52 pages 1 hour read

Deborah Spera

Call Your Daughter Home

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Call Your Daughter Home (June 2019) is the debut novel of author Deborah Spera. Set in 1920s South Carolina, the novel follows three women as they struggle against the boll weevil infestation that devastates their community. Among other positive mentions, the novel was selected as part of Oprah’s Summer Reading List. Spera is better known as a television producer. She owns One-Two Punch Productions and has executive-produced such popular TV shows as Criminal Minds, Army Wives, and Reaper. The novel explores themes of Race and Status in the South, Secrecy and Maintaining Appearances, and Maternal Anger and Strength.

This guide is based on the 2019 Park Row Kindle edition.

Content Warning: The guide contains descriptions of domestic violence, alcohol addiction, the sexual abuse of children, death by suicide, and racism that are present in the source text. The novel also includes racial slurs, which the guide quotes and obscures.

Plot Summary

The novel is set in the small town of Branchville, South Carolina, from August through October in 1924. Events are recounted using first-person narration by each of the three protagonists: Gertrude Pardee, Annie Coles, and Oretta Bootles. Individual chapters are devoted to the perspective of one of these characters though a few chapters also contain a combination of their viewpoints.

Gertrude Pardee is a young wife and mother of four daughters. She belongs to the class of poor white farmers and is struggling to keep her family fed during an economic downturn in the South. Her husband, Alvin, is addicted to alcohol, beats her, and terrorizes his daughters. In a final act of desperation, Gertrude shoots Alvin and allows his body to sink into a swamp, where his corpse is consumed by hungry alligators. Though Gertrude is racked with guilt for having committed murder, she wants to make a better life for her children. She applies for a job at a local garment factory, which brings her into contact with the wealthy Annie Coles, the wife of the richest plantation owner in town. Annie hires her and rents Gertrude a house near the Black community of Shake Rag. This represents a big improvement over the hovel in the swamp where the Pardee family resided.

Annie’s Black housekeeper, Oretta (Retta), disapproves of Gertrude because of her poverty and dirty appearance, but Retta agrees to take care of Gertrude’s youngest daughter until she can get her life in order. Retta has a personal stake in reviving the sickly child because her own daughter died from disease at the age of eight. When Retta brings the child to the Coles house while she works, she is alarmed that Mr. Edwin Coles takes an interest in little Mary and offers her a shiny nickel. Retta is aware that Edwin molests children and sexually abused his own offspring, but she has told no one. She is afraid of accusing a rich and powerful white man of such a crime.

Annie Coles is oblivious to her husband’s aberrant behavior. When one of her sons dies by suicide, her other children blame their father, but she refuses to hear their accusations. Edwin ejects his two daughters from his house, and they become estranged from their mother. Annie wants to reestablish ties with them but doesn’t understand why they want nothing to do with their father. One day, Annie stumbles across evidence of Edwin’s pedophilia because he keeps children’s underpants as trophies. When Annie asks Retta about this, the housekeeper confirms the truth about Edwin. Annie is so appalled that she goes on a hunger strike to starve to death, intending to punish herself for her failure as a mother.

Gertrude becomes part of the Coleses’ household staff and attends to Annie during her decline. She develops a soft spot for both Retta and Annie and wants to protect them. At a community harvest festival called Homecoming Camp, Annie rallies when one of her sons pleads for her help. She tells the governor and the assembled community about her husband’s crimes. Enraged, Edwin tries to silence her. Retta intervenes and is killed by him. When Edwin goes after one of his own sons, Gertrude shoots him, just as she shot Alvin for his abuse. The novel ends with Retta reunited after death with her daughter and husband. Gertrude unexpectedly inherits a small fortune from her abusive father-in-law, so she can now provide for her daughters. Annie is reunited with her own daughters and moves back to Charleston to live with them.

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