After boll weevils devastate the Southern cotton crops in the early 1920s, three diverse Branchville, South Carolina women will do whatever it takes to keep their families safe. In her debut novel Call Your Daughter Home (Park Row Books), Deb Spera plunges readers into life in a small Southern town adept at burying its secrets.
As a young teen, Gertrude (Gertie) Pardee was married off to a man she didn’t know. Now, after having four daughters, her family starves in the South Carolina swampland while her husband Alvin drinks himself unconscious, only to spend his time at home whaling on Gertrude’s face. Her mother had told her long ago that a woman could either make or ruin a man, so she guessed she’d failed. For her girls, she would suffer through his abuse if he would just put food on the table. But he won’t. She vows to save their family herself, even if it means risking her soul. Goodness doesn’t matter when you’ve got babies to feed.
Spiritually gifted Oretta (Retta) Bootles has worked on the Coles’ family plantation for as long as she can remember. The Coles had owned her family before slaves were freed; the only life she’s ever known has been cooking and cleaning on the plantation. Times are certainly different in 1924, but there is still a fragile balance between those who work on the plantation and those who own it. The master of the house, Edwin Coles, lets no one forget their place.
Annie Coles is the elderly matriarch of the plantation and owner of the Sewing Circle, a business she’s built by employing local women in need of jobs. Although her sons still live near, she hasn’t seen her daughters for almost fifteen years. They refuse to give their father the respect he deserves, and the girls blame their parents for their brother Buck’s suicide when he was only twelve years old. “In one small hour of one insignificant day,” Buck’s death changed Annie’s life forever. She would give anything to make her family whole again.
When Gertie’s youngest daughter, Mary, gets sick and almost dies from starvation, she begs Retta to help heal Mary while she moves her family from the swamp into the house of Retta’s deceased friend, Ms. Walker. The lines between color blur as Retta and her husband Odell work to save the starving girl. The people in her Shake Rag neighborhood think she’s crazy and worry for Retta’s soul.
As the novel progresses, these fierce women realize they have more in common than they could have imagined. After all, everyone is born the same and everyone dies the same. Each will do anything to keep her family safe. When the women discover a lifelong Coles’ family secret, Gertie, Retta, and Annie will risk everything to protect their children and exact justice.
Written in the first person, the narrative alternates between Gertie, Retta, and Annie. The voice of each woman expertly portrays her hopes, fears, and inner demons, while immersing readers into their homes and families. The beautifully written verse is literary in style while keeping true to the perspective of each heroine.
Not only is this a book about the South’s desperation after the scourge on the cotton crops but a testament to the insignificance of our differences compared to all we have in common: dreams of prosperity, hope for a better future, the need to keep our children safe, and the longing for justice. Lovers of historical fiction and gritty female characters will experience both the desperation and strength of these women as they struggle to survive and fight to change long-surviving wrongs.
Call Your Daughter Home is available now for pre-order, it will go on sale June 11.
About Deb Spera
Deborah Spera is a two-time nominee and finalist for the Kirkwood literary prize as well as The Montana Prize in Fiction. She has been published in Sixfold, The Wascana Review, Pennsylvania English and L.A. Yoga Journal. She’s the co-author of a play produced by Actors Theater of Louisville and has held residency at Hedgebrook, a writer’s retreat for women.
Born and raised in Kentucky, she now resides in Los Angeles where she owns her own television company, One-Two Punch Productions. She has executive produced Criminal Minds, Army Wives and Reaper.