(Please join me in welcoming this week’s Rave Reviews Book Club Spotlight Author Better A. Stevens.)
HEART-TO-HEART from author Bette A. Stevens
Find out why I wrote PURE TRASH & read an excerpt!
As a baby boomer that grew up in an average middle-class family in America during the 1950s and 1960s, poverty was not something I had to dwell on or even think about as a child or as a teen. For me, poverty was a hidden concept.
As an adult, I learned what living in poverty was like from friends and acquaintances that grew up in this invisible (to me) world―one where being poor was an accepted part of life for those who lived it. I became intrigued by some of their stories. They didn’t want to be there or ask to be there. It was just their lot. It was a tough way to grow up, but they made the most of what little they had. Some didn’t realize that they werepoor, until someone from an upper class pointed out their obvious lacks. Some thought they were pretty well off, even a bit superior, when they met someone who had less. Some even took opportunity to lord their newly-discovered social superiority over those less fortunate. Regrettably, this ill-conceived notion of being superior to others continues to exist throughout the rungs of society’s class-based ladder.
As an elementary and middle-school teacher (since retired), I was an eye-witness to the direct effects of poverty’s aftermath on kids. What hit me the hardest was the way those who were among the haves would ignore, belittle or bully the have-nots. Don’t be disheartened, though. I’ve seen students, teachers, counselors, librarians, volunteers, administrators, parents, as well as church group and other community members who have made and are still making a difference in the lives of the poor and “different” among us.
As a reader, I can’t begin to count the lessons I’ve learned from reading historical fiction—life lessons. As a writer, I hope to advocate for children— to raise awareness of the plight of children living in poverty today. That’s why I wrote PURE TRASH. I believe that caring readers can make a difference, too.
I started with a short story that could be used in the middle-school and high school classroom, so that young people today could take a peek into poverty in the past. This short story is a prequel and appears in the novel I’m working on right now.
SUMMARY: Experience the joy of a carefree Saturday and the blistering pain of feeling not quite good enough as you hop on a bike and ride into town with two delightful young boys who find adventure at every turn. Shawn and Willie Daniels live in the woods with no indoor water or plumbing. Dad spends most of his hard earned money on beer. Prejudice, class division, alcoholism, poverty, injustice, and bullying are cleverly woven into this 1950s adventure short. PURE TRASH is a prequel to the author’s upcoming debut novel.
Saturday morning. I could see a patchof sunshiny, bright blue sky peeking out through the torn curtain as I yawned good morning to my little brother. Willie was six. I was nine. No school, I thought, as I smiled and plotted our course for the day. Sometimes I wished Saturdays would last forever.
“Good morning sleepyhead,” Mum said. She smiled at me as I stretched my way into the kitchen. “Get yourself dressed, Shawn. Run out and split some firewood and bring it on in. I’ll fix you some hotcakes.”
I slipped on my overalls, grabbed the ax from behind Mum’s rocking chair and headed straight for the outhouse. Sometimes I wished we had an indoor bathroom and hot and cold running water like most folks did. I had to go bad. Didn’t know if I’d make it. Whoopee, I managed to hit that darned two-holer just in time. I always liked to use the hole where Dad sat. It was warm from the morning sun shining through the crack in the door. I whistled as I thought about what a great day this was going to be. Willie and me were going to ride our bikes into town, and I was sure we’d find some empty bottles, maybe enough to buy some soda pop. Willie loved his Coca-Cola. The birds chattered back and forth in the maple branches that hung down over the old two-holer as I sat and thought. Sun streaked across my lap. It was going to be a great day.
I split the wood just the way Mum liked it done. Stacked it in the kitchen near the cook stove, grabbed the pails and headed out to the well to haul in water for the day. Mum had laundry to do and baths to get ready for us tonight. Yes, it was going to be a great day all right.
Chores were all done and Mum’s hotcakes were waiting for me by the time I finished up outside and sat down at the table. Willie finished his breakfast in a flash and ran off to watch TV with Dad.
“Gee, Mum, can we go now?” I asked, as I gulped down the last forkful of hotcakes smothered with maple syrup that Mum boiled down from this winter’s sap.
“Now, Shawn, you be careful. Willie hasn’t gone out on the roads much, so you let him ride ahead of you. Keep a good eye on him. You hear?”
“Sure, Mum,” I said as I headed for the living room to get Willie.
Dad sat in the big brown chair, feet propped up on the worn hassock. Beer bottle in hand, all he heard or saw was his TV. It was Saturday, and Dad loved his baseball. Though I knew he’d find time to take us boys to do some fishin’ later—after he got good and drunk he’d be able to hold his mouth just right. Dad always said that you had to ‘hold your mouth just right’ or the fish wouldn’t bite. He’d have enough beer in him by the time we got back so he’d be ready to catch his limit. The games should be over by then. We’d run down to the brook, walk out into the cool swirling water and catch some trout or brookies for supper. Yes, it would be a great day all right.
“Come on, Willie,” I said. “Let’s go!”
Willie nearly knocked me down as the two of us raced for the door. Mum reminded us to be careful. “Yes ’um,” I hollered back. We jumped on our bikes and pedaled hard up the driveway.
Mum said it was three miles to town. I kept my eyes on Willie as we pumped up the first hill. We coasted down the other side with the cool wind brushing our faces, ready to head up the next hill.
“Pull over, Willie,” I hollered when we got to the top of Andover.
Andover was the biggest hill we’d have to climb. We both stood up on our pedals as we started the climb. The turnout in the pines at the top of the hill was the perfect spot to find empty cans and bottles on either side of the ridge. I never did understand why anyone would just throw those bottles out like trash. But I was sure glad they did. Stark’s General Store paid cash, two cents each, and we thought we were rich every time the clerk handed us our reward in real money.
Pedaling up the half-mile hill was a lot of work, but it was worth it, and not for just the empties. Flying down the other side gave me the best feeling in the whole wide world. I guess that’s how that old chicken hawk feels when he soars above the pines at the edge of the field out back of the house.
Once we reached the peak, we plopped our bikes on the ground and threw ourselves onto the soft, damp bed of leaves at the edge of the woods. It was so peaceful. My mind wandered into the sky and I dreamed about the ride down the other side and the 10 cent Orange Crush I’d buy at Stark’s General Store.
“Hey, Willie,” I finally asked, “did ya bring the slingshot?”
“Sure did, Shawn. Whatcha wanna shoot today?”
Willie’s brown eyes looked as big as Mum’s pan fried donuts and his smile pretty nearly filled his round face as he jumped right up from his leafy bed and hovered over me like a bear.
I helped Willie make that slingshot out of rubber bands I’d sliced from one of the old inner tubes piled out by Dad’s rusty Ford Roadster. That Ford had headlights on top of the fenders and the “old jalopy,” as Mum called it, was just rottin’ away out back of the two-holer. We broke a crotched limb out of the choke cherry bush to use for the handle. I tied the rubber band and the handle together with string from one of the flowered chicken feed sacks that Mum used to make her house dresses. That string was real strong and I was good at tying knots. Willie was proud as a peacock when it came to showing off that slingshot.
“How about we find some old tin cans and pile them up like a tower?” I asked Willie. “Better yet, let’s both make towers and see whose gets knocked down first.”
“Yes, siree!” Willie hooted as he made a mad dash to grab as many of the rusty cans as his chubby arms could hug together at one time.
We played on that hill, building at least a hundred towers. All shapes and sizes, some looking like castles. Every now and then we’d take a shot at a passing squirrel or chipper. It was a great day, all right. We found more empties than ever. This was the first sunny day in a long time.
The sun was high over the trees across the road before we piled the last of our empty bottles into the huge chicken-wire basket I’d made for my bike last fall. Willie’s bike had a regular basket, but it didn’t hold much. We ran back to grab a few more and stuffed as many as we could into our overall pockets. I shoved the last two down the front of my shirt and tucked it in good and tight.
We were off! What a feeling. Flying into the wind, I could see Willie’s hair whirling in a hundred different directions while my own whipped around my ears and face. Mum would sure take the scissors to the two of us tonight. Then we’d hop into the big metal washtub filled with steaming water from her cook stove. That bath would feel good, too.
Brakes, bike tires and a cloud of dust announced our arrival in the gravelly sand covering Stark’s parking lot. I was feeling like David right after he conquered the giant Goliath. That’s when I looked up and spotted Mr. Wentworth pointing over at Willie and me from his brand-spankin’ new 1955 Ford pickup. That red truck shined just like the candied apples Mum made for us kids in the fall. I could hear his deep-throated laugh as he stared at us boys from across the lot.
“There’s Eddy Daniels’s boys, regular chips off the old block,” I heard him telling Tom Matthews, the town barber.