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Guardian

Guardian by Julius Lester
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There are times when a tree can no longer withstand the pain inflicted on it, and the wind will take pity on that tree and topple it over in a mighty storm. All the other trees who witnessed the evil look down upon the fallen tree with envy. They pray for the day when a wind will end their suffering.

I pray for the day when God will end mine.

In a time and place without moral conscience, fourteen-year-old Ansel knows what is right and what is true.

But it is dangerous to choose honesty, and so he chooses silence.

Now an innocent man is dead, and Ansel feels the burden of his decision. He must also bear the pain of losing a friend, his family, and the love of a lifetime.

Coretta Scott King Award winner and Newbery Honoree Julius Lester delivers a haunting and poignant novel about what happens when one group of people takes away the humanity of another.

HarperCollins; June 2009
144 pages; ISBN 9780061957321
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Guardian
Author: Julius Lester
 
Excerpt

Chapter One

Tuesday—Midafternoon

Summer 1946.

Davis, a small town in the deep South of the United States.

Fourteen-year-old Ansel Anderson stands by the screen door in the entrance of the store his grandfather started, the store where Ansel's father worked beside his father when he was a boy, the store where Ansel now works beside his father.

It is late afternoon. The heat is as heavy as a broken heart.

Nothing moves, not the leaves on the large oak tree at the end of the concrete island in the middle of the main street, not the three men sitting on a bench in the tree's shade, not even a bird.

On the other side of the street, the clothing, shoe, and drug stores are as empty of customers as Anderson's.

Long before Ansel was born, when his grandfather ran Anderson's General Store, they carried clothes, shoes, and remedies in addition to the groceries, rifles, ammunition, and fishing equipment they carried now. Bert, Ansel's father, took over the store after his father dropped dead behind the counter from a heart attack because, Bert believed, the store had tried to be everything to everybody. That was a good way to give yourself a heart attack, not run a business. Bert was only eighteen when his father died, but he consolidated the inventory and increased profitability.

Ansel has worked in the store since he can remember. One day it will be his. He is not sure he will be as good at it as his father is.

Bert is a congenial and handsome man with curly, dark hair, blue eyes, and a smile that could steal honey from bees.

Many people, especially women, come to the store as much for his smile as to buy what they need. Bert knows people need a smile as much as they need to buy milk.

People almost always leave the store feeling better than when they came in, and all because Bert smiled at them.

Ansel is more like his mother—short, dark straight hair, dark eyes. She looks younger than her thirty-two years, and he certainly looks younger than his fourteen.

His mother, Maureen, used to work in the store every day after she and Bert married six months before Ansel was born. But she only works Saturdays now. That's when Zeph Davis, or Cap'n Davis, as everyone, white and colored, calls him, brings his Negroes into town.

They don't have money. They work on shares. He takes care of all their needs—a shack to live in, clothes to wear, food to eat, cottonseed, and everything else they might need. In the fall when they pick the cotton and bring it to Cap'n Davis to be weighed, he deducts their expenses from what he would have paid them for the cotton, and their expenses include the cheese and crackers and sodas they buy at Anderson's every Saturday. Their expenses are always greater than what Cap'n Davis pays them for the cotton they grow, so each year they end up deeper in debt to him than they were the year before. It is another form of slavery.

Ansel's mother is the one who writes in the big ledger book what the Negroes buy and how much it costs.

There is a dour seriousness about her and Ansel. Both mother and son are cloaked in melancholy, a sadness arising, perhaps, from the land in which the sorrowing trees spread their roots, a despair that their lives have as little meaning as the dust stirred up by a passing car.

It worries Bert that Ansel is so much like his mother. The boy can't seem to grasp a simple thing like how important it is to smile at customers. "People buy as much because they like you as because they need something."

"What if I don't feel like smiling?" Ansel asked his father once.

Bert had gotten angry. "There ain't no place for feelings in business. Your job is to see to it that people who come in for one thing leave with two, three, or four. The only thing you should be feeling is how you can get somebody to believe he needs something, whether he does or not. People don't want to feel like you're taking their money. Smile, and they'll feel like they're giving it to you."

"But that's not honest," Ansel had insisted.

Bert smiled. "It is if you're running a business!"

Ansel turns away from the door and goes over to his father, who is seated behind the counter.

"Papa? Do you need me and Willie for anything?"

Bert looks at his son. He remembers what it was like when he was fourteen and stood looking out the screen door on a day like today thinking he was going to die of boredom. He would not have minded closing the store and going home, but if he did, as sure as he was breathing, somebody would come to town wanting something.

"I reckon not. You and Willie going to do a little fishing?"

"Yes, sir."

"Y'all can go on. But tomorrow's Wednesday. You and Willie have to take groceries and supplies out to Miz Esther's first thing."

"Yes, sir. Thanks, Papa." Ansel runs eagerly to the storage room at the back of the store where Willie is.

Bert frowns as he hears the two excited voices.

He had hired Willie for the summer because Esther Davis had asked him to. As far as Bert was concerned, a nigger boy like that ought to be out working in the field, but his mama was Esther's cook and housekeeper, and his father was crazy. There wasn't anybody he could work in the fields with.

Bert didn't need the boy, but he couldn't refuse to do something a Davis asked, even one as eccentric as Esther.

He had to admit that the boy worked hard keeping the storage room neat and organized, shelving goods, and packing groceries. Him doing what Ansel would normally be doing had given Bert the opportunity to start teaching his son the business—how to do the ordering, from whom and for what, how to keep track of inventory, and how to total up the receipts at the end of each day.

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ISBNs
0061957321
9780061558900
9780061957321