“I need to tell you something, Stag. I need to tell you why Ida Mae sent me here. If we’re going to be friends, I don’t want it starting out on a lie.”
“I don’t know if it’s something I want to hear.”
Trout stared at her for a long time. “If you don’t want me to tell you . . . I won’t.”
But Staggerlee knew why Ida Mae had sent Trout here; she could see it in Trout’s eyes and she could feel it when Trout sat down next to her. There was a feeling growing inside Trout, and Staggerlee knew it because it was growing inside her too.
“I know why, Trout,” Staggerlee whispered.
“This richly layered novel will be appreciated for its affecting look at the anxious wonderings of presexual teens, its portrait of a complex interracial family, and its snapshot of the emotionally wrenching but inarticulate adolescent search for self.”—SLJ
“As soft-spoken and poetic as the heroine herself, Woodson’s prose gracefully expresses Staggerlee’s slow emergence from isolation as she and Trout grapple with their shared secret.”
ALSO BY JACQUELINE WOODSON
After Tupac and D Foster
Beneath a Meth Moon
Between Madison and Palmetto
Brown Girl Dreaming
The Dear One
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun
I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This
If You Come Softly
Last Summer with Maizon
Maizon at Blue Hill
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Young Readers Group, 345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)
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(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)
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Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand
(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)
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Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Registered Offices: Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the United States of America by Delacorte Press, 1997
Published simultaneously by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
and G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2003
This edition published by Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2010
Copyright © Jacqueline Woodson, 1997
All rights reserved
“Desperado” by Don Henley & Glenn Frey © 1973 Cass County Music/Red Cloud Music
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS EDITION AS FOLLOWS:
The house you pass on the way / Jacqueline Woodson.—1st G. P. Putnam’s Sons ed.
Summary: When fourteen-year-old Staggerlee, the daughter of a racially mixed marriage,
spends a summer with her cousin Trout, she begins to question her sexuality to Trout
and catches a glimpse of her possible future self.
[1. Cousins—Fiction. 2. Racially mixed people—Fiction 3. Interracial marriage—Fiction.
4. African Americans—Fiction. 5. Lesbians—Fiction. 6. Homosexuality—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.W868Ho 2003 [Fic]—dc21 2003001277
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume
any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
Table of Contents
Also by Jacqueline Woodson
In Her Own Words
Jacqueline Woodson Shares Some Thoughts and Insights About The House You Pass on the Way
An Excerpt from Brown Girl Dreaming
An Excerpt from If You Come Softly
For Toshi, Juna, Kali, and Tashawn
And freedom? Oh, freedom.
Well that’s just some people talking.
Your prison is walking through this world all alone.
IT WAS WINTER THAT FINALLY MADE STAGGERLEE remember. Something about the way the cold grabbed hold of her as she walked along the river, her dog, Creek, galloping behind her, their shadows like ink against the white snow. And in the distance, the house sitting big and silent with all her family’s land spread out beyond it. Even the land seemed vast and muted now. Staggerlee turned to look at it—remembering all the corn and collards, all the wheat that had been harvested. The land didn’t seem capable now, flat and snow-covered. All spring, men had come, men her father had hired to work the land. And Staggerlee had watched them moving slowly through the fields, plowing and planting, their faces lined and weathered. Then fall had come, and these same men had returned to harvest the corn and wheat that seemed to grow for miles and miles. Then winter—and the men faded into the thick quiet. Even their laughter—the way it carried back to the house from the fields—where was it now?
Staggerlee squinted up at the sun. It was weak today. Wintry. Everything about this place had settled into winter. Even the fish had disappeared, moved closer to the bottom of the river. And the meadowlarks and mourning doves. They were gone too. She shivered, wrapped her arms tighter around herself as she walked. In the distance, a horse whinnied. Creek ran ahead of her, skirting the icy edge of the river.
Autumn had been new—a new school, a new baby sister, the choir. But now she had fallen into the routine of it, and the cold and snow had settled in on Sweet Gum. She walked slowly along the river, picking up shards of ice that had formed along the bank and gazing into them where rainbows shot through in every direction. She stopped walking and turned slowly, full face toward the river. Where would it take her? she wondered. She wished the river were time itself and could take her back to someplace before now. Maybe before last summer. Back to the beginning of her own time. And maybe she could start over there.
And the letter from her cousin, Trout, when it finally arrived late in January, its edges smudged and bending. And the way her legs buckled when she got to the part about—about Trout and . . . Yes, that had made her want to remember. She wanted to make sense of it all, of that summer, of what happened with Trout.
Creek turned and ran back toward her, barking. She reached down to pet him.
“Do you remember it, Creek?” she whispered. “If you could tell the story, what would you say?”
The tiny brown patches above the dog’s eyes twitched, and Staggerlee smiled. It always made him seem to be thinking.
“What do you remember, dog?” But she wasn’t looking at Creek any longer, she was looking out at the river and beyond it—to her own beginning. The river wind blew hard and cold around her, whipping her hair up over her face. It was longer now, and the brown-gold ringlets felt wild in the wind. She closed her eyes and smiled. This was her hair. And her mother’s. And her father’s.
But her name, Staggerlee, that was her own. A name she had given herself a long, long time ago.
She was born Evangeline Ian Canan at Sweet Gum General, the third of five. Fourteen years ago. Pretty baby. In the baby pictures, she is smiling or reaching up to hug someone. Her hair was red then, and straight. And her eyes were blue like her mother’s but had changed over time. Now they were brown. Her mother said she didn’t cry often as a child. Staggerlee had gone through the pictures over and over. There were photos of Charlie Horse—her older brother—crying as a baby. Now Charlie Horse was eighteen. When he came home from college at Christmas, Staggerlee showed him the pictures and he laughed. He had a sweet laugh, her brother did. And now Staggerlee smiled, remembering how he’d hugged her and said, “You were just the prettiest of us, girl. That’s why there’re so many smiling pictures of you.” Charlie Horse was older now. College had changed him; he seemed more thoughtful. When he was home, he spent long hours at the piano, practicing right through lunch and dinner. He had always been able to go for hours and hours without eating. Now he seemed able to go days.
And there were crying pictures of Dotti too. Dotti, who was sixteen now. Smart and popular Dotti. In town, boys and men stared at her, their mouths slightly open. Staggerlee watched them. They were dazzled—as much as she hated that word, it was the only one she could find to describe how people reacted to her sister. But Dotti seemed unaware—almost as though she was looking away from it because she didn’t want to see it. Maybe it was because of this—of how beautiful she was—that she worked so hard at school. “My brain’s going to be here,” she once said to Staggerlee, “way after my looks are gone.” And Staggerlee had laughed and said, “Not if you lose your mind.” Dotti. Born with Daddy’s lips and Mama’s eyes. In the baby pictures of her, she looked as though her heart was breaking.
There were even crying pictures of Battle, who was two now, and one or two of Hope—the baby, who still cried and cried.
Again and again she had searched through the photo albums. Again and again she saw the pictures of Evangeline Ian—pretty, smiling baby. As she grew older, that smiling baby girl became her own tiny burden. She was the good child—the happy one. The one that never needed, never asked for anything, never caused any trouble.
It was windy along the river, and cold. She knew by the time she got back to the house her nose and cheeks would be red and numb. Mama would be in the kitchen making lunch or nursing the baby. She closed her eyes. Hope had been born beautiful, with Daddy’s broad forehead and Mama’s delicate hands. Over the months, as her eyes opened and changed, she became even prettier, and often Staggerlee would come downstairs in the morning to find Mama or Daddy snapping picture after picture. Some evenings she sat on the stairs, half hidden by the banister, and watched them coo over the baby. She wasn’t jealous—just curious. Had they been like this with her? Would Hope remember it? Would Hope become a good girl the way she had?
Her father had married a white woman. That’s how Sweet Gum people talked about it, talked about her mother. Not to their faces, but it got back to them. The whole family did well at hiding the sting of townspeople’s words. It was not what they whispered that stung. But how they whispered. Yes, Mama was white and that made all of them—Charlie Horse and Dotti and Battle, Hope and Staggerlee—part white. The only mixed-race family in Sweet Gum, maybe in all of Calmuth County. No, it wasn’t what people said, for that part was true. But Mama was more than “white.” She was Mama, quiet and easygoing. She kept to herself. When she smiled, her whole face brightened, and tiny dimples showed at the edge of her lips. Why was white the word that hung on people’s lips? At school, when the kids talked about her mama, they whispered the word or said, “Your mama’s white!” and it sounded loud and ugly, like something was wrong with Mama. And if something was wrong with Mama, then that meant that something was wrong with all of them.