New Orleans, 1853
Eleven-year-old Lovie Lane would never be certain what actually woke her the night she learned her life was to become a living hell.
She might have been unintentionally kicked by one of her three younger sisters, all crowded on the pallet on the floor beside her. Or it might have been the gnawing hunger in her belly. She could have been awakened by the sounds of her aunt and uncle’s voices raised in anger. Or a shout outside the shack where they lived. The Irish Channel — a New Orleans neighborhood home to penniless Irish laborers newly immigrated to Louisiana — was not known for peace, quiet, or abundance.
Whatever the reason, Lovie sat up. She pushed her matted hair out of her eyes and gazed at the tangle of limbs and threadbare nightclothes illuminated by the lamplight spilling in from the front room. Her sisters slept soundly, like angels, innocent of the tumult around them. Across the room her two male cousins, both older than she, also slept on.
The nasal whine of her Aunt Maddie’s voice easily carried through the thin curtain that hung in the doorway to the sleeping area. “We can’t keep ’em. Not with our own to feed.”
Lovie gingerly slipped out of bed, taking care not to waken her sisters. She crept up next to the curtain, moved it aside just enough to peer out without being seen. Her uncle shuffled to the table and pulled out a chair. He weaved back and forth before he finally sat, and her aunt shot him a dark scowl as she bustled about the stove to prepare him a cup of tea.
Uncle Timothy tried to shush her, but Maddie wouldn’t be silenced. “You’ve been drinkin’ again. I can smell it on ya.”
“I been out tryin’ to solve our little problems, is what I’ve been doin’.”
“Whiskey ain’t goin’ to help. We wouldn’t have our ‘little’ problems if it weren’t for your brother and his wife both up and dying on us.”
“Thank the angels they’re all girls. The Ursulines will take the two little ones.” His heavy sigh reached Lovie from across the room.
“And the other two?”
Lovie stifled a gasp, knowing she, and Megan, almost nine years old, were “the other two.”
“Found a place for them, too, I have,” he bragged.
When Ma lay on her death bed, Lovie had promised she’d watch over her sisters. Now they were going to be parceled out, given away like unwanted kittens. Separated for life.
Maddie set the tea down and shuffled back to the stove. She was rail thin, all elbows and wrists, angles and edges — no softness about her at all. She was nothing like the gentle, soft-spoken mother Lovie had known, the mother she missed so desperately.
“Is it a good place?” Maddie wanted to know.
“What do you care? Besides, they’ll live in a big, fine house.”
“Oh, really? And how’s that?” Maddie turned away and mumbled, “Maybe I should go me’self.”
“Don’t tempt me.” Uncle Tim burst into ribald laughter mingled with a phlegmy cough. When he stopped choking and slapping his knees, he settled back in his chair again.
“They’ll have three square meals a day, their own beds, and fine clothes.”
When her aunt glanced in the direction of the door, Lovie drew away from the crack in the drape. Aunt Maddie lowered her voice to a gravelly whisper. Lovie was too lost in her own speculation to concentrate on what her aunt might be saying.
Never having known what it was to not fight for pallet space, Lovie found the prospect of sleeping alone a frightening proposition at best. And fine clothes? It was hard to even imagine what exactly that meant, but it was tempting. What little girl didn’t want pretty clothes?
A chair creaked in the other room. Lovie peeked out and saw Uncle Tim fighting to stay awake. His head slumped onto his chest and his mouth opened on a snore. Aunt Maddie shook his shoulder with a rough jerk.
“Did you save any coin? We’ll need milk tomorrow.”
“Once I deliver the two girls in the mornin’, we’ll have plenty to spare. You get them washed up first thing. Have ’em lookin’ as presentable as you can. I don’t want to have to be bringin’ ’em back.”
“And the little ones?”
“Soon as I deliver the older girls, I’ll come back for the other two.”
Having grown up in the brisk chill of Ireland, Lovie was convinced she’d never grow used to the sultry Louisiana air. Tonight, though, she shivered despite the heat as she tiptoed back to the pallet and knelt down.
She stared at “the baa-bies,” as her Ma always called the two youngest girls. They were her babies now. Tears wet her cheeks and she pictured the coming morn. She and Megan were to be groomed and taken to a new family.
Were they even Irish? Would anything be familiar?
She wondered if she could somehow sneak all of her sisters out of the house, and thought about waking them. Within another breath she realized the idea was completely impossible. If it were just her and Megan, they might stand a chance of escape, but with a four- and six-year-old along? Impossible.
Besides, she barely knew the Irish Channel neighborhood and it only covered a few blocks near the docks. Ma had told her New Orleans was a huge, sprawling city, big as Dublin, with many, many streets and neighborhoods. Many dangers, too, if the stories her parents told were to be believed.
As Lovie lay staring into the darkness, she blindly reached for Megan’s hand. Though her sister slept, Lovie took comfort in slipping her fingers around Megan’s own warm ones. Eventually she fell asleep with her tears drying on her cheeks.
Before the light of dawn the next morning, true to her word, Aunt Maddie woke Lovie and Megan and filled a tub in the kitchen with lukewarm water.
She proceeded to have each girl stand in the tub as she sluiced them with soapy water and scrubbed their faces until they shone. She put their dresses back on them, then struggled to make some semblance of their tangled hair.
“Lovie, your hair is a rat’s nest.”
Somehow Ma had always managed to tame her matted curls. Ma said she took after her English cousins, what with her dimples and hair the color of wheat straw. Megan, with her straight, dark-brown hair and dusting of freckles all over, looked Irish through and through. Lovie longed for straight hair and freckles, but had to settle for blonde ringlets and bright-blue eyes.
“Want me to get the babies, Aunt?” Megan asked. “They need bathed in the worst way, you know.” She’d been chatting happily all morning, and the cheerier she grew, the heavier became Lovie’s heart.
She has no idea —
“I won’t be needin’ to bath them. But you’ll be wantin’ to go and tell them good-bye, I suppose, so you best get to it.”
“Good-bye?” Excitement dawned in Megan’s brown eyes. “Are we going somewhere? Just Lovie and me? Where, Aunt?”
“I don’t rightly know, but your Uncle Tim ’as a surprise for you and Lovie. You’ll be movin’ to a fine new place where they need two lovely lasses like you.”
Megan’s perfectly shaped brows drew together. A scar parted her right brow, a reminder of a fall she’d taken aboard the ship on the voyage to America. “But what of the others?” She glanced toward the other room where her sisters and cousins slept on in their innocence.
“They won’t be goin’ with you. They’ll be off to their own place, they will.”
“But . . .” Megan looked to Lovie for answers. “But Ma said we’d always be together. Didn’t she now, Lovie?”
“She did, Sis, but Ma ain’t here no more.”
Looking down into her sister’s trusting eyes, Lovie’s heart crumpled like a paper fan. No use in lying or trying to tell her it wasn’t so. A million and one questions crowded Lovie’s mind, but her uncle was short-tempered and impatient of a morning. He wasn’t civil until he’d had his first ration of whiskey for the day. There was no sense in asking him where they were going or if they’d ever see their sisters again.
The thought that she might never lay eyes on Katie and Sarahagain was unthinkable. Before their mother died, Lovie had promised not only to be brave and to do as she was told, but above all to watch over the little ones. She was the oldest, the head of the family. She was the one charged with keeping them together.
“Be good, Lovie. Do your best. Work hard. Keep the others safe.”
Theirs had been a difficult life. There was famine in Ireland and Da had had no choice but to come to America to meet up with Uncle Tim and seek his fortune. Uncle Tim was a slacker; Da had always said so. But they were brothers, after all. So Da packed up Ma andLovie and all the girls and, bringing only what they could carry, they’d sailed across the Atlantic in search of a better life.