Published on January 10, 2023, award-winning author Lesa Cline-Ransom released her first YA novel ‘For Lamb’ (Holiday House), a powerful story that honors female victims of racial violence.
Told from multiple points of view, ‘For the Lamb’ follows a family trying to improve their lives in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1940s. Lamb’s mother is a hard-working, strong-willed seamstress who does everything she can to protect her son and daughter in the only way she knows how. Lamb’s bother has a brilliant mind and even earned a scholarship to college up north, but he’s impatient that progress in his community is moving too slowly. Sama Lamb is a quiet and hardworking girl who always follows the rules. Lamb is also naive. She tries to please her family, but her decision to secretly start a friendship with a lonely and friendly white woman who lends her a book she loves sets in motion a fateful series of events that will ensnare the entire Lamb family and end in a lynching.
Lesa’s initial inspiration for ‘For Lamb’ came during a trip to the National Monument for Peace and Justice to deepen her understanding of one of the most painful chapters in United States history. “I was brought there by the heartbreaking stories of black people… but along with the men’s stories were those of the female victims of lynching, whose stories often remained untold,” she explained in the author’s note. “I knew I had to mark these women in the story.”
Navigating the complexities of family relationships, life-changing secrets, and self-exploration, Lesa has crafted a stirring story honoring the female victims of white supremacy with nuance and grace. Below is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel, published here with permission.
And then, there, there in the torchlight, I see her. Huddled together with the others. Her face is red as sweat from fever. Hair as bright as a flame. My friend.
When the men let her go, I hear branches crack and watch as the crowd approaches. I’m looking for my friend again, but in this crowd I can hardly distinguish one from the other. Squeezed tight, each of those white faces looks like the next. Smiling through bright white teeth like a pack of hungry dogs.
I guess Simeon is long gone. Far.
From this. From them. Of all that.
A branch crackles loudly like a gunshot and the crowd cheers. I stay hidden behind a bush, right next to the fence, and look through the leaves into the darkness. Not even stars in the sky tonight. But rays of gold from the embers light up the sky in what looks like fireflies. Pretty much done.
“The choir will lead us in our devotional song,” Reverend Greer said, taking a seat at the pulpit.
As soon as I heard the first note on the piano, my hands began to sweat. In the back row of the youth choir during rehearsal every Saturday morning, with everyone singing along to mine, I didn’t know Miss Twyman even knew I could sing a tune. But one Sunday, after service, Miss Twyman told Mom that I had a “wonderful voice,” and Mom told Miss Twyman that she already knew that, but was surprised that Miss Twyman just found out. And now, knowing, my mom said, couldn’t Miss Twyman find a way to let me lead the devotional next week? Mom has a way of asking questions that lets you know she’s not asking at all. And now, here I was leading, when all I wanted to do was follow, singing softly, behind, with the rest of the choir. There were days, listening to my mom, I could make myself believe almost anything she believed about me. Not today.
This morning at breakfast, while she was braiding my hair, she could tell that I was overcome with the feeling of dread that I always have when I have to be in front of people.
“Miss Twyman wouldn’t want you up there looking like a fool if you can’t sing. You know that,” Mom said, tugging at my braid.
“Miss Twyman says they all have lovely voices,” I told her. “Not just me.”
“I don’t know about everything. She was just talking about you.”
I felt like I belonged in the back, watching Juanita Handy’s curly ponytail sway from side to side as she sang all the youth choir solos. Every now and then her voice would crack when she tried to reach too high for a note, and Earvent would hit me on the arm or one of the boys in the back would laugh, but I kept looking straight ahead, wishing I was brave enough to stand up every time like Juanita, not caring if my voice breaks or not, but knowing, as Juanita always knew, that I was ahead exactly where I was supposed to be.
Now I was standing alone with the choir behind me, I was too scared to be mad at my mom. Just had to go through one song and that’s it. Let mom see that I have never been and never will be a soloist. I could almost feel Juanita Handy’s eyes staring at the back of my head. I could hear her lovely voice hitting those exact notes and I knew she was wondering what I was doing in her place. I wanted to tell her to go ask my mom. My blood was pounding in my ears, louder than a piano, but I entered,
Would you be freed from the burden of sin?
Power is in the blood, power in the blood.
Too soft, too wobbly, I could tell. I looked at Miss Twyman and she pinched her face. I closed my eyes tightly.
“Sing, child,” Reverend Greer said beside me. I opened my eyes and looked at the benches. Simeon stared at me, his smile spread from one end of his face to the other. He saw me looking and nodded his head telling me to continue, give it a little more. And I did. Now the front bench spoke.
“Yes, yes, Lord” and “That’s right” mingled with the song, and I looked at Miss Twyman, watching her hands tell my mouth what to do. She smiled at me.
There is pow’r, pow’r, pow’r that works miracles
In the blood of the lamb…
I looked at Mom who was swaying, silent, head down, one arm raised right above her head. Sweat was running down my back now.
Together in the pews, when we would sing this song from the hymnal, my mother would squeeze my hand, remembering.
I closed my eyes again.
Would you prefer evil to win?
There is miraculous power in the blood.
After the second verse, Miss Twyman circled her hand, telling me and the choir to sing the chorus once more, and this time my voice got a little louder, a little deeper.
May God move you, Miss Twyman reminded me after yesterday’s rehearsal. And I think I let God in, and he helped me move from side to side, with the music amplifying my voice as I swayed. I hoped it was God, because Simeon and Mom wouldn’t be enough to make me sing the song the way it sounded in my head. Just as I got my bearings, the song ended, and the reverend stepped back into the pulpit.
“Amen, sister.” He nodded at me. “A-men . . .”
I went to the back row of the choir stand, not looking at Juanita, not hearing anything from Reverend Greer’s sermon. Even Earvent didn’t say anything as I pushed my way over her legs and back to my seat. I just forced my lips to move along with the rest of the songs we sang at the service, hoping that mom would let me alone now, but knowing that she never would.
“You sang that song today, Sister Lamb,” Reverend Greer said afterward
service while I was coming down from the choir.
“Thank you, Reverend Greer,” I said. Mom came up to me, smiling. Simeon was standing behind her, with a smile on his face.
“This girl can sing, can’t she, Reverend?” my mom said. too brave I meant. My mom is always too brave.
“Of course he can,” said Simeon, nodding his head. I hit him on the arm.
“Why didn’t I see you up there in the choir, brother Simeon?” said the reverend, his
hitting Simeon’s shoulder hard with his hand.
“Well, uh… God has blessed each of us with his own special gifts.” Simeon smiled. “Unfortunately, singing is not my thing.”
Mom looked at Simeon, trying, I could tell, to keep smiling and not say what she wanted to say in the house of God and in front of Reverend Greer.
The reverend nodded to Simeon, smiling back at him. “You’re right, son. God knows, some people sitting in that choir have talents that should be used elsewhere in the church. May I have an amen, Brother Simeon?”
“Amen!” Simeon laughed.
Me and mom stood and watched them. No matter who Simeon was talking to, it wasn’t long before he said something that would win them over. Everyone except Mom, who stood looking at him and smiling at Reverend Greer, but not Simeon.
When we left the church and headed home, mom turned to Simeon. “You can’t let her shine for just one day?”
“Don’t you what me. You always have to take the shine off her?” she said.
“Mom, I—” I started.
“You know she was only up there because you made her do it, right? It wasn’t
nothing about Lamb. It was an attempt to create your shine,” he said.
“Can we please not do this today?” I asked. “On Sunday? After church? Please?”
They were both silent.
“Well, amen to that,” said Simeon.
Excerpt from ‘For the Lamb’ / text copyright © 2023 Lesa Cline-Ransome. Reproduced by permission of Holiday House Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.