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LILY, A Love Story

It’s been a long time since there’s been such a plain-and-simple, head-over-heels love story as this one. It’s about a good girl who falls so in love with a bad boy that she forsakes everything to ride with him – outlaw and fugitive that he is.

Lily DeLony, fifteen, tells her very one-sided version of what happened on Christmas Eve night 1883 in the town of McDade, Texas, when a vigilante group made up of ordinary citizens struck against a gang of outlaws. One of the outlaw gang was the love of Lily’s young life. One of the vigilantes was her father. 

The DeLony family is churchgoing, God-fearing, hardworking, controlled. The father’s word is law and is seldom spoken softly. But Lily was raised to meet the challenge of hard work. She’s a strong, upright girl who knows the rules of virtue and righteousness. And follows them.

Follows them, that is, until she meets Marion “Shot” Beatty, youngest of the Beatty brothers.

By the end of the story, Lily has forsaken all that for the love of Shot Beatty and an unknown future – one that includes a pistol in Lily’s skirt pocket.

Lily’s telling of this tale is characterized by her spirit, her will, her fearlessness, and the endearing gullibility of youth. Utterly convincing, utterly beguiling, Lily introduces a wonderful new writer with an ear for a certain kind of voice not heard so clearly since Charles Portis’s True Grit.

Knuck came tearing around the house, barking. I stepped off the porch and called out to him. He passed me by and headed for the gate, where he stood and kept up his noise. I got there quick, told him it was all right, and scratched on his head till he brought his barking down to a whine. And I looked out over the road towards Mr. Grossner’s place.

            The moon and shadows played tricks with my eyes and I wasn’t sure I saw a thing. Back at the house the light was still on but there wasn’t any movement within. I peered again into the darkness and still wasn’t sure. Knuck’s ears stayed cocked.

            Then it came – a two-note whistle that fluttered to me on the breeze. It was him. Over by that tree like he’d said. But I looked and still couldn’t see. With one more backward glance at the house, I eased open the gate and stepped through. Knuck went too. He barked twice more until I shushed him with my voice held low. A shadow by the tree moved down to the road. 

            Knuck ran out ahead of me, and by the time I caught up, Marion was already in a squat, petting the dog, shaking his ears in the rough-play Knuck liked.

            “This a blue-tick?” Marion said, and his voice flowed over me like honey.

            “Coondog,” I said.

            He laughed. “There’s all kind of different coondogs, Lily. Black-and-tans, red-bones. This one looks like a blue-tick to me.” Knuck plopped a thick paw on Marion’s knee. “Hey there, fella.” He slapped easy at Knuck’s jaw, bringing on a playful growl.

            “You came early,” I said.

            He looked up at me, then stood. Knuck pranced around us, wanting more attention. “It’s not too early, is it? Your folks still up?” He looked towards the house, where the lamp glowed inside one window.

            “No. But they’re alive at least.” I tossed back my head. 

            “What do you mean?”

            “You know what I mean. Your brothers and their friends busted up that meeting. Papa was there, and my brother, Dane. They could have been hurt.”

            “Nobody got hurt.”

            A sinking feeling came upon my chest. “You were there, too. Weren’t you?”

            “All we did was ride in and ride out.”

            “Shooting guns.”

            “Not at anybody, Lily. We were just breaking up the meeting. I wasn’t gonna let nobody hurt your pa."

            “You don’t even know Papa.”

            “Course I do. I know everything about you. I was looking out for him. And your brother.” He put his hands on my shoulders. “Don’t be sore at me. It wasn’t my idea, but the meeting did get canceled. If that ain’t what you wanted, how come you to go to all that trouble to tell us about it?”

            “You. It was just you I wanted to know about it. So’s you could get outta town.”

            “Lily...” His hands squeezed me. “It’s my kinfolk. I’d of had to tell them anyway.”

            I looked away from him then. He was too close, and his hands were warm on my shoulders. “Well, I didn’t mean for you to tear up the church house. It took too much work to get it built.”

            “It ain’t tore up.” His hand passed over my forehead and down my back, petting my hair. At our feet, Knuck whined. “Lily. Look at me. It ain’t tore up.”

            I tried to keep from looking. I tried my best, but my eyes went to him anyway, just as if my brain wasn’t telling them no the whole time. And he sounded so sweet and so sorry and hurt by my accusing him of wrongdoing. When my eyes moved onto his face, it was all the encouragement he needed to tell him it was all right to pull me up against him and cover me around with his arms.

            “You’re freezing,” he whispered, then he pulled off his jumper and hung it around my shoulders before he took me back close to him. 

Like a good fairy tale, Lily tells a story about choices but does not preach a lesson. Cindy Bonner wrote Lily, her first novel, after reading about a case of vigilante lynchings in the small Texas town of McDade in 1883. She built her fiction around historical incidents, but what seems the most real among true events is what Bonner made up – the story that Lily tells of quickly growing up and thinking through her choices when she falls in love with an outlaw while being courted by a good, earnest, polite, adoring college boy.

Part of what makes the story seem real is how Lily sounds. There’s more than Texas in this voice. Bonner shows in Lily’s voice the girl’s down-to-earth honesty, her good heart and humor, and her farm-girl innocence, not just her place and time. In describing the brothers of the outlaw Beatty family, Lily said that one “kept a kinky beard like coal dust on his cheeks,” another had light-colored hair but “wore it so dirty it turned to the color of the ground inside a hog pen,” and another had red hair: 

            Marion’s hair was red. Not red like the magnolia seed on the tree by

            our house. But red like the later end of sunset, spang through with 

            streaks of gold and yellow, and darker shades underneath like heavy,

            low clouds hanging at the horizon.

  Further, Bonner roughs up the thick, realistic texture of her book with Lily’s richly detailed observations. She describes her own hair as having “gone to frizzle in the heat,” her heart as “hammering like a pigeon in a wolf’s mouth,” and a brain-damaged man as having “a muddy look in his eyes when you peered at them, like there wasn’t a soul inside him.”

Another part of what makes this story real – the elemental, fairy-tale kind of real – is how familiar it sounds. On some level, we’ve all been in Lily’s boots or we’re about to be and we want to see what happens. Bonner takes this terrific natural pull of a good, real-life tale, weaves it with a Texas girl’s personal style and voice, and gives us an irresistible, memorable book. – Donna Mendelson, the Winston-Salem Journal