Both of my novels have male protagonists who struggle to overcome serious hardships, but they are not my favorite characters.
My favorites are two female characters, and both of them are children of about nine or ten years of age. I modelled both of these characters after a family member, my cousin’s daughter, who I met years ago during my trip to Chile. At that age, largely because of the role model set by her passionate mother, my cousin Carola, Amelia stood out shiningly as more intelligent, independent, courageous, creative and energetic than most kids (although my own son now at the same age seems similar to me).
More strikingly, she saw right through a lot of the bullshit the adult world threw at her and was absolutely fearless about throwing it back in the faces of those adults who promoted said bullshit. She could out-think most grownups and resisted following rules that made no sense to her.
She has grown up to be a wonderfully healthy and vibrant young woman who will certainly succeed in anything she attempts. With her independence, fearlessness, and keen sense of justice, she strikes me as a perfect model for today’s young women. And a perfect antidote for the poison of Trumpism.
In commemoration of International Woman’s Day, I’m posting two short passages from my novels featuring the two female characters inspired by mi prima Amelia.
The first character is Daisy Green, the nine-year-old sister of protagonist Adam Green in my novel The Language of Bears. Daisy is a pint-sized human cyclone who frequently needs to patiently explain basic facts to the adults around her who are too obtuse to understand things. She lives in a mysterious land resembling Puritan New England, but which features odd adornments, such as giant apples and a “forbidden” forest populated by monstrous, man-eating bears.
In the scene below, Daisy is bullied by some boys in school after Adam sees a mysterious box (a TV) in the woods, is accused of witchcraft and attacked in the town by his ex-friend George Broke.
She makes them regret their bullying and later, when called to task by the schoolteacher for being “unlady-like,” issues a memorable rebuke.
The second character is Jophia Williams, a ten-year-old girl who has been taken hostage, along with other African-American children, by a group of racists trying to experimentally “bring back slavery.” Jophia has inherited her fiercely independent spirit and sensitivity to injustice from her father, who was imprisoned for decades for a crime he didn’t commit. In the scene below, Jophia has learned her captors intend to kill all the children and launches a scheme to rescue them. (warning: racist language)
The community Meeting House served as a church on Sundays and as a school during the week. The children sat on the church benches with scratchboards and lunchbuckets and Miss Dorothy taught them how to add and subtract, and to read and write. These skills were of little use to farming, and the high attendance at the school was a mark of the importance of formal education to Arcadians.
Dorothy Rivers had taken over the job of schoolteacher after the tragedy of Mary Lena and the talking mice. The former teacher, who was reduced to a gibbering wreck by the incident, was eventually forced to move to a lonely cabin high up the southeastern slopes, where the elevation was inhospitable to mice. She survived on food provided by the citizenry and delivered each week by Little Victor, who reported the crazy lady must still be alive because the food he left at the front door of her ramshackle cabin always disappeared.
Walter and Richard stopped in front of the meetinghouse. Daisy leapt from the back of the wagon. “Don’t forget your lunch, Sprout,” Walter said. He handed her down a pail, covered with a piece of cloth. She ran back and snatched the pail from him.
Daisy found Hildegard in the crowd of children scampering around the front of the meetinghouse. They joined a group of girls they hadn’t seen since before summer. On the ground, they crouched around a book one of the girls had made between whose pages she’d dried the petals of pretty flowers.
Some boys came bounding around the building. A big farmboy, his head shaved to burn off ticks, spotted Daisy Green. He elbowed a lanky boy in overalls and said something in his ear. Grinning, they approached the girls. The one with the shaved head called out, “Hey! Ain’t that Daisy Green? Hey, Daisy, how’s your crazy brother?”
The bald one was Fred Fodder, one of Gus Fodder’s sons, and the one in overalls was Bobby Dunkel. Bobby’s father, Bile Dunkel, and Fred’s father were now workers at the Broke ranch. Seven years before, they had been trappers and skinners. The boys could remember helping their fathers slice open and gut captured animals, and at their encampments helping their mothers wash and hang the pelts on tree branches.
In the nastiest tone possible, Fodder said, “Your brother talking to any more heads lately?” He made a fist and moved his thumb and forefinger so they looked like a mouth.
“Adaaaam! Where are my legs? Woooooo!”
Daisy looked up from the book. Other boys were gathering.
Fodder said, “George Broke beat up your girl brother with one punch. Adam was crying before he even hit the ground. Like a bugger boy.”
He made a fist and pretended to punch himself. He fanned the air ineffectually and fell to the ground.
Laughter erupted from the boys.
Fodder said, “you get one crazy bugger boy in a family, then’s time to get out rat poison, ‘cause you got a whole crazy family. That shit’s in the blood.”
Daisy continued to look up at the boys, her expression unreadable.
“Maybe we should call you crazy Daisy from now on.”
This produced an uproar of laughter from the boys. Some of them toppled over, whooping and slapping their knees.
“How ‘bout some poison for you and your faggot brother, crazy Daisy?”
Daisy leaped on him so fast that Fodder fell shrieking before anyone could register what was happening. The children encircled the fighters in a writhing, squealing mass. Miss Rivers soon appeared, hollering at them to stop.
After she pulled the other children away, she found Daisy sitting on Fodder’s chest, pounding his face with both fists. Tears streaked his cheeks. Blood was flowing from his nose.
Miss Rivers lifted the girl into the air, spun her around and plopped her on the ground. Daisy leapt past her and jumped on Fodder again. She opened her mouth wide and chomped on his hand. He brayed. It took almost a minute to disengage Daisy’s mouth from his arm and another to get her to stop trying to attack him.
After determining that Freddy wasn’t going to bleed to death, Dorothy got the class settled into the meetinghouse and ordered Freddy and Daisy to sit on opposite sides of the room.
After school, Dorothy called the two combatants to her desk. “Daisy, are you ready to apologize to Freddy?”
Daisy shook her head. Dorothy ordered her to stay after school. She made the girl write, “It is a sin to strike or bite people” a hundred times on the blackboard.
“Now, are you sorry for what you did?”
“Child, why not?”
“Ain’t nobody gets away with saying like he done about my family. He talks like that again, he’ll get it again, like this.” Daisy chomped the air.
“Daisy, you need to start acting like a lady. Women need to be gentle.”
Daisy considered this. “Why?”
“Because God has bestowed upon women the qualities of gentleness and nurturing. It is unseemly for a girl to fight.”
“If fighting’s unseemly for a girl, what’s seemly?”
Dorothy smiled. “Why, to serve men, of course. To use our gentleness to nurture men. To feed them and clothe them and maintain a healthful home for the raising of children. To make men feel strong when they serve their natural role of fighting against challenges nature offers.”
Daisy frowned, pondering the words Miss Dorothy had spoken. At length, she said, “Reckon I’ll act like a gentle woman,” she said, “when that Fodder fuck acts like a gentle man.”
Without asking permission, Daisy stomped to the door of the meetinghouse, where she collided with her mother. Tired of waiting for Daisy to come home, Henrietta had come to fetch her.
Excerpt from The Language of Bears (Chapter 25)
Jophia managed to push the bracket into place in the nick of time. Lennon lifted the lid and looked down at her.
“You can come out now, girl.”
Lennon was alone. He held out his hand and after a moment’s hesitation she took it and he pulled her to her feet. “Can you walk?” he asked. She nodded.
As they made their way back to the horse barn, she asked, “Where is Master Gus?”
“He had to do some business down the hill with Master Gunnar. He won’t be back for a couple of days.”
“I hope my mistake didn’t make Master Lennon angry at Master Gus.”
“Don’t you worry yourself about that. Just be more careful about them eggs.”
“Yes, Master. I’m sorry.”
He smiled down on her. “If I let you go wash up now and use the privy while I get the others, you ain’t going to run off, are you?”
“No, Master Lennon.”
She went to the toilet and washed herself at the pump and continued to think about what she would do. By the time she finished, she’d made a decision. Gus would be gone tonight. That gave her the best chance she’d ever have. She would wait until later that day and do something to get herself thrown in the oven again. She could probably dig herself out from the box early enough to have a long head start, maybe five or six hours. Probably a lot longer than Peter had when he ran off. She hated to leave the other kids behind, but she needed to find help before they were all killed.
Lennon brought the children out as she finished at the pump. She stood to one side and waited for them to wash up, then they all set out for the first chicken house. They worked through the day in silence and finished the third chicken house at close to dinner time. To get herself put in the oven again, Jophia planned to do something to disrupt Mistress Jinny’s “lesson.”
As the children started to walk to the big house, a silver pickup truck came roaring into the clearing so fast the kids had to jump out of its way to avoid getting hit. Gus was driving. Before he’d even stopped he was hollering out the window at Lennon, “we got trouble.”
Gus jumped out and ran to his brother and said something Jophia couldn’t hear. Lennon said to the kids sharply, “You all wait here. Don’t you dare move a muscle.” The men went in the house. Jophia could hear a lot of shouting back and forth between the two brothers and Mistress Jinny, but couldn’t make out what they said.
Gus then came out and pointed his shotgun at the children.
Oh no oh no they’re really going to do it.
Jophia glanced around desperately for a rock, a stick, anything to fight with, but there was nothing. Lennon came out behind Gus and stopped at the porch, where he paced back and forth while talking on his phone to someone. He hung up and said to Gus, “Gunnar said we need to lock all the kids in the barn right now.”
“Yep. Forget dinner and school. Just lock them in there and get in the house.”
“Okay, you heard what he said,” shouted Gus. “You niggers get in the barn, now!”
The kids started walking quickly back toward the barn. But one kid didn’t move.
“Jophia, what the hell you doing?” demanded Gus.
“Why do we need to go in the barn?”
“You don’t ask questions. You do what you’re told.”
“But why? What happened?”
“You go to that barn, or I swear…”
“You swear what, Master Gus? You going to shoot me?”
Jophia folded her arms across her chest and stared him straight in the eye. “I’m not a nigger. I’m a ten-year-old girl. You’re the nigger.”
Gus’s jaw dropped open. “What did you say?”
“You heard me. You fat, bald, white nigger.”
Gus, his features twisted and his face bright red, seemed to hover in mid-air for several seconds. Then he threw his gun to the ground and ran roaring at Jophia. No words, just raw bellowing rage, like a gorilla charging.
Jophia leapt to one side just as Gus tried to dive on top of her. He landed with a painful thud on the hard ground. He made an oof sound when the air got knocked out of him. He was such a comic sight, with his face to the ground and his jeans falling down, that she almost laughed. She drew up her foot and kicked him on the ass.
An iron hand gripped her arm. Lennon towered over her. “Oven.”
Jophia didn’t resist as he pulled her to the metal box. She even climbed in obediently and lay on her side, like she was going to bed.
Lennon looked down at her with a look more amazed than angry. “Are you crazy, girl? Gunnar might never let you come out of here again.” He slammed the lid closed.
Her whole body was shaking. From outside the box, she could hear shouted orders, Gus’s voice croaking furiously at the others to get in the horse barn. Then she heard the barn doors slide shut and Lennon and Gus in a muffled, heated discussion as they walked quickly back to the big house. As soon as the sound of their footsteps disappeared, she tore off the bracket and started to dig frantically into the clay.
Suddenly she heard the door to the big house open. She quickly shoved the bracket back into its place and listened. The sound of a vehicle door opening and closing, then the engine of the SUV revving. The big black vehicle rumbled past and down the forest road. After waiting a while and hearing nothing more, she began to dig again.
Making a hole big enough to escape took longer than she thought. It was well past sundown before she could squeeze her head and shoulders outside. She lay still for a minute, enjoying the glorious night air against her face and listening for any sounds of the house’s occupants, then pushed her way out of the hole. Lying flat on her stomach she peered up at the house. All the windows were dark. She gathered her courage, stood up and ran for the road. She was lightheaded with panic over the scraping sounds her feet made in the dirt. She hit the road and started running at full speed away from the farm.
All at once the sound of an engine broke the stillness of night. Jophia jumped into a stand of trees on the right side of the road just as the headlights of the black SUV exploded over the rise to the clearing. The SUV roared past, leaving a cloud of dust. Jophia stared out from the trees.
From behind her, a hand shot out and covered her mouth.
A man whispered into her ear, “don’t scream.”
Excerpt from The Rabbit Skinners (Chapter 39)
“Witty, serious, and original, this stunning tale should attract anyone who delights in an intellectually stimulating read.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Part of what makes The Rabbit Skinners more than a one-dimensional mystery surrounding a kidnapped child is that John Eidswick takes the time to explore small town relationships, from infidelity and dubious friendships to the social and political connections that make or break a small town’s people. The Rabbit Skinners embraces themes of good and evil, courage and fear, prejudice and love, and an unexpected touch of romance. Mystery readers will find it a compelling read from beginning to end.” -D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review