Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree
by Lillah Lawson
Publication Date: September 20, 2019
Regal House Publishing
eBook & Paperback; 384 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction/Southern
It’s an unusually warm autumn, 1929, and O.T. Lawrence is about as content as a cotton farmer can be in Five Forks, Georgia. Nothing – not poverty, drought, or even the boll weevil – can spoil the idyllic life he shares with his doting wife and children and his beloved twin brother Walt. Until illness and Black Tuesday take everything O.T. ever held dear in one fell swoop. Grieving, drinking, and careening toward homelessness, O.T. is on the brink of ending it all when he receives an odd letter from a teenage acquaintance, the enigmatic Sivvy Hargrove, who is locked away in Milledgeville’s asylum for the insane. Traveling through desperate antebellum towns, O.T. and his daughter Ginny are determined to find Sivvy and discover her story. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree is a love story to Georgia and the spirit of its peopleóa story of family, unconditional love, poverty, injustice, and finding the strength inside to keep on going when all is lost.
“Lillah Lawson spins a yarn that ís wonderful in its knottiness. Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree is a historical Southern fable about butterflies, biscuits and the healing power of family, both biological and chosen. The images are evocative, the dialogue rough and realistic, the emotions achingly real. A must-read.” Lauren Emily Whalen, author of Satellite
“A hauntingly beautiful story, full of twists and tragedy, rich in detail and told with gorgeous lyrical flair. A deeply moving, unforgettable read.” Alice Hayes, author of The Thread that Binds
“An exquisite read, with the tender yet gritty undertones of Steinback, Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree is a solemn walk through the deep south during one of the most difficult eras in American history: the early twentieth century. Lawson captures the southern gothic through the often fragile, yet always hopeful hearts of her characters as they try to cope with the hard knocks of life. This book will touch your heart in the beautifully tragic way that only southern gothic can, slowly at first, and then all at once.” Melanie Cossey, author of A Peculiar Curiosity
From the first line, Lillah Lawson immerses the reader into the hard scrabble life of cotton farmers in rural Five Forks, Georgia and the life and loves of Owen “O.T.” Lawrence and his twin brother Walt. From the fateful meeting with Sivvy Hargrove as teenagers during a tent revival in 1916, through struggles, hardships, and devastating losses during the Great Depression, this is a wonderfully written portrait of grit and humanity set against ever present hunger, social divides, and the constant, underlying menace of a predatory traveling evangelist.
Sassafras tea and moonshine, side meat, boll weevils, red dirt, and the distinctive colloquial language of early 20th Century small town and Appalachian Georgia all lend themselves to what is ultimately the story of O.T. and Sivvy’s long journey to awakening from the numbness of debilitating grief to finding each other.
Full of all the heartache and resilience that I crave in fiction set in the 1930’s, in the rough and tumble way that so evokes that era, Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree is a story of healing and redemption. This is a work of Southern fiction to slowly savor, with characters that will linger.
Mrs. Pittman sat in the driver’s seat, her dainty white gloves gripping the wheel, her mouth pursed grimly. Betty Lou sat in the passenger seat, her own face flushed and distressed. O.T. glanced in the back of the cab and instantly forgot his embarrassment at looking so bedraggled. Walt was sitting in the backseat, leaning on Hosey Brown, his face streaked with tears.
O.T. ran to the car, to his brother, forgetting all about Betty Lou. “What’s happened?” he asked. “What in the hell has happened?”
“Let’s get us inside and we’ll tell you, son,” Mrs. Pittman said, her mouth still pursed. O.T. began to panic—-had he been found out, somehow? Had Walt had come clean and told everyone that it had been O.T. with Sivvy after all? Had Betty Lou and her mother had driven here to give him the hosing down he deserved? Betty Lou’s face was grim. Even Hosey, usually a blabbermouth, was quiet and gray-faced. O.T. had no choice but to lead them all inside, his insides quivering, as Walt trailed behind him, sniffling.
Inside, Hazel sat out coffee, teacakes, and dried apples. O.T. furiously wiped his dirty hands on his coveralls and threw on his old pair of shoes, inwardly cussing at how filthy he looked. Mrs. Pittman bit daintily into a teacake and accepted a cup of coffee silently.
“Walter, hon, tell us what’s happened,” Hazel said finally, placing a gentle hand over Walt’s.
“I didn’t do what he said I did,” Walt protested sullenly, through his tears. Dropping his head into his hands, he started to beat at his face. “I. Did. Not. Do. It.”
“He’s doing it again,” Mrs. Pittman said helplessly to Betty Lou, who looked stricken. “He was doing that in the car.”
“He’s awright,” Hosey said, gently guiding Walt’s hands back down to his lap.
“Would somebody tell me what in the sam hell has got my brother so worked up—” O.T. interjected impatiently.
“O.T., calm down. I’ll tell you,” Betty Lou said quickly, touching his hand. “We were leavin’ the diner after lunch, and we happened upon Walt and Billy Rev. Walt was crying and carrying on. Doing like he’s doing now, with his hands. Billy Rev was screamin’ at him.”
“He shore was,” Mrs. Pittman agreed. “Bellowin’ like a bull, right in that poor boy’s face. And to think—a man of the Lord!”
O.T.’s heart begin to sink. “Sivvy warn’t there?”
“No, she wasn’t,” Betty Lou replied, “just Billy Rev. And he was yelling to beat the band. Sayin’ all kinds of things, and Walt just standing there, crying, saying he didn’t do it. We thought we might be of help, so we went up to ’em, asked if everything was awright. Billy Rev took no notice of us. He was plum red in the face. Yellin’ at Walt, accusing him of things.”
“What things?” Hazel’s face had gone a little white.
There was a long silence. “Of…of tarnishing his niece,” Mrs. Pittman said, after a pause. “Accused him of meeting her in secret last night. Said he’d taken her girlhood from right under his nose. Accused him of being a—” She blushed, her cheeks turning a pretty pink. “Of…meddling with her.” She looked down at her lap, her lips pressed together so tight they all but disappeared.
“But Walt wasn’t even out last night!” Hazel exclaimed. “O.T. was out with Hosey, but Walt was here!”Hosey looked at O.T. sharply, and O.T. thanked the good Lord that Hosey was the best friend he had in the world, knowing that Hosey would die before exposing O.T.’s lie.
“That’s just what we told him,” Mrs. Pittman said firmly. “We told the reverend that hemust be mistaken. That Walt’s the sweetest, most God-fearing boy in town and that he’d never, ever—”
“I told him,” Walt interjected, his face ashen. “I told him I never.”
“We all told him,” Betty Lou said angrily. “But he was raving like the dickens and wouldn’t listen. That skinny, chicken-necked old codger.”
“Betty Lou!” Mrs. Pittman exclaimed, feigning shock.
“The reverend talked like he was going to get the sheriff have Walt locked up,” Betty Lou went on. “We told him no he wasn’t.And we wanted to know where he’d even got such an idea that Walt had taken advantage of his niece.”
“What did he say?” O.T. asked, straining to keep his face calm.
“Said he just knew. Said a little bird told him. I like to spit in his face.”
“Betty Lou,” Mrs. Pittman warned again, but with a smile.
“That’s when Hosey come up, and by then there was a crowd of folks watchin’ us. A couple spoke up for Walt. And then Miss Sivvy come out herself. She’d been cryin’, too, poor thing. You could tell. She told the Rev that Walt had never laid a finger on her, had never even clapped eyes on her more’n twice. I felt right bad for her.”
“So what happened?”
“Oh, he puffed and ranted a little bit more, and then put his big ol’ fat finger in Walt’s face and told him to stay the devil away from his niece. Said he’d lock him up if he so much as looked in her direction. A bunch of dumb threats,” Hosey said with a grin. “Said he’d never come back to this one-horse town to spread the word of the Lord again. He was gon’ leave us to our sin. Then he stomped his ass back down to the motel, ’’bout wrenchin’ that poor girl’s arm out of the socket the whole way. Her just a cryin’. That sumbitch.”
“Language,” Hazel warned, before Walt had a chance, and Hosey winked at her. She pretended not to notice.
“He hurt Miss Sivvy,” Walt moaned, dropping his head into his hands again. “She was crying so hard!”
“It’s okay,” O.T. said softly, placing a protective arm around his brother’s shoulders.
“No, it ain’t,” Walt cried, his voice muffled. “I never did give her my address. How we gon’ write to each other now?”
O.T couldn’t answer, the shame bubbling up deep in his belly. Somehow the reverend had found out what had happened. He thought Walt had ruined his niece, but it had been O.T. all along.
The road was in ill repair. Every time the wagon hit a bump or a pothole, Sivvy was thrown into Harvey’s shoulder, rigid and tense beside her. She could feel the fear and anger coming off him in waves, but his face, when she caught a glimpse of it, was blank.
Billy Rev drove erratically down Highway 29, out of Five Forks, and towards Athens. The moon was visible from Sivvy’s window, high in the sky and round and as white as a breast. Sivvy thought of her mother, whom she missed but would never admit it. She and her mother had never really found each other’s threads. Sivvy’s six brothers and sister, who came before her, had sapped up the best parts of Mama before Sivvy had had a chance. Even after all this time, she could not bring herself to forgive her parents; the door to her heart was shut to them, even though she knew it wasn’t fair.
But there was no use dwelling on that now.
Her face felt crusty and tight with her tears dried on her cheeks, tears she hadn’t bothered to wipe away. She had wanted Billy Rev to see those tears and feel bad, unaware, then, that it would only spur him on, that any evidence of her pain was a thrill to him.
Hours before, Sivvy had been giddy with excitement at the thought of meeting the boy. She’d wanted only to feel young, free—just for a minute. How could she have ever thought she could get away with it? And she’d gone and gotten that sweet boy in a heap of trouble.
For a brief moment, as she gazed at the moon, Sivvy wished she were lying with her head on her mama’s chest, a child again, warm and safe in the grove of crooked trees back on the ridge.She dropped her eyes to her lap, to her hands, which were streaked with grime, the skin around her fingernails ragged, ugly, and torn. They trembled a little as she brought them up to her face and wiped off the old salt of her tears.
Harvey’s shoulder twitched beside her, then was still. The wagon rumbled on.
~About the Author~
Lillah Lawson has been writing since she was 8 years old, when she won a short story contest at her elementary school. The story was about a Princess who gets tired of waiting for the Prince to show up and saves herself. Once she saw her words printed in the local newspaper, she knew she wanted to be a writer.
Having written professionally as well as dabbling in poetry, children’s books and blogging, Lillah finally completed her first novel, Aroha, as part of a NaNoWriMo challenge in 2012.
She lives in Georgia, in the United States, with her partner and son and three rambunctious animals. She is currently working on another novel.
~Blog Tour Schedule~
Monday, May 18
Review at Passages to the Past
Wednesday, May 20
Interview at The Book Junkie Reads
Thursday, May 21
Review & Excerpt at Bookworlder
During the Blog Tour, we are giving away a paperback copy of Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.
- Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on May 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.
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The review above refers to a digital copy I voluntarily received through #HFVBTBlogTours. A positive review was not required and all opinions expressed are my own.
Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree is Historical Fiction written for the general market and contains adult language and content.