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The Language of Silence



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About The Book

Following in the footsteps of her tiger-taming grandmother, a woman flees her abusive husband to join the circus in this masterful, heartfelt work of women’s fiction.

Peggy Webb won raves for her debut novel, The Tender Mercy of Roses*, with novelist Pat Conroy calling her “a truly gifted writer.” Now Webb has crafted a poignant portrayal of a woman on the edge seeking solace in the past.

Nobody in the family talks about Ellen’s grandmother Lola, who was swallowed up by the circus and emerged as a woman who tamed tigers and got away scot-free for killing her husband. When Ellen’s husband, Wayne, beats her nearly to death, she runs to the only place she knows where a woman can completely disappear—the same Big Top that once sheltered her grandmother. Though the circus moves from one town to the next, Wayne tracks it, and Ellen, relentlessly. At the same time, Ellen learns more about her feisty, fiery relative, and the heritage that is hers for the taking—if she dares. With her violent husband hot on her trail, Ellen must learn to stand up and fight for herself, to break the cycle of abuse, and pass down a story of love and redemption to her children.

*writing as Anna Michaels


The Language of Silence


IT WAS THE BLACKBIRDS that first told Ruth something was wrong. At exactly the stroke of noon, they landed in the cornfield and commenced eating her corn as if they’d been the ones to stand in hundred-degree heat and chop the weeds out with a hoe.

In eighty years she’d put up with many injustices, but she’d be damned if she was going to stand in her kitchen mixing corn bread in a stone bowl while a bunch of black-feathered demons deprived her of a whole crop of corn. She jammed on her calico bonnet, then hoisted a soup pot and a clean wooden spoon and raced out her door, spry as any Ozark woman twenty years her junior.

And she’d box your ears if you said different.

Don’t ever tell Ruth Gibson she’s too old to live by herself. She aims to live to a hundred, all alone thank you very much, and Lord help the man who tries to stop her. Not that one would. The only men she’s ever allowed on her farm are her granddaddy, God rest his soul, and Ray Boy Turner, who has been taking care of her place for might nigh fifty years. If Ruth has any say in it—and she plans to have plenty—Ray Boy will be there another fifty.

The screen door popped shut behind her, sounding like somebody had shot off a double-barreled twelve-gauge. But the crows paid the sound no more mind than they did the distant backfiring of Ruth’s ancient Chevrolet as Ray Boy navigated down the winding road toward town.

“Shoo!” she yelled at the crows. “Git outta my corn!” A hundred pairs of beady eyes turned on her, giving her the all-overs.

Still, she stalked down the middle of her corn patch banging her wooden spoon against the pot as hard as she could. As the birds beat upward, the sound of wings caught Ruth high under the breastbone and wouldn’t let go. Hundreds of blackbirds rose against a sun-bleached sky, pulling her out of her skin so she could look back and see nothing of herself except a pile of bones covered with her bonnet and her blue gingham dress.

Lost in a cloud of dark feathers, borne high by a murder of crows, Ruth found herself dissolving—her thin lips, her gray hair, the pink of her muscles. Finally she was nothing but a wisp of smoke with a beating heart and a pair of sharp blue eyes. Ghostlike, she traveled forward and backward at the same time: backward to the year of the Great Depression where her half sister Lola was forever young, forever fearless, dressed in circus spangles as she subdued golden-eyed tigers; and forward, to see Lola’s granddaughter with her neck twisted sideways, blue eyes staring sightless at her bedroom walls.

Ruth fought against the pull of black wings, her silent screams echoing over her cornfields. Her heart strained with the effort to escape the mystical and anchor herself to the solid red clay of the mountains. But the gaping hole inside Ruth ripped wider as the loss of her sister was compounded by the possibility of losing a beloved great-niece who could have been Lola’s double.

“No!” Ruth’s bellow jerked her down and she found herself sitting in an undignified heap on crushed cornstalks, her bonnet hanging over one eye and her dress hiked up past her garters.

She tested her old bones gingerly to see if anything was broken. Satisfied, she got down on all fours to push herself off the ground. Then she stood in the relentless glare of a June sun, slowly counting to ten till she could get her balance and start back to the house.

This time she’d been lucky. The force of her visions had only thrown her off balance and cost her dignity. Sometimes she lost consciousness. Typically though, the weightlessness that was central to her visions just left her feeling a bit misty-eyed and damp.

“Damn crows,” she said. “Next time I’m gonna be totin’ my shotgun. See how they like that.”

She considered herself fortunate that she’d sent Ray Boy for groceries. If he’d found her wadded up in the corn rows, he’d have called her doctor. If that wasn’t enough, he’d have turned right around and called Ellen. Then her great-niece would have driven from Tupelo to way past Hot Springs only to discover she’d made the long drive for nothing.

Lord help her, that girl had enough on her plate without Ruth adding to her worries.

As Ruth trudged back to the house, she tried to figure out the visitation of crows. When her visions came to her whole and clear, she didn’t have to ponder. But sometimes the truth was hidden behind a veil and open to all kinds of misinterpretations.

Today, for instance, had she seen harmful intent toward her niece, or merely a terrible accident? Ruth wasn’t about to sound an alarm over a veiled vision. She knew the horrible consequences of giving warnings that changed the course of another person’s life.

If she hadn’t warned her sister about Jim Hall, would Lola have run away from her husband and left her baby in Ruth’s care? Would her sister still be alive? Would Jim?

All Ruth’s good intentions couldn’t justify the end—Lola dead, Jim said to have been murdered, and Josie hating the very sight of Ruth, who had only wanted to keep her safe—three lives forever altered by visions Ruth might or might not have interpreted correctly.

Even though her sister had been gone nearly fifty years, she still woke up every morning with guilt and loss perched on her breastbone, a boulder she had to heave out of the way just so she could sit up in bed and breathe.

The first vision she remembered having was because of Lola. Ruth had been thirteen and under strict orders to take care of her baby sister while their mother hoed the garden. Caught up in her game of hopscotch, Ruth hadn’t noticed when the three-year-old woke from her nap on the quilt under the willow and toddled off.

Suddenly the leaves began to fly off the willow tree, though there wasn’t a breeze stirring. Ruth got dizzy as the leaves swirled around her, silver as water. And in their midst was a tiny hand.

“Lola?” The quilt was empty, her baby sister gone. The leaves spun so fast they became liquid. “Lola!”

When the leaves collapsed around Ruth, she saw her sister’s cap of yellow curls—clear and true—disappearing underwater. She set out running and got to the lake behind their house in time to save her sister by taking a shortcut through the blackberry patch, only the scratches on Ruth’s legs to tell the tale.

Some seers read tea leaves and palms, auras or tarot cards. Ruth read her dreams and the world around her, the revelations appearing involuntarily—in the flight of birds, the mystery of leaves, the whisper of stars falling into a river. Even objects as ordinary as a kitchen chair could take on extraordinary form, leaving Ruth with truths to decipher.

Had she read the vision of the crows correctly? When she got back to the house, she called Ellen, as much to reassure herself as to tell her great-niece she should be careful not to trip and fall.

When there was no answer, she went back to her chores in the kitchen, but Ruth’s head hurt and she had lost her taste for corn bread. There it sat, eggs and buttermilk already mixed into the stone-ground cornmeal. Ruth couldn’t abide waste. She added a pinch of baking soda, some baking powder and salt, then poured the mixture into a black cast-iron skillet and stuck it in the oven.

It was too late to turn on the radio and catch the new show The Rest of the Story, and too early to catch the CBS Evening News, though she already knew what she’d hear: Nixon and Watergate. Still, Ruth considered Paul Harvey and Walter Cronkite two of the smartest men she knew. Just the sound of their voices reassured her, anchored her to the present.

Skirting the bucket of peas she’d picked earlier in the day before the sun got too high, she left her hot kitchen to call Ellen again. When there was still no answer, she went into the parlor on the shady side of the house to cool off. Folks nowadays called it a living room, but there hadn’t been any living done in this room in nearly fifty years. Not since Lola died.

Ruth turned on a set of Victorian lamps beside a burgundy velvet sofa, then pulled back the faded rose brocade drapes to let in some light. But forsythia bushes had long ago climbed nearly to the roof, and the windows hadn’t been washed since Ruth accidentally disturbed a nest of vicious red wasps under the sills. What was it, five years ago? Six?

When Ruth sank onto the sofa, dust rose from the velvet cushions. She fanned it away then reached onto the ­marble-topped coffee table for the treasures she displayed there—a yellowed newspaper clipping, a small gold brooch, and a grainy photograph made in a booth at the county fair. The photograph showed Ruth and Lola in pigtails, their arms around each other as they smiled into the camera, Ruth taller by five inches and older by ten years, her face defined by the sharp lines that would become hatchetlike over the years, and her half sister already stamped with the golden beauty that would be both her blessing and her curse. And yet there was something fierce inside Lola, too, something that couldn’t be threatened out, beat out, or scared out.

Tracing the lines of her beloved sister’s face, Ruth stared at the picture so long she became part of the air around her where, suddenly, a lone figure pulsed and swirled, dancing to some unheard melody. Lately, the lines between the physical world and her visions had become blurred and things kept getting mixed up, crossing over. Nothing surprised Ruth anymore, not a crow that could carry you to the sky or a phantom dancing in her parlor.

Half the time she didn’t know whether she was on this side or the other. Old as she was, she reckoned she was straddling two worlds and too damned stubborn to give up either one of them.

As disconnected from her own body as dandelions blowing off their stem, Ruth squinted at the dancing vision, trying to assign Lola’s face to the woman who sparkled when she twirled. But the phantom turned her back, keeping her secrets.

She found herself back on the sofa, taking off her glasses and wiping them with the hem of her dress. When she put them back on, the photograph had fluttered to the table, and she stared at the headlines in the ancient newspaper from Tarpon Springs, Florida:

The Great Giovanni Bros./Hogan & Sandusky
Circus Presents Fearless Female Tiger Tamer!

Her sister smiled back at her, dwarfed by two six-hundred-pound Bengal tigers standing on back paws, licking her face.

Suddenly the brooch sprang to life, a miniature golden tiger turned full grown and fierce, prowling Ruth’s parlor, claws extended and teeth bared. Snatched into another dimension, Ruth watched while he circled her rosewood upright piano with its ball-and-claw feet, sniffed behind her drapes, inspected the cushions on the carved mahogany fireside chairs, and sat a spell in front of the swinging pendulum of the grandfather clock.

When the tiger turned to look at her with eyes that could snatch souls, she stared right back.

“You ain’t gonna find nothin’ here but a skinny old woman with a tough hide. Now, git.”

The tiger began to dissolve, first his tail, then his giant paws and upright ears, and finally his glaring, golden eyes. Then he lay back on her coffee table, a harmless brooch that nobody had worn since 1929.

As reality weighed down her bones once more, Ruth squeezed her hands together to stop the shaking. This was the second time she’d seen the tiger. The first had been last week when she’d roused from a nap on the porch and seen it streaking across her yard with Lola and Ellen both on its back.

Lord have mercy. Her sister had been gone all these years with Ruth getting nary a sign. What was the tiger trying to tell her?

She wiped her face with the red bandana she kept in her pocket, then she heaved herself off the sofa, leaned down to fluff up the indentation she’d made in the cushions, walked across the room to close the draperies, and left the parlor.

She had peas to shell, a cake to bake. Last night her dreams had told her company was coming, and she wanted to have a lemon pound cake ready.

By the time she heard Ray Boy chugging back up the mountain, she had the peas cooking, the corn bread cooling, her mixing bowls laid out, and the TV on so she wouldn’t miss the news.

When Walter Cronkite signed off by saying, “And that’s the way it is,” Ruth wished she could be as certain about the messages from today’s visions.

It took her to nightfall to get the cake done. She was slower than she used to be. But by the time she went to bed, the pound cake was under its glass dome on the cake plate, plump and proud and fragrant as the citrus groves Ruth sometimes smelled in her dreams, though she’d never set foot in Florida.

Shedding her calico dress, her shoes and garters and stockings, Ruth bathed herself at the washbasin that had belonged to her grandmother, though she had a perfectly modern bathroom. The simplicity of the old ways soothed her. Then she got into a clean white cotton nightgown and climbed into bed. It was taller than ordinary, plantation style with layers of thick bedding, but she had no need for the footstool. Even at eighty she was still a tall woman.

Ruth turned off the bedside lamp, pulled the sheet up to her chin, and lay in the darkness, praying she wouldn’t dream. Still, she could hear the black shapes gathering—but it wasn’t the rustle of wings. It was stealth with fur and teeth and claws.

Resigned, Ruth closed her eyes and went to sleep in the shadow of a tiger.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Language of Silence includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


When Peggy Webb, writing as Anna Michaels, published her debut novel, The Tender Mercy of Roses, she won raves, including one from novelist Pat Conroy, who called her “a truly gifted writer.” Now Webb has crafted a poignant portrayal of a woman on the edge seeking solace in the past.

Nobody in the family talks about Ellen’s grandmother Lola, who was swallowed up by the circus and emerged as a woman who tamed tigers and got away scot-free for killing her husband. When Ellen’s husband, Wayne, beats her nearly to death, she runs to the only place she knows where a woman can completely disappear—the same Big Top that once sheltered her grandmother. Though the circus moves from one town to the next, Wayne tracks it, and Ellen, relentlessly. At the same time, Ellen learns more about her feisty, fiery relative, and the heritage that is hers for the taking—if she dares. With her violent husband hot on her trail, Ellen must learn to stand up and fight for herself, to break the cycle of abuse, and pass down a story of love and redemption to her children.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. Part One of The Language of Silence begins with an epigraph from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that reads “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” (p. 1) Why do you think Webb chose to begin her novel with this epigraph? Does it help you to better understand Ellen’s and Lola’s stories? If so, how?
2. Ruth’s gift is described as “the reason [Josie] called Ruth crazy and one of the many reasons Ellen loved her.” (p. 21) What is Ruth’s gift? Why do you think Josie is dismissive of it? Why does Ruth feel that this gift is both “her blessing and her curse”? (p. 290) Do you think that Ruth was right to share her visions with Lola? Explain your reasoning.
3. When Josie tells Ellen that she should learn how to get along with a man better and should “Take a lesson from [Josie’s] book,” (p. 72) the narrator says “Ellen already knew that lesson. . . . It’s the art of silence, and Ellen had learned it all too well.” (p. 72) What is the “art of silence” and how does Ellen employ it? Describe Josie’s relationship with Sim. What does Ellen find problematic about it? Do you agree? Do you think that the “art of silence” differs from the “language of silence” in the book’s title? In what ways? Does Ellen learn to speak the “language of silence”? How?
4. The shelter director tells Ellen, “Shelters are not merely a place to hide. They are a place to heal.” (p. 38) How does the circus help Ellen both hide and heal? Describe what circus life is like for her. Was there anything about Ellen’s life there that surprised you?
5. Ruth is described as “the one true thing in Ellen’s life, the compass she would use to steer herself . . . to freedom.” (p. 104) Describe Ellen and Ruth’s relationship. Were you surprised by the lengths that Ruth would go to in order to protect Ellen? Why or why not? Josie is very resentful of Ruth. Why is that the case? Do you think that Josie’s feelings are warranted?
6. Razz tells Al that Ellen is “like Lola in more ways than one.” (p. 273) In what ways are the two women alike? As you learned more about Lola’s story, was there anything that surprised you? If so, what?
7. Different types of abuse occur in Ellen’s family. When Ellen visits Josie and Sim, her parents, she sees “it all so clearly . . . Her father didn’t have to lay a hand on Josie.” (p. 71) How does Sim control Josie? Wayne employs other methods to control Ellen. What are they? What prompts Ellen to finally leave Wayne? How does Ellen’s family react? Describe the ways that Ellen’s mother and grandmother handle being victims of abuse.
8. Ellen gets a job at the circus as the teacher and is tasked with getting Nicky, the grandson of one of the circus owners, to speak. Why has Nicky become mute? How does Ellen attempt to get him to speak again? Do you think Ellen is a good teacher? How do the other circus children respond to her?
9. Ruth calls Razz “the man my sister considered a hero.” (p. 303) Why did Lola think that Razz was a hero? Do you agree? What were your initial impressions of Razz? Does your opinion of him change during the course of the story? If so, how? Why do you think that Razz was so reluctant to get involved with Ruth and Ellen?
10. Razz says “unlike man, who will socialize himself so completely he’s indistinguishable, a tiger never forgets who he is.” (p. 26) How is Razz like the tigers in his care? Are there any other characters who are also like tigers? Who are they?
11. When Ellen and Ruth end up at the circus, they have to make many adjustments, and “one of the scariest things about leaving behind the life [they have] always known and becoming someone entirely different was deciding whom to trust.” (p. 174) How do Ellen and Ruth decide who they can trust? In what ways do the circus performers and staff prove themselves trustworthy?
12. Luca is described as “a river, deep and cool and soothing.” (p. 163) What effect does he have on the others in the circus, particularly Ellen? Has Luca had any experiences that might make him more empathetic to others? What are they?
13. When Ellen reads Josie’s letter to Ruth, her aunt comments that “Josie never did know how to get to the point.” (p. 250) What is the point of Josie’s letter? Do you think that Josie really is trying to help Ellen, as she claims? How is Josie able to find Ellen?
14. Clarice is described as trying hard to keep “both her intelligence and her compassion . . . under wraps.” (p. 261) Why does she try to keep these traits hidden? Do you agree with Ruth that Clarice “says what she means and means what she says.” (p.262) In what ways are Ruth and Clarice alike?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Razz believes in the “red and gold magic of the circus.” (p. 29) Do you think that the circus is magical? Find more about the history of the circus and life for the performers by reading the books that Webb used to conduct her research, including Mud Show: A Circus Season by Fred Powledge and Behind the Big Top by David Lewis Hammarstrom.
2. On her website, Webb says that writing literary fiction like The Language of Silence allows her to “create complex stories that dig deep into the heart and soul of my characters.” Talk about the structure of The Language of Silence. Does knowing Lola’s story help you to better understand Ruth’s actions?
3. Peggy Webb has written almost seventy books under various pseudonyms throughout her career. Read some of her other works and discuss them with your book club. Which is your favorite and why?
4. To learn more about Peggy Webb, read her blog and find out more about her other books. To invite her to your book club, visit her official site at

About The Author

Photograph by Roy Turner

Peggy Webb is the bestselling author of more than fifty novels, including the Southern Cousins mystery series, the Stormwatch series, and The Tender Mercy of Roses. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (September 9, 2014)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451684810

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