Hush Now, Don’t Explain, by Dennis Must: An Orphan in ’40s Rural America Seeks her Fortune

hush_nowHush Now, Don’t Explain ($14.95, 300 pp, 5×8 Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-60381-201-6) is a work of literary fiction by Dennis Must. A white orphan and two mixed race friends set out from Ohio on a trip to New Orleans, in search of their roots and their destinies.

“Steeped in the strains of postwar jazz and the lonely sound of train whistles in the night, this is a gritty, evocative novel of identity, race, and a particularly American kind of yearning.”

—The Library Journal

Hush Now has earned Dennis the 2014 Dactyl Foundation Award for literary fiction.  Read more. It also won an Honorable Mention in the Eric Hoffer Awards and was a finalist in the 2015 International Book Awards.

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“Author Must has penned far more than a coming of age story. He has created a circle of life mystery that encompasses not only the devastating effects of racism, but also the life affirming values of kindness and friendship. This tale of shared humanity will be recalled warmly long after the last page has been turned.”

—Joe Kilgore for the U.S. Review of Books

Hush Now, Don’t Explain is an extraordinary book. Jazz devotee Dennis Must creates an incredibly rich, original, sensual world that reads like a combination of Walt Whitman, jazz improvisation, and the wail of locomotives in the night. The coming of age story of a young woman named Honor, an orphan searching for her roots, and a biracial, fatherless boy named Billy trying to find his tune, Hush Now, Don’t Explain fuses the themes of identity, parentage, sexuality, race, and longing into a haunting refrain that lingers on, long after the last page is turned.”

—Paulette Alden, author of The Answer to Your Question, Feeding the Eagles, and Crossing the Moon.

Hush Now, Don’t Explain is a compelling novel about the quest of an unlikely trio, Honor, Augustus and Billy, and the longing for identity that shapes their lives. Set in late 1940’s America this book sings with jazz as it examines gender stereotypes, race, ambition, and violence. Dennis Must writes with lyrical intensity. He has crafted an evocative, resonate tale in rich, vivid detail. Hush Now, Don’t Explain is a beautifully written book.”

Suzanne Frischkorn,author of Girl on a Bridge and Lit Windowpane

“Dennis Must’s Hush Now, Don’t Explain—a lyrical, impassioned, Biblically-inflected road novel dealing with the adventures of three outcast runaways—goes Barry Gifford’s Wild At Heart one better. Charged with true American grittiness, pathos, and glory, and at times veering dangerously close to total despair, Must’s masterpiece lights up the dark sky of contemporary literature like a Fourth of July fireworks display.”

Andrew Wilson, author of The Luzhang Bridges, Across the Bridge of Straw & Fog, and Osai’s Razor.

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain is a gorgeous novel told in a gentle voice and bearing witness to the true art possible from the pure American language. I have not read such a fine novel—controlled and wild at the same time—in a long while.”  Read more ….

—Jack Remick, poet and author of several books, including Gabriela and The Widow

Honor, an orphan, finds her way to the Victorian boarding house where she thinks her mother might have birthed her. World War II has just ended, which alerted many Americans to the world beyond, but Honor and Billy’s lives are limited to the dead-end town of DeForest Junction, Ohio, and its nearby notcherie, where exotic wemen sell their bodies to the rail men. Alongside her mixed-race “cousin” Billy, Honor grows to womanhood, cared for by Miss Alsada and enchanted by the colorful stories of the shanty store owner, Mr. Augustus Willard, who claims to have traveled far and wide.

One day, an itinerant blues musician shows up at the boardinghouse, electrifying Billy with his skill at the upright piano. He departs just as quickly, leaving behind hints that he might be Billy’s father. Soon after Buster Stanley’s departure, men in white hoods burn a cross in the field behind the boardinghouse and torch a number of shacks occupied by black families. Honor and Billy decide to leave DeForest Junction—a feat they accomplish with the help of Mr. Willard, whose shanty store was burned. With Honor disguised as a boy for safety’s sake, the three friends ride the rails southward, their ultimate destination: New Orleans. Billy is on the trail of Buster Stanley, but Honor is on an intense quest for Honor. How will she escape that fate of those wemen, waiting for a man to fill up the void in her life?

Says Must, “Honor’s story is inspired by my own. As a young boy I spent summers in a boarding house at a railroad junction on the outskirts of town in Ohio. It was run by a distant aunt who had three daughters similar in age to me. The ‘cousins’ and I, seldom interacting with any adults, passed care-free days, fishing for sunnies, smoking, and inventing stories often inspired by the forlorn cry of locomotives transporting passengers to places we could only imagine. Then, from our attic bed one August midnight we witnessed fiery crosses illuminate a field across the road as angry figures in white sheets and conical hats gathered in a circle. It was the night our childhood perished.”

Dennis Must is the author of two short story collections: Oh, Don’t Ask Why, Red Hen Press (2007), and Banjo Grease, Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA (2000). His first novel, The World’s Smallest Bible, was published by Red Hen Press in March of 2014. His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway, and his fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. Dennis and his wife Aviva live in Massachusetts. Click here to visit him online.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

Just then we heard a salvo of drumbeats and high-pitched coronets from outside. We followed Mr. Willard out the door and saw what looked like a parade. But nobody was standing on the side of DeForest Road watching, except us. The procession appeared to originate up at the Pillar of Fire Tabernacle’s steps. Sunday mornings from our porch, Billy and I watched all white folk arrive mostly by cars to worship.

“Used never to be no tambourine and speakin’ in tongues church around here except the black folks’ Baptist church out on the highway,” Billy said.

Women in crisp white cotton dresses with purple sashes toted ecclesiastical banners at its head. A brass band, kids our age attired in white pants and dress shirts and wearing purple berets, marched stiffly behind. Soot-pocked men wearing red bandanas and snare drums strapped to their chests closed the formation.

The solemn music oddly foreshadowed the automobiles of revelers that would shortly come barreling down DeForest Road toward the tracks.

“What they playing?” I asked.

“A hymn, ‘Nearer My God to Thee’,” Mr. Willard responded as he stepped back into the shadow of his doorway.

As the fair-skinned procession moved closer, I could see that the women color guard all wore lace-ups with heels like Miss Alsada’s. They lifted their legs high in time to the muffled drumbeat. Their heels popped on the macadam like paper caps.

“Look,” Billy said. He pointed to one of the drummers. “Oscar Jakes in his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.” He, like every other member, kept his eyes unwaveringly focused on the road ahead. Each wore a serious mien. “Some of our neighbors alongside him,” Billy whispered. “They work in the roundhouse.”

Still, not one person came out on a porch or waited by the side of the road.

When the column got within several feet of Mr. Willard’s store, the music ceased. Only then did we see the lone bass drum on a set of wheels. A heavyset man in a white and red velvet sash commenced a solemn, steady beat.

Boom … Boom … Boom … Boom ….

A port-wine stain on his right temple pulsed with each strike.

None of the procession moved. Visibly night began to eclipse the dusk. Heavy shadows swelled across DeForest Road as the ecclesiastical cloths seemed to glow phosphorescent.

Ominously the color guard pivoted their staffs toward Mr. Willard’s shanty … then held them fast until the band struck up the hymn once again. The satin flags bordered in gold fringe bore no lettering.

One of the women blew a silver whistle, and the parade resumed marching toward the tracks.

Mr. Willard was nearly hidden inside the inky pocket of his shanty store.

Billy and I didn’t know what to make of what we had just witnessed. I turned to our old friend for an answer.

“See that drum man?”

We nodded.

“He steal your heart when his no longer beats. Beware.”

At the crossing the white ecclesiastical silks pitched moonlike toward the house of joy.

Mr. Willard pulled the Dr. Pepper sign over the doorway. “Time to close,” he said.

“Outsiders,” Miss Alsada let loose across the supper table when Billy described what we’d seen. “A big storm’s brewing, rising up from the south,” she warned. “They serenaded the call house ladies, too.”

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