Marking the 90th anniversary of the Civilian Conservation Corps, enjoy this sample of the acclaimed novel
By J.L. Oakley
From inside the farmhouse, John Hardesty heard the car door slam and the engine roar to life. He got off the floor and rubbed his sore cheek. Paul had hit him hard, but it hurt more to think about the rift between them. They were so close. It was all Marie’s fault. Well, it was his fault too. He started it.
He staggered to the front door and turned on the porch light before going out. The snow was falling in a steady sheet of soft flakes, the wind on the rise. On the passenger side of the ’29 Chevy coupe, Marie Bertin got in, her cloche hat already collecting a thick layer. Between the snow and the dim light of mid-winter dusk, he could barely make out the ruff on her fur coat enfolding her neck like a lion’s mane. No time to be leaving.
He jumped down off the porch, slipping in his street shoes as he came alongside the driver’s side. He pounded on the door. His brother rolled the window down.
“Paul. Wait. You’re in no shape to be driving.”
“Too bad, pal. Why don’t you shut up? S’matter of fact, good riddance to you.”
“Marie?” John stared into the car.
The woman gave him a weak smile. “I am going, cheri. C’est la vie.”
Paul hit the accelerator. For a moment, the car’s wheels spun around before they got footing, sending out clods of packed snow. It fishtailed down to the main road and gathered speed. There was nothing to guide it. The rail fences were piled up with snow.
Hardesty watched the red tail lights swish and weave, then suddenly bump up into the air.
To his horror, the car skidded across the snowy lane before it hit the corner. Its back end went out first like the Chevy was trying to slide into home plate backwards, going slowly, slowly, then suddenly the front end swinging hard to the right. There was no sound, just the snow coming down. The car spun until it hit the snow-clogged ditch and bounced. Then the screams began.
John ran as fast as he could. The frigid night air knifed his lungs. In the ghostly light, the car lay half way on its side like it was just resting, but the windshield was broken, naked headlights beaming into a void. The only thing real to John was his brother’s yelling and the strong odor of gasoline.
“I’m here, Paul,” John shouted as he pulled the awful weight of the door up. Paul struggled inside, screaming, smelling of alcohol. John caught a flailing arm.
“Marie!” Paul’s voice was chaotic agony.
Underneath him was Marie. An odd, flickering glow highlighted her bloodied head which had broken through the car door window and was shoved into the snow bank. Her shoulders hunkered in, like she was trying to get into the fetal position. He wondered if she was already dead.
There was a sudden bang and in an instant a bright flash licked up from the passenger side and underneath the dashboard. Flames grabbed hold of his brother’s coat sleeve, exploding like a winter’s night bonfire. John pulled. His brother pulled back, shouting,
“I hate you! I hate your bloody guts! You killed her, you bastard. You killed Marie.”
“Stop! You’re not making sense. Let me get you out. Then I can get her.”
Flames engulfed the whole inside of the car now. Like a maelstrom of roiling fury, it caught Paul’s coat sleeve and collar coming off the cloth like a line of seraphim wings, searing the skin on Paul’s face, scorching his hair. John tried to pull him out, but his brother fought him, scratching his face, and screaming obscenities at him. Finally, other hands appeared to pull his brother out onto the snow.
A neighbor from the farm next door rolled Paul around, giving John the freedom to go back into the car. When he touched the handle of the car door, he burned his hands. He tried again. Using his coat sleeves to shield his palms, he tugged and pulled, but the door stuck. A tower of black smoke poured out the driver’s window, dwarfing the mounded hills of snow on either side of the country road and flashing them with huge, golden lights. Through the flames Marie’s head seemed to have shifted, exposing a jagged piece of glass slicing her throat.
There was another explosion, this time blowing out the back window. Someone wrenched him back from the heat.
“Too late,” a voice said. His voice. John looked down at Paul. His brother lay moaning, staring up into the snowflakes. By the intense firelight, John could see that the skin on Paul’s face and neck was peeling. Then he noticed his own palms. Quarter-sized blisters were bubbling up.
“Let’s get you to the side, son. Looks like some nasty burns.”
John obeyed. He felt like he was not part of the scene, but above it. The fire flicked and flashed. The snow swirled. The smell of cooking flesh made him gag. “I didn’t think…”
“What’d you say?”
He gave no answer. He dropped into the cold, wet snow.
One mistake can ruin a life. One mistake can transform it. A government forestry camp set deep in the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest might not seem the likely place to find redemption, but in 1935, Park Hardesty hopes for just that.
Blaming himself for the fiery accident that caused his brother’s disfigurement and the death of the bootlegging woman he loved, planting trees, building bridges and mentoring tough, homesick New Jersey boys brings him both penitence and the renewal of his own self-worth. When he wins the love of Kate Alford, a local naturalist who envisions joining the Forest Service, which allows only men, he also captures the ire of a camp officer who refuses to let her go. Just when he is ready to seek his brother’s forgiveness, he is falsely accused of rape. Every aspect of his life he has tried to rebuild is put in jeopardy. In the end, the only way he can defend himself is to tell the truth about his brother, but he risks being kicked out of the camp. Worse, he could lose Kate’s love forever.
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writes award-winning historical fiction that spans the mid-19th century to WW II. Her characters come from all walks of life, but all stand up for something in their own time and place.
Her books have been recognized with a 2013 Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award, the 2013 Chanticleer Grand Prize, the 2014 First Place Chaucer Award, 2015 WILLA Silver Award and the 2016 Goethe Grand Prise.
When not writing, Janet demonstrates 19th century folkways, including churning some pretty mean butter.
She has loved history since she was a girl, sharing her mother’s love for swashbuckling novels and the stories her grandmother told of settling the West in the 1870s.
In addition to historical fiction, J.L. has also written four mystery novellas set in the Hawaiian Islands.
Her most recent historical novel, The Quisling Factor, launched in July 2020. It is set in Norway following the end of the German occupation in the Second World War.
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And follow her on Twitter @JlOakley.