Dick is dead. Seena knows this, of course: her husband is dead. Yet she keeps expecting him to barrel in, his enormous, gangling self plodding along, a spectacle unaware that he is one. Was one, she thinks. Was one. Still, she finds herself waiting for him to call out, make some pointless point, make it clear to everyone that he just doesn’t get it. She anticipates the annoyance she so often would feel around him. She almost longs for it—this longing he’d disappear, shut up, let her be. Because he has disappeared, shut up, let her be. He is dust from dust. Ashes from ashes. As dead as a doornail.
And she has the devil to pay.
Like Dick would say, “The devil take the hindmost.”
Dick’s moved on, and she’s left to pay. Alone.
Because he did get it, more than she did—she knows this. But the recognition came only after the trigger was pulled, so to speak, after the poison went flying, when it pierced his pale chest, when it was long past too late. Now she understands she was the spectacle unaware: she was the fool.
And she wonders, How can you live with someone for years—know the softening ring around his still-thin waist, the changed texture of his graying stubble, the scent in the hollow beneath his Adam’s apple—and see only your imagination reflected?
Seena is on trial in a village in West Africa, in a “customary court.” The courthouse is the schoolhouse, transformed. The village elders—one a witch doctor, one a queen—are her accusers, judge and jury. She was indignant when she learned this, sure it couldn’t be. She’s an American, she’d said. She’s entitled to due process. “These customary courts, they must be illegal. There are laws—aren’t there?—even here, even in this hell?”
But she’s a murderer, the elders said: she’s entitled to nothing. “Our courts are based on our traditions, which are different from yours. Americans think they alone make laws, but we have our own rule.”
They have their own rule.
“Christina Slepy?” the witch doctor, this so called “wise man,” says. He speaks to Seena, and watches her. Every person in the crowded room watches her; she feels this. And she knows if she were to look up at them, she would see only the whites of their eyes, and perhaps a shock of color from clothes that now seem mocking. They’ve told her the reasons women kill, and they’ve told her no matter her reason, she had no right. Still, they demand to know her reason, and she wonders which to choose. Which would they believe, or not? Which would solicit less loathing?
Even as she ponders these questions, she is aware she has no idea what they would believe, or not—no idea of the seed of their loathing, the fruit of their pity, whether they ever would feel pity for her. This is a world of rules turned inside out, a world where all she took for granted has been stripped away. She is a carcass, ripped clean of flesh. A skeleton of holes. No longer can her mind set her apart, give her that private space where the real world could seem a dream. No longer can she fill her holes with assumptions: that rationality wins in the end, that humans have rights, that white humans have rights. She never appreciated this distinction before—appreciated that she made this distinction. She never thought of herself as racist. Dick was a racist, she knew. Not a malicious racist. A do-good kind of racist. A feel-sorry-for kind of racist. A thank-God-I’m-white kind of racist: there but for the grace of God go I. But not her. Not her. How could she be racist, given the only man she’d ever loved?
Yet she set foot in this dusty African world never believing its dust and rules would apply to her, her children, her mind. But why wouldn’t they apply? Because she’s white, she thought, that’s why. Only, she didn’t really think this, she knew this. It was in her flesh—what made her feel whole. She never had to think it; it just was. She never had to come to terms with being racist; she just was. As she sits here condemned, she knows this. And she knows she should be condemned, if for this reason alone—especially given her child of light.
“Do you have anything to say?” asks the elder, who is not even old. He is forty perhaps. At max. And Seena thinks, He is neither wise nor old, yet he has the power of Zeus, here. He and the queen of this village—Avone—are the gods of this universe, painting this African sky. Painting me, the African version of Clytemnestra.
“What don’t I have to say?” she would like to say. “You want me to admit guilt? I’ll admit it. I came here having little respect for your beliefs and laws and I flouted them willingly. You want me to say I hated my husband—that I wanted him dead so I could be free to love my lover? I’ll say it. You want me to tell you I committed adultery and squandered the welfare of my children for the sake of lust while I spit in God’s face. It’s all true.”
“No,” she says. “I have nothing to say.”
© 2011 Christina Meldrum
Amaryllis in Blueberry
Christina Meldrum has already won praise from critics and fans with her young adult novel Madapple, which was an ALA Best Book for Young Readers in 2009 and earned starred reviews across the board. Now, in Amaryllis in Blueberry, her first adult novel, she tells the gripping story of the seemingly ordinary Slepy family—who fled their Midwestern town to do missionary work in a small village Africa. Meldrum has been an aid worker in Africa, bringing an authenticity to this richly atmospheric novel which explores many universal themes including family, religion, and culture.
Meet Dick, his wife Seena, and their four daughters, each named Mary: Mary Catherine, Mary Grace, Mary Tessa, and their youngest Amaryllis (aMARYillis). Seena has felt unloved and unvalued most of her adult life, so she escapes into her books, particularly Greek mythology, to satisfy her desire to find meaning. Her life has been built on secrets and lies and she wants to protect her daughters from the truth she knows will destroy their happy home. Mary Catherine seems to be the strong, faithful one, who in deference to St. Catherine, cuts off all of her hair, but she’s also a lost soul who desperately needs love and attention. Mary Grace is the eldest and the most beautiful—the one who easily seduces but is also easily seduced, especially when she’s faced with an exotic and fascinating culture so unlike her own. Mary Tessa is the inquisitive one who claims to be the most reliable when it comes to the facts of her mother’s case, and then there’s Amaryllis, who was born with an extrasensory gift of seeing things other can’t see, of knowing when bad things are about to happen, and of telling when those who profess to know the truth are the biggest liars of them all….
Opening with the dramatic scene of Seena on trial for murdering her husband Dick, this engrossing and lyrical novel flashes back to the year before her family left for missionary work in Africa—and how the buried secrets of their past came back to haunt and heal them all.
Sense the world through the heroine of AMARYLLIS IN BLUEBERRY
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
In a West African village, Seena Slepy stands trial for the murder of her husband, Dick, a doctor who brought his family from their home in the United States to do humanitarian work. How Seena got to this crossroads, with her fate hanging in the balance, is told in a series of flashbacks. Richly atmospheric, Amaryllis in Blueberry is a stirring, soulful novel about the intricacies of human relationships and the haunting nature of secrecy.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Amaryllis in Blueberry is told from the viewpoints of Seena, Dick, their four daughters, their neighbor Clara, and finally the priest Heimdall. How do the varied perspectives affect you as a reader? The final chapter is the only one told from Heimdall Amadi’s perspective. Why do you suppose the author chose to give him the last word?
2. Consider how truth and reality are portrayed in the novel. What besides individual perspective contributes to each character’s view of truth and reali see more