Breaking Twig (excerpt)


By Deborah Epperson


 I must have been about five the first time Grandpa Eli told me the story of the Pickers and the Picks. He was sitting in his rocking chair on the back porch of the modest plantation house he’d built twenty years earlier. My imaginary friend, Claudia, and I were having a tea party under the shade of the weeping willow. A clump of purple flowers plucked from the wisteria vine trailing along the back picket fence served as our grapes, while half-a-dozen emerald leaves pilfered from a hothouse geranium represented mint cookies.

  “Becky Leigh,” he called. “Did I ever tell you the story of the Pickers and the Picks?”

  “No, sir.” I headed for the porch. “What are Pickers, Grandpa?”

  “Pickers are mainly folks who are big on the outside, but small on the inside.” He gave a push and the oak rocker resumed its familiar cadence. “Not necessarily tall and heavy big. Pickers are more like puffed up big.”

  I climbed into his lap, nestled into the crook of his shoulder. “Like popcorn puffs up when you cook it?”

  “No, more like a sore that’s got infected and is puffed up with mucus and poisons.”

  “That’s yucky.”

  He laughed. “That’s a true fact, Miss Becky.”

  “What do Pickers do?” I asked.

  “Pickers hunt for someone who looks like easy pickin’s.”

  “Easy pickin’s? You mean like when Momma makes Papa and me pick dewberries along the railroad track instead of by Lost Mule Bog because she says it’s easy pickin’s along the tracks? But it’s not really. It’s just the bog is messier, and you know how she hates messes.”

  Grandpa stopped rocking. “Are you going to be quiet and let me finish my story, young’un?”

  I covered my mouth to stifle a giggle. It was the funniest thing, my grandpa pretending to be mad at me. “Yes, sir. I’ll be quiet.”

  The rocker started up again. “As I was saying, a Picker hunts for someone he thinks will be easy pickin’s. That’s usually someone smaller, younger, or weaker in some way. It can be someone whose only weakness is that he or she is a nice person.”

  I tapped Grandpa’s shoulder. “How does a Picker change nice people into Picks?”

  “Well, he screams and hollers at them. He makes them do things they know they shouldn’t do. Champion Pickers are experts at bullyin’, intimidatin’, and dominatin’ other folks.” The rocker stopped once more. “Do you understand anything I’m saying, Becky?”

  “I think so. Maybe. Will I be a Picker or a Pick when I grow up, Grandpa?”

  “Can’t say for sure. Let’s try an experiment.” He helped me down and pointed to a line of ants marching across the porch floor. “Go stand by those ants.”

  I did as I was told.

  “Now, Becky, I want you to stomp them ants as hard as you can.”

  “Why should I kill the ants, Grandpa? They’re not hurting me.”

  “Because you can, girl. Because you can.”

  I began to stomp. I stomped the ants in the middle of the line, the ants in the back of the line, and all the ants at the head of the line. I stomped so hard my cat’s dish vibrated across the floor, tumbled over the edge, and landed in the azalea bushes that circled the back porch. I didn’t stop stomping until all the ants were either dead or beyond my reach.

  Grandpa Eli motioned for me to come back. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes. “That’s what Pickers do, Becky. They hurt other living things just because they can.” Pulling me closer, he asked, “How did stomping those ants make you feel?”

  I lowered my eyes. “Bad. I felt bad, but . . .”

  “But what?”

  “But when I was stomping them I felt . . .”

  “You felt strong?”

  I nodded, too ashamed to acknowledge my Picker-like feelings in words.

  “How do you think the ants felt?”

  “Terrible,” I said. “And so will Pinecone when he sees his supper is gone.”

  “Don’t you worry about that cat. He won’t starve. But that’s what happens when a Picker gets riled up. Lots of innocent folks get hurt too.”

  “Does this mean I’m gonna be a Picker when I grow up?”

  “It’s all up to you, child. You don’t have to be a Picker or a Pick. You can choose to be nice to people and insist that they be nice to you.”

  I climbed back into his lap. “And if they’re not nice to me?”

  “If you stand up to the Pickers in this world, they’ll leave you alone. Remember, they like easy pickin’s.”

  “Have you ever been a Picker, Grandpa, or a Pick?”

  “Sure. At certain times in life, most people are either a Pick or Picker. It usually takes a lifetime for folks to figure out they don’t have to be either one.”

  “Grandpa, do you think a Picker, a champion Picker that is, can ever change?”

  “Maybe. With the passage of time and a heap of prayers, I think anyone can change.”

  I gave him a hug. “I think we should start praying for Momma right away.”

  Grandpa Eli smiled. “I think you’re right, Becky Leigh.”


I did start praying. But after both my grandfather and my beloved Papa died, and after the only noticeable change in Momma—despite eight years of fervent prayers—was her new husband, I stopped. I let the tales of Pickers and Picks slip from my mind and forgot Grandpa Eli’s warnings on the perils of becoming easy pickin’s.

  Not until one day in November of ’63 did I recall the lessons of the porch. That was the morning Momma and her new husband, Frank, went to the Miller’s house to watch President Kennedy’s funeral, and the time I got caught slipping into my new stepbrother’s room to borrow some paper. It was also the day a seventeen-year-old boy decided to teach a thirteen-year-old girl a lesson she wouldn’t forget. That was the day I knew for sure I was a Pick.

Breaking TWIG

Breaking TWIG


Heredity verses Environment

Lately, I’ve received several emails from readers asking how I came up with the basic premise of Breaking TWIG. Although various themes come up in the book (as they do in most books), the basic idea of environment verses heredity has long been debated.

In college, I majored in biology and English. I’ve always been interested in the issue of heredity verses environment, and which one has the most influence on a child. At times, Becky (Twig) worries that she has inherited her mother’s “picker” ways and her gene for chicanery, but she also thinks having one person who loves and believes in you is all a person needs to keep hope alive. I want readers of Breaking Twig to think about how love or the lack of love influences a child’s development into an adult.

I’m also often asked questions about the use of racially-charged words that are not politically correct in today’s society. These terms were typical of the language used in the Deep South in this time-frame (1960s-1970s), when traditions like segregation were colliding with Civil Rights, Integration, and Vietnam. Although I strive to be sensitive of the nature of these words, I feel my job as a writer is to be true to my characters in all their glory, their shortcomings, and their bias.  We’ve all heard the quotation, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana) I agree, and believe that only by remembering the past as it truly was as oppose to “sanitizing” it, can we learn history’s lessons.

My goal in writing is to tell a good story, one that shows my truth, that nobody is perfect, life is messy, and we all fail more often than we’d care to admit. But with faith, love, and perseverance, we can find the strength to continue toward our own truth with a bit more forgiveness and understanding for others and for ourselves. This is easier to do (I think) if you have a good dog by your side.

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Breaking TWIG ebook will be on sale for $0.99 from 04-24 through 04-27-2015

Breaking TWIG Available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook

   Breaking TWIG
Available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook



Women Writers of the South

Historic mural depicting the Harper Lee novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” located in Monroeville, Alabama.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Southern women writers have been the greatest influences on my writing. I share their passion for the Deep South and its diversity of people and cultures. Their natural writing style lends itself to the rhythm of storytelling. I admire their ability to use their writings to make us laugh, cry, and empathize with others, as well as their fearlessness to turn a light on the dark underbelly of our sweet-tea society.

I think the first inkling that not all southern little girls grew up in a safe, loving environment like mine came when I read South Carolina native, Dorothy Allison’s novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, which will break your heart. It educated me to the fact that bad things really do happen to good people, to children, and the secrets families hold can rip them apart as well as protect them. I returned to these themes when I wrote Breaking TWIG.

Alabama’s Fannie Flagg is a woman of many talents. Best known for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which became the film Fried Green Tomatoes, her writing is funny and candid, without being cruel. Her characterizations of Southerners might seem somewhat stereotypical to anyone not from the South, but as someone who grew up in the Deep South, I find them spot-on.

My favorite southern woman writer, the one who influenced my writing the most, is Harper Lee, who wrote the1961 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. She published only one novel in her lifetime, but a half-century later, To Kill a Mockingbird stands as one of the best-loved works in all of American literature.

I first read her book when I was in junior high. At the time, my own Texas community was struggling to come to grips with the Civil Rights Act and integration. The story, which originally touched sensitive chords in America’s unfolding Civil Rights drama, still reverberates today in the national consciousness. It’s a book about courage, and I think it took courage on the author’s part in 1960 to write with integrity and honesty about the issues of racism and injustices in her own community. Harper Lee stayed true to her story and to her characters, and I regard that as the ultimate responsibility of any author.

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Digital CameraHAVE you noticed how many times Montana is mentioned in movies, commercials, and country songs? The implication seems to be that somehow life is better in Montana. After twenty years of being inspired, awed, and befriended by her majestic vistas, remarkable animals, and amiable neighbors, my family heartily agrees. However, the differences in living in Montana are not limited to its natural resources, wildlife, and people. Native Montanans have a different mindset than those of us who are transplants from whirlwind hubs like Atlanta, Houston, or Los Angeles.

According to the encyclopedia, Montana is in the Rocky Mountain Time Zone. Those of us lucky enough to live here know life often unfolds according to the unwritten time concept affectionately dubbed, “Montana Time.”

I first became aware of the practice of living life according to Montana Time when we were building our log home. The carpenters would show up around 10 a.m. and would leave by 4p.m. When questioned, they explained that the fishing was best early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Admittedly, I didn’t see the connection between fishing and getting my house built. The craftsmen took pity on me. With great patience, they explained the concept of Montana Time, so that I wouldn’t remain forever clueless in Montana. Why, they wondered, would someone move to this breathtaking Eden and not take the time to enjoy its cornucopia of delights?

During my first fifteen years here, I didn’t fully appreciate the Montana Time concept. I was busy running my retail store, raising children, and writing my novel. Today, the business is sold, the kids are grown, and Breaking TWIG is out in paperback and ebook formats. Now, as I make my way around a family of wild turkeys and head for the hammock to contemplate the new novel swirling in my head, I realize a subtle conversion to a different view of how to make the most of my time here on planet Earth has seeped into my psyche . . . a conversion to Montana Time.

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P.S. How do you enjoy your Montana (or its equivalent) Time? Leave a comment by August 7, 2013 and be automatically entered into a drawing for a free copy of my novel, Breaking TWIG.