The Sweet By and By: A Novel

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"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.

Customer Reviews:

  • 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!!!!
    ...more info
    I just finished this book and, in closing the last page, I feel like I've said goodbye to some really wonderful, old friends. Hauntingly rich, I found myself laughing out loud one minute and wiping tears away the next.

    The characters are colorful and familiar while the plot is beautiful and surprising. I've seen comparisons to Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias, but this book stands on its own. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed a book this much!...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.
    ...more info
  • 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
  • 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.

    ...more info
  • moving, funny, true--- an outstanding first novel that sees into the heart
    I stayed up nearly all night reading this novel-- I cared so much about the characters that I really wanted to know what would happen next in their lives. When a snowstorm closed the office yesterday I read all day. At the end of the book I cried the best kind of reader's tears. This is a moving, very funny, and very wise book.

    As one of the main characters says, "Life is choosing whom and what you love"-- this book explores that idea through the interconnected lives of five women. The story unfolds as a series of vignettes, each told in the "first person" voice of one of the main characters. All of these women are imperfect human beings, flawed and endearing in their own ways. Two live in a nursing home, trying to cope with the corresponding loneliness, loss of freedom, somewhat grim surroundings, and the inevitability of becoming sicker, weaker, and less in control of their own lives. The other three main characters are younger women who interact with the elderly characters. In this somewhat unlikely setting, the author unfolds a book about love through the end of life.

    Elderly Margaret Clayton is much loved by her daughter Ann who visits nearly every day, but essentially she faces life with the support of the nurse who cares for her. Margaret feels very much like a real person to the reader, full of spirit and biting humor as she copes with all of the challenges and indignities of aging in a typical institution. The stark realities of aging and the discouragement she experiences are counterbalanced by her kind heart and capacity to love. We come to understand Margaret as a person who is still growing and facing new challenges through the final years of her life, even as her body and mind deteriorate.

    Margaret's friend in the nursing home is Bernice Stokes. Bernice does not have the same resources for coping as Margaret-- her loving son has died, and the remaining son and his wife appear to have little love or compassion for her. Bernice has a fragile, childlike mental state--- she has retreated into a life that is largely fantasy, including an extreme attachment to stuffed toys. Yet she has a devilish sense of fun-- Margaret relies upon her not only for physical support but also for the emotional energy and inspiration to face each day (and occasionally break the rules/feel just a little bit more in control of her own life). Bernice relies heavily upon Margaret's understanding and kindness, when few others understand or care for her.

    Lorraine is the licensed practical nurse who takes care of Margaret and Bernice. Over the course of their many years together Lorraine and Margaret develop a deep and intimate friendship. Lorraine's story unfolds through stories of her faith, friends and family, and through her thoughts as she tries to care for her patients at the nursing home. In describing the relationship between Lorraine and Margaret the author has written a profoundly successful description of real love and compassion between the very old and those who care for them.

    The voice of Lorraine's daughter, April, focuses upon another sort of growth and love. Their mother-daughter relationship, full of hope, gratitude, and understanding, is one to admire and perhaps to learn from. April's observations of her mother add greatly to the reader's sense that these are real people that we care about very much.

    The final character who adds her thoughts to the story is Rhonda, a local cosmetologist who "does hair" in the nursing home beauty parlor (a room with mismatched chairs and dryers, where 30 seniors may line up for care on Sundays). We learn that Rhonda's life has not been an easy one, and that she has taken on the nursing home work solely in order to save money to set up her own salon. It seems that she may not be well suited to work with the nursing home population... and then things begin to shift and change. The relationship she develops with Margaret and Bernice becomes an important part of who she is.

    When I started this book, over the first several pages I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I'm so glad I read on. This book changed some of my thinking about growing old-- it was heartwarming, scary, touching, and beautiful.

    This is the sort of book you want to thank the author for writing. Todd Johnson's compassion and wisdom, the love that infuses his writing, and his understanding of other people's hearts have made him one of my new favorite authors....more info
  • A Touch of Heaven
    In a way, this book reminds me of the movie "Steel Magnolias." It will probably, like that movie, appeal more to most women than to most men. But like the movie, it has enormous, deep, lasting appeal.

    A lot of the novel takes place in a nursing home, and one of the main characters is a noble, loving caretaker. This book is inspiring in reading about her life.

    The book is very much about relationships, and most of them--certainly the ones given the most focus--are so positive. It's not a silly book, and it's not a light book. It is an uplifting book....more info
    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
  • 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
  • Amazing, thoughtful, beautiful...
    One of the most phenomenal books I have ever read of this kind, it is difficult to believe that Todd Johnson is a male, writing his first book, having such understanding and empathy as he relates the story of five unique women.
    I know I will wish to read this book again as there were many moments that I paused to reread and envelope in my heart and soul.
    This book is a treasure!...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.

    Highly recommended.

    ...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.
    ...more info


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