To Straighten a River, an excerpt

Dear Friends,

Below read some passages from an early draft of Part One of the book based on interviews with Jan’s sister Vera McKenna and Phil West in 2003 and my research in Massillon, Ohio in May 2015.


Part One: Massillon, Ohio

Come, I am longing to hear thee, Beautiful Child of song.   Stephen Foster

Chapter One: To Straighten a River

Warm water lapped at the tub’s edge.  Her little hands like china, like the porcelain surrounding her, splashing. Flimsy lace curtains fluttered at the window. Droplets of warm water gathered on black and white diamond tiles. She heard muffled sounds below. Her mother, sisters, the soft thud of one of them dropping a book.

“Are you washed in the blood…” her voice, a reedy strain, echoing. “Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?” Singing as she slapped the flat water, she raised her cloth to her face, scrubbing up and down hard several times. “Are your garments spotless?” The hymn asked as her crystal blue eyes grazed the ceiling. Waiting for response.

Below her, the thin strain of singing reached the kitchen where her mother Eleanor added flour to her dough. My Jannie. She wiped her dusty hands on her apron, picked up her rolling pin. In the living room, Scotty and Vera chatted loudly.

There is a sense of peace at 63 Prospect Street at dusk. The fat light fills the kitchen at the back of the house, a room all its own, not like the galley in their previous home in Stark County, or the appendage off the garage one-room apartment where, at the depression’s eclipse, all her girls, one after another, came screaming into this life.  Here, Eleanor has room to move, to expand, to inhabit and fill all her family’s needs.

Janice Ruetz is five years old and has just had her bath. Her father will come through the front door any moment.

“Keep going, darling,” her mother says to no one, not looking up from the crust she’s rolling at the counter.


Jannie Ruetz, age one or two

Jan DeGaetani

Jan Ruetz, age one or two, Massillon, Ohio

Humming, Jannie softly, evenly, descends the wide stairs, heads to the Library where her sisters are already pulling at one section of the bookshelves lining the wall.

“You’re not supposed to do that!” She says abruptly at the doorway. “Daddy’s coming!” Vera and Scotty reveal the opening behind the shelf and begin stepping through it.

“No he isn’t. Not yet!” hissed Scotty in her younger sister’s direction. And, “Get in here with us!!”

It was mostly a way to keep Jannie from telling on them more than their desire to hide with her, and maybe Jannie knew it somewhere deep down, but not on the surface; her sisters’ urging, a sweet call. Still, she didn’t want to rouse her father’s disappointment or worse, anger. Earl had forbidden the girls to ever play in the secret hideaway.

“Come on, Goody Two Shoes,” Vera chided, practically pulling her into the cramped and stuffy space behind them.  Like Jannie, Vera, age nine, Scotty (Louanne’s nickname), eight, and baby Petey all had coal black hair, thick and wavy. The three girls stood in the closet-like space and said nothing. It was the closest they’d get to their own catacombs like those of Five Oaks, the castle at the other end of the block. Stories told of a train that once ran beneath it holding cargo of escaped Negroes. Jannie tried very hard to even her breathing and stay very still so as to not touch her sisters’ hands or sleeves.  Her disobedience thrilled her, and she prayed she would not be found out. They were ghosts in the dark.


L to R: Petey, Jannie, Scotty, Vera Ruetz



“Let us pray,” Earl D. Ruetz said as they bowed their heads over their mother’s bone china, cloth napkins in their laps, two candles burning at the table’s center. Vera and Scotty on one side of the long rectangle table; Jannie and Petey in her high chair on the other. Her parents at either end. The black leather bible at her father’s side. He picked it up, turned pages, found the passage.

“If it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. Jeremiah 18:10.”

He snapped the bible shut. Picked up his fork, looked down at his plate. No one said a word.

Jannie did not squirm. She did not look imploringly at her father, silently asking for forgiveness. No silent tears dropped onto her food. She sat calmly, straight-backed, hands folded in her lap. In one sweeping moment of clarity, she accepted again that she would not do wrong. It was that simple. That easy. There were ways to conduct one’s self and this was going to be her way. To be kind, to be moral, to adhere to her father’s and mother’s wishes. This is what one did. It was what she’d do.


About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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1 Response to To Straighten a River, an excerpt

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