Where Emerald Ashby's story leaves us in the last pages of The Whispering of the Willows, sixteen-year-old Coral Ashby's story begins. Like the changing mulberries, Appalachian siblings Coral and Ernest Ashby, navigate life through the late 1920s. Coral is determined to visit the family nemesis, Charlie, who now stews in prison.
When Ernest's previous love interest, Mercy, returns to the holler of Big Creek, she discovers that his heart is now singing a melody for Charlotte, the older Ashby brother's widow. But Mercy has brought along her own spiritual tools and a special friend who guides her way.
Accompanied by friends and foes, matters of the heart complicate life for Coral and Ernest. Relationships must be journeyed carefully.
In the first book of the Big Creek series, the plot centered around the troubles of Emerald Ashby, mainly the man who developed a dangerous obsession over her. That man, Charlie, now sits in prison for the kidnapping of Emerald's baby as well as the murder of her eldest brother, Lester. Now, at the beginning of The Melody of the Mulberries, the focus is more on Emerald's youngest sister, Coral. There's also a side story involving the complicated love life of their brother, Ernest.
So let's start with Ernest. Ernest had a previously relationship with pretty local Mercy, but Mercy left town after she decided she couldn't stand the scrutiny that came with being in a bi-racial relationship (Ernest is white, Mercy is black). Now, a few years later, Mercy is back in town and pregnant with a mystery man's child. She makes it clear she's hoping to lure Ernest into being the baby daddy, but Ernest's affections have since shifted over to Charlotte (aka Lottie), the widow of Lester. Rather than let that deter her, Mercy seems set on waiting things out until she gets her way. The longer she's around, the more complicated her presence makes things. Does Ernest base his choice on heart's desire or history?
Though Ernest does an inner wince whenever Charlotte calls him "brother" out of habit, Charlotte starts to notice her feelings for him have shifted and intensified as well. Just as they were trying to figure out the new boundary lines to their relationship, in walks Mercy. Charlotte, feeling a new kind of stress growing between herself and Ernest, chooses to leave the mountain for a time to let him have a chance to get his head & heart settled. She accompanies Coral to Charleston, SC where Charlie is serving his sentence.
So what would compel young Coral to take the trip to the prison that holds her brother's murderer? Well, Coral tells the family that of late she's felt led by God to go and visit Charlie. Though she fears him, she has this compulsion to try to find the means to forgive him. The rest of the Ashby family struggles to entirely understand all this, but they can see she's set on seeing this through, so Charlotte tags along to at least make sure Coral is chaperoned and safe. The trip turns complicated when Coral falls victim to an influenza epidemic roaring through Charleston that year.
Just as with the first book, each chapter in this sequel starts with a bit of Appalachian folklore... a historical touch I quite like, though some of the saying may seem highly laughable to the modern reader. A few of my favorites:
* If you tell a bad dream before breakfast, it will come true. (So don't tell your spouse anything right when you're startled awake, I guess LOL)
* If you whistle before breakfast, you will cry before dusk (God help the person who wakes up in a good mood, eh!)
* To get rid of warts, steal someone's dishcloth and bury it. The warts will go away. (Don't cut your eyes at me, Pamela. That was a medical emergency!)
There are also cute tiny mulberry leaf prints scattered through out the pages, sometimes to signify a scene change, sometimes just because!
The plot here had a very meandering way about it, where some ideas for main conflicts were presented, but then put to the side to lay more emphasis on just getting to know the Big Creek community in general (For example, A LOT of story time dedicated to descriptions of bear watching!) Sometimes I didn't mind it, other times I would've liked the story to have more defined direction and better paced action.
It took til near book's end for Coral's story to really come alive and get good, but I loved her bravery of spirit that shined through all her scenes, particularly this one with prison guard James, whom she had developed a bit of a crush on, until she became aware of his temper problem. When she decides to end their acquaintance later, this is the exchange that solidifies her decision:
She knocked on the door before entering. James rose to his feet but didn't move toward her or even extend a hand.
'Charlotte told me you visited and sat by my bed. I'm wantin' to offer thanks.'
'I'm sure she told other things as well.' James answered.
'She did, but thanks is still in order.'
He stepped forward and took her hand. 'I have feelings for you, Coral. We can work this out. I've been dreamin' of you and your beauty. You're the girl for me. I know it, and I believe you know it too. Give me a chance. I'll do whatever it takes to win you over.'
Coral drew back her hand and shook her head no.
'It's the job. The men in this place are vile and violent. I've become like them. I can change.'
'I'm sure that guardin' criminals ain't easy, but don't be blamin' others for your struggles. Sheriff Robbins in Big Creek is tough as nails, but anger ain't part of his being.'
'Forgive me, Coral. It won't happen again. I promise. The Bible says you need to forgive me...'
'Don't be using God's word for manipulatin'.' She turned and walked away.
'You forgave Charlie but won't forgive me. That ain't Christian, Coral.'
She didn't answer. She kept walking and didn't look back. Lottie took her hand and, with heads held high, they entered the expansive front door.
Following that exchange, it was nice to see the growth in Coral as she begins to understand what a truly healthy, supportive relationship should look like, a realization helped by the growing tenderness between her and Kenneth, the doctor who attended her during her illness. If there are further books planned for this now duology, I'd love to see more of the story between those two!
It's interesting, given that this is a Christian Fiction series, that Blessing worked in supernatural themes such as spirit possession / contacting the spirit world via stick fortune divination. While it's not necessarily out of place historically, this story being set in 1920s Appalachia, and the supernatural element is light, I was just surprised to see the topic worked in at all as I don't recall it having much of a presence in the first book.
The Christian themes are much more prominent in this sequel than I remember them being in the first story. Again, while it historically makes sense to some extent, the way it was presented here came off overly preachy for my preference and frequently detracted from the overall story. Some of the conversations had an odd flow, almost as if they were crafted JUST to give a platform for biblical references. Unfortunately this gave the conversational flow between several characters an unnatural, forced feel.
FTC Disclaimer: Bookcrash.com & Capture Books kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.