"Remarkable debut novel about mother who must fight to defend her child after unexpected tragedy"
Reviewed by Patricia Woodside
Posted September 27, 2012
Christian | Inspirational Fiction Mystery
How far will a mother go to defend her child?
In MOTHER OF PEARL, school counselor Barrie Graeber enjoys a
close relationship with her daughter, Pearl. Pearl is a top
student, outgoing, a member of the school dance team and
respected by her peers. When Pearl is betrayed by her
closest friends, her behavior changes in ways her mother
doesn't foresee and the results are deadly.
Barrie Graeber finds herself enmeshed in a battle with her
workplace nemesis, the school's popular football coach, as
she fights for not only her daughter but for all the
vulnerable young women in the community.
Kellie Coates Gilbert has written a suspenseful novel that
brings the headlines of the day square into the reader's
lap. How should school faculty interact with students?
What should parents and a community tolerate and what should
they watch out for to protect their children? What happens
in educational environments in which athletics are valued at
It's difficult to say much without giving the story away.
This story doesn't so much have surprises as it draws out
the inevitable turning points. Gilbert keeps the reader
turning pages to find out how long it will take for a
certain event to come to pass, yet she perfectly paces the
story so that it never drags and moves straight ahead to its
satisfying climatic conclusion. Gilbert writes emotional
scenes filled with palpable anguish, anger and resolve.
Erin, her husband and children are relatable, but two of the
most memorable and impactful characters are the seemingly
perfect wife of husband Steve's business partner and Elaine,
MOTHER OF PEARL is a remarkable debut novel.
Barrie Graeber has two great kids, a loving husband, and a
respected job as a high school counselor in her close-knit
community. Without warning, everything unravels when her
teenage daughter, Pearl, is betrayed by friends and lashes
Nothing prepares this mother for the helplessness that
follows when her attempts to steer her daughter back on
course fail and Pearl shuts her out . . . or when she
discovers the unthinkable about her nemesis, the football
Emotionally riveting and profoundly moving, MOTHER OF PEARL
brings us into the heart of a mother bound by an incredible
burden, who ultimately finds she must recognize her own
vulnerability and learn to trust in something much bigger.
I freeze. Guess it was only a matter of time before
Coach Warren came gunning for me. I toss my coffee in the
sink, lis– tening while Bill Miller, the pudgy
biology teacher who always smells of formaldehyde, rats me
out. "Barrie? I just saw her heading for the teachers'
"Graeber," the coach barks as he storms through the
door– way. "What's the deal with you pulling Dennis
Cutler off the team right before our big game?"
Okay, here goes. I muster everything I've been taught
about effective communication and look Coach Warren
directly in those deep blue eyes. No way is he going to
bully me. "I did not pull the Cutler boy. I simply asked
Sharon to enforce what we all agreed upon last spring. His
academic improvement plan requires him to attend the
special tutoring sessions I put in place. As it stands now,
he's not going to pass his core subjects and graduate. I
already went to bat for him once, based on a promise he'd
work hard this year."
Coach Warren shakes his head. "But—"
"But nothing. Sleeping through his classes and
skipping tutoring sessions is not acceptable. I'm sorry, I
really am. But we both know if Dennis is not on target to
graduate, he's ineli– gible to play. Simple as that."
When I tell people I'm a school guidance counselor, they
think it means I spend hours helping students fill out
college application and FAFSA forms. And that's true. But
my job is so much more. I'm here to advocate for my
students, to look out for their best interests. Sometimes
that means protecting them from a coach who has yet to
understand that the one with the most trophies can still
wind up a loser.
Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against a good
foot– ball game. But why must education always take a
backseat to sports? Truth is, in this town football reigns.
Academics are often abandoned and left to drift to shore
while the ath– letic program leans back, clipping
along like a Kennedy on a sailboat.
Warren pulls his arms tighter across the chest of a
jacket that reads Sawtooth High Cougars. "So, let me get
this straight. You're going to let down a whole team, the
entire town of Falcon, Idaho, for that matter . . . what,
so you can make a point?"
I huff. "That is the point. When Dennis failed to do
his part and study, he's the one who let his team down."
I feel myself gaining emotional steam. "And what does it
say if we let Dennis flunk out? Will that prepare him for
his future?" Satisfied I'd made my point, I smugly climb
down from my imaginary soapbox.
Coach Warren unfolds his arms and leans forward. With a
lowered voice he speaks, pausing between each word for
emphasis. "I don't give a rat's tail about how nice little
future is. That's your job. Mine is to win football
Before I can respond, several teachers enter the
lounge. Coach Warren instantly plants a smile on his face
and works the room like a politician, assuring everyone
that, yes, indeed, the Cougars will put the Vikings back on
the bus after the game this afternoon with their heads
hanging low. He glances back at me. Those striking blue
eyes narrow to drive his point home.
Count on it, he says.
Nobody wants to admit this, but often adults don't
under– stand how hard life is for teenagers these
days. In this pressure–cooker life, young people need
someone they can trust, someone who will encourage them to
work hard so they can accomplish their dreams.
That's where I come in.
I head for my counseling office, a tight little room
lined with bookshelves filled with college catalogs and
FAFSA publications. Sliding into the chair behind my badly
marred walnut desk, I pull a scheduling book from the
drawer and assess what the rest of my morning holds.
A knock at the door alerts me to my first
appointment— Cade Walton, a kid whose single mom is
working two jobs so he can attend college next fall. I
motion him in and have him take a seat. Then, lifting his
file from the stack on my desk, I begin my work for the day.
By four o'clock, I've finished my student interviews
and move to grab my coat and gloves. Today is the only
afternoon football game of the season, and I'm anxious to
join the cheer– ing crowd I hear outside my window.
Moving quickly, I juggle my purse and coat while trying
to lock my office door.
I turn to find Emily Jorgensen, a rather
high–strung girl who comes from a family of known
"Hey, Emily. What can I do for you?" Emily bursts into
I muffle a sigh, unlock my door, and invite her into my
office. I hand the distraught girl a tissue, and she plops
down in the chair at the side of my desk, apparently
oblivious to the fact nearly every other student from
Sawtooth High School is currently out at the football field.
My eyes glance at the wall clock. Pearl's dance team is
per– forming during halftime, and I don't want to
miss seeing my daughter execute the moves she's been
practicing all week.
"Okay, sweetie, why the tears?"
"It's just that Mr. Baxter won't relent on my grade in
English comp, and if I don't score at least a
ninety–seven, my chance to get accepted to Harvard
will be ruined."
I lean closer, slightly amused at her melodrama but
silently wishing all students I counsel cared this much
about their aca– demic careers. "Emily, I know you
worry." I look her directly in the eye to make sure she
feels validated. "But, you are an excellent student. A
single grade on one paper this early in your senior year
won't affect your university plans. I promise. Besides, a
ninety–five is still impressive."
The plain–looking girl, who has yet to come out of
her shell and even wear makeup, looks unconvinced.
After sneaking another look at the clock, I opt for a
differ– ent approach. "But tell you what, I'll talk
to Mr. Baxter and see what extra credit opportunities he'll
be offering this semester." Mindful of the
no–touching rule imposed on educators these days, I
still stand and give her a brief hug, "In the meantime,
focus on doing your best. That's really all you can do."
The teary–eyed girl nods and moves for the
door. "Thanks, Mrs. Graeber. I really appreciate it." She
gives me a little wave as she leaves.
After cramming her file in my drawer, I gather my things
for a second time and head out to the big game.
Stepping into crisp fall air, I hurry past lines of
parked cars toward the sound of band drums and referee
whistles. Slowing, I flash my staff badge at the
tired–looking security guard at the gate before
continuing toward the stands. My eyes pan the crowd until I
finally locate Joe and Connie Anderson and my son, Aaron. I
wave and make my way up the bleachers.
"Where've you been?" Connie scoots over, making room for
I roll my eyes. "Don't ask."
Connie's expression turns sympathetic. "Well, we're
about to finish second quarter."
My son greets me without pulling his gaze from the
field. "Hey, Mom."
"Hi, sweetheart." Glancing around to see if I can spot
Pearl, I move to give my son a hug before I remember my
eleven– year–old hates any public display of
I turn to Connie's husband. "Hey there, Joe."
Joe Anderson is one of Steve's closest buddies. They go
way back, football teammates from when they attended
Sawtooth years ago.
No one loves football more than Joe. Despite his
respected position on the school board, he's been known to
yell like a banshee when the Cougars' score falls behind. I
dip my hand in his container of popcorn, painfully aware I
should never have skipped lunch today. "Where's Steve?"
Joe nervously scans the field. "No sign of him yet."
"I'm not surprised," I eye his popcorn but decide it'd
be rude to grab another handful. Instead, I check my phone
for messages. "My husband is always running late these
days. If he doesn't quit burning the candle at both ends,
he's going to wind up with a heart attack before he turns
The scoreboard at the south end of the field flashes
twenty– one to twenty. Too close for comfort. Barely
in our favor. Joe tells me we'd run the ball well so far,
but the Vikings' place– kicker had been hot. Now,
with just a minute left in the second quarter, they'd
punched up the grass into field goal range. Lowering my
gaze to the forty–yard line, I breeze past the action
to the sidelines.
"Oh look, there's Pearl." Beaming, I pull up my cell
phone and shoot a photo. I watch as she waves at number
thirty–two as he jogs back to the sidelines from the
line of scrimmage.
Pearl has been going out with Craig Ellison, the team's
quarterback, for a little over a year. Together, they look
like the Ken and Barbie dolls I played with growing up. At
times, I worry they might be getting a bit too close. She
has a whole lifetime ahead of her, and I certainly don't
want her duplicat– ing my mistakes.
I'd worry a lot more if she wasn't with a boy like
Craig. He's a polite kid from a good family. When Pearl was
in junior high, I cochaired a school carnival with his mom.
Back at the field's edge, Coach Warren and his assistant
huddle with the defense, barking out orders. With a slap on
the back of number forty–two, he launches the players
out on the field.
"C'mon! Hold the line!" Aaron screams.
I join the rest of the crowd already on their feet when
the Vikings' quarterback takes the snap and drops into the
pocket. He scans for an open receiver as he pats the ball
once. Twice. Then he whips the ball past his ear and a
perfect spiral soars forty yards into the straining hands
of the Vikings' tight end. He cradles the ball tight and
sprints for the goal line.
"STOP HIM!" the diminutive woman in front of us belches
out, causing more than a few of us to look at her in
The crowd across the field explodes into cheers. I snap
my head back to the action just in time to watch the Viking
receiver cross the goal line and slam the ball on the end
zone grass. A routine extra point a minute later cements
their lead at halftime.
Joe curses and I reach for my phone, thinking I'll
text Steve to see if he's going to make it in time for
Pearl's halftime show.
"Mom, can I have some money for popcorn?" Aaron holds
his hand outstretched.
"What happened to the twenty I gave you yesterday?"
He explains in detail, reminding me buying his vintage
Joe Namath card cleaned him out. I hand him my wallet. "Put
it back in my purse. And only take a twenty."
He follows my directions, then starts down the
bleachers. "And get me some," I add.
Connie gives me a nudge. "Barrie, the dance team's
taking the field. Hey, there's Pearl." She points.
I let my cell phone drop back into my purse and crane my
neck around the tall guy in front of me. Nobody gets
between me and the halftime show.
My daughter takes her place in the formation with the
rest of the group at the edge of the field. She's been
practicing for this routine every night this week, working
hard to master the complicated moves.
On the field, girls in gold–colored glittery tops
and short black skirts march in precision formations to the
Star Wars theme song. My daughter snaps her head left in
unison with twenty other girls from her spot, third from
When the dance team finishes their final number,
uni– formed band members follow the girls off the
field, playing the last strains of a snappy march. I am
applauding with the rest of the crowd, when Steve juggles
his way past the Andersons and moves in next to me on the
bleachers. "Sorry I'm late." He kisses my cheek. "What'd I
Joe shakes his head. "The Vikings just crept ahead. I
hate to say this, but I hope Coach cleans clock at
halftime. That Baker kid especially."
"Honey—" Connie looks at her husband with
disbelief. "How can you say that? You know Vince Baker's
mother is battling cancer. Cut the poor kid some slack."
Brushing his hand across his shaved head, Joe continues
looking out at the field. "Well, another wrong move and we
won't even have a chance at play–offs."
Connie rolls her eyes, leans over, and says in a low
swear, he'd sell his grandmother to win a football
game." Steve's eyes lock with mine, and we share a smile.
Aaron climbs back up in the stands, his hands juggling a
hot dog, two bags of popcorn, and cola. "Hey, Dad." He
hands one of the popcorns to me.
"Hi, Scoot." Steve ruffles our son's hair. A flicker of
guilt crosses my husband's face as he leans over to
me. "So, did I miss Pearl's halftime routine?"
"Afraid so, honey." I smile and offer him some
popcorn. "But don't worry, she'll understand. I almost
missed her rou– tine myself because of a meeting with
"I thought you didn't have any afternoon appointments?"
I lean toward him and lower my voice. "A student showed
up in tears."
Steve nods. "Ahh."
I stretch my hand out toward Aaron. "Hey, where's my
My son grins and juggles his drink while he reaches in
his back pocket. I relent and tell him he can keep the
money if he'll help me rake the leaves tomorrow. His face
Minutes later the players take the field, and the third
quar– ter begins.
A sense of palpable excitement throbs in the bleachers
as the Vikings kick off to the Cougars' line of receivers.
I find myself holding my breath as the Cutler kid lines
himself up with the soaring ball. Wait—?
I shade my eyes for a better look. "Steve, is that Dennis
Cutler out there?" "Yeah, why?"
A wave of frustration hits me like a tsunami. Looks like
Mr. GQ Coach got his way after all. No telling what strings
he'd pulled this time.
I shake my head. "Long story." Miffed, I tell myself
that Michael Warren may have won for now, but I'll make
sure this issue is revisited.
On the field, Dennis catches the ball and races down the
field, advancing thirty yards before a Viking slips past
one of our blockers and tackles him to the ground. Joe and
Steve high–five each other. The ref blows his
whistle, and Pearl's boyfriend, Craig, jogs out to the
field and gathers the team in a huddle. Seconds later, they
break and move to the line of scrimmage.
My attention diverts to our daughter, gathered with her
friends on the edge of the field. Her laughter fills my
heart with joy.
It's true. A mother loves all her children the same. But
I have to admit I feel especially connected to my
firstborn. Maybe because for the first four years of her
life, it was just the two of us.
Steve leans over and whispers in my ear—"Where're
you at?"—which is his way of telling me he notices
I've been deep in thought and not plugged in to the game. I
smile and weave my fingers in his, enjoying the feel of his
calloused palms against my own.
Just before the game ends, our receiver sprints into the
end zone. The extra point a minute later hands us our
Joe lets out a whoop followed by a rather colorful
expletive. Connie slaps his arm. "Watch it," she nods
toward Aaron. "We have young ears nearby."
"That Craig sure has an arm," Steve says, his face
beaming as if Pearl's boyfriend were his own son. And he
might as well be, for the amount of time he spends in our
After a few parents in the stands mutter, great game,
and knew Coach Warren would pull off another one, I gather
my things and trundle down the bleachers with the Andersons
and Steve. Aaron trails close behind.
We make our way out to the parking lot before Joe turns
to Steve. "The Kiwanis are holding a reception for the
coach Tuesday night. You guys going?" Holding my breath, I
wait for Steve's reply.
"Naw, can't. Got a meeting with my new business partner,
and it'll likely run into the evening."
At least I've been spared that misery. The last thing I
want to do is join a mob of Coach Warren worshipers.
We wave our good–byes to the Andersons, agreeing
to try to get together for dinner soon, when Pearl rushes
up, breath– less. "Hey, Mom. Craig isn't going to be
able to take me home. Something about a team meeting with
the coach. He said he'd pick me up later, so can I catch a
ride with you?" Without wait– ing for a reply, she
turns to Steve, looping her arm in his. "So Dad, what did
you think of my routine?"
Coming to Steve's rescue, I jump into the
conversation. "We're both very proud of how you did,
sweetie." Pearl grins and says she'll gather her things and
meet me at the car.
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