. They think things will be simpler. When they find out the truth, they race out of town as fast as their new SUV’s will take them.
Bertie claimed she moved in to help Mama with the baby preparations, and everyone went along with that. It wasn’t true, but I’ve learned a lot of what we pretend about people usually isn’t.
I changed quickly, picking up an old pair of gym shorts off the floor, and a University of Tennessee t-shirt from under the bed. Barefoot, I headed down the stairs.
“Morning, Sugar,” Mama said. She turned to hug me as I entered the kitchen. With her belly in the way, I ended up more or less under her armpit.
“Morning,” I said, and hurriedly sat at the table. I’d learned she was pregnant months ago, but it still gave me the heebie-jeebies. Mama was in this weird stage where she constantly put my hand on her belly and made me feel the baby kick. She swore it could hear my voice. It wasn’t even born yet and already it was listening in on my conversations.
“How’s it going, kid?” Bertie asked from her seat at the scarred, oak table. Even though it was barely eight o’clock, she was dressed in white pants, a red blouse tied at the waist, and full make-up.
I combed my fingers through my hair, wincing as they caught in the tangles.
Bertie gestured to the empty seat beside her. She sipped from her BORN TO PARTY- FORCED TO WORK mug. “Fine? Girl, what I’d give to be twelve again. I’d hallelujah the county!”
Mama put a plate of biscuits on the table. “The world could not take you going through puberty again, Mother. Besides, it’s probably not as good as you remember it. I read on the internet that thirty-nine percent of teenagers suffer from stress.”
“Oh Lord, not this internet thing again,” Bertie said.
I stuffed a biscuit into my mouth to keep from laughing. At least once a month we have a “family meeting” over some issue Mama read about on the computer. Last month was about how inhaling household cleaners could kill. Before it was teenage runaways. Just hearing the words “family meeting” made my heart beat faster. They also used them to tell me about things like the pregnancy, Bertie moving in to help with the baby, and Aunt Sophie’s divorce. But they never tell me the important stuff—like why.
Thankfully, my house has all kinds of places to hide, otherwise I’d never know anything. I was reading in the broom closet under the stairs when I found out that Bertie was really living with us because her third husband, the dentist, had maxed out all of her credit cards, leaving her with nothing but a pile of debt and brand new set of veneers. And I’d been in the secret closet across from my parent’s bedroom when I heard he’d married her next door neighbor, Thelma Johnson, two months later and was “living it up right across town.”
“Lou, I swear people must think that University of Tennessee shirt is the only thing you own,” Mama said. “You’re going to have to take it off and let me wash it before it walks in here by itself.”
I leaned my head down and gave it a sniff. “Still smells good to me. But hey, speaking of UT, have you given any more thought to the baby’s name?”
Mama put both hands on her hips. “I am NOT naming this child Peyton!”
“But Mama, it works for..”
“Both a boy and a girl,” Mama and Bertie finished together.
“I don’t care,” Mama said. “I’m not naming this child after a football player no one will remember in five years.”
I swooned dramatically in my chair, “Are you kidding me? He’s going to make history! I can’t believe you would even say that!”
The back door opened and Isaac Coleman stuck his head in. “They giving you a hard time already, Lou?”
Mama waved him into the kitchen. “Giving her a hard time? I’m the one getting another pitch for naming the baby Peyton. Have a seat and I’ll fix you some sausage biscuits.”
“Thank you.” He winked at me. “For the record, I like Peyton as a name.”
Bertie pulled a chair out. “Nothing I like better than breakfast with a handsome, young man.”
I rolled my eyes. Bertie was a flirt and a half, but I couldn’t really blame her. Isaac WAS handsome. He had dark eyes, and skin the color of Mama’s coffee after she adds a tiny bit of cream. Plus he was super smart and the best defensive end this town has ever seen.
He’d been helping Daddy in the junkyard since he was a freshman and was practically family. He had just graduated a couple of days ago and had already been accepted to the best school in the whole world, Tennessee, but the thought of him leaving us was sad.
“What’s wrong, Lou?” Bertie asked. “You look like someone just snapped your garter.”
“Nothing. Just thinking.”
She smiled. “Well, don’t make it look like such a struggle.”
“What are you doing today?” Isaac asked.
I shrugged. “Not sure. Benzer’s coming over to hang out.”
“Doesn’t he get enough of that working on Saturdays?”
“I guess not. Besides, we’re going to make a plan.”
“A plan?” Bertie asked. “That sounds ominous.”
“We’re trying to think of something exciting to do this summer. Hey, Jackson Parker’s parents rented a houseboat last year.” I looked at Mama. “Does Daddy know anybody at the lake?”
“Right.” Mama brushed her hair off her forehead. “That’s how I want to spend the last weeks of this pregnancy, in a bathing suit!”
Bertie laughed. “Why do you want excitement anyway? That’s a Northerner’s invention.”
I grinned. “You mean like the light bulb and automobiles?”
Mama put an arm around my shoulders. “You’ve got to get up pretty early to get one over on Lou, Mother.”
Benzer threw an old basketball against my house. Tiny, white flakes fell and drifted down with every thump.
“So we just have to come up with something exciting to do this summer. How hard could it be?” he asked.
I blew the dandelion, and watched the wind carry the fluff across the yard. “Impossible. “Nothing exciting ever happens around here. We haven’t even had a decent fire since the courthouse burned, and that was over a hundred years ago!”
He shook his dark hair out of his eyes and threw the ball again. This time he aimed toward a bicycle rim Daddy had nailed on the light pole in the front yard. Thwack! “Who cares what Sally thinks anyway?”
I sighed. Sally had been teasing me throughout elementary school. I was going to try to not let her ruin Junior High for me, too. “I do. Face it, we need a miracle.”
A car pulled into the library across the street and Mrs. Ray from the Five and Dime waved at us as she got out. One of the best things about my home is how close it is to everything. I can walk to the square, the library, the museum, the town pool, the baseball field, and even the junior high.
I turned over and lay flat on the grass looking at my house. The windows on the bottom floor were open and the living room curtains moved in and out of the windows with the breeze. It felt like the house was breathing. There were four columns running across the front of the house, two of which had termite damage, and the porch seemed to sag a bit on one side, but for a house that was almost 200 years old, I thought it looked okay. Sally’s eyesore comment bugged me. A few years ago, the city made a regulation to prevent unsightly areas within the city limits, but Daddy said we were “grandfathered in”. I thought it meant since my grandfather started the junkyard we didn’t have to change, but it was more like that we were here before the regulation so they couldn’t bother us. Daddy enclosed the backyard with a fence, just to be neighborly, but it didn’t take long for the junk to tower over it.
Benzer fell down next to me. “Why are you frowning?”
“Do you think the house looks bad? Be honest.”
“Not bad,” he said. “It looks old, but that just gives it character.”
“That’s one word for it.” I’m the latest in a long line of Mayhews that have lived here, and every one of them has added on in some way. The house is three stories and Dad said that the sunroom was probably added later, as was the large utility room off of the kitchen. His grandfather supposedly thought the house looked unbalanced, so he added more bedrooms on each side. Now the second floor has a total of four bedrooms, counting Bertie’s, which used to be an upstairs parlor. It looks like a mess of rooms and random columns attached to nothing, all held together by overgrown grapevines, but it was ours.
Benzer pushed himself up on his elbows. “I know something exciting. You could go with me to the park and watch me hit balls over the fence. What could be better than that?”
“You’re in a great mood. Does you mom have any cola’s in the fridge? It’s burning up out here.”
“Oh, come on.” I climbed to my feet. ““Mama’s on a organic juice kick right now, but I know where Bertie keeps her stash.”
We brushed the grass from our clothes and walked to the porch. The front door was open to let in the breeze and I stood in the doorway letting my eyes adjust to the dimness. The living room was just off the foyer and I motioned Benzer inside. “Wait here. I’ll check if they’re out of the kitchen.”
I walked down the hallway. Mama and Bertie’s voices drifted up from the cellar. Satisfied, I walked back to Benzer. “It should be okay. They’re down in the cellar looking through my old baby clothes. That’ll take hours.”
Benzer was on his knees in front of the bookcase, a large, dusty bible in his lap.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I haven’t seen this in forever. Not since your mother banned us from ever touching it again.”
I sat down beside him. “Oh, yeah. But it was Bertie’s fault for telling us if we prayed for something with a sincere heart, we’d get it.” A smile snuck across my face. “Remember, I asked it for it to snow?”
Benzer laughed.” That’s right, in August. When it didn’t, you threw the bible across the room.”
“I dropped it. How old were we, seven?” I opened the cover and read, “Universal Library of Divine Knowledge, containing the sacred texts of the Old and New Testaments, in which the important truths are confirmed to dispel the mists of darkness, enlighten the ignorant, and implant divine knowledge which is necessary to salvation.”
“Wow,” Benzer said, “that ought to cover it.”
“I don’t know what half of that means.” I traced a finger across the penciled name at the top. “Silas Whittle, 1858.”
“Who was that?”
“I’m not sure. Somebody in the family, I guess.”
Benzer picked up my hand and placed it on a page with a drawing of a baby Jesus. “What are you waiting for?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Try again. You just said we need a miracle. Ask it for something exciting.”
“Whatever. It didn’t snow, remember?” I wiped my dusty hand on my shorts.
“Do you have a better idea?”
I pictured Sally’s face, smirking on the sidewalk in front of school. “Fine, but why do I have to say it?”
“You’re the one who told Sally we had big plans. And it’s your family bible, duh!”
I exhaled slowly. “Okay. What should I say?”
“I don’t know. Just ask for something exciting to happen, sincerely. Then offer to do something God likes.”
“Hello? How do I know what God likes? You’re the one with a cross above your couch.”
“We’re Catholic. All I know for sure is that he likes the pope.”
“You’re a big help.” I closed my eyes, feeling silly. “Uh . . . Lord, I know I haven’t talked to you much, or ever, to be honest. But I’ve seen the pope on TV and he looks like a nice guy. I like his car.” I paused. This was not going well. “Anyway, we’d like to ask, sincerely, if you could give us a summer with some excitement. Could you please make something happen, something life changing so that when we go to Junior High this fall, we’re the talk of the school? And to show our sincere hearts, we’ll. . . .” I drew a blank.
“Hurry,” Benzer whispered.
“What can we do?” I whispered back. “You think of something!”
“And to show our sincere hearts,” Benzer said, “we’ll start going to church. Thank you very much.”
“Church? That’s all you could think of?” I slammed the book shut. “Amen.”
A huge gust of wind came through the open window. It ruffled my hair, and I could see the oak leaves on my tree outside fluttering wildly. The curtains were sucked outside, then pushed back into the room, just in time for the window to drop with a loud BANG.
“What the heck?” Benzer asked.
“Lou, is that you?” Mama called from the cellar. “What are you doing up there?”
Quickly, I tried to stuff the bible back on the bookshelf but the cover caught on a small nail sticking out of the wood, and tore the cover.
Benzer and I stared at each other, panicked.
“Lou?” Mama’s voice was getting louder and I heard the door at the top of the cellar stairs open.
“C’mon,” I whispered to Benzer.
Of all the hiding places in my house, the one I’ve used most is the one behind the living room bookcase. Dad says it was probably used in the Civil War to hide valuables. I tugged on the edge. The wood floor underneath was worn to a high shine and it swung forward easily.
I grabbed Benzer’s arm and pushed him into the dark space ahead of me. On the inside, a leather cord was attached with a nail. I pulled the bookcase shut, plunging us into darkness.
“We’re going to be grounded for life.” Benzer whispered in the dark.
“Shh.” I got on my knees and felt around the floor. “Aha.” I clicked the ON button of the flashlight I’d found. “I like to read in here when cleaning’s going on.” I whispered.
“Lou? Benzer?” Mama’s voice was loud in the room. “Are you here?”
I aimed the light at Benzer, who crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. I tried not to laugh.
The floor vibrated as someone with a heavier tread walked into the room. “What’s going on?” Daddy asked.
“Did you see Lou and Benzer outside?” Mama asked. “I swear I heard something fall.”
“No, but remind them I need them to work early tomorrow.”
The sofa nearest the bookcase groaned with the weight of someone sitting down. Great, it looked like we going to be stuck here awhile.
“Where’s Bertie?” Dad asked. I heard a soft thump, and I pictured him dropping his work boots onto the floor.
“Pulling out some of Lou’s old clothes for the baby.”
“You better sit down,” Daddy said. “I’ve got bad news.”
“Oh, dear. What is it?”
“I just got a call from Jimmy Dale. Pete got the votes he needed. He’s already submitted a plan and everything.” Daddy sounded tired. “Things are moving ahead.”
Benzer raised an eyebrow. “What are they talking about?” He whispered.
I shook my head. I didn’t have a clue.
“Are you sure Jimmy heard right?” Mama asked. “You know how things get twisted around in this town.”
“Not this time. He was there when it went to vote.” The couch groaned as Daddy moved again. “I hate to say it, Lily, but we have to face facts. If Pete Winningham gets his way, this house will be history before the summer’s out.”
I gasped so loud I was afraid I’d given us away. Benzer nudged me with his elbow, his eyes wide in the flashlight’s glare.
“I don’t understand. Jimmy said the majority was voting our way. He assured us!” My mother’s voice cracked on the last note.
“I guess a couple of people must have changed their minds at the last second.”
I could hear Mama start to cry. I turned the flashlight off and put my knuckle in my mouth. I was glad Benzer couldn’t see my face.
“Lily, please don’t worry,” I heard Daddy say. “We knew this might happen. That’s why I spoke with those Knoxville attorneys. They’ve already agreed to take the case if it comes down to it.”
“But they said there were no guarantees we’d win, and they won’t even start without the retainer. Where are we going to get $25,000 dollars?”
I fanned my face with one hand. The tiny room was getting hot.
“I’ve got some things in the shop ready for the Nashville flea-market,” Daddy said. “We’ll clean up the yard, and sell everything that’s worth anything.”
Mama was quiet. I guessed she was calculating what all those rusty refrigerators were really worth. We just sold Mr. Otto from Sparta three of the better ones for two hundred dollars, and that was a good deal. I must have been right, because a second later, she started crying again.
“Lily, you know we’ve been in tough spots before. We’ll figure something out; we always do.”
Mama blew her nose. “I reckon you’re right. I still have some art to send out. Maybe I’ll find a rich buyer.”
Daddy paused. Mama’s art sales had never even covered the cost of her paintbrushes. “We’ll talk about it tonight. Lou’s bound to be back soon.”
“Lord, don’t let her find out. She’d plan an assault on the County.”
He laughed, a short, sharp bark. “That’ll be plan B. C’mon now. Is lunch ready? I’ve never had a problem that your chicken salad couldn’t fix.”
We sat in the darkness listening to them leave. “Lou,” Benzer whispered. “We should get out while they’re in the kitchen.”
I nodded even though I knew he couldn’t see me. I put a shaking hand on the bookcase and pushed it open. Light spilled in and I saw Benzer’s face, serious and sad. I wondered if mine looked as bad as his.
We closed the bookcase and I put the bible back on the shelf, then we tiptoed to the front door.
I didn’t trust myself to speak until we’d cleared the porch, walked around the yard, through the wooden gate and into the junkyard. Luckily, no customers were around. I stopped in the shade of the scrap metal pile.
“Lou? Are you okay?” Benzer asked
It suddenly occurred to me I should sit down before my legs gave way. I plopped in the dirt.
“Lou?” Benzer said again, softly. “What are you going to do?”
I looked around me at the junk piled everywhere. The back of my house was visible over the wooden fence, and over the roof of my house the top of the old oak that brushed against my window and kept me up at night. I tried to imagine the house gone, knocked down and carted off in dump trucks like the one we owned.
I shook my head and answered honestly. “I don’t know yet.” But one thing was for sure, I was not about to sit around and let this all become history.