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Fifth Born

A Novel

About The Book

When Odessa Blackburn is three years old her beloved grandmother dies, and so begins her story, set in St. Louis,Missouri, and rural Mississippi. As the Þfth born of eight children, Odessa loses her innocence at Þrst when her drunken father sexually abuses her, and then again when she alone witnesses her father taking the life of his own brother.
Fifth Born is Zelda Lockhart's debut novel, lyrically written and powerful in its exploration of how secrets can tear apart lives and families. It is a story of love, longing, and redemption, as Odessa walks away from those whom she believes to be her kin to discover the true meaning of family.


Chapter One:The Funeral

When we pulled off in the station wagon to head home to St. Louis, Granmama stood in the wake of dirt and rocks waving, her black hair blowing violently in the wind of the storm that we were leaving. I watched Granmama from the back of the station wagon until first her copper skin faded into the colors of the landscape, and then the speck that was her dress drifted, as if blown by the wind, out of the road and up the stairs of her front porch. That was the last time I saw her.

Granmama's funeral was held in the church where she had taken us on summer Sundays. The church stood tall and blinding white in the middle of a stretch of orange Mississippi dirt. Our family sat on the front pew, and because I was the baby, I sat next to Mama, holding her arm tight while my sisters and brothers sat quietly with their eyes wide open. Mama and the aunts wore veils, all their heads erect, their eyes and mouths invisible. The sun filtered through the stained-glass window, breaking the light into streams of orange and yellow where dust particles floated like dandelion seeds.

Our Grandeddy sat on the elder's pew at the front of the church. The wood dipped where he sat rocking to the soothing sound of the choir. He was the fattest black man I ever knew, and in the stained-glass light, he was so black, he was almost purple. The whites of his eyes were yellow like yolks. I stared at his face full of misery and regret for the woman that I never saw him hug or kiss. Their relationship was a lot like Mama and Deddy's, always cutting each other down with a list of regrets, but the babies came like seasons.

That day Grandeddy's face was hard and cold, not grinning behind a sip of white lightning like it usually was. In his white shirt and suspenders he looked worn, his age dusty on his black skin. I rocked with him and the rest of the family, and looked all over the church for some shift in things that would help me understand what was happening. He rolled the program tighter and tighter where the roughness of his hands against the paper sounded faint behind the harmony of the choir. Their voices lifted into the beams of the church and resonated inside my chest.

Walk the streets of glo-ry

Let me lift my voice...

The sweetness of the voices pushed Mama and the aunts into sobs and tears that sent me into tears, and I struggled to get around Mama's shaking arms and into her lap.

The adults fanned themselves to the beat, moaning like Granmama's cow when Grandeddy took her calf and sold it down the road. I watched Grandeddy.

The music paused, and the reverend stood. His voice echoed in the rafters. "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it."

He wiped the spit from his mouth with a handkerchief and motioned for the choir to hum the procession song. People lined up to look in the casket, like they were lining up for communion. There we all sat waiting, me, the littlest Blackburn. The church framed us, my two sisters and two brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, all the descendants of Grandeddy.

A tall, sturdy woman walked by in the procession and looked into my eyes. She lifted me from Mama's side, just swooped down like a hawk. When Mama looked up and saw through tears and veil that this woman was taking me to view the body, she pushed her veil up and yelled, but I cannot remember the sound that came from her mouth, because the humming had turned to singing, and somebody was shouting out the Holy Spirit in front of the casket, but when this woman looked into my eyes, the singing and moaning were muted. She looked down at Granmama and whispered in my ear, "Don't you never forget her face. You was her best granbaby. She tried to love you because she couldn't love her own."

I didn't recognize the voice that sounded so much like Granmama's, but let my three-year-old ear linger there on what felt familiar, her breath warm like comfort where nothing else made sense.

In the still of that moment I could smell Granmama's perfume, the perfume she only wore to church. She was resting in her yellow dress. The yellow dress that had yellow lace flowers over yellow satin, the dress that hung in her cedar wardrobe, the dress that she would put my hand on and say, "Flowers. Fl-ow-ers," and I would see in my mind the tall yellow sunflowers that had grown up among the weeds behind her house. I reached for her, but her hands were gray, not brown and pink, and her face was gray and dusty. She did not reach for me, and I did not know this woman in Granmama's dress.

On the train back to St. Louis I asked Mama, "When can we go back to Granmama's?" but she stared straight ahead, moving only when the train jostled her. I let go of her arm and braced myself as I crossed the aisle. My oldest brother, Lamont, pulled me up on his lap. At nine he seemed to understand things like a grown-up. I asked, "Where Deddy?" He answered me while looking out the window, "Who cares?"

"When we goin back to Granmama house?" In the reflection I didn't see his face change, but I put my hand on his cheek to turn it to me, and felt heat rise up to his temples. Warm tears rolled over my hand, and he mumbled, "Granmama's dead." I heard the voice of my big sister Towanda, the day she ran home and said, "There was a fight after school in dead man's alley," and Mama saying, "A nigga ain't worth a damn less he's dead." I saw Granmama's gray face and yellow dress lying among broken glass and candy wrappers, muddy storm water washing over her. I leaned against Lamont's chest and cried at the window too.

I was always crying, and clinging to Mama like death would sneak up and take her away. Unlike my four older siblings, I always walked because running meant falling, and falling released blood, blood released tears, pain spewing up from some churning ulcer inside of me that nobody understood. People stopped blaming my fragile state on the fact that I was born in Mississippi one summer and was Granmama's favorite, and it hurt me more than the other kids when she died. Mama said, "She's always cried a lot."

Mama didn't seem to mind my constant tears unless we were at church or at a barbeque and one of the aunts commented, "Lord, that chile done sprung a leak again," then Mama would yank me out of the fray of flying baseballs, jump ropes, and drunk uncles, and say, "Don't be so damn sensitive, cryin over every little thing." Usually I cried softly for an additional hour, so none of the aunts would want to sit and talk to Mama, just like none of the kids wanted to play with me.

My oldest sister, Towanda, nicknamed me "cry baby-baby," because I was unlike my sisters and brothers, who had their legs planted firmly under them like young oaks with deep roots reaching beneath the asphalt. They ran up and down the streets of West St. Louis, falling and bruising without the slightest grimace. When Lamont dragged Towanda, Roscoe, and LaVern through the gangway in the red wagon, their ashy brown legs with dirty sneakers dangled. Their knees scraped against the brick of our house and the grainy tar-paper shingles of the neighbors' house -- their laughter louder than the pain of scabby knees.

My mama could tell a story. Where Deddy didn't have much to say about his childhood, Mama made up for it with stories about hers. And when she told stories about something bad, she had a way of plugging a funny image in there, or throwing her head back in a big laugh with her gold tooth shining. The story about how she got that tooth was one of my favorites.

"I was in Bo's car flyin up to West Point to pick up my girlfriend. We was goin to my graduation dance, and the car caught a patch of gravel, and the next thing, my forehead was stuck in the glass of the windshield, and blood was pouring from where my real tooth used to be." That's where she laughed, loud like Grandeddy, holding on to a door frame, a chair arm, a kid's shoulder, whatever was nearest.

In the living room there is a black-and-white photo of Mama on the hi-fi. She is in a white dress, sitting in the dirt next to the car. She is posing, smiling, her dress ballooned around her. Her round face is in contrast to the white bandage that is wrapped around her forehead. Grandeddy's new car, black and chrome, is shining in the background, its front crumpled like papers. When I look at the photo, I can see the whole accident, just the way Mama describes it.

When Mama tells the story about Granmama dying, it isn't funny at all.

I sat on the front steps thigh to thigh with her. Mama watered our small lawn and hummed church songs in a low sweet voice, while Lamont, Towanda, Roscoe, and LaVern ran up and down Kennedy Avenue with the other neighborhood kids, trying to get the last bit of play in before it got too dark and Mama said come in. The smell of dry earth dampened by cool city water filled my lungs, and I sat and listened to her talk to our neighbors, who sat on their steps, watering their lawns in the same sweeping motion. Most of the grown-ups in our neighborhood had moved up from Mississippi at some point, and they always wanted to know what was happening back home.

Mama shook her head and retold the story. "Well, we were on the road coming back from down South when it happened, but Bo said Mother took one look at where he cut his self cleaning them fish and just lost her mind tryin to stop the bleeding."

I made pictures in my mind while Mama talked, trying to see Granmama running all over her house, long arms reached to grab rags, quilt squares, whatever she could to stop the bleeding. I imagined my retarded cousin Neckbone being there. He was always present when bad stuff happened, but never made it into the retelling of the story. I could hear Granmama's footsteps from the kitchen to the bathroom, and Neckbone stood at Granmama's out-of-tune piano, trying to find the notes to "Wade in the Water," his nervous, callused feet shifting from side to side on Granmama's wooden floor.

"Bo tried to tell her to calm down. He bled all over the table, but he wasn't hurting none. Lord, Lord." Mama shook her head, but kept up the steady sweeping motion with the hose.

"Mother ran to the bathroom to try to rinse and squeeze the rags, and she clutched her chest right there and had a heart attack. Bo's blood was all over the bathroom, and all over her dress. She never could stand the sight of blood."

I listened, rocking now, to music from the funeral:

What -- can wash away -- all my sins

Nothing -- but the blood -- of Jesus...

And I saw in my mind Grandeddy wringing the program, Granmama's obituary scraping over the crusty insides of the hands he had cut up with a fishing knife, but there were no bandages.

Death, blood, Jesus, my cousin Neckbone standing over Granmama singing "Go Tell It on the Mountain," words and images put together like puzzle pieces that made a picture of logic for Mama and the neighbors, but in my brain they swam around like tadpoles trying to find a place to settle.

Copyright © 2002 by Zelda Lockhart

Reading Group Guide

The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Zelda Lockhart's Fifth Born. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Many fine books from Washington Square Press feature Readers Club Guides. For a complete listing, or to read the Guides online, visit
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Odessa, the protagonist in Fifth Born, lives her life as a series of turbulent relationships. A most interesting relationship evolves between Odessa and her cousin Gretal. Discuss the nature of their unlikely alliance.
2. In Chapter One, Odessa claims, "Mama could tell a story." Indeed, Mama tells and retells many stories. Discuss the discrepancy between the truth that Odessa knows from Mama and the truth she comes to learn from Ella Mae's climactic story in the novel's final chapters.
3. In the novel's beginning chapters especially, the narrator, Odessa, spends a great deal of time describing the complexion and/or hair texture of her family members. Discuss how the family's treatment of color affects Odessa's self-esteem.
4. In Chapter Four, while being sexually assaulted by "Deddy," Odessa's mind wanders to a vision of Granmama on the porch, where she "climbed up in her lap." With such harsh images of reality crowding her brain, Odessa often escapes through imagination. Discuss the role of imagination and fantasy in Odessa's life.
5. By Chapter Four, Mama's crafty ways of recreating the truth become quite evident. What do you suppose is Mama's motivation for perpetuating secrecy and protecting Deddy's malicious behavior? Is anything gained from this secrecy? If so, at what or whose expense?
6. In the first chapter Odessa admits, "I was always crying..." Because of her helplessness and vulnerability, she is often bullied. However, the summer Odessa turns ten, she realizes that she "couldn't let there be any more cry baby-baby." Give examples of how Odessa begins to stand her ground.
7. With the exception of the "sanctified" Uncle Chet and Aint Fanny, the Blackburns do not seem too concerned with religion. How does God and religion factor into Odessa's life?
8. After Uncle Leland's death, Mama and Deddy take over his businesses and inherit the profits. How does this newfound wealth affect the Blackburn family? What changes? What stays the same?
9. At the end of the novel, Odessa goes from being "fifth born" to first born, as we discover that she is Ella Mae's child. How do you think this information will affect Odessa's future?
10. Considering the circumstances surrounding Odessa's birth, and the tense relationship between Ella Mae and Granmama, why do you think Odessa was Granmama's favorite?
11. Do you think Odessa would be able to adapt to a new life in rural Mississippi, away from the family she has known all her life?
12. Does Fifth Born have a happy ending? Support your answer.
13. Discuss the cycles of incest, secrecy and shame that are perpetuated through at least two generations of the Blackburn/Lacey families.
14. When Ella Mae tells her story to Odessa, it is hard for Odessa to hear things about her granmama. Odessa says, "I couldn't stand that someone who I only knew as a ghost was undoing my memories of my granmama, the one love I had understood all of my life." After hearing everything, how do you think Odessa will feel about her beloved granmama?
15. Although Gretal is "saved," she still feels "like cain't nothing keep me from sin and sin from me." Discuss how Odessa feels this similar hopelessness after she gets baptized.
Copyright © 2002 by Zelda Lockhart

About The Author

Photo Credit: Barb Dybwad

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (August 19, 2003)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743412667

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Raves and Reviews

O Magazine Lockhart's mastery of sensory detail -- the tastes, smells, sounds, and sights of Odessa's world -- roots us moment to moment in the hardscrabble life of this transcendent tale.

Essence A touching story told with incredible grace and subtlety.

The San Francisco Chronicle The language in [Fifth Born] is eloquent, the writing style poetic and the use of African American dialogue masterful.

Kirkus Reviews A poetic debut....An impressively mature piece of work.

Robin D. Stone With compassion, wit and grace, Zelda Lockhart gives us a new heroine: Odessa -- forgotten, betrayed, wounded in body but strong in spirit that keeps us rooting for her 'til the sweet, sweet end.

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