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It's 1963 and fourteen-year-old Esther Young is looking for excitement. Cursed with a lack of talent in a family filled with artistic types, Esther vows to get some attention by initiating a summer romance with a black teen accused of murdering a white man in Alabama. King-Roy Johnson shows up on Esther's doorstep that summer, an angry young man who feels betrayed by the nonviolent teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. Sent north by his mother to escape a lynch mob, he meets a follower of Malcolm X's who uses radical teachings about black revolution to fuel King-Roy's anger and frustration. But with each other's help, both Esther and King-Roy learn the true nature of integrity and find the power to stand up for what is right and true. National Book Award-winning author Han Nolan brings readers a bold new voice--by turns funny and poignant, innocent and worldly--in this powerful coming-of-age story set during the turbulent struggle for civil rights.
Last summer a murderer came to live with us. Well, that’s what I had called him. Our neighbor Pip and my Auntie Pie called him the cold-blooded killer, but my mother and father said he was just a victim of prejudice and circumstance. King-Roy Johnson, a black boy just 18 years old, was accused of killing a white man down in Alabama. Before anyone could catch him, though, this King-Roy escaped up here to New York, and, with instructions from his mother, who was once best friends with my mother, ended up at our house in Westchester County.
He arrived on a Friday, a day later than we had expected him. He came while my mother was still in the city, at the theater with my brother and sister, who were auditioning for a Broadway musical, and while my father, a director, was at another theater with one of our houseguests, Monsieur Vichy, the snooty avant-garde playwright who hated me most particularly. Our other houseguest, Beatrice Bonham, the actress, was sleeping off a doozy of a hangover after giving her final performance ofJubilatin’!,a really, really terrible play, and one that I had to sit through five deadly long times.
Friday was also the day that Auntie Pie, Pip, and I were out scooping up dead squirrels off the road for a couple of injured hawks Auntie Pie had rescued. My mother always disapproved of these outings, saying to Auntie Pie and me more than once, “Do you want the people in this town to think you’re crazy? Do you want them to think we’re all hillbillies; that we eat those disgusting things?” Which is why we only went out when my mother was away and couldn’t lecture us.
We drove the old 1947 Ford Super Deluxe station wagon, another reason why we snuck out when my mother wasn’t looking. The wagon was my father’s old car, and he treasured it because he had purchased it with the money he made from his first hit play, but Mother believed we looked like beach bums in that car. “It’s unseemly for us to be seen riding around in that broken-down bus,” she told me once. “I wish your father would burn that thing!”
Broken-down bus was right. The car only ran backward and the passenger door swung open whenever it made a sharp turn, forcing the person inside to hold on to the open glove compartment for dear life. It was the only car Auntie Pie could drive without having to worry about causing too much damage, though, so off we went, traveling backward down the street, past the many stately homes on either side of us, barely missing hitting drivers in their shiny new station wagons and sedans heading in what most people would call therightdirection, as we kept a lookout for dead animals.
We were in the early days of our summer vacation, and I felt in great need of a new adventure. I looked at the two dead squirrels in the box that sat between Pip and me; looked at same-old Pip-squeak, the boy who lived across the street and was in my class at school, which made him a year younger than I was because I had stayed back a year; looked at Auntie Pie, sweating and twisted around in the driver’s seat trying to drive in a straight line even though she was legally blind and wore eyeglasses three inches thick, and I thought,This is not the adventure I’m wanting to have.
Every summer of my life had been the same, whether we vacationed in Europe or at home. In Europe everybody in the family got to go on sightseeing trips and have adventures while I stayed in the rental apartment and got tutored so I would be sure to pass all my subjects the following year. If we stayed home during the summers, my younger sister and brother acted in plays or in television commercials or went to a smarty camp while I got tutored so I would be sure to pass all my subjects the following year. Ever since I had stayed back in third grade, Mother had demanded this extra insurance that my summer tutoring provided her, but for me it only made my school year long and boring since I had already galloped through the same subjects the summer before. The only difference for me between a summer in Europe and a summer at home was that at home I had Pip.
Pip thought he was in love with me. He has been in love with me, he said, since he was four and I was five and his mother put us in the bathtub together to bathe us after an exciting morning creating mud pies and throwing them at each other. He told everyone at school that we’ve bathed together, which is one of the many, many reasons I wasnotin love with him.
That hot, fifth day of July in 1963, sitting in the backseat of the 1947 Ford Super Deluxe station wagon with all but one of the windows stuck shut, in the first summer vacation in forever that I didn’t have to be tutored, I decided that this would be the summer of a new me, a more mature me, a more mysterious and exotic me, and I determined that our new houseguest, the murderer, was to play a starring role in my new life. So, when Auntie Pie backed into a spot on the side of the road somewhat near where yet another squirrel had been run down, and Pip and I climbed out of the steamy car to go collect it, walking along the road all the local college students used whenever they walked to town, I told Pip about my plan.
“This murderer, this King-Roy Johnson, he’s only 18 years old,” I began.
“Yeah, I know. So?” Pip said.
I swept my damp bangs out of my eyes and said, “So, he’s just four years older than I am.”
“Well, bully for him. So what?” Pip looked irritated. His dark brows bunched together and he clenched his jaw so hard I could see the muscle popping in and out on the side of his face. Anytime that morning that I brought up the subject of the murderer, Pip made the same face.
“My mother and father are four years apart, too,” I said. “Mother says a four-year age difference in a couple is just right since men mature a lot slower than women.”
Pip swiped the sweat off his forehead like he was trying to mash an insect and fling it, then said, “What are you getting at, Esther? You think you and this cold-blooded killer are going to become a couple? He’s a Negroanda cold-blooded killer. Are you crazy?”
Pip looked stunned by the idea of it all. His small face and big ears always reminded me of a koala bear, and right then, with his deep-set dark eyes blinking behind his glasses and his mouth open, he looked like a koala bear that had just fallen out of its tree.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. He sounds exciting to me, and exotic. Don’t you think?” I loved using the wordexotic.I felt exotic just saying it.
A couple of college girls with perfectly flipped hairdos, looking fresh in their brightly colored sundresses, walked by, and Pip waited a few seconds to let them get out of hearing range, then said, “You think you’re going to fall in love with him? With a killer? You can’t plan love. It’s not a road trip, you know.”
We had reached the spot where the squirrel lay flattened and dry upon the side of the road. I heard one of the girls who had passed us, say, “Oh, cool, look,” and I knew she had noticed our car. All the college kids loved the 1947 wagon, and over the years several of them had offered to buy the car from my father, but my father always said no. I smiled to myself when I heard the girls behind us strike up a conversation with Auntie Pie.
I wiped the sweat from under my eyes and watched Pip pull a trowel out of the back pocket of his baggy African safari shorts and stoop down to pick up the squirrel. Then, with the dead squirrel lying on the trowel held out in front of him, he looked up at me through his heavy-framed glasses and said, “Love is an affair of the heart, Esther.” He put his free hand, the one without the garden trowel in it, up to his heart and said, “Love is a tender thing, not a game, not a toy.”
I held out the squirrel box and sang “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” in my most dramatic voice, and Pip stood up and dumped the squirrel in the box with a thud, then marched off toward the car without saying anything.
I ran after him. “What? I was just kidding.”
Pip stopped and turned around. He was only four feet ten inches tall, although he claimed he’d grown two more inches; but even so, that still made him four inches shorter than I was, and standing as close as we were, he had to look up at me, which he always hated doing. He backed up a little and said, “You were kidding about going after that . . . that killer?”
“No. I was kidding with the song. I’m serious about the murderer. I’m already partly in love with him, anyway.”
Pip ran his fingers through his hair, pushing his short bangs off his forehead so they stood straight up, and said, “Esther, you haven’t even met him.”
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