We love a good excerpt break — maybe you’re ready for one today too? We wanted to get a sneak peek at Kristin Harmel’s RT Top Pick! When We Meet Again. It’s the story of Emily, who recieves a painting of her grandmother with only a note that says, “he always loved her.” Emily goes on a quest for answers — and discovers more about her family, and herself, than she ever imagined. RT’s reviewer said this is Harmel’s best book yet, so we wanted a glimpse!
I almost missed the turnoff for Belle Creek, a town so small that there was no road sign announcing its existence. But Jeremiah Beltrain’s directions took me left at an intersection and right at a stop sign. Then, I turned once again, my Mazda CX-5 rumbling along a dirt road fanked by two fields of wispy, grassy stalks at least a dozen feet tall, like tropical, supersized versions of the cornfield in Field of Dreams.
The stalks eventually gave way to a much neater-looking field of short, dark, leafy bushes in militarily precise rows. Beyond them lay a small, wood-framed house that sat slightly crooked on its foundation. The pale blue paint on the exterior was worn and peeling, but the flower beds out front, sporting marigolds and petunias, looked well tended.
I parked in the small dirt driveway beside a rusted-out sedan from the late ’70s or early ’80s that was covered in a fine layer of dust. For a moment, I just sat there, trying to imagine my well-spoken, put-together grandmother growing up around here. It just didn’t feel right, and I was temporarily paralyzed by the conviction that I was in the wrong place.
Still, I’d come all this way, so after a few minutes, I got out of the car and walked up to the front door. I took a deep breath and knocked. I could hear a television on inside, but no one came, so I knocked again, harder this time. I could hear the television volume being lowered, then footsteps moving toward me. The door opened a moment later, revealing a tall, slightly stooped man. His hair was snow white, his skin the color of espresso beans. Two jagged scars ran down the right side of his face. He looked me up and down and broke into a broad smile.
“Emily,” he said. “By golly, you look just like your grandmother. It’s so good to see you.”
“Mr. Beltrain?” I asked, extending my hand.
His smile widened as he shook my hand firmly. “Please, call me Jeremiah. And come in, come in. I have so much to tell you.”
I followed him down a dimly lit hallway into a sparse living room. There was nothing on the walls save for a plain white clock with thin black hands. In front of a small television with rabbit ears sat a beat-up brown leather recliner and a brown fabric sofa with faded blue throw pillows. “Have a seat,” Jeremiah said, gesturing to the sofa as he settled on the leather chair.
“So,” I said after sitting down, “how exactly did you know my grandmother?”
He smiled and looked out the window without saying anything for a moment. “You know what that is? That crop growing out there beyond my back fence?”
“Corn?” I guessed, following his gaze to the seemingly endless expanse of homogeneous farmland that rolled toward the horizon.
He chuckled and turned back to me. “That, my dear, is sugarcane, as far as the eye can see. And back in the day when your grandmother and I were young, it was the lifeblood of this here community. Now, most of the fields are part of bigger conglomerates, but when we were young, there was still work for locals like us.” He paused. “Did you know your grandmother used to farm sugarcane?”
I stared at him. “I knew her father had been a farmer, but … ” My voice trailed off.
Jeremiah frowned, and his expression was suddenly faraway.
“Ah yes. Your grandmother’s father. Sure, he was a farmer. A bean farmer, mostly, on the edge of the sugarcane fields. But your grandmother, she didn’t have much to do with him. They didn’t see eye to eye about many things. In fact, your grandmother didn’t see eye to eye with many people around here. But she sure looked out for me. From a very young age, she was like my guardian angel. She must have been twelve or thirteen when I met her, and I was only six. I worked sometimes on her family farm.”
“You worked when you were six years old?”
“Had to. My mother died in childbirth, and my daddy was a real hard drinker who couldn’t hold down a job. The only way I could keep food on the table was to go out there and work. Never got to go to school, but Margaret, she taught me to read and write and to understand history. Sometimes, I harvested her family’s green beans, but mostly I worked in the cane fields. Margaret harvested cane too, because her family’s farm was failing and they needed the extra money. It wasn’t exactly traditional in those days for a girl to do manual labor like that, but she wanted to help her family out, and her father, he didn’t have much choice if he wanted to keep afloat.
“She always seemed to arrange it so that we wound up on the same crew,” he continued. “We’d be working, and she’d be quizzing me about who the president of the United States was in 1845, or how the First World War had started. Nearly everything I knew when I was a boy came from her. Back in the day, Emily, your grandmother was a vivacious young woman, so full of hope.”
“She was?” The thought made me sad, because by the time I knew her, she had retreated into herself. “What happened to her? What changed?”
For a moment, I thought he wasn’t going to answer, but then he said abruptly, “In the 1940s, one of the worst things to be in the South was a black boy. Did you know that?”
I wasn’t sure what to say or what that had to do with my grandmother, so I merely nodded and waited for Jeremiah to continue.
“The second-worst thing to be in the South was a German prisoner of war,” he said, looking me in the eye.
I shook my head, confused, although his mention of Germany suddenly had me thinking about the painting that had come from Munich. “A German POW? In the United States? What do you mean?”
He smiled, but he didn’t answer. “And the third-worst thing to be, as far as I could see, was a person who sympathized with both little black boys and German prisoners. And that’s what your grandmother was—someone who looked beneath the surface when the whole rest of the world wanted only to judge. It made life difficult for her.”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I’m not understanding you. You’re saying there were Germans here in Florida? During World War II?”
“It’s amazing that your generation doesn’t know that.” He glanced at me and added, “It’s strange how some stories get passed down and others don’t.”