|Miss Julia Raises the Roof
Learning that a nosy local gossip has teamed up with a new pastor to set up a secret home for wayward teens in the lot beside Hazel Marie's home, Miss Julia is shocked to discover that the venture has a sinister underlying agenda with the power to permanently disrupt their quiet and peaceful community. By the best-selling author of Etta Mae's Worst Bad-Luck Day.
Ann B. Ross is the author of more than a dozen novels featuring the popular Southern heroine Miss Julia, as well as Etta Mae's Worst Bad-Luck Day, a novel about one of Abbotsville's other most outspoken residents: Etta Mae Wiggins. Ross holds a doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has taught literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. She lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina
If septuagenarian Miss Julia aged in real time since the first installment in Ross' best-selling series, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind (1999), she'd be practically a nonagenarian by now. In her nineteenth adventure, she faces down a challenge from do-gooder Madge Taylor, who, with the help of the new pastor, plans to set up a group home for at-risk teenage boys. All well and good, except that the plan flouts local zoning ordinances, and, what's worse, the house intended to shelter the boys will disrupt and degrade the neighborhood. In particular, it will disrupt the lives of Hazel Marie and the rest of Miss Julia's beloved surrogate family. As she works to overturn Madge's plans, Miss Julia finds herself straddling a fine line between NIMBY and Christian values. On another front, her inveterate meddling almost costs her a friend. Competitive party-giving and a Great Dane in need of a home add touches of humor. Readers familiar with Miss Julia's previous outings will feel right at home. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
Do-gooders who are smugly pleased with their newest plan roil the waters in a quiet Southern town.Miss Julia is feeling her age. With her husband, Sam, away in Europe, she's bored until her friend Hazel Marie calls in a state of shock because she's learned that someone's bought the house next door and plans to use it as a group home for troubled boys. The house, rather small and located in a historic residential neighborhood, is entirely unsuitable for that purpose, but Madge Taylor has influenced the new pastor and many members of the local church to help. Outraged that the whole plan has been conceived in secrecy for an area that isn't even zoned for such a project, Miss Julia decides to rally a few friends to stop it. As a woman who's done many good works in her life, she's furious to be verbally attacked as an un-Christian NIMBY Scrooge by newcomers who live in gated communities that forbid group homes. With the help of a few close friends and an excellent lawyer who help s her investigate, Miss Julia learns that the anonymous group that bought the house is using it as a wedge to lower the value of nearby houses they want to buy up at bargain prices. Realizing there's a lot more to this story than the sanctimonious drivel Madge Taylor's promoting, Miss Julia resolves to find the truth. The hunt for the troublemakers is surprisingly captivating for so slight a mystery. And of course fans of Ross' long-running series (Miss Julia Inherits a Mess, 2016, etc.) will be eager to learn the latest about many of their favorite characters. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
I'm getting old, and I don't much like it. On the other hand, as Lillian has reminded me, it could be worse. I pulled my sweater closer and smiled to myself as I thought of a bright spot-I certainly wasn't the only one suffering from sagging muscles and deep wrinkles and aching joints and poor eyesight and you-name-it. Everybody else I knew was getting old, too. Of course, some started later than others, so they're not yet getting that shock when they look in a mirror first thing in the morning. They think they'll look that way forever.
They'll change their tune, though, if they last long enough.
Now, why, you may ask, was I burdened with such dark, unedifying thoughts? Because, I answer, it behooves us all to stop and take stock on occasion, and that's what I was doing on a warm October day as I sat in a wicker rocking chair on my wisteria-covered front porch.
People used to sit on their porches after supper on pretty days, rocking and cooling off and speaking to neighbors as they walked by. But nobody walks anymore. They're either zipping past in air-conditioned cars or bent over the handlebars of bicycles-their spandex-covered backsides hiked above their heads-or gasping for air as they pound by on their LeBron James Nike running shoes. Oh, and, by the way, I happened to know that there wasn't a one of those runners who'd ever played a game of basketball in their lives.
Since no one was taking notice-too caught up in their own worlds-I was content to sit partially hidden by the vine that covered a third of my porch. Wisteria-even the slow-growing kind-offers protection from prying eyes only a few months of the year, and those months were about over, leaving mostly bare twisting stems that ran up to the roof and blocked the gutters.
I'd have to do something about that, but not today. Today was given over to taking stock and feeling sorry for myself. I'd get over it, but I've found that when you're in such a mood, it's better to go ahead and wallow in it, thereby getting it out of your system, than to let it simmer on for days.
Weeks, in fact, for some people, and for others, well, they seem to never get over it. Don't you just hate it when an old person gets crabbier and crabbier, and harder and harder to live with? They say that however you are when you're young, you get worse as you age. And I believe it. I've seen it happen time and again. But not in my household, thank the Lord.
Sam is as even tempered and easygoing as he ever was, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Every once in a while, especially when I'm in one of these moods, I wonder what Wesley Lloyd Springer, my late unlamented first husband, would've been like if the Lord hadn't taken pity on me and taken him to his reward years ago. Of course even if He hadn't, I wouldn't have been around to witness Wesley Lloyd's descent into ill-tempered dotage. I would've been long gone as soon as I learned what he'd been up to. There'd never been a divorce in my family, but there's always a first time and mine would've been it.
I rocked a little harder as I thought of all I would've missed if Wesley Lloyd had continued to live on, getting grouchier by the day. Lloyd, for one, his ill-begotten son, who is the sunshine of my life, and Sam, for another, who is more than I ever dreamed of or deserved in a husband. And I would've sorely missed Hazel Marie as well, even though some of my friends still wonder how I can bring myself to love her as I do. So she'd been my husband's kept woman-think of what despair she must've been in to have stooped that low.
I looked up to see Lillian at the screen door. "Oh, sorry, Lillian, I must've been daydreaming."
"You better come on in. It's gettin' a little chilly out here. An' supper be ready in a few minutes."
"Yes, all right. Thank you, Lillian. I'm coming."
With an extra push of my foot, I was able to spring from the rocker to my feet and follow her inside.
"Lillian," I said as we reached the kitchen, "I've got to stop letting my mind wander all over the place. I seem to be doing a lot of that here lately, and it's not healthy."
"What you need is something to do till Mr. Sam get back, so why don't you get busy and find it?"
"You're exactly right. I do need something to do. But, Lord, Lillian, I've lived so long that I think I've already done everything I possibly can."
"I don't wanta hear no more grumblin' 'bout how you gettin' old. Just be glad you're still gettin' there." Lillian poured a pot of beans into a bowl, steam rising about her head. "Think about that church 'cross the street. From what I hear it need all the help it can get."
That set me back on my heels. If Lillian had heard gossip about the First Presbyterian Church of Abbotsville, then how many others had heard the same? It was not like me to let things get so far out of hand that internal church business became the topic of conversation around town.
"It's certainly something to think about," I said, realizing all of a sudden that when you got right down to it, my probem wasn't age. It was boredom. And right then and there I determined that it was past time that I put my hand to the plow.
Before he'd left on that hazardous trip of his, Sam had made me promise to stay out of trouble. "Don't do anything foolish," was the way he'd put it, so it had been easy to give my word. I never did anything foolish-ill-advised, perhaps, but never anything out-and-out foolish.
Actually, a big part of my current discontent, which Lillian had heard me moan about time and time again, was the fact that Sam was off on that highly unnecessary trip, traipsing around Europe at the same time that gangs of terrorists were doing the same thing.
I was sick with worry, but nothing would do but that he had to go. He was determined to see the great cathedrals-the French Gothic ones being high on his list-just the sort of landmarks that would also draw the interest of madmen bent on wanton destruction. And Sam was in and out of every one of them.
"Julia," he'd said when he had first broached the subject, "honey, I am just fed up with the way the world is going. All our great accomplishments, which we love to boast about, boil down to little more than nuclear arsenals, satellites, cars, and more and more intricate and expensive devices-iPads, iPods, and iPhones that can be used to send pictures of naked people or to prey on children-what a legacy to leave! But that's what our society has seen fit to build, and every last one of them is made to wear out or be used up or upgraded and replaced. And to top it off, every Tom, Dick, and Harry can tweet, Twitter, or e-mail half-baked opinions about everything under the sun and be listened to."
Surprised by his strong feelings, I had sat quietly listening as he got it all off his chest, and he'd had plenty to get off.
"And, Julia," he'd gone on, "that's the sort of thing our generation and the ones coming after us are spending their lives doing-coming up with more and better ways to intrude on others or to get their names and faces on television-and half of them are high on legalized marijuana. I'm sick of it-I want to go see those grand, magnificent cathedrals that men spent their lives building-and not just their lives, but the lives of the following generations. Why, honey, some of those cathedrals took more than a hundred years to complete. And thousands of everyday men trudged to work every day to spend their entire lives working on something that they knew they'd never see finished. They did it not for their own glory or to put more money into corporate pockets, but for the glory of God, and, after centuries of wars, daily use, and weather of all kinds, those great monuments are still standing, still being used, and still awe inspiring.
"Think of the contrast," he'd said, waving his arms. "Those Apple people and others like them come up every year or two with a new phone, just so their last one-also introduced with great fanfare-will be obsolete. I want to go see something that was built to last-and see it before some hate-driven maniac attacks it."
I could understand that. My concern was that he'd be there when that hate-driven maniac decided to do it.
But off he went, and here I stayed. That wasn't unusual. He'd taken long trips before while I'd stayed home-we were doing exactly what each of us wanted to do, which is exactly what makes a good marriage.
"Lloyd here, Miss Julia." Lillian had glanced through the window and seen Lloyd crossing the yard to the back door. "Supper on the table in about two minutes."
Lloyd, now a sophomore in high school, was staying with me while Sam was gone. He spent most of the day in classrooms, and the rest of it in extracurricular activities, getting home around dinnertime to eat and do his homework. But just to have him in the house, even though we both were sleeping during most of his free time, was a comfort and a joy.
"Hey, Miss Julia," Lloyd said, unslinging his bulging backpack and dropping it to the floor. "Hey, Miss Lillian, I'm starving. Supper about ready?"
"More than about," Lillian said. "I'm puttin' it on the table right now."
"Lloyd," I said as we sat at the table and began to fill our plates, "do you think our society produces anything that will outlast us?"
"Huh?" The laden fork that was halfway to his mouth stopped short. "I mean, ma'am?"
"I'm talking about the big picture. What have we built or produced that will last for centuries? Like a cathedral, for instance. Is there anything we've done like that?"
"Oh, sure. Think of all of the discoveries. In medicine, in cyberspace, in transportation, and electricity, and so on. I mean, you can't go see them like you can a cathedral, but you sure can get the use out of them."
"Hmm. Then I guess that wouldn't have dissuaded Sam-even if I'd thought of it. Anyway," I went on, "how was school?"
"Pretty good. The Key Club met this afternoon, and we're trying to come up with a good fund-raiser. Probably end up doing a candy sale like last year and the year before.
"Oh, by the way," Lloyd said, as if it were a matter of little import, "I'll be going to school early a couple of mornings a week. Miss Turner asked me to help a freshman with algebra."
I looked up. "You mean, like tutoring?"
"Yes'm, I guess," he said, shrugging. "Just go over his homework with him and make sure he understands it."
I glowed with pride at my smart boy, but refrained from expressing it. "I'll make breakfast for you on those mornings."
"No'm, that's okay. All I want is cereal and peanut butter toast."
Lillian rolled her eyes, then said, "He growin' up, all right."
When Lillian left after supper to pick up Latisha, her great-granddaughter, from after-school care, I adjourned to the library while Lloyd went upstairs to do his homework. I kept his room exactly as he wanted it, even though he also had a room at his motherÕs house. Essentially, the boy had two homes: one with Hazel Marie and her husband, J. D. Pickens, PI, and the other with Sam and me. At one time I had wondered if such an arrangement would induce some sort of schizophrenic reaction in the boy, but Lloyd was as normal as you could want, in spite of how and by whom heÕd been conceived. And completely unspoiled, in spite of his half of the huge inheritance left to him by Wesley Lloyd Springer, his father and my first husband.
After locking the doors for the evening, I sat on my Chippendale sofa in the library, flipping through a magazine and finding nothing that was remotely readable. Sighing, I wondered what Sam was doing. Then, recalling the time difference, I thought that he was probably asleep, resting from a strenuous day and preparing for another just like it. I'd told him to be sure to take some Advil or a similar medication for the sore neck he would most certainly get from craning it all day long at those soaring ceilings.
When the phone rang, I quickly answered it, hoping for something, anything, that would lift me out of the doldrums from which I couldn't seem to free myself. Be careful what you hope for, you just might get it.
"Miss Julia?" Hazel Marie said. "I just learned something that's upset me so bad I can hardly stand it."
"What? What's going on, Hazel Marie?"
"Well, you know the Cochran house? The one right beside us?"
When Hazel Marie and Mr. Pickens married, they had bought Sam's lovely, old house. He no longer needed it, having found his permanent home with me. Located four blocks from us, Sam's house sat on a large lot that ran from Jackson Street on the front to McKinley Street on the back, taking up a third of the block. The smaller, much less grand Cochran house and one other, the even smaller Osborne house-both Craftsman bungalows in style-were situated on the remaining two-thirds that faced Jackson Street. Two other houses, facing McKinley Street, backed up to them, one owned by an elderly couple, the Pickerells, and the other by the Winsteads, who'd raised three well-mannered and accomplished children there.
All the houses on that block, as well as those on the surrounding blocks, had been built long before any town planner thought to protect the area. Zoning had come late, well after the town had grown up around the cluster of historic houses.
Sam's house, substantial but graceful in contrast to the Cochrans', had been well built and well maintained. So that was one thing I could point him to as having stood the test of time.
"Yes, of course I know the Cochran house," I responded to her question. "It's been empty for a good while, hasn't it?"