Wise-cracking Wiley Cantrell is loud and roaringly outrageous—and he needs to be to keep his deeply religious neighbors and family in the Deep South at bay. A failed writer on food stamps, Wiley works a minimum wage job and barely manages to keep himself and his deaf son, Noah, more than a stone’s throw away from Dumpster-diving.
Noah was a meth baby and has the birth defects to prove it. He sees how lonely his father is and tries to help him find a boyfriend while Wiley struggles to help Noah have a relationship with his incarcerated mother, who believes the best way to feed a child is with a slingshot. No wonder Noah becomes Wiley’s biggest supporter when Boston nurse Jackson Ledbetter walks past Wiley’s cash register and sets his sugar tree on fire.
Jackson falls like a wet mule wearing concrete boots for Wiley’s sense of humor. And while Wiley represents much of the best of the South, Jackson is hiding a secret that could threaten this new family in the making.
When North meets South, the cultural misunderstandings are many, but so are the laughs, and the tears, but, as they say down in Dixie, it’s all good.
1) Hot in the city
IT WAS a hot Friday afternoon in Tupelo, Mississippi, and like other horny gay guys on the prowl at Ballard Park in the sweltering June heat, I was pretending not to be one while unsuspecting moms and dads played with their kids and the park’s wandering ducks chased after those foolish enough to have food on hand.
I sailed the Frisbee across freshly cut grass and Noah caught it like the trooper he is, sending it back to me with a practiced flick of his wrist, which is no small feat for a nine-year-old boy who began life as a meth baby with the birth defects to prove it.
He beamed with pleasure at the way I had to jump high to catch his throw. He wasn’t the only one checking me out. Shirtless, tanned, wearing loose shorts and sandals, I was not exactly shying away from attention. My dishwater-blond hair was tied back in a ponytail and sweat trickled down my back. Would have been easier to write DO ME on my chest in hot neon pink.
I angled the Frisbee on my next throw so that it would land close to a young, lonely-looking fella sitting under a sugar tree nearby and feigning disinterest.
Noah darted away after it. His hair was a wild, untamed mess of curls and blondness, his skin brown, his limbs sticking out of his tank and shorts like joss sticks.
The Frisbee landed close to the young man, who picked it up.
“Here you go, kid,” he called, throwing the Frisbee to Noah, then glancing at me and offering a hesitant smile.
Noah glanced at me too, smiling as if to say, What about this one, Daddy?
Just then a football came sailing from out of nowhere.
“Hey!” the guy said in warning when he saw the football heading straight at Noah. “Watch out, kid!”
Noah merely stood there, smiling at me mischievously.
Watch out! I signed frantically.
He turned just in time to get a face-full of the ball, which sent him sprawling.
I hurried over the grass.
“I tried to warn him,” the man said, crouching down and looking at Noah. “You all right, kid?”
You all right? I signed.
“Oh,” he groaned in his strange voice.
“He’s deaf,” I said to the guy, helping Noah to his feet. He was a little shell-shocked, but otherwise in good condition.
Noah ignored our fussing, picked up the football, and went to meet two boys coming in our direction, the ball’s owners. He held out the ball, said, “Can play you?” in a voice that was loud and awkward and grammatically incorrect. The boys did not seem to know what to make of this, grabbed their ball, and rushed off as though Noah had cooties.
Noah turned to me, his face crestfallen.
Never mind them, I signed. Come say hello.
“This is my son Noah,” I said to the young man, who looked as horny as I felt, though considerably better dressed and groomed. “My name is Wiley.”
I held out my hand.
“I’m Braden,” he said. His handshake was firm and I’d swear to God a little bit of tingling electricity went up my arm, but I’m not big on swearing to God so I won’t.
“Hello,” Noah said, looking up at this handsome man. He offered a smile that brilliantly displayed his seriously messed-up dental situation, another one of the Almighty’s gifts to my only child.
“Is he your nephew?” Braden asked.
“He’s my son.”
“That’s… weird,” he said.
“A long story,” I offered.
“You have him on the weekends?”
“And the rest of the week, too. I’m a single dad.”
He gave Noah a strange look as if he couldn’t quite believe that I was a father, or didn’t want to believe it.
“You guys have fun,” he offered, having decided that gay guys with kids were not on his agenda. “I’ve got to get going.”
We watched him idle off. He grabbed his phone and played with it as he walked.
Noah glanced up at me, biting his lip.
He was nice, Noah offered.
We’ll find a boyfriend for you, don’t worry, he assured me.
Nothing I can say will ever come close to adequately describing the brilliant awesomeness that is this book.
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Wow. Just… wow! Shaking the Sugar Tree is one of the most amazing books I’ve read in while.
This book is an absolute treat.
Wilgus has an amazing ability to write life into his characters. I immediately felt a connection with most, if not all of them. I cared about them, and I thought about them long after I’d finished the book.
I’ve been trying to think of one word to summarize this book, and I think I’m going to go with brave.
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