Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Meet Author Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s first novel, This is the Place, has won eight awards. Her second book, Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered, is creative nonfiction; it has won three. Her fiction, nonfiction and poems have also won awards and appeared in national magazines, anthologies and review journals. She speaks on Utah’s culture, tolerance and other subjects and has appeared on TV and hundreds of radio stations nationwide, both as an actor in commercials. Teachers are invited to use excerpts if they include purchase information. Just contact the author for the proper accreditation. at The book is available new or used at

Here is one of her short stories that you can read and enjoy or read to your class as a listening comprehension activity. My July 3rd post will include some questions and activities you can use with this story.

Learning About Coots
1948-Holladay, Utah
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Lee, my older cousin used to taunt me. “Don’t go down in the hollow past the property line. There’s an old coot from the other side of the family who lives over there. If he catches you, he will drag you off.”

“Lee, one of these days I’m going,” I said, knowing I wouldn’t.

But one day I took my brother by his pudgy little hand, “Bobby, we’re going to find an old coot.” I had pictured an old geezer of rooster like dimensions, put together like a satyr, with cocks-comb hair and a nose like a beak. “I think a coot is related to us, a kind of Johnssen we’ve never seen before.”

We slid down the hollow to the creek on our bottoms, embedding clay into the weave of what covered our behinds. The proof of Bobby’s indiscretion brushed off of his Sunday trousers leaving a foxtail or two protruding from the seams. My panties were black and wet so I took them off and put them under a rock to retrieve on the way back. We found stones to step across the boiling creek and plopped an additional river rock where Bobby’s short legs needed an extra one.

The shadows of the trout beneath the water were slow and green. Perhaps wild things shouldn’t be disturbed. Perhaps it was the same with the old coot. But I had a need to do my cousin one better. Being twelve shouldn’t give him all the advantages. Bobby and I pulled ourselves up the other side of the hollow using roots and brush for leverage.

“I’m hungry. Maybe we could eat the trout for lunch.” Bobby’s voice sounded like the ice of high notes flowing through a sieve. We had walked a long way and it was getting hot. We sat down on some weeds that were still soft and green reminding me of my delicate condition of undress.

I felt helpless. “Bobby, if you need to tinkle you can. No one can see you and I won’t look.” I thought the diversion would be helpful for hunger pangs. We could now see houses but they were a long way off.

We scooted under barbed wire fences and over weathered stiles, picked our way around dried cow dung. The houses grew bigger because they were closer. An old truck came along the road and stopped in clouds of tawny dust. The driver stared at our Sunday clothes. “What on earth are you kids doin’ here? Where did you come from?”

The woman jumped out of the truck. She looked at the man behind the wheel. “Look at this dress. Expensive.” She picked the fabric of my skirt between her fingers. “And short. I’ve never seen these kids before.”

They put us in the back of the truck and drove into the next driveway, rutted like the road but narrower. Their house smelled like babies lived there, wet and sour. A linoleum mat lay askew on the floor in front of the sink, its corners curling.
“What’s your name, honey?” The voice was soft but there was a sound of perturbance about it that made me feel shy.

“I’m Bobby Johnssen and I’m hungry.”

The phone got a good working out. “These kids say they’re Johnssens but I’ve never seen ‘em at church. I don’t think they’re Johnssens.” Silence. Then she rang off and called someone else.

"Feed the kids, will you?” She sounded cross at the man, like she didn’t have too many words to use. He put two bowls of oatmeal, gray and lumpy, leftovers from the Fridge, on the table. He poured the top, creamy part of the milk from a pitcher onto it.

“We don’t have sugar,” the man said. The spoons were big ovals and didn’t match.
The lady was saying, “Why on earth would I call the sheriff? She put her finger in the cradle of the phone and turned to her husband. “Why would we want to call the sheriff?”

“Well, because they say they’re Johnssen kids but it’s obvious they aren’t. So how’re we going to figure out even who to call first. Maybe they are from the Johnssen family on the other side of the crick.”

“We are, we are!” Bobby squealed with his mouth full and milk coming out of the corners of his mouth. “We’re looking for the old coot!” A baby wailed from the other room and other voices shushed it.

The man took the phone, said two numbers into the spout at the front of it. “We’ve got two kids here who say they’re Johnssens, maybe from the…maybe from the other side of the fam…. You know. Wanna come get ‘em and see where they belong?” He listened a minute. “I’m not calling them m’self!” He turned to his wife. “They got a call four hours ago about these kids. If you could quit meddling we’d’ve had ‘em home a long time before.”

I finished the porridge, like Goldilocks. It was good to feel the heaviness in my stomach, warm, even though it hadn’t been when I ate it. I attempted to slide off the chair seat covered with slick, diamond patterned vinyl. My bottom stuck. The lady’s eyes widened. “Mel, this child hasn’t a stitch of underwear on under her clothes!”

My humiliation was complete. I wasn’t a Johnssen, from either side of the creek. I was exposed. “Can I, can I use your bathroom?”

“You most certainly can.” The lady hustled me down a dark hall.
I perched on the toilet, my spirit of adventure crushed, worried about what my mother would say about her daughter being out in public without her panties. The lady reached her hand inside the bathroom door. In it was a pair of big underpants, thin and gray and shabby in places like shredded twine drooping from an animated hook. Hanging from the pulled elastic waist was a safety pin, which came in handy.
“Thank you. And thank you for the mush.” At least maybe I could get a good report for manners if not for my attire.

The sheriff was dressed all neat with a patch of the State of Utah with a beehive in the middle on his sleeve and nice, ironed creases in his shirt. “So you two are my lost Johnssens, huh?” The sheriff grinned.
“Do you think Mom will be mad?”

“We only wanted to find the old coot,” Bobby said.

The sheriff shook his head. He got down on one knee. “When are you kids ever going to stop the bogey man stories about the other side of the family? Polygamy’s over, kids. One side of the creek’s no different from the other side. We’re all cousins--once, twice, three times removed maybe, but cousins. We’d all better be forgetting which is the first wife’s family, which are the basta...which are the other wife’s kids, you know?”

The sheriff looked up at the lady, who didn’t say anything about my underpants and the man who didn’t like it but fed us anyway. “Thanks Mr. and Mrs. Johnssen. I’ll see they get home.”

I followed the sheriff hitching my new, panties so they wouldn’t droop below my good dress. Bobby reached for the sheriff’s hand. “They didn’t look at all like Coots,” he said.

Author's blogs:
Sharing with Writers is a blog on all things publishing with an emphasis on book promotion. It was named to Writer's Digest 101 Best Website list.
The New Book Review is a great way for readers, authors, reviewers and publicists to get more mileage out of a great review. Guidelines for submitting (and recycling) good reviews are in the left column. Scroll down a bit. It's free.
This is a blog where participants in in my HowToDoItFrugally cooperative fair booths exchange ideas that make a ho-hum booth into a sizzling success. We keep it open so all authors can learn from our successes and mmmm...challenges.
This is the Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor blog. It covers everything that has anything to do with editing from grammar to formatting. The question and answer format encourages you to get the answers you need.

Kathy Stemke's websites:
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madcapmaggie said...

What a charming story. A couple of comments --
--my cousins also used 'tinkle' but we used 'pee' {blush}
--I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in jeans as a little girl and thus avoided Carolyn's problem
-- I would say that my family isn't as, um, colorful, except that at age 6 I learned that my father had three sisters and two brothers I had known nothing about {grin}. It was my great aunt on my mother's side who let the cat out of the bag.

Margaret Fieland

Nancy Famolari said...

Absolutely charming story. I loved reading it. As a child, I was a tomboy and never bothered with skirts. Loved the story. Thanks for sharing.

Karen and Robyn - Writing for Children said...

This is such a wonderful story. Kids and family--you never know what's going to happen next.

Great post.

Karen Cioffi

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I am off to another family event--a wedding. But couldn't help dropping by to thank Kathy for a great blog and the rest of you for dropping by. The story (in fact, the whole book) is based on my own life and the stories told me by mother mother who could easily have been an ancient Greek who told family stories for entertainment.

Best to you all,

Katie Hines said...

Great story. I tend to think of Carolyn only as her "frugal" books, so it's nice to see some of her fiction works.

Vivian Zabel said...

What a delightful story, Lea.

Thank you, Carolyn, for sharing Lea's story with us.

Marvin D Wilson said...

Excellent feature post. I'm a big fan of HoJo's, I have all of her marketing/promoting/editing books, but I've not yet read her fiction. This post is a reminder to get that on my TBR list!

The Old Silly

LORi said...

Loved reading this super little story. I look forward to more!!!

Thanks for sharing!!


Donna M. McDine said...

Hi Carolyn and Kathy:

What a wonderful story. I too was a tom boy. Disliked dresses. But now I enjoy primping. It was a pleasure getting to know Carolyn even more through her writing.

Donna M. McDine
Marketing Manager, SFC Magazine
SFC: Families Matter Blog
SFC Magazine Website