Excerpt from Elizabeth Winthrop’s “Counting on Grace”

This novel about a 12-year-old mill worker was inspired by a Lewis Hine photograph.

Counting on Grace
Counting on Grace Amazon

1: School

"Grace, your turn."

The book is called The Red Badge of Courage. I like that name. I stand up to read, but as soon as I open my mouth, my feet start moving. It always happens that way. I can't help it.

"'The youth was in a little trance of astonishment. So they were at last going to fight.' Miss Lesley, why don't the youth have a name?"

"Why doesn't the youth have a name," Miss Lesley says, but I go right on. She's always trying to fix our grammar, but we don't pay much mind.

"The writer should call him Joe or Henry or something."

In the front row, my little brother, Henry, giggles. Miss Lesley touches his head with her hand and he stops. At least she don't smack him with that ruler of hers.

"Grace, sit down when you read."

"I can't. I don't read as good. When I sit my brain stops working."

"Nonsense. Your brain works just like everybody else's. I want you to stay in one place when you read. Stop hopping around the room. Look at Arthur. He can sit still. Now you try it."

Arthur's desk is hooked up to mine and he never moves a muscle 'cepting his lips when he's reading. That's why Miss Lesley likes him the best. It's not only 'cause he's the best reader. It's 'cause he's a sitter and the rest of us are hoppers, jumpers, fidgeters. Arthur's twelve too, but he's four months older than me. I can read just as good as him so long as I can move around at the same time.

I go on." 'He could not accept with asshur—' "

"Assurance," Miss Lesley says. "That means he could not believe. Henry, sit up and listen. Your sister's reading a story."

I finish the sentence. " '. . . he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth.' "

"Thank you, Grace. Please sit now. What do you think that means? Class?"

Arthur's hand goes up. Miss Lesley nods at him.

"The youth's going to be in a war."

"How do you know that?"

"I read ahead."

Arthur always reads ahead.

"And if you hadn't read ahead, Arthur?"

" 'Cause there are soldiers in the story. If there are soldiers, there's gonna be a war."

"Right. This is a story about the Civil War. Some of you children could have had grandparents who fought in that war."

"Not me," says Dougie. "My grandparents lived in Ireland."

"Me either," yells Felix. "My grandparents were born in Canada."

Miss Lesley claps her hands for silence. The whole time she's teaching, Miss Lesley moves around the room, keeping us kids in order. I'm back at my desk, but my feet are dancing underneath. Miss Lesley slaps them with her ruler whenever she passes by. I pretend I don't even feel it. Seems she cares more about sitting still than learning.

"You older children go on reading among yourselves now. One sentence each, then pass the book."

I hate that. I like to hear my voice doing the reading. Or Arthur's. Thomas mumbles so you can't understand him and Norma just pretends to read and Rose is too busy twirling her hair around her finger and staring at Thomas. I hate when the story goes too slow. Then I forget what's happening.

It's Arthur who’s reading when we hear footsteps outside on the wooden porch, the thunk of a boot against the step to knock off the mud. We get still. The man coming through that door understands that Miss Lesley don't like dirt in her classroom. We know who it is. We know what he's going to say. I sneak a peek at Arthur, who's put the book down. For once.

Miss Lesley has her ruler raised and suddenly she stops moving too.

The door opens. French Johnny pokes his head in first, almost like a little kid asking permission. He went to this school himself. He knows how hard the benches can be after a day of sitting. He knows every hook by the door and the way the handle of the coal stove wriggles out and slams to the floor when someone ain't paying mind. French Johnny is the second hand at the mill. He's in charge of the spinning room where my mother runs six frames. He's come up the hill in his white apron to get a mill rat. That's what they call the kids who work in the mill. We all end up as mill rats.

"Yes?" Miss Lesley says with no respect in her voice. She might as well be talking to a second grader like my brother, Henry.

"Come for the boy," says French Johnny. He sounds like he don't want to be here. He knows she won’t let this one go without a fight. Truth is she argues with him over every single one of us.

"Well, you can turn around and walk right out of here. You're not taking him," says Miss Lesley, keeping her back to barrel-bellied French Johnny. She's acting as if he's no bigger than one of those sow bugs come out of the woodwork this time of year. "Class, I want you to pay attention to the board. We're going to make the sound of these two letters." Her ruler smacks the CH. "Chuh," she says to the younger ones. "Repeat after me. Chuh."

But nobody says nothing. We're all waiting and watching French Johnny.

"Chuh," she says again, her voice rising. She's getting angry.

Nobody speaks.

I can't stand silence like that.

"Chuh," I say, and two of the little kids laugh.

French Johnny is all the way in the room now. He's squirmed around the door and closed it behind him. He signals to Arthur, who pays him no mind. "Monsieur Jean," says Miss Lesley. "You have not been invited into my classroom."

"Now, Miss Lesley, don't give me trouble this morning. You know he's got to go. He's the only man left in the house now, and his mother needs him to doff her frames. He'll come back when the work slacks off."

Miss Lesley whirls around. Her eyes are shooting fire. "You say that every time. I do believe lying is still considered a sin in your religion and in mine, monsieur." The way she says mister in French makes it sound dirty and French Johnny flinches almost like he's been smacked with the ruler. "The work never slacks off."

In the summer when the river drops, it does," says French Johnny. But we all know that's lame. That's not going to get him anywhere with Miss Lesley.

"Do you have papers for him?" she asks. "You know the law, don't you, monsieur? No children under the age of fifteen while school is in session? Where are his papers?" She's facing him full on now. "Don't take me for a fool, monsieur."

That dirty word again. The ruler rises up, points at his belly.

"The work is never going to slack off." She takes a step toward him.

French Johnny holds his ground, but he’s keeping an eye on her.

"Arthur Trottier is my best student. He could be a teacher or a manager or even a lawyer someday. So long as you leave him be. Because we both know the only way he will ever come back to this school is when your machine spits him out. Like Thomas there."

Without turning or even looking behind her, she moves the ruler around until it's pointing at Thomas Donahue, the biggest boy in the class, who's scrunching himself down in the back row trying to hide.

All heads swing with the ruler as if we got no power on our own to decide where our eyes should go.

Last summer Thomas was fooling around when they were moving a big new spinning frame into the room. He slipped in the grease and the gearbox got rolled right over his bare foot. By the time they lifted it off him, harm was already done.

Thomas spent three months at home. His foot healed all crooked and he walks on the side of it now. Makes him lean far over just to walk and he falls a lot. No use for him at the mill no more.

He hates school. I hear him talking about running away, but that would be mighty hard with a foot that curls around under itself like a fern coming out in the spring.

Now French Johnny decides he's going to pretend Miss Lesley ain't there. They've been through all this before. Every time the overseer sends him up the hill to collect another child, Miss Lesley acts as if one of her arms is getting chopped off.

"Let's go, boy," he says.

"Arthur, you stay right there," she says, not taking her eye off French Johnny.

Arthur's gone back to reading our book. He's thinking, Maybe if I pretend this ain't happening, then it ain't. I know he wants to stay in school. He's not like me or the other boys. Dougie is counting the days, begging his father to send him down the hill even though he's only nine. I want to go too 'cause of the money I can make. Ever since my father got sick four years ago, we've been behind in the store bills.

But Arthur is different. If reading like a machine makes you smart, then he's the smartest person I ever knew. Arthur hates noise, too many people around, loud games. I could give you a whole list of ways Arthur is different from the other boys. The only thing in the world that Arthur loves besides his mother is books. His father died of the pneumonia last winter. That's why French Johnny come for him. Arthur and his mother live in mill housing up on French Hill like most of the rest of us. You can't stay in a mill house unless every able-bodied person works. Arthur's twelve, long past time for him to go in.

"Boy, no trouble now," says French Johnny, his voice raised a notch. "Come along quiet." Arthur lifts his head from the page and looks at Miss Lesley.

"Do I have to go?" he asks.

The silence is so big it could make us all deaf. For just a moment. Then from the back row, one of the big girls calls out in an Arthur voice.

"Do I have to go?"

Dougie picks it up. "Miss Lesley, do I have to go?"

"Quiet," says Miss Lesley. The ruler hits the nearest desk, two inches from my brother Henry's nose. He's calling out with the rest of them. But there's nothing Miss Lesley can do. The chanting gets bigger, like some kind of balloon blowing up in the room, pushing out all the other air.

"Children," Miss Lesley screams. Normally she don't need to raise her voice. So now we know she's lost the fight. This is the one fight she's always going to lose. Arthur gets up suddenly. The taunting fades almost as fast as it started. We all watch as he snakes his way between the desks and flies out across the front porch, like some kind of trapped animal who just found his cage door standing open.

For a big man, French Johnny can move pretty quick. Suddenly he's gone too.

I look over at Arthur's desk. He left most everything behind. Except the book. The book we were all reading.

Miss Lesley's got her back to us and she ain't speaking. Her shoulders are moving up and down. I think maybe she's crying, but there's no noise coming from her. This is worse than her screaming. Nobody knows what to do.

My body is vibrating, I've been sitting so long. I get up and start to dance a little. Now everybody's looking my way. I figure this is a good thing 'cause I’m giving Miss Lesley time to collect herself.

"It's not so bad, Miss Lesley," I say, sliding past two desks. "He took the book with him. Arthur is never going to give up his reading, no matter where he goes."

"Sit down, Grace," she says, and her voice is low and quiet again.

"We all got to go in sometime. My sister Delia gets her own spinning frames soon. Any day now I'm going to start doffing for my mother." My voice just rattles on sometimes. Follows my feet. Times like these, I can't seem to control either one.

"Why don't you start now?" says Miss Lesley. Her voice has some kind of menace in it.

I can't be hearing her right.

"They don't need me yet," I say. "But don't you see it's a good thing? I'm going to be making extra money so we can buy me my own pair of shoes and I won't have to share with Delia no more. And Henry can get a pair of his own so he won't have to wear those broken-down ones Felix's mother give us to use for Mass."

All eyes turn to my brother in the front row and his bare feet swinging back and forth. He makes them go quiet and glares at me. Any day he can, he runs down the hill barefoot rather than squish himself into my old school shoes.

"You know if I start doffing, then Delia will work her own frame and my mother will still have a doffer and I'll get the two and a half dollars a week and—"

"Get out, Grace." She is not screaming like before, but she is talking loud. And she's walking toward me as if she's considering running me over. "Go on," she orders. "I'm not going to stand here anymore and wait for that man to snatch another one of my best readers right from under my nose. You want to go doff your mother's machine, then go. Get out!"

"But Miss Lesley, I don't mean now—"

"I'll go, Miss Lesley," Dougie yells from his row, but she pays him no mind.

She's done with talking now. She grabs the back of my pinafore with her right hand and pulls it up all into a bunch so's I’m practically choking. Then she steers me out the door of the schoolroom with my feet barely skimming the ground. For a scrawny woman, Miss Lesley is strong when she wants to be.

My mouth is still working around what to say next when I find myself on the wrong side of the door. All I can think of in that minute is what she called me. Another one of her best readers. Me. Of all people.

Excerpt from Counting on Grace copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Winthrop. Courtesy of Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House Inc.

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