Today is a bit of a starry-eyed moment for me, because I get to reveal the cover for the newest book by Ann McMan, author of my very first lesfic read, the fantastic Dust! This new book is a historical mystery set in the south called Dead Letters from Paradise, and it releases from Bywater Books on June 28, 2022! Here’s the story:
The year is 1960, and Gunsmoke is the most popular show on TV. Elvis Presley tops the Billboard charts, and a charismatic young senator named John F. Kennedy is running for president. And in North Carolina, four young Black men sit down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and demand service. Enter Esther Jane (EJ) Cloud, a forty-something spinster who manages the Dead Letter Office at the Winston-Salem post office. EJ leads a quiet life in her Old Salem ancestral home and spends her free time volunteering in the town’s 18th-century hortus medicus garden.
One sunny Spring morning, EJ’s simple life is turned upside down when the town’s master gardener unceremoniously hands her a stack of handwritten letters that have all been addressed to a nonexistent person in the garden. This simple act sets in motion a chain of events that will lead EJ on a life-altering quest to uncover the identity of the mysterious letter writer―and into a surprising head-on confrontation with the harsh realities of the racial injustice that is as deeply rooted in the life of her community as the ancient herbs cultivated in the Moravian garden.
When EJ is forced to read the letters to look for clues about the anonymous sender, what she discovers are lyrical tales of a forbidden passion that threaten to unravel the simple contours of her unexamined life. EJ’s official quest soon morphs into a journey of self-discovery as she becomes more deeply enmeshed in the fate of the mysterious letter writer, “Dorothea.” Her surprising accomplice in solving the mystery of the letters becomes one, Harrie Hart: a savvy, street smart ten-year-old, wielding an eye patch and a limitless supply of aphorisms. Together, Harrie and EJ make seminal pilgrimages to the tiny town of Paradise to try and uncover the identity of the mercurial sender and, ultimately, learn a better way to navigate the changing world around them.
And here’s the cover striking cover, designed by TreeHouse Studio!
But wait, there’s more! Read on for your first glimpse inside Dead Letters from Paradise by Ann McMan…
After walking Harrie back to Fay Marian’s, I resolved to make it an early night. I changed into my nightgown and robe and sat down in Daddy’s chair with my book. I had only a few chapters left to read, and I was determined to finish it this evening. But I was finding it hard to concentrate. Every time Della Street appeared in a scene, I thought about Fay Marian’s “sultry” comment. And that naturally led me to recall the passage of the letter I’d read earlier.
Her intimate touch was like the first bright bloom of Angelica . . .
It was uncanny. Angelica was one of the herbs we cultivated in the hortus medicus. The Moravians had revered the plant for its numerous healing properties. According to Evelyn Haas, its uses went beyond compounds that treated typical maladies like catarrh, dyspepsia, and insomnia. In his vast colonial-era compendium, Philadelphia apothecary Johann Sauer had noted the herb’s special ability to “bring down the menses” for distressed women facing problem—or unwanted—pregnancies. Evelyn once winked and confided in me that Angelica was also compounded into a topical cream that proved efficacious for treating premature ejaculation.
“So, one can say the early Moravians had everything covered—coming and going.”
Evelyn had an almost preternatural fascination with rumors and legends that hinted at a few more lurid aspects to early Moravian communal life—including veneration of homoerotic worship and obsession with the wounds of Christ. And she loved to draw parallels between those whispered stories and the eclectic healing properties of some of the herbs cultivated in the hortus medicus.
Angelica, with its explosive globe-like clusters of flowers, was no exception.
Of course, Angelica had also been used to ward off witches. In my mind, that attribute went hand in hand with Evelyn’s colorful description of the herb’s more prurient uses.
I forced my attention back to the novel. Della Street was busily engaged using her . . . charms . . . to wrangle information out of a distracted travel agent.
Its slender tendrils reached deep inside and laid claim to all my hidden longing.
In frustration, I put the book aside. It was ridiculous. I drummed my fingers against the big, rolled arm of Daddy’s chair. Reading the rest of the letter would accomplish nothing. And bringing it home with me, even unwittingly, was a serious breach of protocol. And even if that hadn’t been true, giving in to an unseemly impulse would make me no better than . . . than a child, blowing a tin whistle to torment a neighbor’s dog.
And yet . . .
Before I could talk myself out of it, I got to my feet and strode across the room to retrieve the letter from my bag. I stood there in the near dark, tapping it against my hand as I deliberated.
Trust me, Lottie had said. You need to read this. Twice. Maybe more.
Even though I feigned offense, I knew exactly what Lottie had referred to. I did withhold myself from the realm of sensual experience. It wasn’t something I intended to suppress—it just seemed to happen naturally. I wasn’t a prude. Not really, I thought. I’d had many friends during my years at Salem College. And I’d learned firsthand about the carnal exploits of some of my female classmates—including the lonely aftermath of nonconsensual sexual encounters, panic-inducing pregnancy scares, and even tales of their occasional Sapphic experimentations with other girls. The more I learned, the less engaged I became. For me, it was tied more to a loss of control than it was to any innate fear of the experience. It wasn’t that I was unaware of how vast and prevalent the forbidden realm of sensual experience was: it was more that I passively chose to ignore it.
But now I was finding it impossible to ignore the letter I held in the dim light of my small foyer.
I had two choices. I could return the letter to its resting place inside my bag and go watch Adventures in Paradise. Or I could give in to yet another impulse and read the rest of the letter.
It was the irony of the TV show Adventures in Paradise that finally tipped the scales for me. I carried the letter back into the living room and sat down to read it. Only this time, I didn’t sit in Daddy’s chair. That felt vaguely . . . unseemly.
I unfolded the pages and resumed reading from where I’d left off earlier.
Its slender tendrils reached deep inside and laid claim to all my hidden longing. Together we became one with the garden. Our fresh young bodies twined together amidst the rows of young plants, feeling the warmth of the early summer sun on our backs and inhaling the sweet, intoxicating fragrance of the White Rose of York—the sacred smell of heaven. We surrendered the first fruits of our youth, vitality, and promise to each other. And as I tasted her freshness, laid bare before me in perfect harmony with all of nature, I imagined I was at last seeing the face of God.
Why, Mary Ann, would you allow me to know such completeness—such blissful perfection—only to deny me its fruition? What possible good can now be served by the fate you have prescribed for me? Why withhold all meaning, possibility, and happiness from me, Mary Ann? Why?
I carefully refolded the pages and returned them to the envelope before realizing that my hands were shaking. I sat still for the next half hour, waiting for my head to clear and my agitation to subside.
Who was Dorothea? And what power over her did this mysterious Mary Ann have?
None of it made the least bit of sense. The only possible connection between the letter and the garden appeared to be the plants where the two women had . . .
I could scarcely allow myself to name what Dorothea had described.
Had had whatever kind of encounter the writer was describing.
Clearly, Dorothea had some kind of unfinished business with the woman named Mary Ann—and with the other, unnamed woman who’d been her participant in those passionate encounters.
But Evelyn insisted there had never been a Mary Ann affiliated with the gardens. So why did Dorothea send her letter there?
The clock on the mantel chimed. It was a quarter past 10 p.m. I’d been sitting in the living room for more than an hour. And tomorrow was a workday—a workday in which I’d have to confront more of Lottie’s shrewd scrutiny. She’d know I’d read the letter. And now it seemed inevitable that we’d have to read them all. Just the thought of that filled me with an emotion I couldn’t identify. But it certainly wasn’t anything approximating ease.
I returned the letter to my bag and turned off the lights before heading to bed.
In the midst of so much confusion, the only thing I was sure about was that sleep would not come easily.