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Cinderland

A MEMOIR
Written by AMY JO BURNS
Format: Trade Paperback, 216 pages
Publisher: Beacon Press
On Sale: 09/08/2015
Price: $16.00
ISBN: 978-0-807-05227-3
Also available in:
open close ABOUT THE BOOK
Amy Jo Burns grew up in Mercury, Pennsylvania, an industrial town humbled by the steel collapse of the 1980s. Instead of the construction booms and twelve-hour shifts her parents’ generation had known, the Mercury Amy Jo knew was marred by empty houses, old strip mines, and vacant lots. It wasn’t quite a ghost town—only because many people had no choice but to stay.
 
The year Burns turned ten, this sleepy town suddenly woke up. Howard Lotte, its beloved piano teacher, was accused of sexually assaulting his female students. Among the countless girls questioned, only seven came forward. For telling the truth, the town ostracized these girls and accused them of trying to smear a good man’s reputation. As for the remaining girls—well, they were smarter. They lied. Burns was one of them.
 
But such a lie has its own consequences. Against a backdrop of fire and steel, shame and redemption, Burns tells of the boys she ran from and toward, the friends she abandoned, and the endless performances she gave to please a town that never trusted girls in the first place.
 
This is the story of growing up in a town that both worshipped and sacrificed its youth—a town that believed being a good girl meant being a quiet one—and the long road Burns took toward forgiving her ten-year-old self. Cinderland is an elegy to that young girl’s innocence, as well as a praise song to the curative powers of breaking a long silence.
 
“The toll that Burns’s silence took manifested in several forms, and she details them here in a thoughtfully written examination of what motivated her to keep silent while other victims spoke out” 
Library Journal, starred review

“A haunting debut memoir about the price of keeping secrets… [S]lim, lyrically evocative.”
Kirkus Reviews

“[A] raw, painful memoir ... at its most compelling when Burns sketches the contours of her girlhood ... rendering them not quaint but stifling and ominous.” 
Boston Globe

“An expository reflection on how a place shapes our own sense of self.”
Star Tribune

“A scorching memoir about a town divided.”
The Kansas City Star

“[Burns] has a way with words that allows her to make her sleepy town and the dilapidated Pittsburgh area of the 1990s glimmer. … Her writing is affecting without being sensational, and the reader’s heart is left aching at the end of each chapter.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Burns writes beautifully of coming of age in a rust belt town.”
The Star-Ledger

“A rare and important work . . . Burns has brought something utterly new and distinctive to the art of the memoir.”
—Louise DeSalvo, author of Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Can Change Our Lives

“Amy Jo Burns has written a humane and lapidary account of her Rust Belt childhood: the claustrophobia, the yearning for escape, the weight and consequence of secrets. I have never read a book that captures small-town American life so perfectly.”
—Justin St. Germain, author of Son of a Gun 

“Amy Jo Burns’s Cinderland is an exquisite achievement. From the first page to the last, I held my breath as Burns held my heart. She writes of small Rust Belt towns and the boys and girls who grow up and apart in those towns and the overwhelming need for escape and what happens when secrets no one should have to bear burn and burn. This book demands to be read.”
—Roxane Gay, author of An Untamed State

“Memoir of the highest order, Cinderland lovingly gives voice to a troubled community, small-town summers, young love and heartbreak, a scandal that tears a town apart, and the memory of a young girl who told a dangerous lie. Or did she? Amy Jo Burns writes like a dream, beyond her years, and this book is gripping, generous, and wise.”
—Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses' Bridles
 
“Amy Jo Burns delivers an unerring report from inside the universe of a teenaged girl struggling to escape the town she both loves and mistrusts. This is a place that insists on secrets held, and she is a good girl, holding hers tenaciously, at all costs.”
—Meredith Hall, author Without a Map

“‘I did not want to tell this story,’ Amy Jo Burns confesses in Cinderland, but readers will be glad she did. This memoir is testament to the incinerating power of secrets and the steely resolve of survivors. But it’s also an unforgettable portrait of a small Rust Belt town in decline, and in that sense it is a story about America, one of ruin and reinvention, of ashes and incandescence.”
—Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them
open close ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Jo Burns teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton and writes for Ploughshares. She lives in Franklin Park, New Jersey. This is her first book.
open close READ AN EXCERPT
Prologue
 
By the time the police entered our houses uninvited throughout the fall of 1991, our mothers had already commanded each of us to tell the truth about Howard Lotte, and we’d already decided to lie. It was too impossible for anyone to conceive, even those of us who had sat with Mr. Lotte and his feckless hands through seasons of weeknight piano lessons, that such a man could commit something so unholy, even if he was a little bit fat. Everyone in Mercury knew which girls had already snitched. We saw what it had cost them. The best hope for the rest of us, we thought then, was to remain anonymous until winter arrived and all the talk turned to idle chatter before it disappeared altogether.
 
But the gossip about Mr. Lotte would not be squelched, and so the police launched a formal investigation to put the rumors to rest. Making a uniform circuit around town, the squad stopped at the homes of each of Mr. Lotte’s peach-faced, preteen protégés. Some of the homes were split level and some were Victorian, but none of them were trailers. Mr. Lotte didn’t seem to take on those kinds of girls. Anyone who was anyone took lessons from Mr. Lotte—if you were female, of course.
 
When each of our turns came to be questioned, the lies spilled out so easily we suspected they’d been planted long ago. There were few girls—seven, to be exact—bold enough to tell the truth, but their soft voiced protests were almost drowned out by those of us unable to defy a town rallying behind one of its own. Though we were just ten, eleven, twelve years old, it became quite clear that men like Mr. Lotte secured a kind of protection that girls like us never could.
 
The police supplied the questions, and we offered the answers we thought they wanted to hear. Like a swooping she-owl, our voices raised into an echoing chorus as mothers drew the shades for the night and the distant five o’clock bell signaled a shift change at the mill.
 
Did he put his hands on you?
No, Officer. No, he didn’t. No no no no no.
 
The sound found its way to the woods by the edge of the school yard where an old basketball hoop had been torn from the ground and laid prone some time ago, the same spot where lovesick boys dared to press their burning palms against a girl’s. Then the sound moved toward the courthouse at the center of town where Mr. Lotte wouldn’t get the opportunity to appear before a jury of his peers. Our voices only weakened once they reached Mercury’s city limits, where the
highway cut us off from the rest of the world.
 
Now the town itself haunts us more than Mr. Lotte, even more than our own lies. It seems a story like this couldn’t happen anywhere but Mercury, a place that had become its own needy planet, a town we loved for its empty houses, abandoned buildings, and vacant lots. The people of Mercury liked their trucks, their Iron City beer, and the stench of burning leaves. They knew how to work with their hands—how to sew a quilt, how to fix a carburetor, how to patch a roof. They knew how to wait out a tough winter.
 
Together we all lived in the afterlife of a city that was once a titan. A very long time ago, Andrew Carnegie evangelized the steel gospel. He followed a simple formula: Contain the coal. Set it on fire. Strip away the impurities. Dispose of the slag.
 
This was how a legion of unstoppable steel rods was sired. But then came the Steel Apocalypse, and Pittsburgh’s satellite cities didn’t all become ghost towns only because many people had no choice but to stay. Instead, the loss of our lifeblood slowed everything to a pace that was barely detectable, and the era of waking sleep began.
 
Workers who used to pull twelve-hour shifts in the mill at Cooper Bessemer Steel in the next town over now had nowhere to go. The roads once clogged with commuters became open highways. Mostly, people just sat. And the children, of whom we were some, watched. We remember now how people around town used to float through the amniotic air. Pumping gas. Ordering pizza. Waiting in line at the drive-through ATM. Pushing the shopping cart through the dog food aisle at Rip’s Sunrise Market. Taking long pauses in the middle of sentences. Not bothering to finish them. They used to think nothing could surprise them any more until Mr. Lotte proved them wrong. He proved us all wrong.
 
Who are we? We are the girls who lied about Mr. Lotte when others told the truth and most of Mercury hated them for it. We performed for a fickle crowd and lost ourselves in the charade. From the moment we chose to protect a criminal, we also chose to forget everything that had happened. It was our best chance for survival. Even so, our lives were never the same. Our town was never the same.
 
Our memories threaten to make a scandal of us, so we keep them to ourselves. We still remain in disguise (even from each other), but there’s one thing we know. Our Sunday school teachers had always taught us that an honest answer was like a kiss on the lips, and we were not the kissing kind.
open close TABLE OF CONTENTS
Prologue

PART I: SPOTLIGHT

Prisoner's Dilemma

Hide and Seek

Emerge

Figurante

Denoument

Breaking and Entering

Torch

PART II: SIMON SAYS

Sober

Vanity Fair

Audition

Understudy

Mirror, Mirror

PART III: ALL THE PRETTIEST GIRLS

Impostor

Paper Doll

Origin Story

Cinderland

Acknowledgments