This story about a group of nuns who undertake the absolutely unthinkable, under the courageous leadership of their remarkable Mother Superior.
Here is a sample from the first Chapter:
Charlotte Rose Jefferson was born at home on her family's farm near Gallipolis, Ohio. She never knew her exact birth date, but she believed she was born in 1938. She had three older brothers and one younger one. Her father worked on a river barge on the Ohio River and was gone for long periods of time, leaving her mother to care for the family, alone, on a farm that was approximately six miles from the nearest town. Their old truck broke down frequently, and, even more frequently, they couldn't afford to put gas in it. The children often had to walk to the store to buy supplies and then lug the groceries home. More often than not, they did not have the money to pay for what they needed, in which case they begged the store owner to give them credit or made such a pitiful scene that one of the other customers would give them some money. Frequently, one or two of the kids would create a distraction and the others would simply steal what they needed.
Charlotte never remembered her mother leaving the farm for any reason.
None of the children attended school. Occasionally truant officers nosed around, but the children hid and their parents denied they had any children, although they did occasionally admit to having some nieces and nephews “visiting for a while.” Since all of the children had been born at home and none of the births had been recorded, the school had little information to go on in order to enforce the mandatory school attendance laws. As a consequence, all of the children were illiterate and almost completely ignorant of the world outside of the farm.
The boys worked the tobacco fields while their mother and Charlotte tended the vegetable garden and took care of the house. The children were not allowed to play with other kids. Other than their excursions to the grocery store, they were not allowed to leave the property. Their mother was a dour woman who rarely said anything to them other than to give them orders. They had no telephone and no TV. Their parents had a radio, but it was in the bedroom and the children were not allowed to listen to it. There were no books in the house. Later, Charlotte remembered her childhood as a dark and mean existence.
Their sole potential source of entertainment was a battered and hopelessly out-of-tune piano that had gathered dust in the parlor since Charlotte's grandmother died when Charlotte was a baby. Charlotte was fascinated by the piano and knew that somehow it could give great pleasure if she could figure out what to do with it. She was not allowed to touch it, but she spent hours every week contemplating the wonderful things it might be able to do. For Charlotte, the mysteries of the piano made it an almost an object of worship, which was the closest thing she knew to religious faith in a family that had no religion.
Charlotte's passion was baking bread and pastries. She learned to cook at a very young age, and she loved to bake. By the time she was ten or so, she had taken over full responsibility for providing bread, biscuits, pies and, occasionally (when they had eggs), cakes for the family. Baking was the one thing that gave her pleasure as a child. It made her feel she was contributing something valuable to her family, and that gave her a sense of purpose. Moreover, the kinesthetic experience of the touch, feel and smell of baked goods – particularly bread – nurtured her sensuous nature, perhaps more than her mother would have permitted had she known about Charlotte's feelings.
Life alone with her mother and the boys on the farm when their father was away was grim and hard. Life on the farm when Papa was home was hell on earth. Charlotte described him as a mean, hateful drunk who terrorized the household. He was physically abusive to the boys, and emotionally and verbally abusive to his wife and Charlotte. Charlotte could not recall her father ever hitting her or her mother, although her mother occasionally turned up with bruises on her arms. He beat the boys with whatever was handy whenever he lost his temper, but the worst beatings were conducted in the barn – with a belt.
The entire family lived in fear when their father was at home. Fortunately, during Charlotte's early years, he was rarely home more than a few days at a time.
At intervals the oldest two boys left home. One day her oldest brother was gone when the family got up. They never heard from him again. Two years later, the next brother disappeared in the same way. Neither of the parents ever mentioned either of the boys again. Charlotte missed them terribly. For a while. Until they were reduced to vague sore spots in her memory.
When Charlotte was about fifteen, her father was seriously hurt on his job. He spent several weeks in bed recovering from his injuries, and the children came to understand (from eavesdropping on conversations between their parents) that he would not be able to return to his job on the river.
Early one morning Charlotte's remaining older brother cornered her in the barn. He said he thought it was time to discuss what the kids should do now that their father would be staying home for good. He told her that, as bad as he had been before, he reckoned that things would get much worse if Pa was going to be home all the time – and in pain, to boot. Charlotte's older brother was about seventeen; Charlotte was a year or two younger; the baby was seven. Charlotte and her brother decided to run away and take their little brother with them, to keep him out of harm's way.
The children had never been further from home than the grocery. They were totally illiterate. They didn't even know the name of their home town. They had been taught to fear and mistrust outsiders. Still, they felt they had to risk venturing out in the world to avoid the abuse at home, and – most importantly – to keep their little brother safe.
That night each of the older children packed a change of underwear and socks in a sack. Charlotte packed some clothes for little Jerry and stripped the blankets from both their beds. Then she stole some bread and a jar of jelly from the pantry. Before dawn, they roused Jerry, and the three of them sneaked off into the woods. They got far enough away from the house to feel safe until dawn, but not so far as to get too close to the river and risk falling in. There, they huddled against a tree until the sun came up.
The children stayed in the woods for fear their parents would come after them. (That didn't happen.) They walked a whole day in the woods, venturing near the highway only a couple of times in order to get water and allow Charlotte to use the bathroom at gas stations. The next morning they were out of food and it threatened to rain. They were near a town, so remote hiding places were becoming harder to find.
They came across a house with a detached garage, so they sneaked into the garage and hid just before the storm broke. To their delight they discovered the owners of the house had a spare refrigerator in the garage as well as a storage pantry filled with dry goods and canned food. The refrigerator contained such magnificent treats as soft drinks (the kids had heard their father talk about “pop” but they had never tasted it) and grapefruit. They loaded up on soda, grapefruit and canned peaches. Then, after the sugar high wore off, they all collapsed into an exhausted sleep, curled up in a heap like puppies, in the far corner of the garage.
That is how the woman who owned the home found them late in the afternoon, after the storm passed and she went to the garage to check for leaks.