Rachel was surprised at how heavy it was, and entranced by its odd appearance. "What is it?" she asked.
Her father scolded, "But you're not done opening the present!" He pointed at the egg. "Hold the bottom with one hand, the head with the other. Then pull."
Rachel did as she was toldthen jumped as the egg popped apart, and a second egg fell out! This smaller one resembled a man with a painted-on farmer's outfit; but when Rachel began examining it her father wagged a finger: "Still not finished!" Rachel pulled apart the second doll to discover yet a third one, a young girl-egg this time.
Everyone laughed at the expression on Rachel's face as she kept finding littler and littler dolls growing younger and younger, seven in allthe last an infant in painted-on swaddling, made of solid wood.
"They call 'em matryoshka," Papa explained. "Nesting dolls. From Russia."
"But you said they were from Japan."
"I got 'em in Japan. Japan's next door to Russia. You like?"
Rachel beamed. "They're beautiful, Papa."
That night Rachel carefully weighed where to place the nesting dolls on the coffee-crate shelf that held the rest of her collection. Farthest to the left was the cherry doll, a beautiful Kabuki dancer in a green silk kimono, holding a tiny fan. Next to her were the Chinese Mission dolls: a yellow-skinned amah, or nurse, carrying a little yellow baby on her back. And lastly, the rag doll from America, a cuddly infant with a sweet moonlike face, which Rachel sometimes took to bed with her. She remembered then what Papa had said about Japan being "next door" to Russia and she placed the matryoshka beside the Japanese cherry doll, then stepped back to admire her collection.
Behind her, she heard a familiar voice. "She fits right in, eh?"
Rachel turned. Papa was standing in the doorway. "Your Mama says you got to say your prayers and get your sneaky little hide into bed."
"Sarah's not in bed yet."
"She will be after her bath."
"Will you sing me a song first?" This, too, was old custom between them.
Papa smiled. "Prayers first."
Rachel hurried through her evening prayer, then eagerly jumped into bed. Papa closed the bedroom door, pulled up a chair beside her, and sat. "So, which one you want to hear?"
Rachel thought for a moment, then announced, " 'Whiskey Johnnie.' "
Her father glanced furtively toward the closed door, then back to Rachel. "How 'bout 'Blow the Man Down'?"
" 'Whiskey Johnnie'!" Rachel insisted.
Papa sighed in surrender. He leaned forward in his chair and in a deliberately low voice began to sing:
"Oh whiskey is the life of man
A Whiskey for my Johnnie.
Oh I'll drink whiskey whenever I can
Bad whiskey gets me in the can"
"A Whiskey for my Johnnie!" Rachel joined in. Together they sang two more stanzas, until Rachel burst out giggling and Papa, also laughing, patted her on the hand. "That's my chantey girl," he said with a grin. He kissed her on the forehead. "Now go to sleep."
Rachel's eyes drooped closed. Snug beneath her woolen blanket, she slept soundly that nightdreaming she was on a schooner plying the sea, bound for the Orient, destined for adventure.
Closer to home, Fort Street School was a big one-story house surrounded by a whitewashed picket fence, arbored by the leafy umbrellas of tall monkeypod trees, with a long porch and white wooden colonnade that would not have looked out of place in southern Virginia. The morning after Papa came home began as usual with the students reciting the Lord's Prayer, then in chorus singing "Good morning to you" to their teacher; after which they opened their Tower grammars and followed along with Miss Wallis as she recited the alphabet. But in what seemed like no time at all another teacher, a gray-haired Hawaiian woman, appeared in the classroom doorway.
This excerpt ends on page 17 of the hardcover edition, at the end of chapter 1. Copyright © 2003 by Alan Brennert.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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