After World War II, orphaned Kettle faces prejudice as a Japanese American but manages to scrape by and care for his makeshift family of homeless children. When he crosses paths with the privileged but traumatized Nora, both of their lives are forever changed…
Lauren Nicolle Taylor’s Nora & Kettle is a heart-wrenching historical fiction novel that will appeal to fans of books by John Green and Ned Vizzini, novels such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Beginning of Everything, Eleanor & Park, The Book Thief, and classics like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye.
Reviewed by Melanie Newton
Although, technically, according to the criteria, this does not rate a 5. There is violent child abuse scattered throughout, several instances of racial violence, and one instance of animal abuse.
An old man rolls a cigarette between his fingers
Talk of people sipping scotch.
A couple of inferences that people had been drinking.
Supernatural Characters: There are no supernatural characters in this book.
Other: This story deals with a lot of emotional issues including child abuse (both emotional and physical). People should be very aware that there are scenes that many may find upsetting.
START READING NORA & KETTLE EARLY:
Enjoy these exclusive excerpts from Nora & Kettle. We chose an excerpt from each character’s point of view. Make sure to pre-order your copy of this highly anticipated Young Adult novel!
My wheelchair squeals as it grinds across the surface of the gritty, ground level of the hospital, sounding like I’m rolling over broken glass. I shakily grip a bottle of pain pills in one hand and it rattles, showing my nerves. The other hand is firmly grasping the arm of the chair. My mind wants to leave, to see Frankie, but my body is turning inward, protecting itself against future harm. I shield my eyes as we move under the bright lights that worsen my headache.
The doctor came to see me before I was discharged. He told me I had a bad concussion and a very bruised body but really, for the fall I had, I was lucky. It was hard for me not to scoff at that. He didn’t ask me why I did it. People don’t lean toward peculiarity, especially doctors. The idea that a famous civil rights’ lawyer could hurt his own children simply can’t be possible.
I remember Robbie telling me once that doctors are taught to look for the most ordinary, most plausible diagnosis. “Horses not zebras,” he said.
He’d shaken his head and tapped his chin like he wasn’t really sure what it meant either but said, “It means the most likely cause is usually the correct one. Sometimes people just have unusual symptoms to a usual disease.” Then he’d cupped his hand to his ear and started galloping, puffing as he continued, “So if you hear hooves clopping, you think horses, not zebras.”
I think I might be a zebra, but no one’s going to hear me.
My hand shakes so hard that I drop the bottle.
The nurse scoops them up and places them in my lap, speaking to me like I am a child, “Don’t worry, dear. Your father has sent a fancy car to pick you up and take you home.”
My ears prick from the closeness of her mouth and the prospect that I won’t have to face him just yet. “You mean he’s not taking me home? He’s not here?” I ask hopefully.
“He was called away to Washington. He does very important work, your father. He told me to tell you that Marie will stay at the house until he returns. He also told me to tell you that a police car will be parked out the front at all times, in case you need anything.”
I roll my eyes. In case I try to run away again, more likely.
The doors roll open to a humid night, the air wraps around me, closing in like a heap of smelly blankets. I feel suffocated, trapped in this chair, in this life. I sigh heavily when I see the sleek black car pull up. Sally rolls down the window and tries to smile at me, but it’s a sad mixture of pity and denial that crosses her face instead.
“Do you need help, Miss?” she asks, false cheeriness to her voice.
I shake my head and stand, opening the car door and sliding into the back. The nurse closes it, and I thank her as she does. The dark interior of the car swallows me whole, shrouds me in the blackness that reflects my mood.
I couldn’t do it.
I lasted about an hour. One miserable hour. The failure presses me from both sides, flattening me like I’m in a vice.
I Couldn’t. Get. Away.
Me, only me.
I am responsible for what happens next and what could happen to Frankie.
I draw in a broken breath and try not to cry. My mind is clouded with how angry I am with him. How he’s ruined my life over and over again. How it will never stop.
I wring my hands in my lap, wanting to throw something, break something. Sally eyes me in the rearview mirror. “I’m sorry, Miss,” is all she says.
I can’t respond because all the words I have are tangled around hatred and anger, and I will sting her with what I say. I stare at my lap, rolling the bottle of pills between my fingers. My head still throbs, but it’s hard to tell if it’s the concussion or the feeling of being squeezed dry that’s doing it.
We pull up to the house, behind a police car. Sally runs around to my door and opens it. She offers her hand and although I don’t want to take it, I do. Her skin feels soft, squishy, as I dig my fingers in to pull myself up. I get a little dizzy as I stand. Putting my hand to my head, I check it’s all still there.
It’s late, maybe ten o’clock. I stare up at the second story devoid of light and my heart turns icy as I start to worry what has happened to Frankie in the two days I’ve been gone.
I linger on the bottom step. “Okay,” I whisper under my breath. I take a step up, releasing Sally’s arm. I never wanted to set foot in this house again. I climb the steps painfully slow, my whole body unwilling to come with me. It knows the horror inside, the shadows that fill every corner of every room. “You’re going to be okay,” I whisper, tapping my heart, but it drops down and away from me. I’m so lost. My only companions are anger and distrust.
The door flies open and Marie stands there, eyes wide and fearful. She beckons me inside and gives Sally a knowing look.
“Come inside, come inside,” she says, eyes darting quickly to the police car. I slowly follow her, placing my pills on the hallstand by the door and swaying into the foyer. The stairs pulse in front of me, long, dark, winding, lit up in spots with the golden glow of the hall lamp.
“Where’s Frankie?” I ask in a slightly robotic voice.
Marie tries to take my coat, but I snatch it around my body, shivering suddenly.
“Where’s Frankie?” I ask again, taking a few steps into the center of the room, standing right where she fell. Anger pounds from that one spot like a giant heart is buried under the floor.
Marie seems dumbfounded for a moment, but she finally manages to say, “Didn’t Mister Deere tell you?”
To this, I snort loudly, take a few more steps, and sit down on the bottom stair, my knees knocking together, my head collapsing into my hands. “Tell me what?” My heart is batting against my ribs.
“Miss Frances has gone to stay with Mister Deere’s cousin. She’s probably sleepin’ safe’n’sound right now,” she answers, trying to placate me, or reassure me, I’m not really sure.
I stand again, the room whirling suddenly. A rush and then it stops still. “What cousin?” I take a step closer. “Where?” My eyes feel aflame; my hands are fisted at my sides. “And you know as well as I do, we’re never safe. Never.”
I buckle as the mist clears, and I understand. He’s taken her away from me.
She gives me a weird look like she doesn’t get what I’m saying, although I know she does, and says, “I don’t know any more than that, Miss. I’m sorry.” She backs away and mutters, “I’ve got some cleanin’ to do. Excuse me.”
We don’t speak of these things. We never have. But I’ve lost the will to keep up the game any longer.
“When is Mister Deere returning?” I shout across the foyer, gripping my skirt and wishing, wishing, wishing for days and maybe weeks without him.
“Tomorrow, Miss,” Marie manages, her face wrinkled with stress.
He took her away. My head pulses with pain and fear. He’s punishing me more than I ever thought possible.
“At least he can’t hurt her if she’s not here,” I say, doubting it even as I say it.
Her eyes expand at my candor and she stalls, moving uncomfortably from foot to foot while I glare at her plump, worried face for a moment too long. But then my expression softens. I don’t blame her for keeping quiet. She has a family of her own and I’m sure my father would have threatened her and them for her silence.
What’s worse than a violent man? A smart, violent man. He has notes filed away on everybody, money in pockets, and daggers ever poised for use. It must be exhausting for him, keeping track of it all. It makes me let out a weird little laugh. Poor Father. So many secrets to keep track of, people to pay off and threaten. Poor, poor man.
Hysteria teases me. Invites me to let it in, to stop caring, because he’s taken the last thing that would have held me down. Now I’m a balloon floating desperately to the sky.
I gaze around this vast space. The giant window over the landing casts eerie light over the stairs. That window has seen too many things. Too many horrible, undoable things. If only he could look through that window and see himself. If he could watch it from a distance, I wonder if he would change his behavior? Would he be ashamed? My head drops as I realize it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. My anger at him and myself forces me upright, and I storm up the stairs. The feelings twist into something else—a desperate sadness I can’t contain. Tears fly from my eyes as I reach the top, my hand gripping the banister hard as I pause on the top step. Why couldn’t you hold on? You left us. You left me.
I creep to Frankie’s partially open door and peek in. I’m hoping Marie’s mistaken and that she’s sleeping soundly, her face to the window, her breath rattling. The room is empty. I gently close the door with a wobbly hand. It stings when I breathe out. It hurts in every part of me, my skin itchy with rage.
He was going to hurt her. And now he’s hiding her. My sister. My small, hurricane of a sister…
I turn and walk down the hall, my feet spurring me on independently of my brain because I am empty and adrift. I am no hope and no thought.
The mania builds, my hands wanting to smash, burn, and tear, anything to not feel like this anymore. Because it’s too much. Losing her is too much. My body shakes with out-of-control emotion. I can’t hold it inside.
I place my hand on my mother’s bedroom door and shove it open. My headache is forgotten. My body is in line with me now.
Everything she owned glows with what I can’t have, what I’ve lost… am going to lose. I hate her for leaving, and I hate him for staying.
A barbed cry escapes my throat and I grab the first thing in reach, a silk scarf smelling of her perfume wrapped around a felt, brimmed hat on the end of the bed post. I rush to the window, fling it open, and throw the hat like a Frisbee out into the night air. The scarf and the hat separate, and I watch as the hat spins into the black and then sinks beyond sight and the scarf twirls down like smoke being sucked back into a pipe.
Self-control has abandoned me and I start gathering up other possessions, whatever I can find, and hurl them out the window, making sure they clear the fire escape. But it’s not enough. It’s not satisfying the roaring beast within because I want to hurt him. I want to take something important, something close to his heart, and destroy it. Rummaging through drawers, I throw the fancy clothes she’ll never wear again on the floor. I suddenly stop, panting like a crazed animal because there’s nothing in here that means enough.
I dash out the door and sprint to his den. I should, but I don’t hesitate as I open the door and stomp inside. On his desk is a heavy, silver frame with a photograph of my mother and father, taken before I was born. Neither looks at the camera. They gaze at each other, looking happy and in love. It’s not something I can really comprehend. I stare at it for a long time, trying to identify them, but these people are strangers to me. The love captured here is dead. I grip the photo to my chest and take it back to her room, thinking I might hide it. Because infuriatingly, he still has a hold over me and I’m scared if I throw it out the window, it will be the end. But then I look around at the chaos I’ve created, torn dresses, smashed ornaments, and jewelry strewn all over the floor and laugh hysterically. There is no saving me now. I walk slowly to the window and lean out, my hand stretching past the fire escape.
I release the frame and listen for the glass to smash. The still, night air answers with silence.
Putting both hands on the sill, I poke my head out to see where it landed. As soon as I do, something clamps down on my arm and yanks me from the window.
Time is hard to tell when the lights flicker on and off with a mind of their own, but the frigid air makes me suspect it’s nearly dawn. One day, they’ll stop working all together as the wires erode from lack of maintenance.
I scrape my eyelids of sleep and grit, propping myself up on my elbows. The sound of snoring kids is intermittently drowned out by subway cars whooshing through tunnels. No one stirs. The rattle of wheels over tracks is a lullaby, comforting, reassuring.
Two nights home and now I have to leave again.
I sigh loudly and collect my gear. Keeper’s small voice penetrates the hazy light. “You going already?” she whispers as she wipes the back of her hand under her runny nose. I crawl over sleeping bodies and touch her forehead. She feels a little clammy, a little too warm.
“You feeling okay, Keeps?” I ask softly.
She nods her head and coughs into her palm. “Just a cold,” she says and smiles for me. Her big, green eyes blink, red rimmed. “Mubbee I got allergies?” she asks.
I sling an arm around her slim shoulders and laugh, pulling her to me. “Maybe. Just take it easy today. Make sure everyone cleans up before lunchtime, eh?” She scribbles notes in a frayed pad of paper I gave her six months ago, licking the tip of the pen every now and then.
The corners of her mouth are stained with black ink when she grins and nods. “Yes sir, Kettle.” She sniffs again, and I hand her a handkerchief from my pocket. She nuzzles into my chest, almost purring just like a cat.
“I don’t need anyone getting sick, okay?” I warn with a wink.
She coughs, trying to cover it by stooping over. Her black hair falls over her face in one solid lump. I light a candle and peer at the watch nailed to the rocks behind me. I’ve only got about half an hour.
“Keeps?” She swings around, hair hanging over her eyes and in her mouth. “Come here, let me show you something.” She shuffles closer, looking a little scared. I pull out a hairbrush from the bag I brought home last night. “This is a hairbrush.” She squints at it, waiting for it to do something. “It’s for your hair, so it’s not so, um, hard to manage…” She tips her head to the side, looking for all intents and purposes like a puppy about to have its first bath. She’s our first and only girl resident. “Come sit in front of me.” I pat the ground gently, and she slides backward. “Don’t be scared. I’m not going to hurt you,” I reassure, although I’m not one hundred percent sure that’s true. “Keeps, what did I say when you came to live here, when you became a King?”
“Dat I could stay as long as I wanted and dat you would keep me safe,” she replies warily.
I grip the brush firmly in my hand and gesture to the section of cold stone in front of my crossed legs. “Do you believe that’s true?”
She scrunches her eyes shut and says, “Yes.” Crawling over to sit in front of me, she turns her mound of thick, black hair my way.
I raise the brush to her head, place it in her hair, and make a liar of myself.
The boys cover their ears to shield themselves from her caterwauling.
“Throw her back,” Krow mutters, scowling, which only makes her scream louder.
She bends her head back every time I run the brush through and screeches like I’m actually scalping her. The brush snags in the dirty clumps, and I can’t pull it through. I’ve said sorry about a hundred times but now that I’ve started, I feel like I need to finish it. She needs to look less like a street urchin and more like a child on her way to school if we’re going to remain inconspicuous.
On the hundredth and fiftieth scream, Kin finally storms over. He gets up in her face, and I think he’s going to tell her to shut up. It’s what I should have done, but I feel at a loss on how to deal with a ten-year-old girl who thinks I’m torturing her.
“Keeper, what would you like me to do? I can cut it all off or you can let us clean it up. Right now you look like a drowned rat wearing a dead cat toupee. Do you want to look like a drowned rat with a bad hairpiece?” Kin says.
She shakes her head and whimpers. Then she whispers, “I wanna look like that.” She points to the catalogue I’ve been teaching some of them to read from. A sweet girl with long brown hair in two plaits on either side of her head smiles thinly at us, her eyes round and blue, her ribbons frozen in mid-swing.
Both Kin and I stare at each other and gulp. Then Kin puffs out his chest, swears, and laughs. “If you can rescue women from burning buildings, together we can surely plait a ten-year-old girl’s hair.”
The boys snicker. “Shh!” I snap and then look to Kin. “Here you do this side and I’ll take the other.” We separate her hair into two uneven handfuls and go to work. With my mouth pressed tight, I start, with one eye on the photo we’re trying to replicate. The other eye is watching Kin try to plait hair with his giant paws. I swear he’s starting to sweat. I snort, gripping her hair so it doesn’t fall out.
Kin’s face jerks to mine. “What?”
I look down at the ground, my eyes watering. “Um, nothing…”
Kin holds his twisted clump of hair tightly, a concentrated, almost cross-eyed look on his face. “What?”
A laugh escapes my mouth, and all the boys join in. “I can’t watch you. My God. It’s like watching a bear try to peel a plastic banana!”
Kin sighs in exasperation but refuses to give up, a small smile creeping into his stern expression. “Yeah well, you’re surprisingly good at this. Anything you wanna tell us?”
Laughter fills the rocky space. It’s warm and bright, scrubbing the walls of grime and filling my heart.
When we’re finally done, I grip my plait tightly in my fingers, searching for something to tie it with. Krow steps forward and begrudgingly hands me two bread bag ties, which I wind around the ends. I push Keeps gently in the back. “There. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Turning around, she gives me a look of ‘you’re kidding, right?’ and scampers to the mirror. She frowns when she meets her reflection. Her whole face is now visible, smooshed cheeks and pinchy little ears. She looks cute. She tips her head down, and one large lump falls over her eyes. I remember the gift I bought that I was saving for her King birthday. Fishing around in the paper bag, I retrieve two red clips with white polka dots on them. Keeps stares at herself like she doesn’t know it’s her face. I sweep her fringe back and clip it in place. She touches it lightly, like I’ve just put a diamond tiara on her head.
She smiles sweetly, her dark lips brimming with teeth. “I think you should cut it off. I’m a King, not a queen,” she states proudly.
I stall in shock, and then my heart does that proud, pumping-strong thing. Kin slaps my back, and I stumble forward. Keeps draws in a sharp breath as I fall and begins coughing uncontrollably.
“We’re going to be late,” Kin says, extending a long arm in my direction, his eyes sliding to the coughing girl sitting delicately on a faded purple cushion. “We’ll think about the haircut.”
I smile at her. “Think about it some more, Keeps. You might miss it when it’s gone.”
Her determined eyes tell me otherwise. Her sallow, sweaty skin worries me.
We leave the boys and… girl… with instructions and head to work.