Prayers and Lies (Paperback)
Kensington, 9780758253248, 320pp.
Publication Date: February 1, 2011
But as Bethany grows older, she realizes that life in this small, close-knit community is not as simple as she once thought. . .that the riverside cabins that hold so much of her family's history also teem with scandalous whispers. . .and that those closest to her harbor unimaginable secrets. Amid the dense woods and quiet beauty of the valley, these secrets are coming to light at last, with a force devastating enough to shatter lives, faith, and the bond that Bethany once thought would last forever.
Spanning four decades, Sherri Wood Emmons' debut is a haunting, captivating novel about the unexpected, sometimes shocking events that thrust us into adulthood--and the connections that keep us tethered, always, to our pasts.
Advance praise for Sherri Wood Emmons and Prayers and Lies
"From the first sentence, the voice of the narrator, Bethany, rings true and never falters. By the end of the book, I cared for every aunt and cousin, mother and sister, even the most troubled and dangerous. Prayers and Lies is the story of a family that knows how to love and forgive and get on with life." --Drusilla Campbell, author of The Good Sister
"Through the careful rendering of this dysfunctional family, Emmons makes us fall in love with Bethany Wylie, the young girl at the heart of this story, as well as her wayward cousin, Reana Mae. The evolution of their friendship--the way they grow together and grow apart--is heart-breaking." --T. Greenwood, author of Two Rivers
"Prepare to stay up all night reading! Sherri Wood Emmons perfectly captures the devastating impact of family secrets in her beautifully written--and ultimately hopeful--debut novel. With its evocative setting and realistically crafted characters, Prayers and Lies is a must read for fans of rich family drama." --Diane Chamberlain, author of The Lies We Told
"A sweet, revealing tale of family, friendship, long-held secrets and includes the all-important ingredients of forgiveness and love." --Kris Radish, author of The Shortest Distance Between Two Women
"I loved it." --Cathy Lamb, author of Such A Pretty Face
We always knew when Bobby Lee came home. Folks up and
down the Coal River Valley heard the roar of his motorcycle
on the gravel road long before he tore around the final bend, turning
so sharp he lay nearly sideways on the ground. Sometimes he'd
be gone weeks at a time, sometimes just a few days. But his homecoming
He rode into the valley like a conquering hero. And Jolene, his
wife, would come flying out of their shabby cabin, long red hair
streaming behind her, just as Bobby Lee pulled into their little dirt
yard. He'd be off the huge bike in a flash as she ran down the two
broken and patched steps and into his arms. And then there would
be the kiss--scandalous for that rural West Virginia community in
the 1960s. We children would stand on our own porches or in the
road, gaping at the two of them, our mouths and eyes wide.
Usually, Reana Mae was waiting on the porch, too, but Bobby
Lee didn't notice her right off. His wife was such a whirlwind of
red curls and short skirts and hunger that their daughter--thin,
freckled, and silent--went unnoticed. After the kiss would come
gifts, if his haul had been a long one. Sometimes, Bobby Lee drove
his rig all the way from Charleston to California, and he brought
Jolene and Reana presents from places like Los Angeles and Las
Vegas. Usually a toy or coloring book for Reana. For Jolene, he
brought clothes--shocking clothes. Like the halter top and hot
pants he brought from San Francisco. Or the lime green minidress
from Chicago. Jolene strutted around like a peacock in them, while
the rest of the valley folk shook their heads and whispered to one
another over their fences and laundry lines. Jolene was the first
woman in the valley to go braless, her round, full breasts barely
contained beneath the tight T-shirts and sweaters she wore.
After the gifts and the hellos and the "What's happenin' in the
world?" talk, Jolene would send Reana Mae off to her greatgrandma's,
then disappear into the house with her husband for the
rest of the afternoon. Sometimes, Reana spent the night at her
Grandma Loreen's before Jolene remembered to come for her.
Loreen would make up Jolene's old room, and she'd fry pork chops
and boil potatoes with green beans and bacon fat like Reana
wanted, and she'd sing her the lullaby she used to sing to her own
babies. And so, on those days, Reana Mae got cherished a little bit.
Jolene wasn't from the valley, though her people were. She'd
spent most of her childhood up north in Huntington with her
mama, EmmaJane Darling. Her father, whoever he might have
been, was long gone before Jolene made her appearance at Our
Lady of Mercy Charity Hospital in Huntington. Jolene came to live
with her grandparents, Ray and Loreen, after EmmaJane died, and
she was a handful.
But Bobby Lee fell for Jolene the first time he laid his eyes on
her, the day she came to the Coal River. She was just twelve years
old then, but she looked sixteen in her tight black skirt, low-cut
blouse, and bright-red lipstick. And Bobby Lee told his little
brother, "I'm gonna marry that girl." Five years later, he did. And
don't you suppose Ray and Loreen were relieved to have Jolene
married off? They fairly beamed at the wedding, didn't even bat an
eye when Jolene wore a short blue dress to be married in instead of
the nice, long white gown with lace that Loreen had offered to
make for her.
"At least," my Aunt Belle had whispered, "it ain't red."
They were scandalous, those two, even in a valley that tolerated
a good bit of questionable goings-on. Times were hard, after all, and people had to take their happiness when and where they found
it. Folks in the valley were philosophical about such things. But
Bobby Lee and Jolene Colvin, they pushed it too far by half.
They didn't go to church, for one thing. Everyone else in the
valley spent long Sunday mornings at Christ the King Baptist
Church, praying for redemption, hearing the true gospel, and assuring
their eternal salvation. But not Bobby Lee and Jolene.
They sent Reana Mae to church, though, every Sunday morning,
scrubbed clean and wearing her one Sunday dress, her spindly legs
bare in summer and winter alike. Folks sometimes said Jolene sent
her daughter to church just so she could lie abed with Bobby Lee,
desecrating the Lord's Day. And the church folk were sugary sweet
to Reana on account of it. But she never even smiled at them; she
just stared with her unblinking, green cat-eyes and all those brown
freckles. Not a pretty child, folks whispered. Small, knobby, wild-
haired, and so quiet you'd hardly notice her, till you felt her eyes
staring through you. You couldn't hardly tell she was Jolene's
daughter, except for those eyes--just like Jolene's.
Reana Mae sometimes sat with my sisters and me at church, and
she never wrote notes on the bulletin or whispered or wriggled or
pinched. She just sat with her hands folded in her lap and stared up
at Brother Harley preaching. Sometimes her lips moved like she
was praying, but she never said a word. She didn't even sing when
Miss Lucetta started up a hymn on the piano.
Christ the King Baptist Church was the glue that held that community
together. The weathered white house of God had married
and buried valley folk for longer than anyone could remember.
Brother Harley, the pastor, was a heavy-jowled, sweaty, balding
man who liked a good joke and a cold beer. When he didn't wear
his black robe, he donned plaid shirts with a breast pocket, where
he tucked the white handkerchiefs he used to wipe the sweat from
his forehead and neck. His daddy had been the first pastor of
Christ the King Baptist Church, and he was hoping his grandson,
Harley Boy, would take the pulpit when he retired.
Brother Harley was great friends with my Great-Aunt Belle.
Often on quiet summer nights, you could hear his belly laugh echo
all through the valley when he sat on Belle's porch, drinking beer
and sharing gossip. His tiny, sharp-eyed wife, Ida Louise, didn't
join him at Belle's. Folks sometimes wondered, quietly over their
laundry lines, just why Brother Harley spent so much time with a
rich widow and so little time at home. "But"--Loreen would sigh
to my mother, her head bobbing earnestly--"knowing Ida's temper,
maybe it ain't such a wonder as all that."
Aunt Belle--Arabella was her Christian name--was born and
bred in the Coal River Valley, the eldest of the three Lee sisters. My
grandmother, Araminta, was the youngest. Arathena, Bobby Lee's
grandmother, was the middle child.
When she was nineteen, Belle caught the eye of a much older
and very wealthy man. Mason Martin owned a chain of drugstores
in East Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. He'd come to the
valley to look into property, before deciding the community was
too small to support a drugstore. He left without a store but with a
beautiful young wife. The couple settled into a fine house in
Charleston, and for eleven years lived happily together.
At thirty, Belle came back to the valley, widowed and childless.
Mason had dropped dead in his rose garden at the age of sixty-two,
leaving Belle the sole heir to his drugstore wealth. They'd had just
one child, a scrawny son who died of whooping cough before his
When Mason died, Aunt Belle had her big house built and proceeded
to buy from the Coal River Excavation Company as many
of the small riverfront cabins as she could talk them out of. These
she sold to the families who had long lived in them, for monthly
payments of about half what their previous rents had been. It was
Belle who waged war with the electric company to get the valley
wired in 1956, and Belle who hired the contractors to install
plumbing and septic tanks for her little houses a few years later.
Aunt Belle always sat right up front at Christ the King Baptist
Church, marching in solemnly, winking sidelong at friends, just as
the first hymn began. When we first started coming to the river, she
and my mother had battled fiercely over whether we would sit with
"Pride of place," my mother said softly, in that velvety firm
voice that brooked no argument, "does not belong in the house of
"You all are my family," Belle had hollered. "You ought to be up
front with me. What do folks think, you all sitting way at the back
of the church, like you're ashamed before the Lord?"
But my mother would not be moved. Aunt Belle had all the resources
of her drugstore empire and the indebtedness of an entire
valley, but they were nothing in the face of my mother's rock-solid
belief in the rightness of her faith.
That was always the difference between valley faith and my
mother's. Valley folk took their religion tempered with a hard dose
of pragmatism. If Brother Harley spent more time than was absolutely
seemly with Arabella Lee . . . well, look at his wife, after all.
If the mining men drank too much beer or even whiskey on a Saturday
night . . . well, didn't they earn that privilege, working underground
six days a week? If Reana Mae had been born only six
months after Bobby Lee and Jolene got married . . . well, at least
they made it legal in time.
My mother's fiery faith allowed for no such dalliances with the
Lord and His ways. There was no liquor in our house, no card playing,
no gossip. And there was definitely not pride of place; no,
ma'am, we would not sit up in the front pew with my Aunt Belle,
no matter how loudly she argued. We sat quietly in the back, with
Most of the valley kids teased Reana Mae, but my sister Tracy
was the worst. Tracy seemed to really hate Reana. I wasn't sure why,
but then I didn't understand a lot about Tracy in those days. She
was purely mean most of the time, and poor Reana Mae bore the
brunt of it when we came south. I wonder sometimes that Reana
didn't fight back earlier. Later, much later, she learned to hurt
Tracy more than Tracy ever hurt her. But in those hot and sticky
days of the 1960s, she only took whatever Tracy gave and came
back for more.
"Why doesn't your mother get you some clothes that fit?"
Reana Mae looked down at the faded yellow swimsuit that hung
from her shoulders, her cheeks reddening. She shrugged and lowered her head. We were building mud and sand castles at the strip
of cleared land that passed for a beach.
"I guess she doesn't want to waste her money," Tracy continued,
shoveling dirt into a pink bucket and smashing it down with both
hands. "Why, it'd be like dressing up a scarecrow. Like putting Barbie
dresses on a stick doll. Ain't that so, Bethany?" She paused,
looking up at me expectantly. I didn't make a sound, so Tracy went
on. "I guess she wants to keep all Bobby Lee's money for herself so
she can buy those trashy dresses she wears, the ones that show her
Reana Mae just stared at the ground, her small frame slumped
"My daddy says people down here breed like rabbits," Tracy
continued, "but your mama and daddy just have you. How come?"
Reana shrugged her shoulders again, still silent. She shoved her
dirty-blond hair back from her freckled face with a muddy hand.
"I guess when they saw how ugly you turned out, they didn't
want any more babies." Tracy smirked.
Still, Reana Mae said nothing, and neither did I. At least Tracy
wasn't focused on me.
"What's white and ugly and disgusting to look at?" Tracy continued.
Neither of us said anything.
"A pile of maggots . . . and Reana Mae's face."
Tracy's laughter rang shrill up and down the river. Reana Mae
looked up at me, to see if I would laugh, too. She looked like a dog
waiting to be kicked.
"Shut up, Tracy," I heard myself say out loud.
Tracy's eyes widened in surprise, then she snickered. "Well, I
guess you finally found your real sister, Bethany-beanpole-bonybutt-
baby. You and Hillbilly Lilly must have come from the same
garbage can. That's where we found Bethany, you know." She
turned to Reana Mae now that I was the target. "She was crying in
a garbage can and Mother felt sorry for her and brought her home.
She's not our real sister. Mother has to pay people just to be her
friends." She laughed again, her brilliant hazel eyes sparkling
Reana Mae stared directly into Tracy's beautiful, hateful face
and finally whispered, "I think you're the meanest girl that ever
Tracy stopped laughing abruptly and hurled the contents of her
bucket at the two of us, drenching us both with wet sand and mud.
"You two are just alike," she hissed as she rose. "You're the
With that, she picked up her bucket and ran up the road.
We sat there silently for a moment, dripping and muddy and
miserable. Then Reana said to me, smiling shyly, "Well, I guess I always
wanted a twin anyhow."
I smiled back at her. All my life I'd had three sisters--three
strangers I lived with but never really knew. Sitting in the mud on
that muggy day, I found my real sister. I was seven, Reana Mae was
six, and I had no way of knowing just how intertwined our lives
would become. But from that day forward, Reana and I were connected
in a way I've never been with anyone else. Her story and
mine got so tangled up together, sometimes it felt like I was just
watching from the outside, like she was the one living. Sometimes,
I hated her for that. But mostly, I loved her.
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
Is there a villain in the story? Who is the villain? Is there anything that makes his or her actions understandable? Is that character redeemable?
Aunt Belle explains to Reana Mae and Bethany that Helen’s family carries “bad blood.” What is the bad blood? How might it be diagnosed today?
Does knowing about the bad blood change the way you view Tracy?
Do Helen and Jimmy bear responsibility for Tracy’s death? What could they have done to prevent it?
Did Jolene have a right to know who her father was? Should Helen have told her? Why or why not?
Is there any good in the relationship between Reana Mae and Caleb? What good would that be?
Why did Reana Mae have sex with Harley Boy on the day of Araminta’s funeral? What does her decision say about her attitude toward sex?
How might the story have changed if Jolene had not lost her baby?
What responsibility does Bobby Lee bear for Reana Mae’s relationship with Caleb?
Were Harley Boy, Ruthanne, and Bethany right to keep quiet after they found out about Reana Mae and Caleb? Should they have told their parents the truth?
What role does Neil play in the story?
Why is the book titled Prayers and Lies? Is there a faith element to the story?
Why is the story told from Bethany’s perspective? Is that an effective narrative device? How might the story be different if it was told in the third person?
Was moving Reana Mae to Indianapolis the right decision for her? Was it the right decision for the rest of the family?
What enabled Helen to rise above the circumstances of her childhood and become a sane, loving mother?
Given the family history of “bad blood,” is it irresponsible for Bethany to choose to have a child?