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Words between Us
by Bartels

Published: 2019-09-03
Paperback : 384 pages
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Robin Windsor has spent much of her life under an assumed name to avoid association with her infamous parents. She thought she'd finally found sanctuary running her used bookstore in quiet River City, Michigan. But when she receives an eerily familiar book in the mail on the morning of ...
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Robin Windsor has spent much of her life under an assumed name to avoid association with her infamous parents. She thought she'd finally found sanctuary running her used bookstore in quiet River City, Michigan. But when she receives an eerily familiar book in the mail on the morning of her father's scheduled execution, Robin is thrown back to the summer she met Peter Flynt, the perfect boy who ruined everything. Why would Peter be making contact now? And why does she have a sinking feeling that she's about to be exposed all over again?

With evocative prose that recalls the classic novels we love, Erin Bartels pens a story that shows that words--the ones we say, the ones we read, and the ones we write--have more power than we imagine.


"Alternating between flashbacks and the present day, The Words Between Us is a story of love found in the written word and love found because of the written word. It is also a novel of the consequences of those words that are left unsaid. Bartels' compelling sophomore novel (after We Hope for Better Things, 2019) will satisfy fans and new readers alike."--Booklist

"Erin Bartels drew me in with a unique premise and held me there with her strong storytelling and complex characters. . . . Bartels has given her readers a novel to read slowly and contemplate. It shows a true love for literature that all book-lovers will enjoy and a deeply rich storyline that will keep you engaged until long after the final page is closed."--Life Is Story

"The Words between Us is a story to savor and share: a lyrical novel about the power of language and the search for salvation. A secondhand bookstore owner hiding from a legacy of scandal, tragedy, and heartbreak must unlock the secrets of the past to claim her happiness. I loved every sentence, every word."--Barbara Claypole White, bestselling author of The Perfect Son and The Promise between Us

"Erin Bartels has done it again. She's created a story that has set up camp in my mind and now feels more like a memory, something I lived, than a piece of fiction. The added benefit is that it's a story about books, some of the best ones ever written. If you are the kind of person who finds meaning and life in the written word, then you'll find yourself hidden among these pages."--Shawn Smucker, author of Light from Distant Stars

"Vividly drawn and told in expertly woven dual timelines, The Words between Us is a story about a woman who has spent years trying to escape her family's scandals and the resilience she develops along the way. Erin Bartels's characters are a treat: complex, dynamic, and so lifelike I half expected them to climb straight out of the pages."--Kathleen Barber, author of Are You Sleeping

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.




Most people only die once. But my father is not most people. He is a monster.

He first died on a Wednesday in November 2001, when his sentence was handed down—We the members of the jury find Norman Windsor, on three counts of murder in the first degree, guilty; on the charge of extortion, guilty; on the charge of obstruction of justice, guilty; on the charge of conspiring with enemies of the United States of America, guilty. And on and on it went. Or so I imagine. I wasn’t there. The teenage daughters of the condemned generally are not present at such events.

Now, nearly eighteen years later, he will be executed. It’s the first thought I can separate from my dreams this morning, though I’ve tried for weeks as the date approached to ignore it.

I dress quickly in yesterday’s clothes without turning on the news. I don’t want to see the mob hoisting signs, the guards standing stone-faced at the prison entrance, interviews with grim relatives of the dead. All I want is for this day to be over, for that part of my life to be over. So I shut the past in behind the door, descend the creaking stairs, and emerge as always in the back room of Brick & Mortar Books, where my real family resides in black text upon yellowed pages, always ready to pick up our conversation where we last left off.

“Good morning, Professor.” The African Grey parrot offers his familiar crackly greeting.

“Good morning, Professor.” I open the cage door, wondering not for the first time who is imitating whom.

The Professor climbs onto the perch above the cage and produces the sound of a crowd cheering. I change his paper, refresh his water, and give him a terrible used pulp paperback to shred into ribbons. Every morning is the same, and there’s comfort in that. Even today.

I know the store will be dead—even more so than usual—but I can’t afford to stay closed, even if it is the day after Saint Patrick’s Day in River City, Michigan. I have never understood why the feast day of an Irish saint is so popular here, as nearly all the Catholics who settled in the area have unpronounceable surnames that end in ski. Maybe they all just need a big party to forget the misery of March for a day. Even the Lutheran church three blocks south canceled services so its members could walk in the parade. And many of those same people who painted their faces green and donned blinking four-leaf clover antennae as they marched down Centerline Road instead of going to church were on this side of the river later that night, guzzling green beer and kissing plenty of people who aren’t actually Irish, despite T-shirts asserting ancestry to the contrary.

Of all the storefronts on this section of Midway Street, there are only five that do not serve alcohol: a pet salon, a custom lighting store, a bank, an aromatherapy shop, and my bookstore. Every other business along this quarter- mile spur of Midway is a bar, making it the destination of choice for about half the sleepy city on any given weekend and about eighty percent on Saint Patrick’s Day. Not that the high traffic translates into high sales for me. They stay in the bars. I stay with my books.

Armed with more than a few years of experience with the aftermath of Saint Paddy’s, I pull on a pair of bright yellow rubber gloves—Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Exhibit A: the gloves Mr. Windsor wore when carrying out the strangulation of Mr. Lambert—and head toward the front door with a triple-thick garbage bag and a broom. But there’s another matter to attend to before I can clean up all the trash.

I knock on the glass near the ear of a woman who is slumped against the door. “Hey!”

She doesn’t move.

Back through the store, through the maze of boxes in the back room, through the metal receiving door out to the alley. A stiff breeze whips up a torn paper shamrock chain, along with the stench of beer and vomit. I hug the east wall of the store, passing beneath the pockmarked remains of a mural of a billowing American flag. I stop. There, on the very lowest white stripe, is a profane word scrawled in black spray paint. I add the removal of the word to my mental checklist and keep walking.

The wind hits me hard as I turn onto Midway. Long shadows cast by light posts in the rising sun point toward the spire of St. Germain Catholic Church, just visible over the tops of the still bare trees, and graze the edge of the woman’s coat. She is curled up tight, as if she were developing inside an egg. Glittery green shoes poke out beneath her black parka. Her bottle-blonde hair, streaked with green dye, was probably stunning last night. Now it is matted down around her face. I poke her with my broom. She shrinks a little further into her egg.

“Hey, wake up!”

Slender fingers push back the bird’s nest of hair. One brown eye squints up at me. “Hey, Robin. There you are.”

Sarah Kukla is as slim as she was in high school, but as I hoist her to her sparkly feet she weighs three hundred pounds.

“I was knocking. You never answered.”

Her breath almost makes me drop her back onto the pavement.

“I can’t hear knocking at this door when I’m upstairs. You should have called.”

Leaning her body against mine, I manage to open the front door and dump her into a threadbare armchair. Her parka falls open, revealing black fishnets under an impossibly short green dress that looks like it was sprayed onto her body. Her cheeks and nose glow red. Her emerald eye shadow smudged with black eyeliner makes her look more like she had dressed for Halloween than Saint Paddy’s.

“Where were you last night?” I ask.

“Everywhere,” she moans.

“Come on. I’ll take you upstairs. You can wash up and get some coffee.”

Even a massive hangover cannot hide Sarah’s surprise at this offer. In my seven years at 1433 Midway I’ve never invited her or anyone else up. But I can’t send her back home to her son like this. Anyway, I do have a human decency clause in my unwritten personal privacy policy. I’m not a monster.

“Let me get The Professor back in his cage. If I’m not around for too long he chews up good books.”

The parrot is not impressed by this break in his routine and lets me know with a sharp bite on my thumb. I don’t grudge him his irritation. I kind of wish I could simply bite Sarah’s thumb and send her on her way. But I tell myself once more that it’s probably not her fault that she is the way she is and I should have some compassion.

Somehow we make it up the steep staircase and into my apartment, where she looks around with an expression that grows ever more disappointed. “It’s so plain.”

“What were you expecting?”

“I dunno. It used to be more—” She looks away. “Never mind.”

She slouches onto the couch, kicks off her shoes, and pulls a fleece blanket over her head. I don’t know what this place looked like when she spent all her time here, before it was a bookstore, before I came back to town. But I know from the snores drifting back to the kitchen that I can’t ask her now. I don’t have the heart to wake her when the coffee is done, so I creep back downstairs to gather in the remains of last night.

Each new gust of wind brings me more confetti and cigarette butts skidding along the concrete like staggering drunken partiers. I tuck it all into the trash bag along with broken glass, wadded-up tissues, and a single black shoe. I’ll have to do it again in a few hours when the wind brings more. It doesn’t bother me like it used to. It’s just part of the rhythm of this place.

A sharp beeping ceases, one of those sounds you don’t notice until it’s gone. In the silence left behind I realize that the ice on the river has finally melted. I know it without looking. Rivers have voices, and this morning the Saginaw is grumbling.

At the end of the street, a tow truck ascends the boat launch at Marina Five, dragging the rusty blue pickup I saw still parked on the thinning ice yesterday. The last of the ice fishermen leans toward the truck, hand at his heart, as one might hover over a dead body to search for one more breath, one more twitch of the eyelids, something that might indicate that there was still time to tell him you loved him. Only there wasn’t.

No, he’s just getting a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket.

I watch until all that’s left of the story is wet gravel. Next year it might be a Jeep or an ice shanty. It will probably be in February rather than March—winter had lingered so long this year. But it wouldn’t be nothing. This too is part of the routine—when the ice gives way, when what was solid ground suddenly cracks and shifts and turns deadly.

There had been a tow truck in my father’s case, pulling a black sedan from a different river—May I direct your attention to Exhibit B? It was anything but routine. I saw it splashed across the front page of the Boston Globe, read the gruesome details in neat columns of text that left leaden dust beneath my fingernails. I didn’t go to school the next day.

When I can’t fit even one more stray sequin into the bag, I tie the plastic handles and stretch my back. That’s when I see it, in a skeletal crab apple tree on the other side of the street—the first robin. Spring. All signs point to it. A winter, no matter how long, cannot last forever. The longed-for bird tips his head at me and lifts off against the wind. I deposit the trash in the alley dumpster and fish out my scrub brush and graffiti remover—it’s not the first time—and get to work on the wall.

Half an hour later I turn on the lights and let The Professor back out of his cage. Ignoring his muttered cursing, I flip the Open sign and settle down behind the cash register with a hundred-year-old copy of Aurora Leigh as company.

The spine crackles and the sweet perfume of time drifts up to my nose. The lines slip under my eyes like a mother duck and her brood slipping down the river. Word by word, Aurora lives and loves as she first did under Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s graceful pen.

Three quiet hours later—not even a visit from Mr. Sutton, the only person I could call a regular customer with any integrity—the bells on the front door jingle. The Professor squawks, “Hello!”

“I got the mail,” comes Dawt Pi’s heavily accented voice as she rounds a shelf. “I thought you were going to put that sign out.”

She tucks her tiny purse under the counter before reaching up for The Professor. The bird edges over and makes his way down her arm to her shoulder. He’ll spend the next half hour carefully preening her straight, oil-black hair. He never does this to me. If he sat for more than a couple minutes on my shoulder, I would probably end up missing half my ear.

“What sign?”

“That sign. You said you were going to put it out. On the sidewalk.”

I put down my book. “Sorry. I was a little distracted this morning.”

“I will get it.” She retrieves a chalkboard easel nearly as tall as she is and a box of colored chalk from the back room. “You want me to do it?”

I know she is still not confident about the peculiar spellings of her adopted country’s language, so I love her for offering. “I can do it. What did we decide?”

“Hardcover one dollar, paperback fifty cents.”

I sigh. We will lose money. Still, I kneel at the easel to write out the words I hope will draw people into my beloved store. The past few years have been tough, but I’m determined to weather the storm.

“You want to look at this mail? There’s a package for you.”

I stand and tear open the large, padded manila envelope Dawt Pi slid across the counter to me. It’s obviously a book. I carefully unwrap the brown paper from around it to reveal a vivid red and white dust jacket adorned with a stylized carousel horse beneath a bold yellow title.

“Oh my.”

“What is it?”

I can hardly breathe when I see the copyright page. “Oh my.”


“It’s a first printing, first edition Catcher in the Rye.”

“Is that good?”

I shouldn’t expect a recent refugee from Myanmar to know better, but I give her an incredulous look all the same. “This could be worth a lot.” I flip over the envelope. No name, just a return address in California. “Why would someone just send this to me?” Starting at the back of the book, I flip through the pages. “Oh no.”


“There’s underlining. That’ll affect the value. Though it’s in pencil, so we could . . .”

The moment I see the coffee-ring stain on page twenty-three, I drop the book on the counter.

“What?” Dawt Pi’s now exasperated voice cuts through the fog that is swiftly gathering in my mind.

The bird on her shoulder voices his own question. “What does our survey say?”

But I can only manage one word in response.

“Peter.” view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1.Robin spends much of her life running away from any association with her parents because of their crimes, making up a new name, a new history, a new identity. But she doesn’t always (ever?) truly control that identity. She can’t control what others say or think about her. When have you felt out of control of your own narrative? What did you do to try to write your own story? How have you failed? How have you succeeded?

2.How would you characterize Robin? Brave? Impetuous? Naive? Strong? Does your impression of her character change as she ages? How do you see her growing through her trials?

3.Robin’s friend Sarah clearly has a drinking problem, and rumors abound about her cavalier relationships with men. Have you ever had a self-destructive friend? What did you do to help? What do you wish you’d done? Or perhaps you have been that self-destructive friend. If so, how did your friends and family help you? How did they hurt you despite their good intentions?

4. As Robin and Peter share books, they grow closer to one another. What have you shared with a friend that brought meaning to your relationship? Movies? Music? Secrets?

5. How did you feel when Robin left Peter and Sussex behind? Do you think she was overreacting? What would you have done in her situation?

6. Robin spends a lot of time and energy trying to avoid her problems. How do you think her life may have been different if she had just faced them head-on?

7. Robin’s friend and employee Dawt Pi has a strong faith that helps her through the difficulties of being away from her family in a strange new country. How does faith play a part in your life and struggles? Is it a source of comfort? Do you have a friend like Dawt Pi whose faith you lean on when yours falters?

8. A lot of Robin’s problems can be traced to misinterpreted words, whether they were things she’d heard or things she’d read (or read into, in the case of Mrs. Flynt’s notes in the books). When have you been misunderstood by a loved one or a dear friend? How did you make it right?

9. Books are central to The Words between Us. What three books do you think most shaped you as you were growing up? What are some of your favorite books right now?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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  "The Words Between Us"by Silversolara (see profile) 09/06/19

Books, books, books, and one bookworm. Well, quite a few bookworms and one from Robin's past.

Hiding since she was fourteen from a scandal that her jailed parents were involved in caused

... (read more)

by ebach (see profile) 09/06/19

THE WORDS BETWEEN US is Erin Bartels' second novel, following WE HOPE FOR BETTER THINGS, and it is probably the better of the two. I would categorize it as a young adult novel. So it is as Y... (read more)

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