Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena’s banker father has retreated into the bottle, her sister is married to a lazy charlatan and gambler, and Rena is an unemployed newspaper reporter. Eager for any writing job, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena.
As Frankie recounts her life as a slave, Rena is horrified to learn of all the older woman has endured—especially because Rena’s ancestors owned slaves. While Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions about slavery, it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. But will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?
WNYC Radio Studios
New York City
Tuesday, October 29, 1929
“Pandemonium has broken out in the streets of New York City. Angry crowds have gathered throughout the day, demanding answers from those inside the New York Stock Exchange. Down the street, National City Bank closed their doors early, setting off a riot. Police guarding the bank are heavily armed, prepared for the worst.
“The stock exchange is now closed. We should have the final numbers momentarily. In the meantime, there are reports that riots have begun at banks and savings and loans throughout the country. Customers want their money, and I cannot find fault in their wishes. It seems—what is that? Gunshots? We are hearing gunshots along Wall Street.
“My fellow Americans, I fear our day of reckoning is upon us. Despite President Hoover’s declaration last Friday assuring us the fundamental business of the country is on a sound and prosperous basis, today’s events say otherwise. We’ve watched too many men in powerful positions build empires without a proper financial foundation, relying too heavily upon credit and loans instead of solid investment. Greed and a lust for more weakened the economy irreversibly and brought us to this sad day. We can only pray the market will rally tomorrow, as it did Thursday, but the numbers will tell the tale.
“I’ve just been handed the official report.
“It is worse than we feared. While the tickers are still running, trying to catch up to the record-setting activity, I can now tell you over sixteen million shares traded today. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 230 dollars, down 23 percent from the opening bell.
“My fellow Americans, it is my grievous duty to inform you . . . the stock market has crashed.”
Tuesday, October 29, 1929
Eight hours earlier
I was convinced a more perfect day could not be found.
As I snuggled in my favorite chair on the front porch, the pink-and-purple sunrise unfurling in the Tennessee sky had me mesmerized. With a hint of woodsmoke in the crisp morning air and the trill of birds from high atop almost-bare trees, it was as though nature itself fancied to join in the celebration of my special day.
I scrawled the word at the top of a blank page in the leather-bound diary Grandma Lorena gave me last Christmas. The perfect gift for an aspiring writer, she’d declared. She was right, as usual. My last entry, a long diatribe bemoaning the loss of the election for class secretary to Sally Wortham, was barely legible, with teenage fury showing in every word. Who knew bribing voters with homemade taffy could be so successful?
With a neater hand, I continued my birthday musings.
I finally made it to that magical age—at least it seemed magical when Mary and her friends turned sixteen. Suddenly they were treated like adults and allowed pleasures I, two years younger, was not granted. Yet today I balance on the cusp of a new and far more interesting life than the one I’ve led thus far. The debutante ball next month will officially usher me into Nashville society, and though I care little for the art of gossip and those who participate in it, I plan to take my place among the city’s finest and enjoy every benefit the position offers.
I reread the entry and grinned.
So much happiness calls for a squeal of delight. Maybe even two.
I closed the small book with a satisfied thump, thinking of the day ahead. There would be no school for me. Mama let me skip so I could help her and Mary decorate the hall we’d rented for my party later this evening. A hundred or so guests were invited to celebrate my momentous achievement. With Daddy’s bank being one of the largest in the state, most of the people on the guest list were his loyal customers. Their wives were Mama’s friends, women who kept themselves occupied with clubs and charitable organizations that, to me, revolved around social standing rather than altruistic issues.
I stretched and padded into the house. Mama bustled about the kitchen cooking breakfast, hair perfectly coiffed, pearl necklace peeking out from the collar of her two-piece day outfit. A frilly polka-dot apron tied around her middle accentuated a slightly pudgy waistline, but I would never point that out to her.
“Where’s Dovie? She always makes her special pancakes on my birthday.” While it wasn’t unusual for Mama to get our breakfast on the weekends, Dovie, our housekeeper and cook, would normally be at the stove on a Tuesday morning, especially on this day.
A bowl of freshly washed blackberries sat on the counter. I popped one into my mouth before opening the new General Electric refrigerator that arrived last week. GE’s sales slogan, “It’s always summertime in your kitchen,” had struck fear in Mama regarding the safety of our food and resulted in a win for the advertising team as well as the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. True to their word, the glass container of orange juice was nice and cold and free of bacteria caused by the warmth of the kitchen.
Mama didn’t answer.
I turned to see if she’d heard my question and found a strange look on her face. “Mama? Where’s Dovie?”
She offered a tight smile. “I gave her the day off. I knew the house would be in a frenzy, what with your party and all the preparations. It seemed best not to have her underfoot.”
My mouth fell open.
Dovie had been our housekeeper since before I was born. She knew every inch of the house and handled Mama’s fetishes—a word I’d recently discovered and enjoyed using whenever I could—without blinking an eye. On a day as busy as this day promised to be, Dovie’s help couldn’t be more needed.
“When has she ever been underfoot? Besides, you know she and Gus need the money. I hope you’re at least paying her.”
Mama’s lips pinched, a sure sign I’d pushed the boundary. “Lorena Ann, just because you’re sixteen now does not mean you can tell your mother how to manage the servants.”
I gave a small shrug in apology. It didn’t make any difference to me if Dovie worked or not. A catering company was scheduled to provide food for the party and clean up the hall afterward. Tables and chairs were being set up this morning, and Mama, Mary, and I would go over after lunch to decorate with pink and white streamers, roses, carnations, and even balloons.
A glance out the window revealed an empty driveway where Daddy’s “money-green” 1929 Cadillac Town Sedan usually sat.
“Daddy was supposed to stay home today. We’re having lunch at the Maxwell House Hotel.” The childish petulance in my voice was a bad habit I’d need to abandon now that I was sixteen, but Daddy had promised to spend the day with the family.
“He had some pressing business to take care of. I’m sure he’ll have time to meet us later.”
She didn’t sound too convincing. We’d learned long ago the bank came first. Daddy would apologize and buy Mama or Mary and me presents to make up for disappointing us, but sometimes we just wanted him, not presents.
I popped another blackberry into my mouth, grimacing at its tartness. I imagined my face mirrored how I felt about Daddy’s absence at my birthday breakfast. I hoped whatever was so important at the bank wouldn’t spoil the plans we had for the rest of the day. He hadn’t come home yesterday until long after supper, and he’d immediately disappeared into the study. Mama said he was tired from a busy day and not to worry, but I couldn’t help it. Ever since we heard President Hoover on the radio last week, talking about something regarding the New York Stock Exchange, Daddy seemed agitated and distracted.
Mary entered the kitchen, yawning. “Morning. Happy birthday, Lulu.”
I chuckled. “Thanks, Sis.”
“Your sister is a young lady now, Mary,” Mama said, her mouth drawn in disapproval. “You named her Lulu when she was born because you couldn’t pronounce Lorena Ann. Perhaps it’s time to put away the childish nickname.”
Mary rolled her eyes once Mama turned her back. I covered my mouth to keep from laughing and carried my juice to the breakfast table. Had Mama forgotten most people, including herself, call me Rena? Especially when her mother, Grandma Lorena, and I were in the same room.
“What time are we going to the hall?” Mary poured herself a cup of coffee and joined me at the table. “Roy said he’d help with the decorations.”
It was my turn to roll my eyes. Roy Staton, son of Daddy’s most important business client, was as dull as they come in my opinion. With Mary in her first year at Ward-Belmont College, she had endless opportunities ahead of her. Why she’d agreed to date dull Roy was beyond me.
“We should be there by two.” Mama glanced at the wall clock. “We’ll need to finish with plenty of time to come home to bathe and dress. The guests arrive at seven.”
She set a bowl of lumpy-looking oatmeal and a plate of slightly burnt toast on the table. When she returned to the kitchen, I crinkled my nose. My taste buds were set for Dovie’s famous blueberry pancakes and crisp bacon, a tradition on my birthday as far back as I can remember.
Mama stopped to look out the window above the sink. She seemed preoccupied. Worried even. Which was unusual, because Mama rarely allowed herself the luxury of showing her true emotions. Sometimes I wondered what she really thought, like when Daddy embarrassed her after church last Sunday. A group of parishioners had gathered in the noon sunshine, discussing the building project that would provide more room for the growing congregation. Daddy bragged about how much money he’d donated in order to have the new education wing named Leland Hall. Mama’s face turned beet red, but she’d put on a smile and made a joke about Daddy buying his way into heaven.
“Roy said his friend Homer wants to call on you after the debutante ball.” Mary glanced at me for a response.
Mama brought over a platter of scrambled eggs that seemed the most edible out of all her efforts, then joined us at the table. “Homer? What’s his last name? Do I know his parents?”
I groaned. “It doesn’t matter. He could be a Rockefeller for all I care. I still wouldn’t go on a date with him.”
“You’re such a snob, Lulu.”
“What’s wrong with the boy?” Mama wanted to know.
“Nothing.” Mary and I spoke at the same time.
Mama’s brows rose in question as her blue eyes pinned me to the chair.
I lifted one shoulder. “I simply can’t see myself married to someone named Homer, so there’s no point giving him encouragement.”
Mary shook her head in disgust and dug into her meal. Mama studied me with more concentration than I felt I deserved, considering the topic of conversation. I was years away from settling down with a husband and family, so she should be relieved I wasn’t boy crazy like my sister.
“If I wasn’t dating Roy, I’d set my cap for Homer,” Mary said right on cue, as though Mama or I cared about her latest infatuation. “He’s handsome, smart, and comes from a very fine Memphis family. Roy says Homer’s mother is from old money.”
I gasped in mock interest. “Maybe they found buried treasure on the banks of the Mississippi left over from pirate days.”
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