Please welcome guest author Rita Quillen. Quillen’s new historical novel ‘Hiding Ezra’ (Jan-Carol Publishing) has just released. We’re pleased to be able to offer up an excerpt from it. Says Quillen of the book’s origins:
Not long after my husband and I married, he told me the incredible story of his grandfather, Warner Pridemore Quillen, and the trouble he got into during World War I. He showed me a tattered journal of writings by Warner about that time. It was an amazing tale! That he and his family found themselves in such a predicament while also in the midst of the worst pandemic the world had ever seen, the first world war, economic hardship, and some of the coldest weather in their lifetimes is a truly harrowing situation! When I began to write poems and stories a few years later, he said, “You’ve got to write a book about Papaw-you’re the one to do it.”
School, work, children, and life interfered for a long time, but eventually, sometime in the early 1990’s, I sat down and wrote the outline of the story that would become HIDING EZRA. Since I knew few actual facts of Warner’s time on the run, who had helped him, who had hunted him, how he survived, I knew it would have to be fictionalized. So while the story is inspired by real events, the characters, places, and events are all imaginary, as I tried to re-create an unbelievably difficult and challenging time in history and in the lives of people like my characters.
I hope Ezra, Alma, Eva, and Lieutenant Nettles will become favorite characters for you and help you have a whole new appreciation for one of the most difficult and tumultuous times in American and Appalachian history. Here’s a little snippet of an opening chapter and then some entries in Ezra’s journal.
Life on the Run
Lying in the cool shade with his belly full, Ezra drifted off to sleep still thinking of Alma. She was walking toward him, with her hair blowing and her skirt blowing around her legs, showing her bare feet. But then the dream changed, and Ezra saw his mother reaching out to him, handing him bread, and he woke himself, moaning. He sat up to make sure he wouldn’t fall asleep again. Mother. Mother.
She had suffered so much at the end. Nothing had prepared him for the messy, unbearable reality of watching her die. When the note from Eva had arrived at Camp Lee telling him to come quickly because their mother was very sick, Ezra thought he would come home to find her down with pneumonia or gout and that she would bounce back in a few days, like she always did.
When he walked into her room, with only the single lamp at her bedside table lighting the pitch black, the only pinpoint of light in the little hollow, he saw that his mother had shrunk, her once-beautiful thick hair had turned to little dark wisps like the last fall leaves on the trees. He knew then what Eva hadn’t dared tell him in a note.
“Ezra, Ezra.” She rasped at him, and he knelt down by her bed, took her hands, the veins dark blue and swollen, and kissed them. He remembered those hands breaking piles of green beans into a huge pot, remembered her standing all morning over a stove, remembered those hands looped through the handle of her coffee cup, remembered her hovering over all ten of them seated at the supper table as they ate like starved pups. Her hair would be curled into little wet ringlets around her face and neck, but she would smile and say, “Y’all go ahead before it gets cold. I believe I’ll just have a little buttermilk and cool down.”
When Ezra knelt down beside her bed, he could smell the death there, and it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. “Ezra, you’re here. You know what’s happening, don’t you?” Her eyes burned into his, and she grabbed his shirt collar to pull him closer. “Stay. Eva needs you. Stay. Promise me.” Those were the two words he had dreaded hearing.
“I promise.” He said it now aloud, in front of his little fire, eating the greasy groundhog, the last dead leaves twisting in the almost-still November air. He had stayed by her side as long as he could. By the time the Army figured out that he wasn’t coming back to Camp Lee and sent word by Sheriff Carter that he was now officially AWOL, his mother was long past awareness. He packed up some things and took off into the woods.
Eva found only a note, the back door ajar, the smell of his tobacco hanging in the air.
He knew the sheriff wouldn’t look for him that hard, anyway. He had told him so.
About ten days before his mother had died, Ezra had been standing on the porch, wishing he could cry, while Eva was inside working with his mother. The sheriff had come riding into the yard. He had some papers in his hand, and the look on his face of one bringing bad news. He motioned Ezra over.
Ezra knew all along this day would come. But he also knew that to have done else would have been unacceptable to him, his family, and his community. He had hoped his mother would be gone before any trouble started. It was a hard place to be in, and he told the sheriff so. Sheriff Carter agreed and squeezed Ezra’s shoulder and patted his back before he left. After the sheriff left, Ezra and Eva had packed clothes, blankets, some food, and other supplies into a sack and put it in the smokehouse.
Ezra stayed one more day to say goodbye to his mother, then slipped off in the night so Eva wouldn’t have to watch him go.
In just a few days, his mother passed on, and Ezra found himself having to watch the funeral hidden in a rhododendron thicket a little way up the mountain, watching and crying, flat on his belly, as his mother’s coffin was lowered in the ground. He could barely hear Psalm 121—his mother’s favorite—read over her, as family and neighbors huddled around Eva and his brothers. Ezra stared hard into Eva’s back, hoping she could feel his presence and know how sorry he was that he wasn’t down there with his arm around her, too.
Hello book. I am going to write to you every day so I can remember
things later and so I won’t forget how. When you are by yourself
all the time with no one to talk to, your mind could get rusty.
They talked to us about it at Camp Lee about what could happen
if you get captured and wind up in one of them prison of war
camps. They said that the only ones who come out of it pretty well
are the ones who keep their mind occupied and don’t let things
get to them so bad. So I’m gonna write down what I do every day,
the weather, memories of good times, my prayers. I can remind
myself of what I was and what I am now.
I know a lot of people will wonder about me because of this.
They’ll say I’m some kind of chicken, call me a weakling or a
momma’s boy. It hurts me to think of it. It hurts me even more
to think that people might say so to Eva or some of the rest of
the family. I hope that most people will know me better than that.
They know I’m a hard worker and I’ve never been one to run from
a fight or from trouble if something had to be done. Times is just
so hard for us right now.
I can’t see that government making me go clear across the
ocean to fight about something I don’t really understand when
my mother and daddy was both sick and so much work to be
done just to survive. And on top of that, everybody’s sick and
dying with this terrible flu. I heard one of the officers at Camp
Lee talking to another officer, telling him that the flu was killing
more of our men than the Kaiser’s men ever would. What if Eva
was to get that flu while I was over across the water somewheres,
not even knowing what was going on? Who would take care of
daddy? The Army will forget about me, and I can get back to
doing what I need to do.
Walking toward the store to find a newspaper, I see a piece of
paper stuck up on a tree and when I got closer, I couldn’t believe
my eyes. It said “Ezra Teague—Wanted by U. S. Army.” It listed
some other names, too, but I didn’t know any of them. I just stood
and stared and stared. I would never have thought such a thing.
To see your name up on a poster like a criminal is a real bad
feeling. I started to just walk on like somebody stupid, but then I
had sense enough to walk back and tear it down.
It had a description of all three of us. It said I was 180 pounds.
I laughed about that since I’ve got so skinny out here my bones
are poking out like an old milk cow. And it said I was last seen
near the Wise County line. That’s funny, too, because whoever
seen me in Wise County is either drinking too much or seeing
AUTHOR PHOTO: ASHLEY BRIGGS
COVER ILLUSTRATION: WILLARD GAYHEART
JAN-CAROL PUBLISHING, INC
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