Published April 7, 2015
A Long Time Gone
Available Now in Paperback
Buy the Book
“We Walker women were born screaming into this world, the beginning of a lifelong quest to find what would quiet us. But whatever drove us away was never stronger than the pull of what brought us back….”
When Vivien Walker left her home in the Mississippi Delta, she swore never to go back, as generations of the women in her family had. But in the spring, nine years to the day since she’d left, that’s exactly what happens—Vivien returns, fleeing from a broken marriage and her lost dreams for children.
What she hopes to find is solace with “Bootsie,” her dear grandmother who raised her, a Walker woman with a knack for making everything all right. But instead she finds that her grandmother has died and that her estranged mother is drifting further away from her memories. Now Vivien is forced into the unexpected role of caretaker, challenging her personal quest to find the girl she herself once was.
But for Vivien things change in ways she cannot imagine when a violent storm reveals the remains of a long-dead woman buried near the Walker home, not far from the cypress swamp that is soon to give up its ghosts. Vivien knows there is now only one way to rediscover herself—by uncovering the secrets of her family and breaking the cycle of loss that has haunted her them for generations.
Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee for “Best Mainstream, Young Adult & New Adult” Book
—RT Book Reviews
“One of the best books (so far) of 2014.”
“Karen White’s A Long Time Gone leaves readers in that most pleasant teary-eyed state that only a very good book can induce.”
—Southern Literary Review
GOLD Top Pick
“Her colorful narrative is melodious and haunting, and gives a Tennessee Williams-like aura to the awesomely depicted places and all of her impeccably played and fantastic characters. Brava!”
—RT Book Reviews
“Sunburn alert! This multi-generational family saga is a book you could get lost in, so read with care in the bright sunshine.”
“A sweet Southern tale of the bond between mothers and daughters…emotionally satisfying…”
“White…crafts a story with something for almost everyone: betrayal, murder, history, family secrets, and a little romance. Readers will find it difficult to put this one down since each chapter leaves one craving more of the Walker women’s stories. Recommended.
“Karen White’s new delta-drawn narrative is gothic gold.”
“A Long Time Gone” is Karen White’s best novel to date..Use your vacation reading to escape and immerse in this world White has so deftly created. It’s so real that it’s hard to leave at the end.”
“White…writes, plots and develops characters to levels above the usual summer-reading fare…”
“This southern saga of life in Mississippi [is] one of White’s best, and that means it is very, very good.”
—The Huffington Post
“Intense, riveting, and mysterious contemporary fiction — finely told — a best seller!”
—The Best Reviews
“…an absorbing drama. [This] is why White consistently prevails as a shining literary star.”
One of “10 Best Beach Reads”
“…White’s lyrical prose recalls the melancholic harmony of the blues and the hypnotic southern drawl of novelists Olive Ann Burns and Kaye Gibbons…There’s no question that White has a gift for words. That, and a deftly constructed plot, make A Long Time Gone a recommended read.”
“A good choice for readers who like the history and secrets of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (2013) or the intergenerational female stories of Sarah Addison Allen.”
“[The characters’] collective views offer glimpses into old secrets and future hopes in White’s richly detailed narrative.”
—The Washington Post
I was born in the same bed that my mama was born in, and her mama before her, and even further back than anybody alive could still remember. It was as if the black wood of the bedposts was meant to root us Walker women to this place of flat fields and fertile soil carved from the great Mississippi. But like the levees built to control the mighty river, it never held us for long.
We were born screaming into this world, the beginning of a lifelong quest to find what would quiet us. Our legacy was our ability to coax living things from fallow ground along with a desperate need to see what lay beyond the Delta. A need to quell a hurt whose source was as unexplainable as its force.
Whatever it was that drove us away was never stronger than the pull of what brought us back. Maybe it was the feel of the black Mississippi mud or the memory of the old house and the black bed into which we’d been born, but no matter how far we ran we always came back.
I returned in the spring nearly nine years to the day after I’d left. I’d driven straight through from Los Angeles, twenty-seven hours of asphalt and fast food, my memories like a string guiding me home. The last leg from Little Rock to Indian Mound was punctuated by bright flashes of lightening and constant tornado watches on the radio. I kept my foot pressed to the accelerator as strong winds buffeted my car. It didn’t occur to me to stop. I had a trunk’s worth of hurts piled in the car with me that only my grandmother, Bootsie, could make go away. She would forgive those long years of silence because she understood doggedness. I’d inherited it from her side of the family, after all.
It was nearly dawn when the storm passed and I crossed the river into Mississippi, and headed east on Highway 82 and into the heart of the Delta. The hills and bluffs to the west disappeared as if a giant boot had flattened all the land in between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, creating a landscape as rich and fertile as it was difficult to contain and control. This place of my ancestors was known to make or break a man, and I figured by now the scorecard was about even.
I’ve been a long time gone. Billboards and highway lights fell away, leaving behind empty fields and ramshackle structures swallowed by kudzu, turning them into hulking ghosts haunting the roadside. Sinewy cypress swamps randomly appeared as if to remind us of our tenuous hold on the land. The predawn flatscape flashed by me in black and white, as if the years had absorbed all the color so that even my memories were seen only in black and white.
A therapist had once told me that my hindsight color-blindness was due to an unhappy childhood. I tried to tell him that I had never considered my motherless childhood to be unhappy. It was more of an accumulation of years filled with absence; that perhaps black and white were simply the colors of grief.
The rising sun painted the sky pink by the time I passed the sign for Indian Mound, the first seeds of panic making my heart beat faster. I glanced over at my purse where I kept my pills, wondering if I could swallow them dry again as I’d been doing for most of the trip. My throat felt sore, and my hands shook. I’m almost home. I turned my gaze toward the dim light outside that seemed to swallow my car as I passed through it, and pressed my foot harder on the accelerator.
I slowed down, trying to avoid the increasing amounts of debris tossed across the road, the tree limbs, leaves and roof shingles that seemed to have been scattered by the hand of a careless child. I caught up to an old, faded red pick-up truck as it slowed down at the bright flashing red and blue lights of a police car stopped in front of fallen electrical lines. A large, brindled-colored dog, his lineage as indecipherable as the vintage of the pickup truck in which he sat, stared at me with a lost expression. A police officer guided our way around the danger zone, his other hand reminding us to slow down. As soon as he had disappeared from my rearview mirror, I sped up, passing the truck and maneuvering past a mailbox that stood upright in the middle of the highway as if it was meant to be there.
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and I thought of the pills again, and how easily they could take away the pit of worry that had begun to gnaw at me. I went faster, clipping a tree limb with my left front tire and hearing a crack and a thump of the split wood hitting metal. I kept going, realizing that I was prepared to drive on the rim of a flat tire if I had to. I’ve been a long time gone.
I turned off the highway onto a dirt road studded with puddles and rocks. The road bisected a large cotton field, the furrows drowning in standing water. I remembered this road and had turned by instinct. It probably had a name, one we’d never used when giving directions to the odd visitor. We usually instructed visitors to turn right about one and a half miles past the old general store that leaned to the left and still had a Royal Crown Cola sign plastered over the doorway even though it had been abandoned long before I was born.
The store was gone now, but I still knew where to turn in the same way my hair still knew where to part no matter how hard I tried to tell it different. But the road was the same, still narrow with the tall white oaks—taller now, I supposed—creating a green archway above. Tommy and I used to race barefoot down this road, watching our feet churn up dust like conjured spirits.
My back tires spun out, bringing me back to the present and slipping my car off the side of the road. Panicking, I gunned the engine, succeeding only in digging the wheels further in muck. Although I knew it was useless, I gunned the engine two more times. I stared through the windshield down the tree-shaded road. It had taken me nine years to come back. I figured stretching it out for a few more minutes wouldn’t matter.
- “Home means so many different things. . . . It’s where your people are.” The author creates such a dynamic sense of place for the reader through sensory details and evocative objects such as the heirloom black bed, the watermark from the flood, and the lost diary. What things or memories evoke “home” for you?
- Does Vivien get the closure she needs with her mother once she returns home? How do Bootsie’s death, Carol Lynne’s dementia, and Vivien’s reliance on prescription drugs complicate things?
- What is the effect of Carol Lynne’s dementia on those around her? As a reader, what was it like to encounter Carol Lynne only through her diary?
- In one of her diary entries, Carol Lynne notes, “There’s something in the ways of mothers and daughters, I think, that makes us see all the bad parts of ourselves.” Do you think this is true? How does this apply to the Walker women? Does each woman grow emotionally from this realization?
- “Because it was something I’d been born with, a poison in the blood I’d inherited from my mother and she from hers and way on back before anybody alive could still remember.” When they left home, what ghosts was each Walker woman chasing? What made each woman return?
- Carol Lynne’s diary also reveals the following sentiment: “[Bootsie] just smiled and told me to wait until I become a mother, and then I will understand that my real destiny will be decided by those not yet born.” What does Bootsie mean by this? How do children shape the futures of the Walker women?
- Did you suspect the identity of the body earlier in the novel? How does this “ghost” affect the lives of the Walker women?
- How does the author use objects or heirlooms such as the watch and ring to unite the characters’ stories across multiple generations? Is there an heirloom you’ve inherited that is loaded with meaning or inspires curiosity about the past?
- Did you have any trouble shifting between time lines, which run from the 1920s to the present day? Which era or woman’s story was your favorite?