Excerpt from Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Moonrise Over New Jessup

by Jamila Minnicks

Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks X
Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2023, 336 pages

    Nov 28, 2023, 352 pages


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"Stairsteps going up, stairsteps going down, Alice. We got to come down from here." Over some seconds, her soft confidence warmed and soaked through me. Slowly, like the way a pat of butter melts over cornbread fresh out the oven. My eyes cleared, and the next branch down was, all the sudden, right there. Big and beefy and ready to hold me safely. Then the next one, and the next one was easier still, until bit by bit we worked our way to the ground.

About halfway down, our parents appeared at the base, shielding their eyes. Daddy had an arm behind his back. The forest around us was so quiet their whispering voices carried into the leaves.

"Great Jesus," said Daddy. "You see this? You see your girls up there?"

"I see them, Marion. Be calm—they coming down."

"See what I mean, Safi? Now tell me I'm wrong."

"Nobody said anything about you being wrong. Mrs. O'Dell will take Rosie, but Alice just turned five a couple days ago."

"She'll take Rosie and Alice, is what I know. My daughters is going to school. They ain't finna be mining nobody's coal."

"Mrs. O'Dell reminded me she's nobody's babysitter, and there's only one of her. Teaching is serious business, she told me."

"Like you don't know that. She just got her back up because you wanna start your own school."

"Well, whatever the reason, she said next year for Alice."

"Alice won't be no bother. She got just as much learning as kids Rosie's age—knows her letters and numbers already. What difference do it make to Laverne O'Dell how old she is?"

"Well, maybe you should ask her then, 'Brother Young,'" she said, in that near-breathless way Mrs. O'Dell addressed my daddy. For Mama, she always called "Sister" from the back of her throat and through near clenched teeth. "Because she certainly said 'no' to me."

"Safiyah." He drew Mama's name out longwise to tickle her good humor. She gave him the closed-mouth, deep chuckle he was looking for. They finished their playfulness and stopped talking when me and Rosie got close enough that they thought we could hear.

The second my toenail kissed the earth, Daddy was on me. He snatched my upper arm, and before I could open my mouth to cry out, two lashes seared the back of my legs. Fresh dirt peppered the leaves on the ground, and it was only when he turned his attention to Rosie, who was trying to sneak away, that I saw he had yanked a baby sweetgum sapling clean out the ground, with soil still clinging to the roots. It was an indignity to survive death from a tree only to be whupped by a tree.

He quit after those few licks. We did not dare sniffle or cry or raise a word of objection—instead, me and Rosie spoke to each other in pitying glances as we walked behind our parents back to the rows. Mama did all the actual talking.

"You two should've known better. High as you were, me and your daddy would have been able to do nothing but watch you fall. All the ways this world'll try to kill you in a tree, for y'all to be out here giving your lives away?" she said. "You won't be out here doing the world's work for it. Not as long as me and your daddy draw breath, you won't. I bet you won't do that again."

Later that night, Mama had me and Rosie at the table for our lesson, when she told us that Rosie would start first grade the week following, and I would start school of some sort. Both of us would be in the same one-room outbuilding behind O'Dell's Grocery, where Rensler's Negro children from little to big shared one teacher and one classroom during the week, and Rensler's Negro Baptists worshipped on Sundays. We were to work hard and mind our manners because we were going to college. My sister took the news without a thought, chanting absentmindedly as she worked through her spelling.

"Firrrrrst grade, second grade, third grade, college!

Excerpted from Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks . Copyright © 2023 by Jamila Minnicks . Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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