Follow Me

A Novel


By Joanna Scott

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On a summer day in 1946 Sally Werner, the precocious young daughter of hardscrabble Pennsylvania farmers, secretly accepts her cousin’s invitation to ride his new motorcycle. Like so much of what follows in Sally’s life, it’s an impulsive decision with dramatic and far-reaching consequences. Soon she abandons her home to begin a daring journey of self-creation, the truth of which she entrusts only with her granddaughter and namesake, six decades later. But when young Sally’s father — a man she has never known — enters her life and offers another story altogether, she must uncover the truth of her grandmother’s secret history.

Boldly rendered and beautifully told, in Follow Me Joanna Scott has crafted a paean to the American tradition of re-invention and a sweeping saga of timeless and tender storytelling.


Copyright © 2009 by Joanna Scott

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

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First eBook Edition: April 2009

Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

"Easy to Love," by James Longenbach. Reprinted with permission.

"Walk with Me," by Oliver Haslegrave. Reprinted with permission.

Map on page viii © 2009 Jeffrey L. Ward

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to the Vermont Studio Workshop, the Santa Maddalena Foundation, the Center at High Falls in Rochester, New York, and Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck for her lively history of a river, Runnin' Crazy.

For their invaluable input, I'm indebted to Maureen Howard, Lori Precious, Steve Erikson, Geri Thoma, Reagan Arthur, Jayne Yaffe Kemp, and to the three who fill our house with songs: Jim, Kathryn, and Alice.

ISBN: 978-0-316-07237-3

Also by Joanna Scott

Everybody Loves Somebody



Make Believe

The Manikin

Various Antidotes


The Closest Possible Union

Fading, My Parmacheene Belle

November 6, 2006

One and two and three and

That's about how long my father had to contemplate his life, to catch one last hungry glimpse of a sky that was likely the same steel gray as this morning's sky, to hear the river spilling down the cliff face of the Upper Falls, to see the spool of foam, tinged red from chemical waste, unraveling with the northward pull of the current, to note the strata of limestone and shale in the sheer walls below the ruins of Boxman's Mill, to feel his arms grappling helplessly, his legs buckling, his torso twisting away from the water while he anticipated his absence from the world and thought about my mother and abruptly and completely regretted his decision to jump.

My father was a mystery to me when I was growing up, though not because he threw himself from the pedestrian bridge six months before I was born. Here's the thing — he didn't die that day. He survived his plunge into the icy Tuskee, and as soon as he'd dried out and recovered his senses, he packed his bags and left town.

You might say he was lucky. But really, a man who'd concluded that the only release from his torment was to escape life altogether would have needed more than luck.

And so in November of 1974, on a day much like today, in the wake of a rainstorm, he climbed over the rail of the bridge and jumped, and as he fell he had enough time to acknowledge that if he'd had the wherewithal to consider other options he could have spared himself from the impending impact, which he must have felt in anticipation, with horrible, vivid clarity, before he experienced it as a distinct physical sensation, his body shattering the surface of the river right at the moment when he was probably condemning himself for being such a stupid fucking idiot, and wasn't it just so fucking typical for him to realize this too late!

Under ordinary conditions, the story would have ended with my father's death. But something extraordinary happened that morning, and Abe Boyle was saved from an outcome that should have been inevitable. As I imagine it, no sooner had he slipped beneath the surface of the Tuskee than from the depths came a soft rumble, and the river, already swollen from the rain, abruptly smoothed out in response. The refuse stopped its spinning rush; the wind died down. A vacuum of silence sucked in all noise, and the gallons of water that a moment before had been plunging over the falls seemed to hover in the air, hesitating, uncertain. For an instant that was too short and too long to be measured by conventional time, all motion in the gorge ceased.

And out of that infinite stillness came my father's reprieve. Though I can't fully explain what happened next, I do know that heavy rainfall contributed to problems created by a rickety wooden cofferdam. A portion of the barrier had collapsed, and storm debris had been collecting over several days, clogging the spillway. The previous night an additional two inches of rain had fallen, causing the city's sewers to overflow, and a dense sludge pasted the debris into a full obstruction, blocking the surging river entirely. The water had nowhere to go except back into the gorge.

Ripples spread across the surface, gathering into a forceful swell. There was a great splashing noise of liquid washing against a confined space. Water began foaming and boiling, and that portion of the Tuskee reversed its direction. The current sloshed southward even as the river toppled over the falls with renewed force, and the gorge began to fill like a stopped-up sink.

I can only guess that my father, if he was still conscious, assumed he had already died and was descending through a vile, viscous fluid into hell. Or else he spent that brief moment stunned into a complete oblivion, thinking and feeling nothing.

Across from the brewery, in the lower parking lot of the Beebee Electric plant, a few employees heard an unusual roar echoing through the gorge. They approached the embankment and through the mist watched the river surging back into the stone channel. When it appeared that the water would keep rising, they prepared to flee. Some of them had even started to run when a wave crashed over the wall and spread across the parking lot. At the same moment, the debris blocking the opening must have been dislodged by the shifting pressure, for the river formed a liquid funnel in the gorge, gulping back the surge, and the water level fell.

But the people in the Beebee parking lot didn't notice the spillover trickling away through cracks and crevices in the wall. They didn't see that the Tuskee River was flowing steadily and reliably north again, toward Canton Point and the lake. Rather, their stares were fixed on the body of the sputtering, blue-faced, waterlogged man who had been deposited in a puddle on the pavement.

For reasons I'll go on to explain, I was thinking about this story earlier this morning. I was wondering if I should go ahead and write it down, tell the whole of it from start to finish. Would anyone believe me if I claimed to be telling the truth?

I felt too muddled to head directly to work, so I took a detour through the city. I parked my car in the lot beside the ruins of Boxman's Mill and walked partway across the pedestrian bridge. The air was damp, the sky overcast. Far below, the river looked as glassy and flat as a pond. I stood there for a long while, watching gulls circling between the walls of the gorge. When I heard the electric chimes of St. Stephen's ringing the hour, I decided to leave. But first I dug into my purse, found a penny, and tossed it over the rail. As it fell, I counted aloud: one and two and three and —

Between the bottle of vodka he'd polished off the night before he jumped from the bridge and the engulfing shock of the frigid water, my father would remember little of his actual ordeal. Most of my information comes from my grandmother. She was the one who first told me what happened that day. She described the unfolding scene in the gorge in impossible detail, as if she'd been there and had watched it herself.

After being spit out by the river onto the lower parking lot of the Beebee plant, my father, with no broken bones or obvious injuries, was helped to his feet. A blanket appeared out of nowhere and was draped over his shoulders. Clamping his shivering lips closed, shaking his aching head, he vowed silently to get on with his life and prove himself worthy.

He couldn't bring himself to contact my mother, and she never came close to guessing why he disappeared so abruptly. All she knew was that Abe Boyle went away without even saying good-bye, leaving her alone, brokenhearted, and pregnant with me.

My grandmother Sally Werner blamed herself for the turmoil that culminated that day in the gorge. Everything, she thought, was her fault. And yet she was convinced that none of it could have been prevented.

She entrusted me with her version of this story late in her life. In fact, it's a long story when all the pieces are added together, and it begins many years before my father jumped from the pedestrian bridge, when my grandmother was young and set out to follow the Tuskee River north. She confided in me because she wanted me to understand, as she put it, how one thing led to another. But I had to promise never to repeat what she told me to anyone.

She would be furious to hear that I'm about to break my promise. I'd like to hope, though, that by the end she would forgive me.

Sally Werner

Touch your fingertip to a bubble. Feel the pop of cold. Cold, clear water squeezed from subterranean stone. Water seeping into the spring, filling the basin, spilling over the mossy slate ledge, flowing with a persistence peculiar to rivers, tumbling across a wide plateau, over a hillock, and down, down, down, for two hundred and sixty curving miles to the lake.

Here at the source of the Tuskee. Look around. Balance on your knees upon the stone rim, cup the water in your hands, and drink.

Splish splash. Brrr. Drip, drip, drip. See the different paw prints pressed in rich mud. Fat muskrat scooting away, wood sparrow bathing in the shallows, carcasses of yesterday's mayflies spinning with the flow. Slugs and worms, snakes and frogs, hidden in the muck.

Gurgling source of life. Good, plain water bubbling up out of the earth, widening into a lazy meadow stream, gathering depth and momentum along its descent. Clear current stirring silt into a dusky brown, stirring brown into a frothy yellow, eroding stone, cascading over precipices, carving ravines, powering turbines and generators, filling irrigation ditches, flowing past fields and houses, picking up sewage and chemical waste and runoff from the roads, ripening with a thick luminescence before spilling out into the lake.

Help me!

What was that?

Roar of the falls. Splashing shoals. Raindrops piercing the surface on a cold autumn day. A single spot of foam traveling along the water's surface, disappearing between ripples, sliding forward, splitting and converging in serpentines.

There it goes, there and there.

Have you ever heard the legend of the Tuskawali? They were little creatures said to have the faces and hair of humans and the spotted bodies of tadpoles. Hatched deep inside the earth, they squirmed from the molten center, through cracks in the sediment, up into the aquifer, and eventually they emerged with the fresh water into the spring and swam downriver in search of mates. The natives believed them to be the sacred incarnations of fate, begot in the underworld for the sole purpose of multiplying possibility in the world. Their goodwill could be cultivated simply by leaving them alone.

The early explorers at first dismissed the natives' accounts of the Tuskawali as superstition. Then they saw several of the minute creatures circling in the clear water of the spring, gliding just below the surface. They saw dappled clouds of Tuskawali swimming at the edge of the meadow, where the stream deepened before descending down the mountain. They even saw one stretched on a rock, soaking in the sun. The creatures were too swift to catch with bare hands, so the men used sieves and fine-woven nets, scooping up the Tuskawali by the dozens. They dumped the tiny captives into bottles filled with river water, packed them in crates, and carried them east, to be loaded onto ships and sent back to England.

Invariably, the Tuskawali died either during the journey to the coast or on board the ships. The men hoped to bring home the strange carcasses, if nothing else, as proof of their existence. But the bodies floating belly up inside the bottles disintegrated into a silt that within minutes became transparent. And then, of the twelve ships that transported the bottles, two went down in North Atlantic storms, four were sunk by Spanish frigates off the Azores, four others lost their cargo to a fire in Southampton Harbor, and one sailed off course, disappearing into the icy oblivion of the Arctic. Only a few bottles actually made it into the hands of scientists at the Royal Society, who tested the water with all the means available to them and found no impurities beyond a slightly elevated level of phosphorus.

The Tuskee River flows north across the state border, through the Southern Tier and up into Canton Lake. Its source is on the edge of a cornfield in the highlands of the Endless Mountains, the spring where the Tuskawali were said to have come out of the earth. After the natives were driven from the region and before tractors made the high slopes accessible to farmers, the forest undergrowth grew so dense and the outflow so thick with swamp grass that the exact location of the spring was forgotten — until the day in 1947 when a sixteen-year-old girl left her newborn infant on the kitchen table of her parents' home and ran away.

Splish splash, halluah, halluah. Where was she? Oh, buddy, weren't they in trouble now.

If only she had a buddy.

Or a blanket to keep her warm.

Or soap. She'd give her little toe for a bar of perfumed soap. And for such a sacrifice she deserved a piece of milk chocolate as well, along with a guarantee that she'd never again go through what she'd just been through.

But with water, this good, fresh, pure springwater bubbling like happiness, she'd do all right. She didn't need nobody. Anybody, rather. She knew her grammar well enough to get by. The cock's crow came with dawn. Until she went to work for the Jensons, she'd had Miss Krumbaldorf for three-quarters of seventh grade. Miss Krumbaldorf with her narrow shoulders and string-blond hair and freckled nose: she was perfect and devoted herself to teaching students everything they needed to know so that when the time came, they could decide how best to make use of their God-given talents.

Was it because of Miss Krumbaldorf that Sally made the irreversible decision to leave her newborn son for her family to raise and run away from the world? If only the world weren't so darn big. Everywhere you go, there it is.

And just when you think you've had enough, you find a quiet place where the clear, cold water comes bubbling out of the earth. That's nice. And look at all the wild strawberries peeking out from behind their leafy curtains — enough to fill two buckets!

The afternoon sun offering a healing warmth. A wood thrush piping its three-note trill. If she weren't so all alone at this, the second beginning of her life, she'd have to consider herself blessed.

The first documented reference to Sally Werner is her birth certificate issued by the Peterkin county clerk in August of 1930. Her name appears once more on a list of children who in their twelfth year were welcomed as full members of the Good Shepherd Calvary Church, having been successfully baptized in the Spirit. But there are no surviving photographs of Sally as a child. She's absent from the family albums. Of her siblings, only her sister Trudy would ever look for her after she left home.

Her parents, German immigrants from the village of Utilspur in the Black Forest, settled near the father's brother on the outskirts of Tauntonville in the Peterkin Valley. Shortly after their arrival, they joined the local Baptist church, and their devotion to their newfound faith quickly became the center of their lives. The father, Dietrich Werner, was appointed an elder, while the mother, Gertrude, led the women's Bible study group. Sally was their first daughter and their second child of seven. Somehow they managed to grow corn and hay on their forty acres of stony land. They kept a small herd of dairy cows, and they sold Gertrude's homemade jam at a roadside stand.

An outbreak of polio in 1939 would take the life of their youngest daughter, Anna, and leave another daughter, Trudy, dependent upon a leg brace for the rest of her life. Dietrich and Gertrude Werner interpreted this loss as God's angry call for a show of stronger faith. And as anti-German sentiment spread with the escalation of the war abroad, they felt an increasing need to prove themselves patriotic Americans. They stopped speaking German even between themselves, and they spent less time running the farm and more time with their religious duties in town. They hardly noticed as their crop yield steadily decreased.

To help support the family, the oldest son, Loden, went to work for the local lumber company when he was fourteen. At the age of twelve, Sally was sent to the neighboring farm to help with housework and care for the young Jenson twins. For the next four years she was paid with room and board and a weekly allotment of sausages, which she brought home to her parents on Sunday mornings before church.

It was during a church picnic one mild October day when her older cousin Daniel offered her a ride on his new motorcycle. He was twenty-three. He'd come back from the war blind in one eye. Though he'd been a timid boy, slight and pale, who had always kept out of the way at family gatherings, as a wounded veteran he'd gained a special status among his relatives, and he was allowed to follow his own set of rules. He'd started smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and drinking from bottles tucked in paper sacks. He worked part-time as a clerk in a grocery store. No one knew how he came up with the money to buy a motorcycle. He was the type to keep his thoughts to himself, and Sally, who'd been watching him with interest from a distance, sizing him up and trying to get a better look at his damaged eye, was surprised when he offered her a ride.

She knew what her parents would have said if she'd asked them for permission to take a ride with Daniel. So she didn't ask them. She just snuck away from the picnic and met him on the dirt road behind the Jensons' barn. She hiked up her skirt, swung her leg over the seat, mounting the bike as if she were mounting the Jensons' paint pony, and grabbed Daniel around the waist as he gunned the engine.

It was great fun riding back behind the reservoir and along the road that crossed a lower ridge of Thistle Mountain. Daniel made that bike go so fast that Sally's hat went flying, and when she screamed he just went faster.

Faster along the mountain's southern slope, faster along the zigzagging road, their bodies leaning together one way and then the other, down along the dirt road behind the junkyard, down through Stockhams Woods, careening into a field Sally had never seen before, bumping up and over a grassy mound at such high speed that the front wheel actually left the dirt road and they seemed to float suspended in the air, then dropped abruptly, slowed, and finally rattled to a halt in the middle of nowhere.

Crazy, one-eyed Daniel — when did you get so wild? You who would only ever eat your potatoes mashed, never fried or boiled. And always adding sugar to lemonade that was already sweet. You were changed by the war, along with the rest of the world. Because of the war, people now knew what could happen. But as Father Ludwig of the Good Shepherd Calvary Church liked to say: knoving eez nawt veezdom.

Daniel, lacking in veezdom, urged, "Come on, Sally."

"Where to?"

"Let's just have a walk around."

They walked for a while along the path that grew narrower toward the end of the meadow, the brambles scratching Sally's legs, closing in, until the path faded to nothing, there was no dirt left to see, the sun was low in the sky, and it was time to get back home. But Daniel wasn't ready to go home. Daniel had a confession to make: all this time —

"How long?"


For forever, he'd guessed that Sally had special feelings for him. The way she looked at him. Her smile. Gee, when she smiled at him, it was all he could do not to —

What was he trying to tell her?

Though she should have known better, she couldn't help but grin. That was her habit. Grinning Sally, who by then had a reputation for being able to charm all the youth of Tauntonville. As it turned out, she'd unintentionally charmed her cousin Daniel.

What a silly boy he was!

Such a darling girl — why, he absolutely had to kiss her!

He pressed so hard against her that she tripped and fell beneath him. She instinctively grabbed him as she went down, which he seemed to take as proof that she wanted him just as much as he wanted her. And while he tickled her and made her shriek with laughter, she did want him enough to tickle him back. His good eye sparkled; his bad eye stared at a skewed angle and was veiled with a pearly film. What a strange and fascinating fellow! No matter that he was her cousin — that was part of the fun of it. It felt right and natural to be misbehaving. That's all they were doing. Misbehaving in the way that can't be helped when you're young and full of life and out of your parents' sight. Until Daniel went too far, and by the time Sally realized what was happening, she couldn't stop him.

Doesn't it feel good, Sally? Doesn't it, doesn't it? He loved her and he couldn't help loving her.

It was over just like that — an action too quickly completed to be undone. And though she could see from the look in his good eye that her cousin was satisfied, all Sally could think to say in the cool bitterness that came with an understanding of having failed to protect herself was "Don't you ever do that to me again, Daniel Werner. Now take me home."

She worked for the Jensons six months more, until her swollen belly was showing too much to be hidden by sweaters. Daniel, eager to claim his cousin as his wife, made it known that he was the father, but Sally refused to have anything to do with him. She must marry him, her parents told her. She'd rather die, she said. Daniel wrote to Sally, describing the joyful life ahead for them together, in long, garbled letters, which she tore up without ever answering. At home, she worked as hard as she could, shucking, lifting, hauling, boiling berries into jam, and praying that exhaustion would put an early end to her trouble. She hissed at her mother's admonitions and invited her father's rage with her foul language, feeling with a secret satisfaction the sting of his powerful hand against her ear and then the ringing that she hoped signaled a deeper pain. They couldn't make her marry Daniel Werner against her will. Oh, yes they could. Oh, no they couldn't. Still her belly grew fatter as the snow turned to rain. And then the day came when there was nothing left to do but run away.

Running, running, running up the jagged slope behind the rows of new corn, over the stone wall, through the woods and meadows. Sting of nettles. Gray sky of dawn. Bark of a startled deer. Don't be afraid, it's only me. Running, running, running. Baby will have his bottle of warm milk by now and a clean soft diaper to replace the soiled one she'd left on him. Good-bye, baby. He'd been alive a whole forty-eight hours, and she hadn't bothered to give him a name yet. She would let her parents name him. They'd name him Moses. No, they wouldn't. They'd name him something shameful — Job or Ishmael or, worst of all, Sal — so he'd never forget his shameful mother.

Running, running, running, because that's what a girl does who has left her baby in a basket on top of the kitchen table, like a pile of fresh-baked biscuits. And all the while listening for the sound of voices filling the empty air, calling her to come back.


O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world.

Where's Sally?

Has anyone seen our wretched Sally?

Look what she forgot to take along with her!

And who's surprised?

Almighty and everlasting God, from whom cometh every good and perfect gift.

Laura, check the attic. Loden, check the cellar. Clem, ride over to the Jenson place, see what they know. Tru, watch Willy. And the baby.

Sally isn't here.

Sally's gone away.

Bad Sally. Doomed Sally. The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

Give unto us an increase of faith, despite —

A mouth of cursing, deceit, and fraud. Tush, she said with vanity, I shall never be cast down. And look what happened.


On Sale
Apr 22, 2009
Page Count
432 pages

Joanna Scott

About the Author

Joanna Scott is the author of ten novels, including Arrogance, a PEN-Faulkner finalist, The Manikin, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Follow Me, a New York Times Notable Book. Her awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Ambassador Book Award from the English-Speaking Union, and the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Scott is the Roswell Smith Burrows Professor of English at the University of Rochester.

Learn more about this author