sheri reynolds, writer
A Gracious Plenty

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A Gracious Plenty

Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Publication Date: 10/2/2012

"A triumph of story, voice, and character. The afflicted and unforgettable Finch, whose longings inspire in equal measure love and awe and pity, who seeks to understand the difference between the kind of suffering brought upon us and the kind we bring upon ourselves, defies mortality. Stunning and authentic . . . this is a beautiful book."
- Janet Peery, author of The River Beyond the World

"Reynolds is a wonderful storyteller and master of pastoral imagery."
- New York Times Book Review

"Mesmerizing . . . Reynolds's earthly insights make for a redemptive finale - but not before some satisfying storms of retribution."
- Entertainment Weekly

" imaginative tour de force. . . . Pushing beyond the boundaries of her earlier work, Ms. Reynolds has created a life-affirming novel that gathers the joy and pain of living into a celebration of what it means to be human."
- Richmond Times Dispatch

Synopsis: From the book jacket

In the lush and isolated cemetery of a small Southern town, Finch Nobles, the narrator of this brilliantly inventive novel, tends to the flowers and shrubs that surround the monuments of people who were not known to her while they lived but who in death have become her lifeline.

Badly burned in a household accident when she was just four, Finch grows into a courageous and feisty loner. She eschews the pity and awkward stares of the people of her hometown and discovers that if she listens closely enough, she can hear the voices of those who have gone before. Finally, when she speaks, they answer back, telling their stories in a remarkable chorus of regrets, explanations, and insights. But the infant Marcus, son of the town's mayor, died before he learned to speak and can only wail away the hours. The roots of his anguish are revealed in a crescendo of lasting resonance that ties together the outcast Finch, her dead friends, and the living community outside the cemetery's gates.

With prose that is spare, yet richly poetic, Sheri Reynolds creates a vision of a world that is at once fantastic and palpably real. She teaches us that neither our capacity to suffer nor our ability to be healed ends with the graveŅand that love is all we have. A Gracious Plenty is a reading experience you will not soon forget.

Read an Excerpt

"Ain't you got no respect for the Dead?" I holler. "Get outta here. Ain't you got no shame?"

But I'm wasting my breath. The children are running before I open my mouth, squealing and hightailing it around tombstones and trees, racing for the edge of the cemetery. A boy without a shirt dusts his belly on the ground and scrapes his back wiggling fast beneath the fence.

"You hateful old witch," he cries, but not until he's in the shrubbery on the other side. "You damn-fool witch."

I raise my stick and shake it at him.

By the time I get to the plot where they were playing, all that's left is a striped tank top and a bottle half-full of soda that they were throwing like a ball. They've cracked the plastic, and the liquid drizzles out dark. Fizz runs down my arm as I pick it up.

I apologize to Sarah Andrews Barfield, 1897-1949, and wipe the soda off her dingy stone with that child's shirt. It doesn't look like rain. Ants will come.

I stuff the shirt through the hole in the fence and then find a brick and a few fallen limbs to block off the space until I can get it patched.

On the way back to the house, I stop to visit with Ma and Papa for a spell. Overhead the wind creaks oak, and beneath me, thick grass bends. Tomorrow I will bring out the lawnmower, but today I catch a nap between them, the way I did when I was small, when their hands were warm and could touch me back.

I have been old all my life, my face like a piece of wood left out in snow and wind.

I was four when it happened. Papa had gone to get the grave diggers and bring them home to eat. He did that sometimes when it was hot and they were busy. Ma didn't mind cooking for a crowd.

But she had that day's meal fixed and waiting. She was already cutting apples for the next day's pie, and I was riding the broom in circles around the table.

"You getting too rowdy, Finch," Ma said. "Calm down."

"I'm playing circus," I told her. "I'm a pony rider."

"You've worn that pony out," she said. "Let him rest."

So I plopped down on the floor with the broom pony, ran my hand over the bristles, and pretended to rub his mane. Then I decided to get the pony some water. I needed a bowl. Ma had a bowl, but it was full of apples.

"I need a bowl to put some water in. My pony's thirsty."

"Give him some apple peels instead," Ma said. "He'll like that even better." She was good at playing along.

I was sitting beside the brown paper bag where Ma was dropping the peels. I reached in, grabbed a curled strand of red, and fed it to the pony. Then I looked up and saw the handle of the pot on the stove.

"You still want some water?" I asked the pony, and when he said yes, I reached for the handle of that pot. I reached for the shine.

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"Lord, Lizzie," Papa whispered later, "ain't right for this child to be widowed by her own skin."

Ma shivered off oxygen soap, hard and brown, mixed it with honey and flour, and tried to paste my skin back on. She broke aloe fingers and doused my face, my shoulder and arm. She whispered, "I told her to stay away from that stove," her voice choking out. She brushed my hair away from the places where skin bubbled up.

They thought I was asleep, but I wasn't. I was dazed and drunk on honey water, lost in the buzzing of the burn. I thought they were washing my hair, but it was just blisters breaking and Ma crying, and water spilling from the cup they held to my mouth. I thought I might wash away.

They took me to the clinic for a day and a night, where my veins drank sugar water as nurses watched on.

At the time, it seemed like all my howls got lodged in my throat. I thought I was too stunned to make a sound. But Papa said I howled plenty, said I howled at the hospital and howled when I came back home.

Ma washed the shirt that Papa had cut away with his pocketknife. She kept it in the drawer, where it got buried by report cards and pictures. Discolored and tiny, it still smelled of grease when I threw it out. There's a stain in the bottom of the drawer where that shirt rested for thirty-odd years.

Not long after it happened, the grave diggers helped Papa screen in the porch because gnats kept landing on my body and drowning in my watery skin. Papa joked that he didn't want to claim ordinary bugs as family, and I had no choice but to sit outside. It was hot in the house, and I needed all the breeze I could get.

A man from the funeral home brought me a swing and hung it on the porch beam. He was a friend of Papa's, and Papa never forgot his kindness. Years later when his big heart broke open, Papa gave him the plot he'd been saving for himself. His daughter still brings flowers, and I straighten them after storms.

For a while following the scalding, people brought salves and remedies, sacred lards from beloved pigs. With baking soda and water, they made me masks and casts that stung the air out of my lungs. They baptized me in vinegars. They patted my thighs and said, "God bless."

For a while, parents slapped their children when they pointed. For a while, teachers punished the ones who called me "Granny Finch." But later, they all gave up. They all turned away. The ones without scars, they kept their secrets, hid their losses, lied in ways that only the living world does.

But you cannot hide the scars from a burn. Not with mud, the way I tried to when I was young, playing by the riverbank and smoothing clay into the dents on my shoulder and chest, filling it even until it dried white and broke. Sometimes I'd clay my face, splashing it wet to keep it smooth. In the water, I could almost see what I'd look like normal--my big dark hair curling wild and mushroomed around my head, my dark eyes, my face clay-smooth and drying white, then cracking into an old woman and washing off to leave me the same.

You can't hide burn scars, and there's no point in trying. I live in a world without secrets. That's why the children throw rocks. That's why the cordial adults smile and go back for one more stick of butter, one more box of Brillo pads when I enter the checkout line at the grocery. They never hold my gaze or stand too close.

I still live in the same house. At sundown, I lock the cemetery gate, honeysuckle and ivy growing around cast-iron posts. I cook myself supper, a piece of meat, something from the garden. I sit on the porch in the evenings, listening to the crickets, to the howling alley mutts. Sometimes I turn on the radio, but more often I hum. And when I'm tired, I sleep.

At sunup, I feed the animals, make coffee, read the paper. At seven, I open the cemetery gates. I speak with the funeral home if there's a burial scheduled, nod to the workers coming in on bulldozers, and I'm civil with all the preachers who pass through. But mostly I trim hedges, straighten arrangements, and cut the grass. From time to time, I find new homes for spiders who've built webs in the armpits of crosses overlooking timid souls.

I tend this land. This land and the things that grow here are the only family I have left. With my scarred face and scarred neck and one scarred arm, I stake plots with wood and string, a room for you, a room for you. I bury the ones who died noisy in quiet, the ones who died lonely in family plots. The ones who died young, I cradle in boxwoods. Foes kiss here. Fears decompose. And in death, all the wounds begin to heal from the inside out.

So it don't matter when they call me "witch," and it don't matter when they turn away. Not too much anyway. I have inherited what I remember. I am curator of this place.

Copyright 1997 by Sheri Reynolds

Book Notes

My characters often come to me many years before I write their stories. I live with snippets of characters, ideas and tidbits. Sometimes I wake up from dreams and realize that the dream didn't belong to me, but to one of my characters. Finch Nobles was like this. (I didn't name her until after I started writing, and I only called her Finch because I was at a place in the story where her mother addressed her. I looked up from the page and saw my birdcage, with two little zebra finches hopping around, and so I just wrote "Finch.")

For a long time before I started writing, I knew that this character was a scarred woman who felt rejected by her community. I also knew that she was complicitous in that rejection, but too victimized to do anything about it. What I didn't realize was that her scars were physical. When I'm working with a character, I'm not generally interested in their physical bodies or appearances. Rather, I care about a character's psyche and soul. So when I say she was scarred, I knew that she had been wounded somehow, but the wound itself wasn't what compelled me. I didn't know she'd been burned until the moment I let her pull that scalding water down off the stove.

Just before I started writing A Gracious Plenty, my best friend's teacher and mentor died suddenly of a heart attack, and his death sent her reeling. Watching her grieve, it became apparent to me that she might choose death over life if dying meant that she could get back to him. So that tension, that pull between life and death made its way into the novel. The friend I'm referring to isn't Finch, of course, but there are pieces of my perceptions of her in Finch's character.

Around that same time, I was looking for a new apartment. There was one available on the grounds of Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, in a big house that I suppose is probably also a caretaker's house. I couldn't afford the apartment, but just considering it gave me the idea to make my character a cemetery caretaker. I ended up finding an apartment a couple of blocks away, and I walked every day in the cemetery. Naturally, the sounds and smells and textures of that place seeped into the book.

So you can see how all these small pieces blended together...