Nobody likes rejection. But sometimes it’s good for you.
That’s the considered opinion of Lisa Colozza Cocca, whose first published novel, Providence, has been chosen for One Community, One Book, a centerpiece of the first Morristown Festival of Books in September.
“I was very bad at first,” Lisa said during a reception at Harding’s Kemmerer Library last week. “I wrote three novels that no one’s eyes should ever have to see!”
The Flanders resident, who has written historical books for children and young adults, got stacks of form-letter rejections for her first forays into fiction.
Shredding the letters, she kept honing her craft, diligently writing every day. Two developments told her that Providence was different.
“I really loved my main character,” Lisa said. “And when I sent it out and got my rejections, they were two-page detailed letters about what [publishers] liked and didn’t like.”
MULTI-GENERATIONS…AND A BIG GRANT
Providence is the story of Becky, a 16-year-old runaway who finds an abandoned baby and claims it as her own. [Read the first chapter below.]
“I like it a lot,” said One Community co-chair Michele Russo of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. “The characters are real warm, lovable people… They feel like real human beings, someone I want to spend time with.”
“I think it raises a lot of interesting questions,” added Barbara MacKenzie of the Morristown Festival of Books committee.
The idea of One Community, One Book is for everyone in Morris County to read Providence over the summer, and discuss it at the bookfest on Sept. 27, 2014.
“We wanted a multi-generational book, so we could get kids talking, too,” said festival Chairperson Linda Hellstrom, who hopes to improve upon her inspiration, the Savannah Book Festival.
“Savannah doesn’t have multi-generations,” Linda said.
Plans have gotten a big boost from the Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, donor of a $10,000 grant to the book festival, Linda said. The foundation will be a co-presenter with Towne Toyota Hyundai.
Festivities start on Friday, Sept. 26, with a presentation by William D. Cohan, whose book The Price of Silence investigates the Duke University lacrosse scandal of 2006. Admission is $20 to that event, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center.
Saturday talks by Lisa and more than 20 other authors–to be announced shortly–will be free at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the parish house at the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, the Morristown & Township Library and the Mayo Center Starlight Room. A book-signing tent will be erected on the Vail Mansion lawn.
ONE BOOK…TWO STORES
Providence, published by Merit Press, is available at:
The Bookworm in Bernardsville and [words] Bookstore in Maplewood.
Or check your local library.
Panelists at the Providence session will include representatives of Newbridge Services Inc., a Pequannock nonprofit that offers help for real teens facing situations like the fictional Becky.
“We have programs for 16- to 21-year-olds who have fallen out of school,” said Newbridge Executive Director Robert Parker.
Lisa said her plot was borrowed from the news. She remembered reading about a young girl who found a baby on a roof and was annoyed when she was not allowed to keep it.
And when one of Lisa’s daughters was a little girl, she saw a blurb in their church bulletin about “babies for adoption.”
“She thought we should run out and get some,” said Lisa, whose three children are grown.
Lisa’s prior books include Reconstruction and the Aftermath of the Civil War, Marquis de Lafayette: Fighting for America’s Freedom, and the Understanding Graphs series.
Her biggest adjustment when switching into fiction mode, she said, involved grammar.
“The toughest thing when you read fiction is, it’s not always grammatically correct. There are sentence fragments, and things you do for effect that you don’t do in nonfiction,” she said.
Although she had a story arc for Providence, she listened to Becky and the rest of her protagonists during the writing.
“Your characters do tell you where they want to go,” said Lisa, already at work on her next novel. She hopes this one will have a shorter gestation; Providence was a dozen years in the making.
But all the rejections paid off with her selection for One Community, One Book.
“I felt like dancing!” Lisa said.
EXCERPT OF ‘PROVIDENCE,’
Copyright © 2014 by Lisa Colozza Cocca.
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher; exceptions are made for brief excerpts used in published reviews.
Published by Merit Press, an imprint of F+W Media, Inc. 10151 Carver Road, Suite 200 Blue Ash, OH 45242. U.S.A. www.meritpressbooks.com
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
For Laine, Kevin, Laura, and Piper, with endless love.
I first met Baby Girl in a freight car.
I was carrying a bag.
She was sleeping in one.
It was as if that old train was just there on the tracks waiting for me. The doors on the last car were flung open as if to say, “Come on in, Becky!” I climbed in and looked around. When I saw that lime green gym bag just sitting there, I worried that someone else had already taken the train up on its kind invitation. I thought it best to move on before its owner returned; but when that bag started moving, I had to take a peek. What I saw set me reeling. Two little legs kicked out at me with feet no bigger than my thumbs. Her little hands were curled into fists and her face was scrunched up tight. What really caught my eye was the bright red cloud of curls that sprang from her head.
Now, Mama always said, “If there’s trouble to be found, Becky will find it.” Mama was usually wrong. I don’t go looking for trouble. It finds me. But in this instance, I guess we found each other.
I knew how I had gotten in that train car, but I was at a loss for how a baby had landed there. For me, it happened when a thick blanket of dark clouds rolled out over the sunshine-soaked sky. Within minutes, the black sky was split by a cluster of lightning flashes that looked like someone had tossed a handful of tinsel in the air. A thunder boom shook my insides, and I had to go searching for cover. The train looked like an okay place to save me from a good soaking if those clouds opened up. Necessity had brought me into the freight car, but the newborn was a real puzzle. She sure didn’t get there on her own.
I looked around for some sign that this baby’s mama was coming back for her. I squinted into the dark corners of the car. There was nothing but a big old spider hanging from a web in one corner and a broken beer bottle in the other. I crept toward the doors to peek out. The sand on the floor of the car ground into my knees. I thought about that broken bottle, and for a moment I worried that some of that sand might be broken glass. (I tend to lose sight of my real worries when my mind races in all kinds of directions.) The baby let out a sigh and I was reminded of what my genuine problem was. I took a quick look around at what was outside the car, then crawled back to Baby Girl.
I lifted the baby out of the bag and moved us and our belong- ings into one corner of the freight car. Those welcoming open doors also made us easy to spot, so I was hoping we could hide there in the shadows until I figured out what to do. The rain had quickly grown steady, making it less likely anyone would walk down the tracks checking the cars, but I was still worried about getting caught where I didn’t belong. Worse yet, I was afraid of getting caught with a baby to explain away. Who would believe I just happened upon her here?
I pulled my long legs—my too-long legs—as close to my body as I could and pressed my backpack against the rust colored metal walls. The bundle of coins and the wire binding on the notebook in my backpack made it a less than ideal cushion. When the train finally jerked into motion, it banged my head against the wall. daddy would have said that a jolt like that should have knocked some sense into me.
I’m sure he would have been disappointed by the actual results.
I should have been home helping Mama with the chores. Instead, I was hitching a ride on this train out of Tyson. When I woke up this morning, it had seemed like any other June day on our farm. The air was a little hotter and heavier than usual, even for our neck of South Carolina, but that didn’t shorten the list of chores any. Mama and I got an extra early start on the canning. By mid-morning, her feet were swelling; baby number ten was due before school starts up again, so I sent Mama upstairs for a rest. I stacked the jars of strawberry jam on the shelf and called in my brother Joseph. I asked him to take the other boys down to the pond to fish. Then I promised the girls I’d play all afternoon with them if they would take a nap before lunch. Thinking about breaking that promise hurt my stomach some. When the last little one closed her eyes, I snatched a book from my room and headed for the front porch. The bubble of silence burst when daddy came in the back door looking for an extra hand. I know I should have helped daddy, but I was tired and in need of some quiet time myself. So, when I heard daddy call my name, I ran to the far side of the barn to hide.
I had only read five or six pages of my book when Caleb Brown cast his shadow over me. Now, I’ve heard folks around home say I’m pretty, but they usually say it with a sting. That poor child, such a shame, and Becky’s such a pretty girl, too. I want to tell them there’s no shame in me helping out my mama instead of hanging around town with the other girls talking about clothes and makeup. Most days, I don’t even mind helping daddy. I know the farm is too much work for one man, and daddy says there’s no money to pay help. As for Caleb, you’d never hear anyone adding hurtful words to their approving thoughts of him. Not by a long stretch. He is one of the handsomest boys in town, and he would not deny that fact. He has hair the color of honey and eyes you could drown in. His feeling so sure of himself makes his whole face light up when he talks, which makes everything he says seem more real and important.
I’m not trying to make excuses for myself, but rather trying to explain how once again trouble found me. I wasn’t looking for it. Caleb had a bunch of fireworks with him and wanted to test a few out before the Fourth of July. I know I should have said no, but sometimes reason escapes a girl. Looking at Caleb’s long curly lashes and lightning smile just separated me from my common sense.
That boy spent a good deal of time arranging the rockets in a circle, pointing them to a creek that ran through the back fields. It all looked like a science experiment until he lit the fuses. The rockets went up, but instead of heading for the creek they made a loop in the air and crashed through the roof of the barn.
The walls of that barn shook with every bang and the ground rocked beneath my feet. My knees felt like they were about to give out under me when I got my first whiff of smoke. I saw daddy running up the hill as flames began shooting out of the hole in the roof. By the time Mama made it up there, the whole barn was on fire.
Caleb had run off, leaving me alone with the burning barn. The animals were all out in the fields, but seeing that building disappearing in smoke made my heart ache. My great-grandpa had helped build that barn back in the 1930s when he was only a teenager. It had held up through decades of storms and the passing of the farm from generation to generation. And now in only a few minutes time, there seemed to be no hope for it. There were no words to describe how truly sorry I was, but I had to at least try to explain to daddy what happened. I should have known better than to tell him I wasn’t alone.
knowing I was behind the barn with a boy made him even angrier than the barn being on fire. “What were you doing back there with a boy? I didn’t raise you to be acting like that! How long has this been going on?”
“Daddy, we weren’t doing anything. I was just reading my book in the shade back there when Caleb passed by. He just stopped to talk, that’s all.”Daddy’s eyes showed no mercy. “don’t you be lying to me on top of all this,” he said, waving toward the barn. “I know what teenage boys want from girls.”
“But it wasn’t like that, daddy. Honest, we were just talking.” daddy took a step forward and I thought he was about to raise his hand to me. Mama must have thought it, too, because she stepped between us.
“Joe, please, we can talk about this after,” she said. Just then sirens wailed as fire trucks turned up our road. Someone on one of the neighboring farms must have seen the smoke and called for help. “Help is on the way,” she said.
Daddy must have heard the sirens too then, because he stepped back and walked toward the sound. Mama turned to me and took me by my shoulders. “What were you thinking, child, talking back to your daddy like that? If you have a lick of sense you will stay out of his way until he has time to cool down. Go spend the night with your friend Tammy. Maybe by morning, everything will be all right.” She looked over her shoulder in daddy’s direction. The volunteer fire fighters were climbing up the hill behind him. “Go on, now. Get away before all these folks leave.”
Now daddy has always had a temper, and I’ve received more than my share of his whippings, but I’d never seen him that mad before. It only took a minute for me to decide that Mama was right. I would be a whole lot safer away from him for a while. I couldn’t go to Tammy’s house, though. We hadn’t been friends in years, at least not the kind of friends that have sleepovers. Besides, the fire in daddy wasn’t going to die out overnight. every time he looked at that charred building, it would flicker up again.
I ran back to the house and went straight to the third board in the upstairs closet floor. That little hiding place was my own personal safe. I didn’t have much cash in there, but what I had I had come by honestly. At least, mostly honestly. Last year, Mrs. Gordy, my english teacher, had a talk with Mama and daddy. She told them I had real potential, but that I needed some time every week for reading and thinking. Now Mama and daddy don’t put much stock in that kind of thing, but I think they were a little afraid of Mrs. Gordy. They came home from school and told me to take every Wednesday afternoon off from my chores to go to the library to smarten myself up. daddy warned me about what would happen if the results didn’t get Mrs. Gordy off his back.
Every week, I walked from school to the library where I read books about places around the world. I never faced much competition for the books I wanted. Almost all of the kids there stayed in front of the rows of computers. Most of the kids I knew from school had computers at home and cell phones in their pockets. I wondered if these library kids’ families subscribed to the same thinking as daddy did. He would never allow these things in our home, and let us know in no uncertain terms that we were not to bring the subject up. I never really minded that much, though. I guess you really can’t miss what you never had.
So I kept reading my books, and before long I knew I wanted to go to college, then travel around the world and write a book about my own adventures. My teachers all told me if I kept my grades up, I’d be sure to get a scholarship. even if they didn’t have to pay a penny, Mama and daddy would never go for that though. In their minds, college was a big waste of time— especially for a girl who belonged on the farm, helping her family make ends meet. As far as they were concerned, I would stay on as the unpaid help until I found a husband to tell me what to do. So each week, I took a longer route to the library, stopping along the way to pick up pop bottles and cans, which I then turned in for nickels and dimes. I hid the money in a box under the third board from the right in the floor of the upstairs hall closet. One day, my route took me behind the Main Street Bookstore. I found a whole box of books with their front covers torn off. Since they were in the trash, I figured I could take some home and it wouldn’t be stealing. It didn’t take too long to figure out that a new box was put out the third Wednesday of every month.
One afternoon, the owner, Mr. Tyler, caught me back there. He asked me if I wanted to work a couple of hours a month pulling off the covers. That way, I would know which books I was taking. He didn’t pay much, but he paid me in cash. So one Wednesday a month, I skipped the library and went straight to the bookstore.
Mama complained about me bringing home trash. daddy said, “You can’t judge a book without a cover.” Neither ever asked where the books came from. I kept bringing the books home and putting the money under the board. Now, I know a wiser girl would have turned all of that money over to her daddy for the good of the family. Hiding it away was playing with fire, and I have a knack for getting burned, but that money tied me to other activities that I had no permission for and it fed my dreams for a different future. So with every deposit I made into the Bank of Becky, I added a new place, a new adventure to the list I wrote in my notebook. I tried real hard to not think about the consequences if I got caught.
With the barn in flames and daddy’s temper ablaze, I pulled out my money and went to my room. I grabbed my backpack and stuffed my notebook, some clothes, and a couple of books inside it. I counted my money and put half of it in my bag. I thought it would be enough to last me until daddy had time to calm down. I left the other half of the money on the kitchen table to help pay for a new barn. I hoped that might make me more welcome when I returned.
The train’s shrieking whistle brought me back to the here and now. Had I slipped off into a doze? Was the baby okay? I opened my eyes and concentrated on how the boxcar shook, rattled, and swayed along the tracks. I held the baby tighter. This wasn’t the way I had pictured my travels starting out. I had no fancy traveling clothes, no luggage, and no plane tickets in hand. My dry lips reminded me of just how unprepared I was. even if I could get into my backpack without putting down the baby, I knew there was nothing to eat or drink in there. My lack of supplies made me wonder about my traveling companion’s situation. So I opened the gym bag that had doubled as her cradle and looked inside. No food. No diapers. No nothing.
Now, I may be only sixteen years old, but I know a whole lot about taking care of a baby. As the oldest of nine, most of the feeding and changing and rocking fell to me. And although you would never hear Mama say so, I’m darn good at it. Which is why, as I brushed a ringlet from the baby’s forehead, I whispered, “I just might be the luckiest thing to happen to you in the few days you’ve been on this earth.”
As soon as the words passed through my lips, I laughed at myself for saying it. Truth be known, I’ve never been lucky to be around. As hard as I try to do the right thing, something bad always seems to come out of it. “No, Baby Girl, I’m no one’s lucky charm,” I said. “But I’m afraid for the moment I’m all you’ve got.”
I felt her breath like a whisper on my cheek and wondered what her mama was thinking, leaving her in an old train car. I started thinking about all the ‘what ifs.’ What if I hadn’t been sitting against the barn this very morning, just trying to get a moment’s peace? What if daddy had listened to my side of the story? What if that lightning storm hadn’t started up just as I happened upon this rickety old train? And what if—what if I didn’t hop into this very car with this little bundle in it?
Now the last thing I needed was a baby to take care of, but what choice did I have? I could just leave this little one on the train, but if no one had seen the two of us in that car, what chance was there of someone else finding her? I couldn’t risk her not surviving the wait. I could go to the police to tell them about my discovery, but they were sure to call Mama and daddy right away. That would not end well.
I could hear daddy now. “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, we would all be living in a sweet world. And this ain’t a sweet world, Becky. So stop wasting what few brain cells you have on ‘what ifs’ and start working on what is.”
In this instance, daddy may have been right about concentrating on the here and now. This baby was hungry. Her once peaceful body heaved as she tried to catch her breath between cries. I was worried about how long it had been since her last feeding, and about my lack of supplies. I also admit to worrying that her cries would draw attention to the boxcar, and trouble would find me again. I hoped that the rain that was tapping like a drum on the metal walls would drown out the baby demanding to be fed. Maybe the constant bumping and rocking of the car soothed her, or maybe she just wore herself out crying, but the baby finally fell back asleep.
Deciding my best course of action was like answering a multiple-choice question with no right answer. I remembered what they told us in school about taking a test—if you can’t see the right answer then pick the one that seems the least wrong. Making sure this baby was safe and keeping me out of daddy’s reach for the time being were at the top of my needs list. This made the least wrong choice easy enough to see.
When the rain stopped, the air hung heavy over us. It wouldn’t be long before that old rusty boxcar heated up like an oven, baking us inside. We had been on the train for hours, so this baby was sorely in need of a bottle and a clean diaper. I grabbed hold of her bag and slid toward the door. Keeping a safe distance back so we didn’t bounce out of the opening, I waited for a place to hop out. A raindrop hanging from the roof of the train car wiggled back and forth. It broke free and landed on my cheek. I wiped it away and found an eyelash on my finger. I looked at the dark crescent of hair, made a wish, and blew it off my finger. Having no idea where this train was heading, I used my wish in search of a safe place for us to get off.
The train lurched to a stop. I threw my arm out to brace myself and to protect the baby as I was flung onto my side. My aching arm let me know it was definitely time to make a change. Like daddy always said, “When opportunity knocks, you go running out that open door.” I held the baby close to my chest and swung my legs out of the car. My feet didn’t meet the ground, so I wriggled my butt toward the edge of the car floor until my toes touched the gravel. It wasn’t the most comfortable way to go, but life had already served this baby a few too many jolts.
The first thing I saw was a giant sign by the side of the tracks. I knew right away that this baby and I had just shared a first in our lives: we had crossed the state line. The sign had a picture of two huge peaches on it, just smiling and making eyes at each other. In big, bold letters it said “Welcome to Watson’s Grove, Georgia! There are no strangers here—just friends we haven’t met!”
“Well,” I said to my tiny traveling companion, “this looks like a good enough place to spend a few days.”