Annette Valentine's latest novel Down to the Potter’s House (Morgan James, November 2020) is a 1921-1942 historical tale set on a tobacco farm turned racehorse breeding stable in rural Kentucky, and follows the tenacious Gracie Maxwell to higher ground as she climbs and never stops. A fast-moving novel of romance and redemption, intrigue and revenge, the book showcases a finely-tuned protagonist who grows from naïve schoolgirl to committed missionary to loving wife and mother. Written in an exquisite style, Down to the Potter’s House is an astute study of the contrast between good and evil inside an extended family.
With the drought in every part of Todd County, Kentucky, and surrounding counties, survival had become more intensified. Foreclosures were threatening even the ardently industrious
farmers, but for those who were exceptionally hardheaded and efficient—such as former Senator Robert Rutherford Maxwell—procedures at Hillbound in 1930 continued uninterrupted.
Harvest time had signaled the end of yet another growing season at Hillbound, and the routines of tobacco farming were not unlike the ones I had watched from my youth. Negro folks still toiled in the fields—their brows covered with maize-colored straw hats—topping and cutting, stripping and bailing, but I knew none of them. All new faces had replaced the familiar ones that I could have spoken to by name. Thoroughbreds of Father’s wistful dreams roamed the places where I’d previously helped the children learn to read, practicing on them my rudimentary teaching skills whenever possible. The young ones were gone now. The mighty oak under whose branches we’d sat was gone as well.
Robert Maxwell was holding his own, counting himself among the smattering of gentleman farmers who maintained their property with economically disabled and politically powerless black laborers. Hard times had deepened the dependency of the black folks, affording them little choice but to stay on as hired hands, working the devastated farms that brought in, at best, a piddling one-third of the revenue they had in the three years prior.
From outward appearances my father projected prosperity in the way he walked and the way he talked, but I suspected differently. The previous day I’d spent with him at Hillbound all but confirmed Father was putting up a front. He’d sold a portion of his beloved five hundred and sixty acres of burley tobacco farmland along with the forty acres of wheatland he had acquired when he married Francine Delaney.
Father was an imposing man, dark-complected with a full head of sleek black hair and a broad smile. Even at sixty he was straight backed and poised as we rode into the center of Elkton. Other folks, too, made their way into town for essentials. If any one of them owned an automobile, more than likely he could no longer afford to drive it. The depression had hit, and gasoline prices were high, so most folks came in carriages and congregated at the square.
A late-autumn breeze rippled the surrey’s fringe that canopied above my head. Our ride into town in the splendor of this October Saturday was proving to be a chilly one. After two miles of the horse’s clip-clop, we rounded the last turn. Straight ahead of us was the courthouse square.
For a small town in Kentucky, the two-story brick building with its white clock tower stood modestly impressive.
Father halted in front of Jim Carver’s Grocery and Hardware and stepped down from the carriage, leaving me perched on the seat while he hitched the reins to a post. No looks, no whispers indicated I had something to hide.
I held my head high. Even so, gossip’s sting could prick without warning beneath my skin. I hadn’t thought of the scandal in months, and it took a mere single night in Francine’s presence to resurrect it. Her staunch ability to live with herself was not my concern—yet it was, and my urgent need to guard outcomes for my brother and the entire Maxwell family name had overtaken my restraint. The moment had crystallized in yesterday’s outburst.
I wish I had said much more to Francine. Looking back, I wish I had said less to Father.
My two years spent away at Logan Female College and the subsequent two at Athens College in Alabama had solidified my ambitions and reshaped my less constructive attitudes as if they were a lump of clay. No longer the broken fifteen-year-old or the self-empowered eighteen-year-old, I accepted the hand Father offered to assist me from the carriage and grasped his fingers as my foot touched the ground.
“Sister would love some horehound sticks,” I said, “and of course I want to see Jim, if he isn’t busy. I’ll pop inside and be right here when you return. That’s all, Father. Nothing too long.”
Father was quick to plant a kiss on my forehead. “Fine and dandy, Gracie, go ahead. Give my best to Jim . . . I won’t go in this time. We should get us over to Millicent’s house directly. I’ll be across the street, but only for a few minutes. If you’re ready to go before that, don’t hesitate to send word,” he said, nodding with a two-term-senator polish to a passerby.
The out-of-doors had a way of doing wonderful things for me. I breathed deeply the refreshing air as I waltzed toward my brother-in-law’s store, my long coat fluttering behind me. Several of the town’s men had gathered in front of Carver’s Grocery and Hardware to exchange news of the day and toss about their ideas on how the turn of events might affect the nation. Most of them were nowhere near recovering income losses that supported their livelihood.
I gave them a passing smile and continued toward the store. My father’s agenda was evident to me, and time wasted was intolerable. I had come to accept the vigorous manner that let his wishes be known.
Inside, a buzz of activity swirled about in immeasurable contrast to the motionless bystanders outside. I went straight to the candy counter without dilly-dallying. My mouth watered in anticipation of the taste of Chocolate. “Glorious day, isn’t it, Miss Baxter?”
“It is at that. And I’m just glad as I can be to have you visiting every now and again. Tickled pink, I am, you’re spending another year nearby. Good thing for us folks here in Elkton that Russellville’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away.” A generous smile spread on her face. “So tell me: how’s our young schoolteacher doing?” she said, squeezing her chubby hands together atop the glass case that covered the candy confections.
“Fine, fine. I haven’t expelled anyone in the first two months of this term . . . and not anyone last year either,” I said, grinning, briefly distracted by the appearance of a tall man warming his hands by the potbelly stove at the rear of the store.
Miss Baxter gave a jolly laugh to acknowledge my attempt at humor, and my glimpse of the gentleman ended.
“You’re right. Russellville’s not very far. And you haven’t seen the last of me, unless I start spreading out like Sunday dinner on a picnic cloth,” I said, realizing Miss Baxter resembled my remark. “Then I’d have to stop eating chocolates.”
“Me too,” she said with a never-you-mind gesture, relaxing her forearms farther across the counter. It was clear, she was in no hurry for my candy selection. “Your sister sure tries to keep everybody up to snuff around here. Got her own schoolgirl nowadays. That little Louise is cute
as a pie. Second grade . . . Goodness, goodness!”
“I know. It’s certainly amazing how time flies,” I said, focusing on the candies.” Point out what Louise would like, then the usual: three sticks of horehound for Millicent. Now then. Chocolate. Let me . . . um . . . decide between the—”
“Please excuse me for interrupting. May I offer a recommendation for the chocolates before you make your decision?” The smooth voice slid into our conversation like butter on a hot biscuit.
Surprised, I turned to find the tall gentleman from the back of the store standing next to me. Having captured my attention, he smiled a gorgeous smile that momentarily broke my concentration.
“The finest of the fine is right before your eyes—your beautiful eyes, if I may be so bold. I’m something of an expert on the subject.”
Seriously? I thought. An expert on how time flies or chocolate?
“But first things first. My name is Simon Hagan.”
After a slight hesitation, I gave him a brisk once-over during which time his smile never faltered. I’d not ever met a statelier man and maybe not a better-looking one. The weight of his gaze caught me off guard. But only a little, I told myself. I then recast my answer: “How do you do, Mr.
Hagan? I am Gracie Maxwell.”
Miss Baxter wasn’t helping the situation’s awkwardness. She no longer rested against the candy counter, but rather leaned in to hear what she could hear. Her mouth had dropped, and I warned mine not to do the same.
I tried to give as little heed as possible to Mr. Hagan’s remark about my eyes and forced myself to look straight at him as he continued to speak of how glad he was to meet me. Perhaps he missed the cold shoulder that I thought I was presenting. He proceeded to select a bar of chocolate from the case with one hand, then gave coins to Miss Baxter with the other.
Father passed the window. A tip of his hat indicated he would just as soon be on his way.
I stood dumbfounded as Mr. Hagan handed me the chocolate bar. Jim Carver’s voice rose above others, dickering politely with a woman who had doled out produce and eggs for his consideration. Their transaction seemed to be coming to an end, and my brother-in-law turned toward us at the front of his store where Mr. Hagan continued to stand at my side.
Miss Baxter’s smile was way too big.
Flustered by the simultaneous doings, I offered a quick thank you to the tall stranger, snatched the horehound that Miss Baxter had laid on the counter—forgetting to pay for the candy sticks—forgetting the candy treat for Louise—then darted straight out the front door without a backward glance.
“Gracie!” Father was waiting outside when I emerged. “Guess I should have come inside . . . I’d already unhitched us, though. Here, let me help you up. When you see Jim later today, do remember to give him my regards.”
I hopped up onto the seat, and Father steered the horse around the town square, its hooves plodding noisily on the cobblestone street. The ride was quieted as the buggy rolled onto the dirt road leading to Millicent’s house.
“Glad you didn’t, Father. No need to come inside,” I said without knowing why. “It will be a good visit with Jim tonight at supper.”
He peered over at me. “You seem preoccupied, Gracie. Everything all right?”
I didn’t look at him. “Of course. Just met a gentleman . . . He must be related to Mr. Hagan who got me my teaching job.” Slightly embarrassed, still puzzled by my own doings, I held up the chocolate bar and waited for Father’s reaction. “I believe he said his name is Simon. Yes, Simon Hagan.”
“Ah! For sure. Simon’s been away from Todd County for quite some time. Didn’t realize he was back.” Father shot me a suspicious gander, then signaled the horse to pick up speed, giving the reins some slack with a nimble foist from the driving whip.
The surrey’s wheels creaked in objection to the horse’s surge, and the forward jolt startled me. I wondered if the timing had not been right to exhibit the chocolate. “Oh, Father, he just happened to be at the counter as I was deciding. All of a sudden, he was there. He simply insisted on making this a gift.”
“Hardly proper for him to cover your purchase of chocolate.” Father glanced at the horehound sticks. “He didn’t pay for those, too, I hope.” Realizing my predicament, I cut my eyes at him. “No. Nobody did. I got them for Millicent . . . I forgot to pay. Silly me! Mr. Hagan was just being kind,” I said as we rolled up to the front of the Carvers’ house.
“What’s he doing now, anyway? Believe he had tuberculosis . . . although I could be confusing him with another of the Hagans. Geoffrey had six or seven boys and a couple or three girls.”
“Heavens, Father! I have no idea. You mustn’t go thinking poorly of him, though. And I can certainly fend for myself. I am twenty-three, not fifteen.”
He stepped down from the carriage, hitched the reins. “Big family, the Hagans.”
Millicent had not missed the sound of the approaching carriage. Oblivious to the October chill, my sister was out the door to greet us.
Father paused to serve up his customary greeting to her. I reminded myself not to compare its woodenness to the top-shelf affections he openly lavished on Francine, practically from the time of Mama’s passing. The crater in my heart caused by his attraction had stubbornly closed, but having spent last night in my stepmother’s presence, old grievances had threatened to undo family peace that time and my absence had afforded me.
Inside the short day spent in the country, I’d seen the signs that revealed my brother’s discouragement. Hardest to take was seeing how Father regarded Henry with cool detachment. Witnessing my brother falter with every attempt to make a decision was more than I could stand.
Father offered me his hand to steady me off the carriage step.
Having squelched the bitter rise of contempt for the fresh evidence of Francine’s power over Henry and the ease with which she dominated Hillbound, I rallied, grateful that Father had avoided either subject. Our arrival at Millicent’s had interrupted the discussion of the Hagans. It had stilled, too, the recurrent rusty attitude of bygones that had no place in my reshaped heart.
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