Book excerpt

The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye

Bonnie Shimko

FSG Books for Young Readers


My mother tried to kill me before I was born. Even then I disappointed her.

I learned about the foundation of my life brick by brick from my daddy’s daddy, Grandpa Thomas, and from Mama. Grandpa Thomas handed me the bricks gently, adding a fib or two to make our family seem halfway normal. Mama threw the bricks at me, aiming to kill. That woman had a mean streak in her as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

My father grew up in a flea-size town in the upper right-hand corner of New York State, just up the road from Sullivan’s Falls. Grandpa Thomas used to chuckle, "If your grandma Nellie’d birthed your daddy an inch farther to the north, he’d have been born speaking Canuck, eh?" I personally do not think it is polite to call Canadians Canucks, but Grandpa Thomas would never have hurt anybody’s feelings on purpose, so maybe he thought it was a compliment.

The summer Daddy turned thirteen, the same age I am now, a traveling preacher named Brother Marvin set up a tent in the middle of Sullivan’s Falls. He and his wife, Sister Catherine, filled the tent with folding chairs and then nailed flyers all over town, inviting the sinners of the area to come to their revival meeting to be saved.

Grandma Nellie must have thought the devil had her whole family by the tail because she paid extra for front-row seats. My daddy wrapped his legs around the rungs of his chair, ate the popcorn Sister Catherine hawked like one of those vendors at a baseball game, and waited for the show to start.

Sister Catherine was dressed for the weather in a flimsy skirt and a low-cut blouse. She sang hymns, played the cornet, and passed the collection plate. Brother Marvin preached the word of God with a performance that dazzled the audience.

Grandma Nellie was so filled with the Holy Spirit that she sank to her knees with her arms raised to heaven, shouting, "Hallelujah!" and dragged Grandpa Thomas down with her. At the same time, my daddy leaned forward to get a better look at Sister Catherine’s you-know-whats. He hollered, "Thanks for the blessing, Lord!" then fell flat on his face with his legs still attached to that chair. Grandma Nellie thought Daddy’d been struck by a bolt of godliness. She was so overcome with gratitude that her entire family had been saved from the fires of hell that she put an extra quarter on the collection plate the next time it was passed. From then on, most everything my father thought was fun suddenly became a sin.

When Daddy graduated high school, Grandma Nellie gave him the choice of staying home to work the farm or being ordained by Brother Marvin the next time he came to town. Daddy hated cows and the mess that went along with them, so he chose religion. I guess he figured when he was a bona fide preacher, that list of sins would get a whole lot shorter.

According to Brother Marvin, the most important thing a preacher needs is a wife, preferably a musical beauty like Sister Catherine, to loosen up the tight-wads. That’s where Mama came in. Daddy wasn’t crazy about her thick glasses and her even thicker ankles, but he did like the fact that she could play the piano and, better yet, that her parents had died and left her a three-bedroom bungalow on Navigation Street, complete with a detached garage and an almost-new Model T Ford. Besides, she was the best he could find. I guess he figured he could use his own good looks on the ladies of the congregation—let them convince their husbands to dig deep in their pockets to save their souls.

Mama was working as a waitress behind the luncheonette counter at Woolworth’s. Daddy stopped in for Cokes and made her blush with his compliments about her charm and beauty. One day he asked her to have supper with him. She said she’d love to. He said, "Great! What time will it be ready?"

Mama’s skill in the kitchen was the clincher. Daddy asked her to marry him, and they settled down on Navigation Street to begin their life together and start a family. Lucky for them, the preacher of the First Redeemer Church got fired because he was caught pocketing the special collection for poor little orphans. Daddy heard the good news, grabbed his spanking-new preacher certificate, rushed over to the church, and landed the job—just like that.

Thirty years passed before I showed up in Mama’s belly. By then, my sister Sylvia was twenty-nine, married, and the mother of my four-year-old nephew, William. She lived in Maine and worked at the slipper factory. She was allowed to take her mistakes home, and she sent some to Mama and Daddy, so they wore slippers with the word REJECT stamped on them. My sister Charlotte was twenty-one. She thought the radio was talking to her through the radiator, and she heard strange voices coming from the walls, so she lived in the state mental hospital. And my nineteen-year-old brother, Jack? He was in Dannemora Prison, doing time for driving the getaway car in an armed robbery.

When I was inside my mother, she thought that I was a tumor and that all doctors were idiots, so she got into bed and waited to die. She soothed her upset stomach with Pepto-Bismol and watched her belly grow. One morning, the tumor kicked so hard that Mama’s nightgown flew straight up in the air. When she realized what was happening, she went down to the kitchen, put the coffeepot on the stove, and punched my daddy so hard on his left ear that he had to go to the doctor to get it sewn up. Then Mama went back upstairs and took a flying leap out the window. When she landed headfirst in the barberry hedge, she was pure furious that I kept on kicking. And she blamed me for the scars on her face, too. The way I figure it, somebody as nearsighted as she was ought to put a little more planning into a project if she wants it to turn out right.

When Mama got even meaner, Daddy took off. That woman never missed a chance to tell me how it was my fault that her husband left Sullivan’s Falls with Margo LaRue, the town hussy—in her brand-new, canary yellow Studebaker Champion bullet nose—at high noon, so everybody in town could witness the spectacle.

I had seen my daddy’s picture, and he looked nice. I only wished he’d waited a few weeks and taken me with him. But if he’d stayed around any longer, Mama probably would have tried to kill him, too. Sometimes I sat by the window in my bedroom and watched for him. I just knew that he’d come back for me—soon, I hoped.

Excerpted from The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye by Bonnie Shimko.
Copyright © 2010 by Bonnie Shimko.
Published in 2010 by Farrar Straus Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Bonnie Shimko’s previous books include Letters in the Attic (978-0897335638), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Young Adults in 2002. She lives in Plattsburgh, New York.