It’s 1895. Catherine Caldwell, known as “Cat,” is 19 years old. She’s digging her father’s grave; her mother died some years before. She hasn’t had much education. The people of the town she lives near think of her as rather odd. With no other family, she decides to fulfill a kind of promise to her mother and heath south to Florida, specifically to Siloam Springs on the St. John’s River, a place she’s never visited but which holds the promise of a better life.
She disguises herself as a boy, wearing her father’s dungarees and boots. She hops a freight train headed south, and after she’s discovered and rather painfully thrown off the train, she meets Raff Jordan. Jordan is clearly a man of the gentleman class, and he is piloting his raft of goods to Siloam Springs with the help of a young local man named Wyatt Tate. For several weeks, the three make their way together on the St. John’s River from Jacksonville. Cat discovers that Jordan is a preservationist – someone deeply concerned by the destruction of Florida’s natural habitats by phosphate ore miners and others.
Cat discovers herself liking Jordan, a liking that grows stronger. But their relationship often seems like oil and water. Once they reach Siloam Springs and the big steamboat docked there, Jordan deposits Cat with the Tate family and takes off. Ma Tate isn’t fooled for a moment – she knows Cat is no young boy. And she helps her get a job working as kitchen help at the local hotel and establishing a double life – kitchen boy cleaning pots and pans and beautiful singer at the hotel.
|Mary Harwell Sayler|
Cat’s story is told in Hand Me Down the Dawn by Mary Harwell Sayler, first published in 1985 and now updated and republished. Sayler is a poet, editor, and writer whose published books include Living in the Nature Poem, Faces in a Crowd, Outside Eden, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes: Poems for Children, Christian Writer’s Guide, Praise: Poems, and What the Bible Says About Love, among many others. She lives in Florida.
Hand Me Down the Dawn is a historical romance, and Sayler has done her historical and environmental homework in telling Cat’s story. And it is a sweet, winsome story, including enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing if Cat will find the life and the love she’s looking for.
Top photograph: Lucas New Lines operated steamboats on the Ocklawaha and St. John’s rivers in Florida in the 1890s.