"I want you to know something if you don't already. Life is choosing whom and what you love. Everything else follows . . ."
Among the longleaf pines and family farms of eastern North Carolina, days seem to pass without incident for Margaret Clayton and Bernice Stokes until they discover each other in a friendship that will take them on the most important journey of their lives. Margaret, droll and whip smart, has a will of iron that never fails her even when her body does, while Bernice, an avid country-music fan, is rarely lucid. Irreverent and brazen at every turn, they make a formidable pair at the home where they live, breaking all the rules and ultimately changing the lives of those around them. Lorraine, their churchgoing, God-questioning nurse, both protects and provokes them while they are under her watchful eye, as her daughter, April, bright and ambitious, determinedly makes her way through medical school. Rounding out the group of unlikely and often outrageous friends is Rhonda, the Bud-swilling beautician who does the ladies' hair on her day off and whose sassy talk hides a vulnerable heart, one that finally opens to love.
Weaving this tightly knit and compelling novel in alternating chapters, each woman gets to tell her story her own way, as all five learn to reconcile troubled pasts, find forgiveness, choose hope, and relish the joy of life. Rich with irresistible characters whose uniquely musical voices overflow the pages, The Sweet By and By is a testament to the truth that the most vibrant lives are not necessarily the most visible ones.
This book is like the perfect meal with the best company Reading this book is like having the perfect meal. There are numerous courses, the flavors are full and round with just the right amount of sweet, tart, bitter, savory and pungeunt. The company meets on every level -- laughter, sharing, cajoling, teasing with love, crying, laughing some more with love.
Great emotional book The author brings you into the lives of the various characters in the book. By the middle of the book you feel like you have known Lorraine Rhonda, Margaret, Bernice and April. While the setting of a nursing home could have been a depressing place to write about, the author finds love, compassion and friendship between the characters and brings you into the story without the depressing thoughts of the setting. It is a book that you don't want to end because you have become involved with the characters and their lives. Enjoy!...more info
Rare glimpse into the unspoken emotions of our aging parents So often the words from our aging parents are of pain and possibly the weather, as they are too tired or feel we don't care to say much more. Todd's book gives me that rare glimpse, from the inside. Margaret and Lorraine gave me a new perspective and appreciation for life's gems that only their age could provide. And Bernice provides just enough humor to keep the fun! I laughed and cried, and have dog-earred so many pages, such as April's understanding that attention is the prize of love, the first to arrive and the first thing to go. Decadent reading!...more info
Strong southern women; strong friendships If you love character-focused southern fiction, you'll love this novel, where the women are as complicated and diverse as the south itself.
It takes place almost entirely in a retirement home, so it's no surprise that two of its major characters, Margaret and Bernice, are elderly. With one strong mind and one strong body between them, the two women complement each and have become fast friends. Although they are white and former society women, their best friends also include Lorraine, a black nurse at the home, and Rhonda, a young white beautician who supplements her meager finances by working in the home's beauty salon one day each week, her day off from her full-time job.
Margaret and Bernice, and even Lorraine, become substitute mothers for Rhonda, whose mother abandoned her to an abusive grandmother. As a young woman, Lorraine was also in an abusive relationship -- her marriage to an alcoholic who provided no support for his family -- but she was rescued by her mother, who helped her raise her daughter April. Lorraine's lifelong best friend Althea also served as a second mother to April, who is now in medical school.
A strong support system that includes not only April and Althea, but her faith and her church family, gives Lorraine the strength to serve as the glue that binds together the friendships of the nursing home.
The strength of the book is its richly drawn characters. The writer has even managed to show a fully developed personality for Bernice, even though she is suffering from dementia.
I give this book my highest recommendation, 5 stars, and kudos to the author....more info
Todd Johnson's Debut Novel is a Hit! I absolutely love this book! I read it a few chapters at a time and savored the story throughout the days. There are so many things I love about this book I hardly know where to start. I feel like I personally know all the characters in the book after reading it. The author's writing style truly made me feel like I was right there in that southern nursing home living life with the elderly Margaret and Bernice, Rhonda the hairdresser, and Lorraine the nurse and her daughter, April.
Margaret is, and will always be, my favorite character in this book because she reminds me so much of a dear friend who passed four years ago at the ripe old age of 93. Her description of the food served at the nursing home had me laughing out loud and brought back fond memories of my own dear dad who always had some very descriptive words for food served in hospitals. How could you not laugh when Margaret states, "I know they're afraid we'll choke if they don't make everything into mush, but try eating something that feels like slime on the top of a pond going down your throat."
As the stories of the lives of the characters in "The Sweet By and By" unfold , you will laugh, and you will cry. Yes, there is sadness in their lives, but there is also love, and love never dies. Holidays are difficult times in nursing homes and the author handles the celebration of these events with great understanding and humor. Margaret comments at the Valentine's Day Party that instead of hearts that say "Cutie-Pie" and "Kiss Me", which are wishful thinking, they should have hearts that read something more appropriate like "Massage My Feet" or "Hot Soup". Margaret's droll sense of humor never fails her even in the most difficult of times.
If you love stories of life and friendships, this book is for you. I highly recommend it and would give it 10 stars if I could! This is Todd Johnson's first novel, and I hope that he has more wonderful stories to tell.
Excellent service, great book! First of all, I received my book in excellent condition in a very timely manner. It is a wonderful book which I originally saw reviewed in Southern Living and couldn't wait to read. Take a gander at what the future may hold for some of us, you may want to rethink some things now!...more info
Fine Read, but the territory is not really so interesting for me.... Granted, this is a very fine literary novel, and easy to read and appreciate as well. But since the subject matter, characters, eccentric as they can sometimes get, and so on never really got under my skin, and for that very selfish reason, I only give the book **** stars. Admittedly. a second reading could be worthwhile, and if I can find the time (not easy), I may very well give this near outstanding book another go. ...more info
A Blessing of a Book From the first to last page, this beautifully written book drew me into the story of five strong, courageous women and the wholeness of their lives. As a person who works with helping our seniors to improve memory and overall health, I was able to see their lives from the inside out and become even more committed to being of service to this population that we would so easily sweep under the carpet. Todd Johnson's authentic portrayal of aging and the vastness of wisdom our elderly possess and would so gladly share speaks volumes. In my humble opinion, this is a must read for all as aging is inevitable and we have much to learn from the graceful way these women move forward through their own unique process. Thank you, Todd, for your exceptional skill in making us aware of our lost population....more info
A story for all of us Todd Johnson did the unthinkable in today's society: his novel is about old people and the people who care for and about them. His most memorable character is Lorraine, a nursing home LPN (not a real nurse as her daughter's grade school friends said). Lorraine represents all those hard-working, underpaid and little respected workers who do the day-in, day-out work of taking care of those who can no longer stand without help or dress themselves or even comb their hair. What's so remarkable and heart-rendering about this unforgettable novel, is that Johnson gives Lorraine such humanity and dignity that she represents to all of us those ordinary people who do extraordinary acts of kindness.
For those of us who are caretakers of our parents, this book gives us perspective, hope and laughter.
This book accomplishes what I would think most authors want: it inspires, teaches and entertains. I am so grateful that there is a Todd Johnson to bring to life these wonderful characters....more info
A Delicious Tale Well Told Family and friends, these are the folks that matter throughout our lives. This wonderful tale I see as a recipe. One person, one detail at a time, mixed well with time, love, and events results in an excellent read. Truly, it is Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes in character but with realistic simplicity. The end of each chapter is a well written paragraph or sentence that it draws you to reflect upon your own life, loves, and events.
So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the people, their lives, and the delightfully easy read....more info
A nice little book. The author, Todd Johnson, pulls off four different voices in his first novel, The Sweet By and By. Each voice is individual and distinct. There is Lorraine, the nurse's aide in a nursing home; April, Lorraine's daughter; Rhonda, a hairdresser who takes on the hair duties for the residents of the home; and Margaret, who is living her last years in a feisty and individual way. They each tell their own stories, and together unfold the story of Bernice, and elderly woman who lives across the hall from Margaret, and who is suffering from dementia.
I liked the author's writing, even if the format is not my favorite. The plot, if you can call it a plot at all, is slow to develop. This book is more like a "slice of life" except it goes on for years. There is a sentence in the book, and I am paraphrasing, that sick and old are coming to all of us whether we want them to or not, and it sums up the theme: growing old, and dying. Many reviewers found the story very emotional, but I found it more prosaic than profound. Nevertheless, I liked this book. I found it sweet, and quiet. I give it three and one-half stars....more info
QUIETLY MOVING Todd Johnson's debut novel builds, sustains and then explodes with emotion, telling a simple story through the distinctive voices of 4 different Southern women. It's a staggering feat to pull off, and he does, cultivating not only the sound, humor and pecularities of each woman, but also their often profound relationships with one another. You will turn the pages slowly; this is not a hair-raiser, but more of a quiet, and often very funny, delight. This book is about things that matter - without preaching, it delivers its message like a great song that draws you in with a catchy, lovely melody and lyrics that hum along, and then devastates you with a final heart-piercing turn of phrase as the music swells. ...more info
Wonderful book! I absolutely loved this book and couldn't put it down. I hope there will be more books coming from Mr. Johnson in the very near future. He's great!!...more info
Finding the Sacred in the Ordinary, Southern Style *****
This is a book about friendship and love. It involves two aged women in a nursing home, a middle-aged LPN and her daughter, and a hairdresser. It is funny, wise, and filled with many precious moments, and absolutely great writing. I am especially surprised that such insight into female relationships could come from a male author, but Todd Johnson does an outstanding job here.
And interesting---you bet! The author MAKES it interesting and brings life in the South, nursing home culture, and ordinary people and ordinary things to life.
The vivid characters and beautiful writing caused me to fall in love from the first few pages, and this continued on until the end, which I was sad to have arrive.
I am not a fan of books about the South at all; you need not be in order to enjoy this book. I also would not call this book "hen-lit" as does an editorial reviewer. I think this is a book about women, but for everyone (men included) who is thoughtful and enjoys reading novels about people. The only readers who may be disappointed are those who enjoy action-based (as opposed to relationship-driven) novels.
Unusually good This book was heralded as Steel Magnolias meets Fried Green Tomatoes, which I thought was right on the money. I've seen Steel Magnolias a bunch of times and love it. This book had the same southern feel and reminded me of the saying, "You'll laugh, you'll cry," since I did both when reading it.
It is difficult to believe this book was written by a man. It was written first person in four different women's voices and is so well done that I was astounded. The southern-style speech took some getting used to, as I was born a Yankee, but gave a wonderful flavor to the pages. I noticed that the most educated of the women had significantly better grammar than the others as well. Very well done!
I'd say the main theme of this book was caring. The characters care for each other, especially those who need it most (Bernice) and either love or grow to love each other. We learn so much about each woman and her past that they become like friends.
Setting the story mostly in the nursing home was brave and what made the book so unusual for me. The author has an incredible grasp on the indignity and frustration of aging, but surrounded it in so much caring that it's bearable to read. When Margaret slipped in and out of reality, I could see just what she saw and felt her frustration almost in a tangible way.
There was no huge conflict to be solved like most of the fiction I read, yet the story ended well and was satisfying. That's all I'll say so as not to spoil anything for you.
I highly recommend this book. It certainly makes one more appreciative of and compassionate towards their aging elders....more info
A Real Gem The Sweet By And By, written by Todd Johnson
Reviewed by Michael Milton
How wonderful to read a book which examines so sensitively three topics we rarely allow ourselves the time to consider; aging, sickness and death. In his debut novel, THE SWEET BY AND BY, Todd Johnson juggles all three effortlessly with deep insight and great humor.
I have always been attracted to quirky Southern books populated with even quirkier Southern women. Mr. Johnson certainly gives us a good portion of those sharp, odd and mannered women. Yet beyond their Carolinian facades lies a borderless grace and wisdom. The years passing in Mr. Johnson's storytelling etches even more deeply their reflections on life--its meaning and its loveliness, its challenges and its sweetness--as each character, chapter by chapter, unveils new lessons learned against a backdrop of what each of us ultimately must face...growing older, dealing with illness and, finally, our passing.
Written with rare clarity, Mr. Johnson allows his characters the time to blossom, each of whom claim our hearts and whose words continue to echo in our souls long after the book has been set aside....more info
All talk, little action The Sweet By and By, by Todd Johnson, has some good and some bad. I enjoyed the characters in the book greatly. They seemed real and human. Todd Johnson has a real knack for creating quality characters.
The bad? The book is saturated with conversations, and nothing really happened for long spans of time. It almost seemed like Johnson was trying to work the plot through by having his characters talk their way into the plot, instead of doing the plot.
Overall, I didn't care for this book. Too hard to read....more info
Loved this book While I'm not there yet, I've certainly acquired enough years to have great empathy for "end of life" dilemmas so I'm simply amazed that a man wrote this book and got so many divergent female voices right. And that he chose to write about two women confined to a nursing home (Margaret and Bernice), a woman who works there (Lorraine) and then added in two younger, even more divergent voices, those of Lorraine's daughter, April who matures during the book and becomes a doctor, and Rhonda, the hairdresser who eventually acquires her own shop (and a husband!). Perhaps this risk taking (writing about older and aging characters) is part of what makes this book so successful and so enduring. I cared deeply for these characters and it's obvious that Mr. Johnson does too.
As others have noted, the lives of these women unfolds chapter by chapter, alternating characters. I promise you will not lose track of them because each character is so distinct and so well developed that by the end of the book, one feels as if they knew these women. However, I'm not convinced that only female readers will enjoy this book. I believe Rhonda's husband, Mike would read this book!! Rhonda's mother left her with a self-serving grandmother when she was 12 so I was happy for her to meet Mike. It isn't easy to reach a point in one's life to accept such a thoughtful man. It's easy to see why Rhonda's mother finally left and we assume Rhonda came to terms with that too. Margaret's and Bernice's brief escape from the nursing home is so well developed that one rejoices with them, then anguishes over the tradegy at the end of the escape. Also, the relationship between Margaret and Bernice and Margaret and Lorraine and that of Margaret and Lorraine with their daughters is just wonderful.
The reader learns that the loss of one son started Bernice's decline into dementia. That son was the brave, adventurous son. In a sane moment as she reminisces back over time she remembers how she could save her other son from little league but couldn't save him from his fears. This book is full of sentences like that that grab hold and won't let go. To be sure it is character driven but don't let that fool you. There is a real story here -- a heartbreaking and a heart-warming story. This book will make you laugh one minute and cry the next. I highly recommend this book. The characters in this book are so vivid and so real, it's simply amazing. Mr. Todd Johnson, please continue writing; I'm waiting for your next book. Highly recommended reading.
Touching, thought-provoking story--life-changing. I was initially drawn to this story because we placed my mother-in-law in a nursing home a few months ago after almost 20 years of living with us. I got MUCH more out of it than just a good story--more on that in a minute.
I really liked the style Todd Johnson used--first-person narrative of four main characters. He was able to show such different viewpoints of the same circumstances, e.g. life in a nursing home. The books spans quite a passage of time, but it's done so in a way that you don't miss all the details in-between; you simply adjust to the point in time where the story is being told and the changes that have occurred. He quietly conveys the slow decline of Margaret, the aging of Lorraine, the maturing of April, the personal growth of Rhonda--as well as the impact Bernice has on all of them. I appreciated how you could get a clear image of Ada by putting together each of the four characters' impressions of her! I learned to love these women as they showed compassion, patience, and kindness to those they befriended and waited on.
".....But as Mama always says, 'I don't care who you are, Sick and Old are comin
to see you whether you invite em or not."
On the deeper level, Todd Johnson is able to bring such a sensitive perspective of the journey we all will go on as we travel down the road of life--dependency on our parents..... independence.....dependency on our children and caregivers. We ALL want to be treated with dignity and kindness; if we live long enough, we will all change roles from caregiver to the person needing care; and as that happens, it is as frustrating for the receiver of that assistance as it can be for the giver (no ones wants to depend on someone else to do everything for them).
As I visit Mom almost daily, this book has made me acutely aware that she may be thinking about so much more than she shares--her past, present, and future all parade through her thoughts in her many waking hours as well as her dreams. This book helped me to be more sensitive to her needs and those around her, caregivers as well as other residents.
Truly loved the book, and as another reviewer stated, kept forgetting a man wrote it because he so vividly captured the essence of these women. A great read!!!!
For a very good read Set up like many "women's" books, The Sweet By and By alternates between the main characters' lives. There is the LPN, Lorraine, who cares for everyone in her sweet, giving way; Margaret,the elderly woman, whose body has failed a fine mind; Bernice, the mother wracked by grief, whose nonsense often hits the mark; Rhonda, the beautician, who touches more than hair and April, the daughter we all want. It is a fast, yet powerful read with many tearful portions. My only negative comment is the addition of April. She serves a minor purpose and could easily be eliminated and incorporated into another character's story. If she were totalyy withdrawn, it would not alter the context. I enjoyed the author's use of imagery and language. I felt that he really understood these women's pysches....more info
It is what it is This is a character/relationship-driven story, but very well told indeed. There are five distinct voices, and I enjoyed getting to know all of the women.
I did not find it riveting, however. I read a chapter a day, and finished several other books in the time it took me to finish The Sweet By and By.
Johnson reminds us about the elderly and makes us wonder what we owe them Recently, a music ensemble in which I participate accepted an invitation to perform at a local nursing home during the December holidays. Although many of our members enjoyed the opportunity to connect with its residents over music, others privately confessed a reluctance to do so, saying that nursing homes make them emotionally uncomfortable. In his first novel, THE SWEET BY AND BY, Todd Johnson sheds some light on why all of us might feel that unease from time to time, while also arguing passionately for maintaining ongoing connections to our society's oldest members, even when we can't see that what we do makes a difference.
THE SWEET BY AND BY takes place primarily in the halls and rooms of a North Carolina nursing home. At the center of the novel are two of its residents, Margaret Clayton and Bernice Stokes. Margaret is still totally lucid, at times much to the dismay of the home's nurses and administrators, as well as the less-than-perfect families of other residents. She has a tendency to be bossy and self-righteous, but she also cares deeply about the people in her life. Bernice is one of those people, even though she couldn't be less like Margaret. Bernice is unfailingly optimistic, perhaps because she's lost her grip on reality most of the time. Her constant companion is a stuffed monkey she's named Mister Benny. Margaret and Bernice form a surprisingly close duo, navigating together the sometimes confusing waters of old age.
The two old women are also cared for by others, especially Lorraine, the African American LPN who sincerely cares about them and remains dedicated to preserving the humanity and dignity of all her patients. Both Bernice and Margaret also become close to Rhonda, the young woman who does hair in the nursing home's beauty salon one day a week, a scheduled event that inevitably becomes the high point of the residents' week. Rhonda has her own reasons for taking the job in the first place, but she finds herself drawn into the residents' circle almost in spite of herself. "Those two old women have gotten up under my skin," she notes, and her sentiment is not meant unkindly.
Lorraine, Rhonda and Margaret, as well as Lorraine's daughter April, a medical student, tell their stories in alternating chapters. Johnson skillfully distinguishes the separate voices through the use of a natural-seeming Southern dialect and other cues. At times, the chapters dovetail into one another; more often, each chapter stands alone much like a short story, describing a single anecdote or incident.
Johnson's careful connection of these moments to significant events --- weddings, graduations, holidays --- conveys the passage of time. This consistent, deliberate attention to time, as well as the privileging of character and theme over plot, helps the entire novel's mood reflect the experience of being in a closed, mostly eventless environment like a nursing home. In powerful scenes and quiet moments alike, Johnson urges readers, especially those who might be inclined to forget about or avoid the elderly in real life, to remember that they exist and to wonder what we owe them --- and what they can still offer us.
A wonderful book to remind you of what matters in life I love books that make me want to copy phrases from it to read later and to think about in quiet moments. This book had PAGES of things I wanted to remember. A thought-provoking message about the way we treat the elderly in this country, but not "preachy" or offensive. It leads you gently through the lives of several women who intentionally or unintentionally learned to love each other and help each other through the rough places in life. One of my favorite passages was that "old and sick come to all of us, whether we invite them or not". Maybe as I age that has become even MORE meaningful. I highly recommend this book and I hope that the author writes many more for me to read....more info
So far, my favorite book of 2009 I started reading this book with a modicum of doubt as to whether or not I would enjoy it. The setting itself sounds depressing: a nursing home. How many of us actually enjoy visiting a nursing home? Not many of us I'd guess. But Todd Johnson somehow brought his characters to life, and the emotions they expressed were immediately recognizable, and you connected with them right away. I enjoy stories about average folks. There are so many stories about the super rich and their 'problems'. It's nice to see average people with average jobs getting their turn in the limelight. Okay, the gist of the story is this: Lorraine, an African American nurse, works at a nursing home in North Carolina, and she takes her job seriously. No half-stepping for Lorraine. She cares about her charges and goes the extra mile for them. Margaret and Bernice are women she cares for in the nursing home. Margaret still has her wits about her, but Bernice is in her own world most of the time, her mind ravaged by the loss of her dear son, Wade. Enter Rhonda, a hairdresser who is hired by the director of the nursing home to beautify the residents. She isn't optimistic about all these old people at first, but Margaret and Bernice, especially, soon loosen her up. The fifth character whom Todd Johnson gives a voice is April, Lorraine's only child, who is in the beginning of the story going to college with a mind to entering medical school. All of these voices speak in first-person, and they're easy on the ears. You come to understand them, and root for them, and in the end to love them. The book is about how your associations impact your life. And how we, no matter what race we are, have more in common than we think we have. That, basically, we're all the same under the skin: we just want to be loved, and heard, and have someone be there with us in the end. I didn't want the book to end. That's how much I enjoyed it....more info
Lovely Book, Lovely Writing I have really enjoyed this book, which is very wise in its telling of several people's lives. When I started reading it, on the first couple of pages, I was a little put off by the very colloquial, first person writing style, but I was very quickly won over as I started to get caught up into this story of an ordinary group of women at different stages in their lives, written from their own perspectives. The characters are beautifully developed, you really get to know each one as you read. If I didn't know better, I would have thought this book was written by a woman, which is not the case.
You very quickly build sympathy for each of the characters; all have experienced their own hardships through the years, and the juxtaposition of the young people starting their lives against the older women at the end of their lives is striking.
Each character has many insights to bring into the story, and the characters are different enough form each other to hold your interest.
This is one of those books that will stay with you for a long time, and is also very readable; you want to know what will happen to each one.
My only criticism is that the book could have been a little shorter; it is an intense read, at least for me.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book, which I think is really a book for women, and each of us will be richer for sharing these ladies' lives.