A grown woman named Sarah huddles in a dark closet. “It was then, she felt the entity quicken within her as it began gnawing away from the inside out. Her throat went dry as her breaths came in shallow gasps, and she heard a growling in her ears. By the time the rains fell, she had to close her eyes. Her world started tilting beneath her feet, and lying down on the floor in a hidden place was often the only way she could escape the horror.” Have we begun reading a Stephen King novel? 

No. We’re reading the dramatic, tragic and redemptive Shelter from the Storm (Taylor and Seale Publishing) by Dorothy Fletcher. With thematic elements of socially acceptable, even socially-endorsed, systemic racism impeding not only physical safety but personal relationships, this novel rings especially true as current society undergoes a racial reckoning. 

Slip back in time to August 25, 1956 in Jacksonville, FL, and alongside a nine-year-old version of Sarah. Her family includes herself, her parents and her two younger sisters; they have a Black maid with a granddaughter, Ruby, who will act as a substitute after her grandmother suffers a minor injury. The group drives over to Alabama to spend some time at a house on the beach, and even just during the car ride it’s clear that Sarah and Ruby are bonding fast and furious. When Ruby has to use a separate bathroom during a rest stop, the innocent, clear-eyed nine-year-old doesn’t get it. “That’s stupid,” says precocious Sarah, “why would anyone want to do that?”

THE ONSLAUGHT BEGINS

A similar situation arises when their lunch venue is “Whites Only,” and Sarah is once again confused, but all is glossed over when they arrive at the lovely beach. That is, until her cantankerous grandmother visits and voices some strong opinions on everything from Sarah’s posture to Ruby’s day off for church. Over the next few days, as long as grandmother is out of earshot, they all have a grand old time frolicking in the surf and even pulling out all the stops for a crab boil. Between adventures, Sarah happily learns more about, and learns more from, Ruby. “I bet you’d make a great nurse … you seem to make people feel good whenever you’re around,” Sarah shares with admiration, and the reader is inclined to agree. 

Then, they receive news that a major tropical storm is brewing. Things escalate quickly to the point where they consider evacuation. Tensions are brewing within the family and outside the house, a recipe for disaster, and the only silver lining seems to be the friendship between the two girls. This makes it all the more horrifying when, as the officers herd the frightened citizens onto buses for the inevitable evacuation, Ruby is made to wait for the “colored bus” and is separated from Sarah. Confusion doesn’t even begin to cover the anguish Sarah feels now. 

The point of view switches unexpectedly, but interestingly, to Ruby, waiting for the bus and struggling with the betrayal that just occurred. She prays and prays and expects death. Salvation comes instead, in the form of a man from her church … who tells her that there was no such thing as a “colored bus” and they were, basically, left for dead. They join other Black refugees. One of the women goes into labor, another has a different health crisis, and in both cases, Ruby lends her care and skills to help.

The storm passes but leaves disaster in its wake, enough to prevent Ruby from heading home immediately. She passes the time with a midwife, who after a week, rocks Ruby’s world with an extremely generous offer. Naturally, Ruby will have to work hard and struggle to make it all happen, but she agrees to seize the opportunity and take on the challenge. 

WORKING THROUGH TRAUMA

Fast forward and return to Sarah’s perspective as she, now 29, tearfully recounts her trauma-induced panic attacks. Her therapist claims Sarah’s quality of life will never improve until she uncovers the truth. How does she go about doing so, and is she brave enough to? What became of Ruby? Is there a reconciliation? I could spoil it all in this review but instead, I’ll leave the reader to find out for themselves. Rest assured, it’s an emotionally fraught journey. Fletcher plainly relays the way these events have shaken Sarah to her core and caused her to question ideas that seem utterly wrong, even when they stem from sources of authority. 

Shelter From the Storm proves poignant and affecting, at times heartwarming and at times heartwrenching. The racial divide threatens to swallow every good thing, but thankfully, love might be able to bridge the gap against all odds. It’s a story of hope and faith, resilience and loss, finding others and finding yourself. Reading the book does, indeed, provide a temporary shelter from the storms of life with its powerful promise of renewal.

Buy this book!

About Dorothy K. Fletcher:

In 2007, Dorothy K. Fletcher retired after 35 years of teaching English in Jacksonville, Florida, and she discovered life as a writer. With her poetry already appearing in 78 literary journals, magazines, and anthologies, and her articles appearing in national markets like the Christian Science Monitor, she became a monthly columnist for the Community Sun Section portion of the Florida Times-Union.

Dorothy has had 6 books published; The Week of Dream Horses (Green Tiger Press), a children’s book; The Cruelest Months (Xlibris), a novel based on her experiences in an inner-city school; Zen Fishing and Other Southern Pleasures (Ocean Publishing), a collection of poems and essays; Remembering Jacksonville: By the Wayside (History Press), a collection of her columns; Growing Up Jacksonville: A 50s and 60s River City Childhood (History Press); Lost Restaurants of Jacksonville (History Press). Her latest, Shelter from the Storm, is out now. Dorothy is a freelance writer. She and her husband Hardy love to travel, but much of their days are spent playing with their grandchildren who live nearby.