Mary Call Luther was a fourteen-year-old girl born and raised in the Great Smoky Mountains. She’d been given the responsibility of being the head of her family, which lived in a small house on share-cropping land. Ima Jean was Mary Call’s five-year-old sister, Romey her ten-year-old brother, and eighteen-year old Devola was her “cloudy-headed” older sister. Devola loved Kiser Pease, the farmer who took most of the Luther’s crops after the family had done all the work. Kiser wanted to marry Devola, but Roy Luther wouldn’t allow that. Roy Luther was the father, and should have been head of the family, but he’d taken sick, and one day he grabbed his head, collapsed to the floor, and had to be carried to his bed.
Even if they’d had the money for a doctor, Roy Luther wouldn’t let one on the property. A doctor had killed Roy Luther’s mother by cutting into a growth on the side of her neck, and that knife-cut let the poisoned air inside of her. Mountain remedies were the only kind you could trust and, though the family did their best to heal Roy Luther, he made Mary Call promise to carry out all of his orders when he died. Don’t send for an undertaker or preacher, for they just wanted money. He’d already dug his own grave up on a mountainside, and that’s where he was to be buried. Tell no one he’d died, for outsiders would want to decide what’s best for the family. Mary Call was to keep Devola with her always, for the cloudy-headed young lady was not to be allowed to marry anyone – especially not Kiser Pease.
It was late summer and Mary Call needed a way to earn enough money to get them through the coming winter. One night she couldn’t sleep so she looked out the window and thought she saw a vision of her deceased mother, Cosby Luther, kneeling beside some plants. Her mother had been a wildcrafter, gathering leaves and roots from certain plants, and selling them to the general store owner, who then sold them to a place that made medicines. Mary Call crept into her father’s room, opened a trunk and took out Cosby Luther’s big illustrated herb book. The family had a way to earn money.
Her siblings were first excited about their new occupation, but they all grew rebellious when Mary Call made them get up early and work all day long, tramping over the mountains, getting scratched by underbrush and bit by insects, as they searched for foxglove, ginseng and witch hazel.
One day Romey said he hadn’t seen any smoke from Kiser Pease’s chimney for a couple of days, and maybe their landlord was sick. Mary Call and Romey went to check on him, and found him barely conscious, with chills and a fever. Mary Call thought out a plan, and then sent Romey to fetch Ima Dean and Devola. The family sliced and heated a huge pile of onions, then they carried Kiser to his bathtub, and began covering him with a folk-medicine onion cure. When Kiser roused enough to talk Mary Call told him she would let him die if he didn’t sign a paper, giving her the Luther’s house and land. If that doesn’t seem like a court-approved way to get title to land, well, Mary Call was sure it would solve much of their troubles.
A little while after the children saved Kiser’s life Roy Luther died, and Mary Call ordered Romey to help her bury their father in his mountainside grave. Mary Call told her siblings that no one could know about their father’s death. Both Kiser and the store owner’s wife wanted to visit with Roy Luther, and they began questioning why he was always too sick to see anyone. One day when Kiser came calling Mary Call showed him the paper he’d signed, giving away the house and land. He didn’t have much to say about it.
School started, and Mary Call still made the family get up early to do some wildcrafting before she and Romey walked to school. She told her brother they couldn’t be friends with the other school children because they had a secret to keep, and couldn’t risk anyone finding out about Roy Luther.
One day the family learned Kiser had suffered a bad accident and had been taken to a hospital. Mary Call thought that would give them a break from Kiser wanting to talk to Roy Luther, but Kiser’s sister Goldie showed up, and she had her own ideas about who owned what. Goldie ordered the Luthers out of their home, for she had another family she wanted as sharecroppers.
The only way Mary Call could think to solve the crisis was for her to find a way to get to the hospital so she could convince Kiser to marry her, instead of her sister Devola. And if Kiser wouldn’t agree to that, she might be forced to break all of those solemn promises she’d made to her father.
Where the Lilies Bloom was first published in 1969, and is still available through Harper Collins publishers. When I was young I bought the paperback version that came out at the time of the 1974 United Artist movie. The story is told by Mary Call, who believes all the customs and traditions she’d been taught. But she longs to learn more at school, and begins to understand that some of what her family told her might not be true.
If you’re interested in the hard-scrabble life between Sugar Boy and Old Joshua, amid the Great Smoky Mountains, you may want to obtain a copy of Vera and Bill Cleaver’s Where the Lilies Bloom.