There's nobody on this strip of mountain now but me and Ida, and my grandson, Will'm. While I love the boy more than life, Ida's a hold in another sock. She lives in the tar paper shack in back of our place, and in spite of this being the coldest winter recorded in Kentucky, she's standing out there now, wrapped in a blanket, quoting scripture and swearing like a lumberjack. Her white hair's ratted up like a wild woman's.
I'm Ida's child. That makes her my ma'am, and my pap was Tate Harker. I wish were here instead of buried by the outhouse. [pg 1]
Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall
Delta, 2008 (ARC)
Fiction; 319 pgs
I was not in the mood for Sweeping Up Glass when I began reading it. I had made a commitment though to read and review it. I am sure it sounded good to me when I checked the box at the BookBrowse website to be entered for a chance to review it, but once it arrived in the mail, I wondered what in the world I had been thinking. My extra-fabulous reading streak would surely be ruined now. Maybe that would be a good thing though, I told myself. People are beginning to think I not only like, but actually love just about everything I read.
Sweeping Up Glass is Carolyn Wall’s first novel. And let me just say now that it definitely did not ruin my love ‘em all reading streak. I loved it. Can I say that again, please? I loved it. So much for not being in the mood for it. Well, there you have it. End of review.
Okay, so not really. Despite my initial doubts, it was clear from the very first page that I was going to like this novel. Olivia Harker Cross has lived a lifetime in her nearly 42 years of life. It was not all bad at first. Although they were poor, which was true of most of the folk living in their Kentucky town, Olivia and her father ran the grocery store, living in the back. Olivia adored her father. He ran a little side business, mending and caring for injured animals. He did what he could for Olivia, making sure she did not do without. Olivia’s mother, Ida, during those early years was locked away in an asylum, having never been quite the same after giving birth to her daughter.
Olivia spent her days going to school and helping her father with the store, sometimes even helping him with the animals. Her best friend, Love Alice, a black girl just a few years older than herself, was married to Junk Hanley, a strong and decent man who often did work around the store for Olivia and her father. Junk’s family had taken Olivia in more than once, Junk’s mother being the mother Olivia never really had. This was during a time when the line between black and white was well drawn. Segregation was the norm: they shopped at the grocery store on different days from one another, attended different schools and churches, and the blacks had to enter through the back door rather than the front at the local restaurant. Color made no difference to Olivia, however. She knew who her friends were, and she loved them dearly.
When word came from the asylum that her mother was ready to come home, Olivia was devastated. Her mother had never taken kindly to her and Olivia knew it would not turn out well. She was right. Her mother treated her poorly, cruelly even. When Olivia got word of her father’s death, she blamed herself and her mother would not let her forget the part she played in it.
As time went on, Olivia found love and lost it, became a mother early on and struggled with raising a daughter. She did not hesitate to take in her grandson Will’m, when her daughter, Pauline left him on her doorstep. It was to that end that Olivia finds herself caring for her elderly mother, who has grown no nicer with age, and her young grandson, the only real joy in her life.
Will’m is so much like his great-grandfather, big heart and all. When the wolves on the family’s mountain are suddenly targeted by cold-blooded hunters, he begs his grandmother to try and save a litter of young pups. Olivia is angered that someone is trespassing on her land and killing off the wolves. She is determined to get to the bottom of it. What she finds is a town full of dark secrets, cover-ups and lies. And the closer she comes to the truth, the more danger she and Will’m are in.
Olivia Harker Cross’s life has made her tough and somewhat bitter. She has a softer side, which is most evident when she is around her grandson, Will’m. She is such a strong woman, so resilient, and yet still so full of doubt. Even though I may not have agreed with every choice she made, I never lost respect for her. She believes in standing up for what is right and is not afraid to speak her mind.
Olivia’s mother, Ida, is such an interesting character. She too has had a difficult life. She is much kinder to the men in her life (other than her husband) than she is to the women. She’s long been plagued with mental illness, but it is never clear what exactly that may be. One of the heart-wrenching moments in the book is when Olivia visits the state hospital her mother had spent much of Olivia's early childhood in. Even though Ida was terrible to Olivia, it was hard not to feel for her, having had to live in a place like that. For all intents and purposes, Ida seems to be a woman unhappy with her lot in life and so she takes it out on those closest to her. The relationship between Olivia and Ida is a complicated one.
Olivia has long harbored a hate in her heart for a mother she does not understand. All her life, even now, Olivia has wanted her mother to show some sign that she loves her. Her mother never has. The scars her mother has left on her run deep. They impact her relationship with her own daughter, who could not wait to escape. Olivia’s heart has been broken too many times, and love does not come easily for her. She guards her heart as those who love her know all too well.
Carolyn Wall’s novel begins in the future and quickly steps back into the past where the reader learns about Olivia’s childhood, setting the stage for the events to come. What begins as a quiet novel picks up intensity in the second half, particularly in the final 100 pages or so, as everything comes to a head (several soft expletives escaped me mouth, causing my husband to wonder if I was crazy). It almost seemed like two different novels in a way: the first half being more of a life story and the second being the suspense-filled mystery. And while I could fault another novel for this, I actually thought it worked quite well. The transition happened gradually and the story threads were interwoven from beginning to end.
The novel is set in the late 1930’s, at least in terms of the “current” story thread. The time period plays an especially important role in the novel. Life was hard all over the United States at that time and in the decades preceding it, people struggling to make ends meet. In Pope County Kentucky, where the novel is set, it was no different. Carolyn Wall captured the desperation of the times as well as the adaptability of the people. People bartered with food and services when they could not pay. Segregation was commonplace and racism ran rampant.
There is so much I want to say about this book and I haven't even come close to capturing all that I loved about it, but I’ve already said more than I probably should. This is one of those books that you have to read for yourself. Told in the voice of Olivia, the narrative is uncomplicated, her wry humor coming out now and then. The pages are filled with characters well worth getting to know, and Olivia’s story is one that will surely touch the reader’s heart. The secrets uncovered are chilling and the resolution is satisfying. The novel is as complex as Olivia Harker. Sweeping Up Glass is a love story, a mystery, and historical novel that touches on social issues that still reverberate today.
To think I had doubts about reading this book. That will show me, won’t it?
Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: ARC Challenge & New Authors Challenge