Playing cops was just a game until the bullets were real.
The gravy train hasn’t stopped in the hollers of western Virginia for more than thirty years when Stony Shelor starts his junior year at Jubal Early High. Class divides and racism are still the hardened norms as the Eisenhower years draw to a close. Violence lies coiled under the calm surface, ready to strike at any time.
On the high school front, the cool boys are taking their wardrobe and music cues from hip TV private dick Peter Gunn, and Dobie Gillis is teaching them how to hit on pretty girls. There’s no help for Stony on the horizon, though. Mary Lou Martin is the girl of his dreams, and she hardly knows Stony exists. In addition, Stony can’t seem to stay out of juvenile court and just may end up in reform school. A long, difficult year stretches out in front of him when a new boy arrives in town. Likeable bullshit artist Jack Newcomb dresses like Peter Gunn, uses moves like Dobie Gillis, and plays pretty good jazz clarinet.
Jack draws Stony into his fantasy of being a private detective, and the two boys start hanging around the county sheriff’s office. Accepted as sources of amusement and free labor, the aspiring gumshoes land their first case after the district attorney’s house is burglarized. Later, the boys hatch an ingenious scheme to help the deputies raid an illegal speakeasy and brothel. All the intrigue feels like fun and games to Jack and Stony until a gunfight with a hillbilly boy almost gets them killed. The stakes are even higher when the boys face off against Ku Klux Klansmen bent on murder.
On March 7th, A.D. Hopkins, along with 100+ friends and readers, launched his debut novel at the new event center at The Writers’ Block in downtown Las Vegas. It was a fun evening with great conversation, superb hors d’oeuvres and delicious moonshine cocktails. Click here for some photos! This was the first stop in a cross-country author tour, the complete list of Hopkins’ book events can be found on this site’s front page.
On May 6, 2020 A.D. Hopkins won the prestigious Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Fiction at the Independent Book Publishers Association Gold Medal Ceremony.
On June 17, 2020 The Boys Who Woke Up Early was awarded the GOLD in the Foreword Magazine’s 2019 INDIES Award for Historical Fiction.
Purchase The Boys Who Woke Up Early
A.D. Hopkins spent 46 years as a journalist in Virginia, North Carolina, and Las Vegas. Much of that time he was an investigative reporter and editor, and part of it he was a touring correspondent focusing on small-town life. Hopkins’ fiction reflects realities and people he met in the small towns, police stations, and courthouses of Virginia. Hopkins co-authored a respected history of Las Vegas, and is an authority on early Nevada gunslingers. In 2010 he was named to the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame. In 2020, Hopkins won the Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Fiction and the 2019 Foreword INDIES Gold award for Historical Fiction. At home in Las Vegas, Nevada, Hopkins is currently working on a sequel to “The Boys Who Woke Up Early.”
“The novel is serious, funny, even sweet and nostalgic at times. A coming-of-age story, not only for its teenage main characters, but for a town and a country being yanked out of the Eisenhower ’50s into the Kennedy ’60s while such vestiges of the old ways as racial prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan stubbornly hang on.”—John Przybys, Las Vegas Review-Journal, (06/23/19)
“A deftly crafted and unfailingly engaging read of a novel from first page to last, “The Boys Who Woke Up Early” showcases author A. D. Hopkins’s impressive and distinctive narrative storytelling style. Very highly recommended for community library Contemporary General Fiction collections.” —Midwest Book Review (05/13/19)
“Such a short summary does not do this book justice. This book is a coming of age story unlike so many others entwining historical fiction with adventure and youth. Hopkins’ writing is exceptional; the characters, setting and plot pulled me in from the very beginning and the literary nerd in me was only too happy to think over the discussion points. FOUR STARS” —Sara Wood, Goodreads.com (06/15/20)
“The characters are likable and I found myself cheering their personal growth and chiding their falls into trouble. This book was a timely read, a glimpse into another region of the county and the unique challenges that different areas face.” —Jennifer Crumbling, Netgalley.com (06/23/20)
“An interesting addition to the shelf of YA books that deal with racism. Set during the Eisenhower years, this book offers a new character sure to charm audiences, an intriguing mystery, and a sweet coming of age tale. “ —Mya Nunnally, Goodreads.com (06/08/20)
“This book was so good. It came across as more of an autobiography or memoir which made it all the more interesting. The story is a coming of age of sorts that takes place in a small town during the turbulent times of the 1960s and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement and rising of the KKK in that small town, as told through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Stony, as he relates the tales and shenanigans of he and his friend Jack. I can’t wait to see what this author gets up to in his next book. Great Debut!”—Jacquelyn Engle, GoodReads.com, (04/26/20)
“I admit that coming of age novels have a certain appeal to me. This title is one that does not disappoint. Tipping my proverbial hat to Mr. Hopkins who does a wonderful job with his characters and painting the scenes they are in. 5-Stars”—Laura O’Neill, Goodreads.com (05/16/20)
“I really enjoyed this in-depth narrative of life in 1960 rural Virginia. Great for teens and adults alike, I was hooked straightaway. 4 Stars “—Lindsey Santos, Netgalley.com (05/16/20)
“This is the debut novel of A. D. Hopkins, but from the chapter one it seemed like that he has known this story forever, and writing it from a very particular personal corner.”—Heeya Das, GoodReads.com, (01/10/20)
“The immersive story-telling is amazing and I still hear my heart pounding when I think of some of the early (!) passages of this novel as well as the laters. With economy and greatness A.D Hopkins gives us a well-documented, gripping, realistic, hell of of story about racisme, prejudices, growing up (althought it is not, in my opinion, the main theme) and more. Guns, law enforcement, police work, segregation, teenage in a small town of Virginia in late 50’s/early 60’s can give, I supposed, a good canvas for a good story, but the narrative and the talent of the author give it its greatness. We laugh some times, we are scared some other times. Scared for the characters that we learned to appreciate, for the events to escalate, for innocence to be crushed. And there is suspense too in this novel, a lot! Told you, my heart was pounding hard, my breath was heavy…”—Diane Dumon,(10/16/19)
“While Mary Lou certainly inspires Stony’s change of heart, its own conscience and common sense that has him going up against the racists in his town. The Boys Who Woke Up Early was written in a way where I could not help but emphasize with the stunningly real and flawed characters (especially Roosevelt). It was so intriguing.”—Aslee Blansit, Goodreads.com (09/01/19)
“It reads like good journalism — no surprise as this is the debut novel of a 46-year veteran journalist. I had forgotten how much I like a real story — not overburdened by excess angst, overly bold characters, and well-defined narrative arcs that bear little resemblance to reality.”—Laura Hill, bibliobloggityboo.com (09/18/19)
“Complete with humor and sobering themes like racial prejudice and segregation, The Boys Who Woke Up Early delivers a satisfying read by showing both good and bad exist simultaneously, and not always where it should”—Patricia Philbrook, Goodreads.com (07/15/19)
“Engaging, enthralling. Great writing on a heavy topic.” —Tracy Thomas,ThePagesInbetween.com/ (06/03/19)
“All the elements are present for some explosive incidents in Early and the boys certainly do wake it up. You can read this novel and focus on the hell-raising confrontations between moonshiners, kids, and lawmen, on family feuds dating back to 1924, on the boys’ narrow escapes from situations their sense of honor and their plain old stupidity get them into. It’s a fun book and it will often make you laugh out loud.”—Sara Hopkins, LikeTheDew.com (05/23/19)
“The descriptions were so lovely that I more or less melted into the time (the 1950s) and places (in the Western Virginia hill country) he described. The story felt so true as to almost be autobiographical.”—Diane Taylor, Living-Las-Vegas.com (06/02/19)
“Taking place in the late 1950’s in the state of Virginia, we meet small town America. There is plenty of history in this book relating to America back in the late 1950’s — KKK, racial tensions, family dynamics. I loved how author A. D. Hopkins described the dress of the kids at this era in time. Plenty of research went into this book. It also deals with family, young love, and hidden truths.”—Pamela A. Poddany, Amazon Top 500 Reviewer (03/21/19)
“This story truly amazed me. The cover and title drew me in, the blurb sounded good BUT it was so far away from my normal read. It was so real. I was transported back to the 50s and all the madness that went with it. Politics, racism, KKK. Just wow.”—Crystal Gray, Goodreads.com (05/1019)
“Carley deftly portrays easygoing Stony and his dissimilar friend Jack, a would-be detective, as the pair assist the overworked sheriff’s department. Listeners will visit the story’s warmly described rural community and enjoy its picnics, hunting, and fishing. Bootlegging, racism, and KKK activities are also part of the locale. Descriptions are so well written and rendered that listeners will feel they’re actually witnessing events.”—S.G.B, AudioFile Magazine
“Set in 1959, in rural Early, western Virginia, The Boys Who Woke Up Early is a coming of age novel that reads more like a historical memoir. While the tale follows two teenage boys, don’t count out the female characters like Mary Lou Martin. Her character is not only interesting and a breath of fresh air, she’s integral to the captivating storyline. A thrilling novel with real life parallels, the book is a fascinating tale.”—Jacy Topps, ManhattanWithATwist.com, 05/01/19
“This is a well written novel about life in the late 50s when America is starting to change their views on segregation and violence. It’s a coming of age time for Stony who has to form his own views about what he sees around him. I enjoyed the main character of Stony who changed significantly in the novel as he began to notice more about life around him.”—Susan R, Amazon Top 1000 Reviewer (03/10/19)
“The backhanded politics including corruption, bullying, and abuse are themes woven throughout. Though a fictional story, the details are clear and a bit of truth shines brightly. Stony Shelor and Jack Newcome go from innocent boys to brave soon-to-be private detectives. Written in the style of The Catcher in the Rye, this coming of age story is one not to be missed.”—Terrie Case, casereviews.com (03/18/19)
“In creating his intriguing first novel “The Boys Who Woke Up Early,” A.D. Hopkins has drawn from the deep well of his memories of growing up in Appalachia at the end of the Eisenhower era. The narrative is full of tales of comradeship, moonshine, hunting, bullying, Klan rallies, domestic violence, political corruption, puppy love, and a feud that rivals that of the Hatfields and McCoys”—Dr. Al Chase, White Rhino Report (02/13/19)
“Captivating, suspenseful, entertaining novel! This beautiful thriller kept me on the edge of my seat while I was reading it!”—YC Y, NetGalley.com (02/05/19)
“The writing and plot are seamless and grip you from the very beginning, and the characters are beautifully rounded; I admired Mary Lou the most as she had vision and didn’t unquestioningly accept the way things were as most people of the time did. It’s a captivating thriller but so much more than that. It makes us question our lives today and how far we’ve come but also how much further we still have to go to gain equality. It’s both a powerful, thought-provoking and highly entertaining hybrid coming-of-age novel/thriller, and the descriptions of small-town life make for engaging reading”—Lou, avidreadersretreat.com (03/01/19)
“This is a different type of book than I typically read. It’s more of a slice-of-life novel, but I really enjoyed it. Reading A.D. Hopkins’ accounts of the time period are very interesting and they ring true, as they are inspired by his youth. If you are looking for something different and mellow, yet still timely, despite it taking place in the 50’s, check out The Boys Who Woke Up Early.“—Ashley Perkins, gamevortex.com (03/15/19)
“This book is set just when the fight for equal rights begins, when discrimination is the norm, and only a few people are waking up to the awareness that the way things have always been isn’t the way they should be. I enjoyed the story of Stony’s realization that his small mountain hometown needs to make some changes.”—Misti Pyles, tamaramorning.com (03/02/19)
“The writing is unembellished and flows smoothly, making the book an effortless and gripping read. This book is a reminder of generational differences and the role of the youth in shaping the present and future of the world around them, not by running away or unquestioningly accepting things the way they are, but by staying and gradually trying to change the way things work.”—Kara San, writekara.com (02/16/19)
“Coming of 1950’s age story detailing the lives, adventures and dreams of two boys who are high school juniors and good friends. At the core of the story is their volunteer time as a team in the small town, western Virginia sheriff’s office. Together they face issues involving burglary, racism, prostitution, moonshine liquor, murder and more. I found this a fun, fast read…really enjoyable.”—Dick Whittington, Goodreads.com (01/17/19)
“The story of The Boys Who Woke Up Early is in many ways a timeless American narrative of small town life, mischief, and growing up. This is written as historical fiction that looks back on the racially charged 1960s and addresses how people like Jack and Stony overcome some of their racial prejudices. Yet, it also reflects the unrest we see in the United States today. What I appreciate most about the novel is the racial awareness and awakening that the Jack and Stony undertake throughout the novel. In the beginning they are passive bystanders to racial inequality. It is something they never questioned or even really thought about. This is true of most people even today. Unless we are directly affected by something it can be hard for us to see how it affects others. And this blindness goes beyond race relations. I hope that the characters Stony and Jack lead by example and maybe even change a few reader’s lives.”—Hope Lee, bound2books.co (01/30/19)
“Different in style, setting and development, this was a refreshing way to start 2019 and new book thoughts…All in all, I think a valid word to describe the book is cohesive. There are a lot more characters than just Stony and his friend, and they are all tied into the story in an enjoyable, understandable and personally motivated way. Even characters who all-in-all are mostly insignificant behave consistently and in a relatable way, and help move everything forward. Without the bustling life and small, yet important, interpersonal relationships between people Stony would not have ended up where he did.—Thor Høgås, Goodreads.com (01/20/19)
“A. D Hopkins first novel and I expect to read more. How is one to follow on this brilliant novel? The novel has an abundant of history, characters you are involved with and engaging Boys you root for. Not a book you want to end. I loved it from the beginning and did not want to see it end.”—Edna Gadoury, Goodreads.com (01/09/19)
“I enjoyed the writing style of this book. It was refreshing. The story was interesting. I kept turning the pages just want to find out how it’d go.”—Cecile Chandler, remivfoliage (01/24/19)
“I love that this book is set in the 50s. It added such a good historical aspect to the story especially dealing with with some of the aspects of the book. Jack and Stony want to be detectives and even go as far to start hanging out at the police station and finally get to help on a case when the DA’s house is robbed. The things they find though on their “assignment” lead them to question everything they know about their town and their families. This is the first book I read by A.D Hopkins and I look forward to reading more of his“—Cheryl Weaver, Goodreads.com (01/14/19)
“The boys woke up the town to some of the things that were going on out of sight. It is a good examination of life in a small town. The narrator is writing as if he is looking back on his past, in a memoir form. The events played a transformative role in the life of the town as well as the boys.”—Kim Cabrera, Goodreads.com (11/30/18)
“The Boys Who Woke Up Early is captivating and fascinating. It is filled with awesome characters and a very entertaining and intriguing plot. I really like this book. It’s a great book. I will look for other books by this author. I highly recommend it.”—Lee Staes, Goodreads.com (11/21/18)
“This is a thought provoking coming of age drama that goes beneath the surface to present a picture of a community and society in transition and it shows how division and fear detrimentally effects the human condition. Well worth a read and hopefully there will be more from this writer in the future.”—G. Heard, Goodreads.com (11/15/18)
“It’s a coming of age during a time when racial tensions were on the rise, when the Ku Klux Klan were hidden sometimes in your own family and two boys playing at being grown men, thrilled by the power of police work sometimes learn that the difference between right and wrong, good and bad is thin. That love can incite all manner of shocking violence, and messing with the wrong boy can possibly cost you your very life. It’s like reading a memoir, a genuine picture of the times “—Lolly K Dandeneau, bookstalkerblog (10/22/2018)
“‘The Boys Who Woke Up Early’ might be A.D. Hopkins’ first novel, but it feels like it has always been with us; it’s a novel filled with heart and grace and a surging sense of wonder, while also lined with brutality and violence. A rare combination, for sure, but A.D. Hopkins is a rare writer.”—Tod Goldberg, author of Gangsterland and Gangster Nation.
5 Stars out of 5 “A book that is engaging and enthralling, full of wonderful characters and with a wonderful plot.A very good read , I will surely look for other books by this author.”—Anna Maria Giacomasso, NetGalley (10/31/2018)
“Equipped with the grace of a fencer and the attentiveness of a journalist, A.D. Hopkins drops us into the world of teenager Stony Shelor, a blossoming humanist, would-be-detective, and hopeful gallant. Read it for the pleasure of this boy’s ideas, for the perfectly pitched turn-of-phrase, for the reminder that in every community, there are those fighting for the right and the true.”—Laura McBride, author of We Are Called to Rise and In the Midnight Room.
“A rollicking coming-of-age tale, shining a light on the not too distant past of the Jim Crow South. With his storyteller’s ear and reporter’s attention to detail, A.D. Hopkins has created poignant characters and a plotline to match. His lines convey the sadness and shortness of life—the sorrows brought on by family members lost to typical feuds and grudges whose origins no one can remember. In Hopkins’ hands, it all comes to life.”—Sally Denton, author of The Bluegrass Conspiracy: An Inside Story of Power, Greed, Drugs & Murder, and The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World.
“A coming-of-age story that doesn’t pull its punches. Set in the waning years of the Jim Crow era in rural Virginia, it’s a narrative in which fists fly, guns go off and the Ku Klux Klan is hiding in plain sight. A.D. Hopkins convincingly re-creates the time and place, and his characters are as natural as the creative turns of phrase he captures from his native South.”—Geoff Schumacher, National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement and author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas” and “Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue”.
“For nearly half a century, A.D. Hopkins entertained readers from Virginia to Vegas with an endless stream of award-winning newspaper features. Now he’s made the jump to fiction with the heart-warming and harrowing coming-of-age novel…Hopkins’ adventure story is filled with an authenticity of heart, a charming sense of humor, and important lessons in courage and friendship.”—John L. Smith, author of “Running Scared: The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn” and “The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice”
“The Boys Who Woke Up Early is all at once a coming of age novel, an action story, and a tale of social transformation of a southern small town confronting the early civil rights movement…Fast cars, moonshine, gunplay, and the Ku Klux Klan all influence life in the town of Early in the late 1950s, tucked away in the poverty-stricken mountains of Appalachia. A. D. Hopkins is a versatile storyteller. Some parts read like a Hardy Boys adventure while others ring with a literary resonance reminiscent of Richard Ford’s “A Piece of My Heart” and Barry Hannah’s “Geronimo Rex”…The America of today is sorely in need of this reminder, this reawakening of our minds and hearts.”—Douglas Unger, author of “Leaving the Land” and “Voices from Silence.”
“Stony Shelor is authentically drawn as both a fighter and a thinker, making him an engaging narrator…Hopkins’ understated narrative casts a thoughtful eye on questions of race and class, but at its heart is a straight up good, old fashioned, young detective adventure. “—Robin Flinchum, author of “Red Light Women of Death Valley”
In September 1959, a week or two after school opened for the year, boys were loitering in the morning sun on the front steps of Jubal Early High School, putting off going inside until the opening bell rang. We had already established our seats for the year. On the north side of the steps, the right side going in the door, sat guys wearing black T-shirts, engineer boots, and peg-leg jeans with switchblades in the hip pockets. Because they generally wore their hair long and combed into ducktails held in place by gobs of Butch Wax, we called them “greases.” I sat on the south side, wearing a flattop crew cut, brown oxford shoes, a plaid short-sleeved sports shirt, and khaki pants. I had a knife too—every boy or man I knew carried a knife—but mine was an Official Boy Scout Pocket Model, which was as much about screwdriver and bottle opener as about its cutting blade. The greases didn’t like me much, nor I them, but I had paid a price to sit on the same steps as those guys and be left alone. So I sat there every morning, always alone.
A boy I didn’t know came up the walk that morning. From a distance I could see he walked funny, with an unhurried swagger, as you sometimes saw young black men do in Charleston, West Virginia, or Richmond or Baltimore. This guy was white, like everybody who went to Jubal Early High School, but he had the walk. There was a rhythm to it, a little extra swing in each step, as if he were keeping time to music the rest of us couldn’t hear. At first I thought he had black hair, then as he drew closer I saw he was wearing one of those round French caps with no brim. I didn’t even know what to call a beret, then; I had never seen one before, except in the movies. The stranger also wore sunglasses, which nobody from Early did except when going to the beach once a year.
“I don’t believe this,” said Todd Powell to the rest of the greases.
The newcomer looked close to six feet tall, and skinny. Everything he wore was Continental style, fitted close to the body. His pants were rust colored and cuffless, and he wore a burgundy plaid sports coat. Only the principal and the few male teachers wore sports coats at Jubal Early High, but this was a teenager. Under the sports coat he wore a black turtleneck sweater. His shoes were black with elastic panels in the sides, pointed toes, and hard heels that rang on the concrete.
As he drew closer, Todd called out to him, “Hey, boy! You get those clothes off a dead nigger?”
The stranger didn’t look at Todd. Didn’t look away, either, nor did his slight smile disappear at the insult. As he came right past us you could see reddish-brown hair under the beret, and a hopeful attempt at a goatee on the pale skin of his face. The guy carried a case under his arm containing, we later learned, a clarinet, although Early High School had no band.
The school’s electric bell rang the one-minute warning, but nobody moved; neither did the stranger quicken his pace. When the bell fell silent we could hear only his leather heels striking the concrete like an unhurried drummer building a platform for some fellow musician to launch a solo. As the newcomer put his hand on the door to open it, one of the greases broke the silence.
“Flaming asshole!” a grease said.
It was said low yet loud enough for the stranger to hear it. But the stranger didn’t acknowledge the insult, just sauntered on down to the principal’s office and enrolled himself as a junior. Jack Newcomb, I would later learn, was his name. He would be my classmate.
My first class was American literature and English, as it was for all juniors. I took my seat near the front of the room. Gina DeLancey sat across the aisle on my immediate right. She worked occasionally as a model, when a good clothing store in Roanoke or some women’s charity put on a fashion show. She was very tall for a girl, and everything about her was graceful; she had slender tapered legs, yet she could jump higher than any other girl in our high school and was center on the girls’ basketball team. Her breasts were small enough not to get in her way when she was running or jumping, but big enough to be on a guy’s mind. Gina had clear skin that needed no makeup, full lips, and hair the color of a new gold bracelet; it reached to her shoulders, but that day she wore it done up in a French twist. Blonde hair was a great asset in 1959. That day she was wearing a sleeveless light-blue shirtdress that matched her big blue eyes.
Gina’s best friend, Ernestine Thomas, sat immediately in front of her, and they were chattering happily about something or another. Ernestine was a curly-haired brunette with a well-scrubbed look and a Mouseketeer smile; slightly over average height, she was wearing a colorful peasant skirt and a white flower-embroidered blouse that exposed most of her shoulders. It was cut just low enough to emphasize her big bosom without getting her scolded by a teacher. Ernestine was a straight-A student and a good soprano who sang solos in church; she was more popular even than Gina. But the two went together like knife and fork, to their mutual benefit. Ernestine was pretty by anybody’s standard, but because a person fell into thinking about her at the same time as the lovely Gina, he tended to stow thoughts of both in the mental drawer labeled “Beautiful.” Gina was fairly smart herself, but people thought she was a true brain, like her pal.
I had known Ernestine nearly all my life, all the way back to when we were in the Sunday school nursery at Early Southern Baptist Church. I had known Gina even longer; she was to me what people sometimes called a “kissing cousin.” That meant she was related, but distantly enough that it would have been all right to kiss, marry, fondle, or fornicate with her once she reached the age of consent, assuming she consented. But I had never so much as kissed her. As toddlers playing in the creek at a farm belonging to Ernestine’s grandmother, we had all three seen each other naked. Yet in our first two years of high school, I had barely spoken to either girl, and I was too intimidated by their beauty and popularity to join their conversation now.
Mrs. Weber called the class to order and reminded us that each student was supposed to recite some poem that day, from memory. Gina made the open-mouthed face of sudden and panicky recollection, leafed through her literature book to a page of poetry, and started moving her lips as she silently read the shortest poem. Mrs. Weber asked for a volunteer to recite, and Mary Lou Martin raised her hand.
Mary Lou was tall and wiry, the substitute center on the girls’ team, able to jump nearly as high as Gina. I thought she was just as pretty, but I had never heard anyone else say so. Mary Lou had a high forehead and very dark arched eyebrows over big hazel eyes, in a heart-shaped face with a narrow chin. Her neck was a little longer than most girls’, her nose straight and narrow. Her mouth was wide, with the upper lip straight but turned up at the corners, the lower one pouty, which created a slightly amused expression whether she felt that way or not. She didn’t have the blonde hair associated with glamour; hers was very dark brown and shiny, and hung halfway down her back in an old-fashioned style. She wore a straight brown polished-cotton sheath skirt and a simple yellow sleeveless blouse, and she didn’t wiggle-walk to the front of the classroom, but just strode, all business.
She turned around and immediately started reciting. I guess everyone in the classroom had heard the words, or some version of them, sung as a song, but few of us actually knew them. In a town that believed it was named for a Confederate hero, this Union song was thought to be vaguely subversive. Now, hearing it recited with the pace, expression, and diction of poetry, was the first time I considered what the words actually meant.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on .
I knew, as soon as I heard the poem, I too would memorize those powerful words and remember them all my life. But not everybody reacted the same way I did.
“What the hell was that about?” said Todd Powell, loud enough that most of us could hear it but soft enough Mrs. Weber could pretend she hadn’t. Everybody knew Todd kind of liked Mary Lou, but she didn’t encourage him, so I guess that was reason enough to make an audible wisecrack about her. Did I mention that I really didn’t like that son of a bitch? He was sitting in the back of the room with a couple of other hard cases, slumped forward over his desk with his legs wrapped around the chair legs under him, his jeans riding up and showing his black engineer boots.
“That’s not in the textbook,” Mrs. Weber said to Mary Lou. “Why did you choose it?”
“I wanted to learn a poem that had made something happen,” said Mary Lou. “I didn’t think a poem had to come out of the textbook.”
Mrs. Weber cracked a smile, which was a rare event. “It doesn’t, and I’m glad you realized that,” she said. “That’s worth an A.” She made a note in her grade book.
Mary Lou smiled at her success and strode back to her seat. I wished she would sit near me, but that just about couldn’t happen. Nobody sat in our corner except people who lived in town. Mary Lou sat in the far corner with the rest of the country girls and the overalls-clad mountain boys who rode to school on the bus. For all the chance I would ever strike up a conversation with her, she might as well have sat in France.
Just as Mary Lou sat down Jack Newcomb came in, having finished up his late registration in the school office. He gave a note to Mrs. Weber, who glanced at it and said, “Take any seat.” Jack saw immediately that our corner had the higher status and took the seat directly in front of Ernestine. He set the clarinet case and beret on the desk in front of him but continued to wear the sunglasses and the slight smile.
Gina waited until class was nearly over before raising her hand to recite. She had memorized a poem on the spot and did it properly, with feeling. It was “The Pasture,” by Robert Frost, only eight lines, but very pretty. Ernestine recited something very academic and challenging, and I did Kipling’s “When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted.”
Jack just sat at his desk. He didn’t have to recite because he hadn’t been in class when the assignment was made.
Nothing else interesting happened all day. Rarely did.
Hardback: $23.00 US / 29.41 CDN ISBN: 9781945501272 — First Edition: March 2019
Paperback: $16.00 US / 17.90 CDN ISBN: 9781945501289 — Will be available in August 2021
ePUB: $9.99 US / $13.60 CDN ISBN: 9781945501296
Audiobook: Unabridged, narrated by
$26.00 US / $35.53 CDN ISBN: 9781945501302