Excerpt from Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Queen of the Underworld

By Gail Godwin

Queen of the Underworld
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2006,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2007,
    368 pages.

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My first lesson in wines.

She told me she'd just completed a very successful recruiting tour and was heading for some R & R with a friend in Pensacola before reporting back to duty at Fort McClellan in Alabama.

"What do you do on a recruiting tour?"

"I show a film about the opportunities the Army offers to women today and then I have interviews the rest of the day. I'm very good at assessing character and signing up the best ones, but this time I broke my own record. Thirty-seven young women from fifteen states will be reporting for duty at Fort McClellan by the end of the month."

I might have been number thirty-eight, I thought, had I not had my hiring letter from the managing editor of the Miami Star tucked in my purse. But then, of course, I wouldn't have been on this train.

Major Marjac's character-assessing gaze gave me a stamp of approval. "You're fortunate, Emma, you started ahead of the game. But for many young women, we offer the only hope of independence."

Over wine and dinner she told me stuff about code breaking and weaponry, and about the physical ordeals the new recruits would undergo: gas chambers and such. I strained hard to retain everything in case I decided at some future point to write a story about a girl in her last year of high school, desperate to escape her circumstances: she passes this window with a sign, army recruiting women today, and inside is handsome Major Marjac with her welcoming smile.

When we said goodbye—she would be getting off at Jacksonville before dawn—the Major gave me her card.

"Slip this into your wallet, Emma. If things don't meet your expectations at the Star, drop me a line. With your college degree you could go straight into officers' training."

I asked the porter to make up my roomette for sleeping and was in bed before dark, swaying with the train's motion, mellow from Major Marjac's Côte du Rhône. When I was in my pajamas, I raised the shade again so I could get the maximum benefit from the experience, lying straight as a mummy in my little coffin-bed of rebirth, hurtling through one town after another where people steeped like old tea bags in their humdrum lives, speeding farther away by the minute from Earl-dom and all the other bottlenecks I had narrowly squeezed through.

It both gratified and goaded me that I had come across to an observant recruiter as one of those sleek, fortunate ones who "started ahead of the game." Wasn't that the image that I had cultivated? Yet, when so much lay hidden, I got no credit for my struggle, did I? When Major Marjac had proudly confided, "Weaponry is opening up to women in an unprecedented way," I couldn't help inventorying my own arsenal to date, the weapons best suited to my personality under duress: guile, subterfuge, goal-oriented politeness, teeth-gritting staying power, and the ability, when necessary, to shut down my heart. Forces had been mobilizing inside me for the past eleven years to do battle with anything or anybody who might try to usurp me for their own purposes again.

"Usurp" had become my adversarial verb of choice ever since I had seized upon it from a History of Tudor England course to trounce my archenemy, the dean of women, in my Daily Tar Heel column. ("With her latest Victorian edict, Dean Carmody has, quite simply, usurped the rights of every Carolina coed.") After that column, perfect strangers would call out familiarly as I crossed the campus: "Hey, Emma! Anybody been usurping you lately?" I delighted in the powers of the Fourth Estate. My twice-weekly column, "Carolina Carousel," carried a mug shot of me with flying hair, cagey side glance, and my best don't-mess-with-me smirk.

Excerpted from Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin Copyright © 2006 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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