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The Wisdom of Hair
by Kim Boykin

Published: 2013-03-05
Paperback : 296 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 1 of 1 members
"The problem with cutting your own hair is that once you start, you just keep cutting, trying to fix it, and the truth is, some things can never be fixed. The day of my daddy's funeral, I cut my bangs until they were the length of those little paintbrushes that come with dime-store ...
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"The problem with cutting your own hair is that once you start, you just keep cutting, trying to fix it, and the truth is, some things can never be fixed. The day of my daddy's funeral, I cut my bangs until they were the length of those little paintbrushes that come with dime-store watercolor sets. I was nine years old. People asked me why I did it, but I was too young then to know I was changing my hair because I wanted to change my life."
In 1983, on her nineteenth birthday, Zora Adams finally says goodbye to her alcoholic mother and their tiny town in the mountains of South Carolina. Living with a woman who dresses like Judy Garland and brings home a different man each night is not a pretty existence, and Zora is ready for life to be beautiful.

With the help of a beloved teacher, she moves to a coastal town and enrolls in the Davenport School of Beauty. Under the tutelage of Mrs. Cathcart, she learns the art of fixing hair, and becomes fast friends with the lively Sara Jane Farquhar, a natural hair stylist. She also falls hard for handsome young widower Winston Sawyer, who is drowning his grief in bourbon. She couldn't save Mama, but maybe she can save him.

As Zora practices finger waves, updos, and spit curls, she also comes to learn that few things are permanent in this life--except real love, lasting friendship, and, ultimately... forgiveness.

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I woke up that next morning with Winston Sawyer on my mind and started cleaning. I wiped down the countertops and cabinets good. The steamy water full of pine cleaner cleared my head but had a tough time cutting through years of greasy dirt on the hood over the little stovetop. I flicked the switch on the fan back and forth to see if it worked, but it didn’t. Then I heard his car door open. He started the engine up.

I used an old cloth with some scouring powder I found under the sink. The thought of Winston with his hands on that steering wheel made me scrub around the burners so hard that a little piece of enamel about the size of a quarter rubbed off. I stood there fingering the spot, while his engine revved louder. When I peeked out the window, he was raising the hood. I went over to the stove one more time and wiped it down again like I was minding my own business. Then I pulled some old pots out from the little drawer under the stove to keep busy.

I tried hard not to think of him bent over that little black sports car, with tools in his hands that would make it do what he wanted. God, I wished I’d had some sense and a little piece of steel wool that day. Maybe things would have been different.

I took a swig of sweet tea out of a glass I’d brought from home, marched myself into the bathroom, and scrubbed the toilet twice. The old tub was a sight with I-don’t-know-what stuck in the drain: hair, dead bugs, dust, and dirt. A bunch of old Glamour magazines were stuffed in a basket; one was opened to the “Dos and Don’ts” page. I flipped through the May issue from four years ago and tried to twist my hair up like the model’s on page 53, but it didn’t look good.

I took an armload of those magazines into the living room and arranged them on the coffee table by the couch before I started on the tub. After awhile, the bathroom looked nice, except the floor looked like the toilet had overflowed at one time. A piece of the linoleum was torn off, and there were wavy lines in the exposed plywood. I got down on my hands and knees to see if it was as bad as it looked, thinking maybe I could find a little second-hand chenille rug to cover it up, maybe a blue one to match the walls that looked like they might once have been the color of robin’s eggs.

It was hot for early June. Between cleaning and getting myself all revved up over Winston, I was tired. I turned my face in the direction of the box fan wedged in the bedroom window, and closed my eyes. The breeze blew across my face and ruffled about under my shirt.

When I opened my eyes, I noticed a box hidden under the bed. It wasn’t a pasteboard box like you might store winter clothes in when you were sure spring had finally arrived. It was crimson with fancy gold letters across the top that was slick to the touch.

I don’t know how I knew it was Winston’s wife’s, I just did. I also knew it wasn’t right to even think about looking inside, but I couldn’t help myself. So I closed my front door that was propped open to air out the musty old place and pulled down the shade on my solitary window before curiosity killed me.

The box was from a little shop in town called Serendipity. There was a layer of dust on the top of it, and not thinking that I’d just spent all morning cleaning, I blew it into the air. My nose stung like someone had swatted me. I sneezed twice and got on with my plundering.

The box opened easily, like Pandora’s must have. The receipt was on top of the prettiest dress I have ever seen. I have to say I felt guilty going through a dead woman’s things, but that didn’t stop me from taking the dress into the bathroom and locking the door. I’d never touched silk before that day. I drew it up to slide my arms in and let the slippery fabric ripple over my body. The dress was the color of the sky at sunset; a perfect fit that felt like a whisper across my body.

I looked in the tiny medicine-chest mirror, but not in the primpy sort of way I had earlier. It was more like the fearful expressions of those bwanas in the old Tarzan movies when the jungle drums suddenly stopped beating. I took that dress off, wadded it up in a ball, and sat on the toilet in my underwear.

After a while, I folded the dress up and put everything back the way I found it. The receipt had fallen into the bottom of the box. $194.56. Even today that would be a lot of money to pay for a dress, but in 1983 it was a fortune. Before I was done cleaning, I found several more boxes from other stores, all full of pretty things Emma had bought and squirreled away for herself.

I left everything where I found it. I’d caused myself enough trouble just by trying on that dress. But I did step out for a little while and walked to a hole-in-the-wall of a grocery store on Main Street. Along the way, I passed three of the shops Emma liked to frequent and felt myself blush hard, like somebody might look at me and know what I’d done. Some boys about my age were sitting outside the pool hall. One of them whistled at me, trying to turn my head, but I’d seen their type with their smokes in their T-shirt pockets, looking like they hadn’t bathed in a week, and just walked on.

I had twenty dollars in my pocket but didn’t buy anything more than a little boiled ham and some loaf bread. Tomatoes were too high to touch, so I settled for a small jar of mayonnaise, figuring that when times were tough, I could just eat mayonnaise sandwiches. I spent a little over nine dollars of my own, so I splurged and bought myself a Coke.

I put the groceries away after lunch, rinsed off my plate and dried it with a little checkered dishrag from home. I tried to put it on the top shelf of the cupboard but it wouldn’t go. I tried again, shoving it so hard it’s a wonder it didn’t break; finally I climbed up on the counter to see what the problem was. Another hidden treasure. Now I did hesitate with this one because it was wrapped.

I took the box down carefully. It was small, no bigger than my hand, maybe three or four inches deep. The wrapping paper had sweet peas on it, pink and blue ones intertwined, making little hearts as they met. The Scotch tape had yellowed and looked like it might come undone if it wasn’t handled just right. I sat there, turned it from side to side, shook it a little and listened to the odd sound it made.

All at once, my senses came about me, and I threw that little box of Emma’s into the silverware drawer. I slammed that drawer shut and sat down at the kitchen table, red-faced with shame. Still, I tried to fool the side of me that wasn’t too far gone by saying there was no harm in taking a little peek inside. Then I thought about Mama and how pathetic she was over the men in her life. I was a part of her. As much as I hated the fact, her weakness made me look at right and wrong like they were identical twins I couldn’t tell apart.

I opened that drawer three or four times, then slammed it shut. Once I nearly slammed my hand in the drawer. I was sure that was Nana speaking to me from the dead. I could just see her and Winston’s wife, Emma, perched on the same cloud.

Nana would shake her head while she pleaded my case. “You know, Zora really is a good girl.”

“Well, she must not be too good. She’s tried on all my new clothes, and look at her now. She’s thinking about opening my present.” view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Dressing up as someone else is a common theme. For example, Zora's mother dresses up as Judy Garland, and Winston frist notices Zora when she is wearing his wife's dress. Do you think this signifies that the characters are striving to be something more than they are, or is it simply a sign of their insecurities?

2.Zor straddles two worlds: her life in the mountains and her life in Davenport. How much of a person's character is shaped by his/her upbringing , and do you think it is something that can ever be truly left in the past?

3.The novel is filled with lasting felmale bonds, and Zora refers to Mrs. Farquhar and Sara jane as "the sisterhood." How do these strong female characters and their relationships with one another compare to their relationships with the men in the novel?

Suggested by Members

email the author and ask for a phone or skype session
talk about your own hair salon and how a new hair style or just a cut makes you feel
talk about family and friends and how you can create your own family
by ncvlib (see profile) 10/03/13

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Kim Boykin learned about women and their hair in her mother’s beauty shop in a tiny South Carolina town. She loves to write stories about strong Southern women, because that’s what she knows. Kim is an accomplished public speaker, serves on the board of the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop, and edits the organization’s monthly newsletter. She lives with her husband, three dogs, and 126 rose bushes. Visit her website to learn more about her second passion after writing, food.

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Member Reviews

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  "The Wisdom of Hair"by ncvlib (see profile) 10/03/13

One of our members won copies of this book for our club which was an added bonus. Then to top it all off the author, Kim Boykin agreed to discuss her book via a telephone chat session. She was a delight... (read more)

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