Have you ever entered a house, store, or other building and felt like you were stepping back in time?
I’ve had that experience. Once was during college years ago, when my education professor took a group of students to southern Appalachia. We visited the Yancey County Country Store in Burnsville, North Carolina. With its white railings and gingerbread trim, it had all the charm of yesteryear before we even stepped through the doorway.
Inside, a plethora of items crammed the shelves, from canned goods to tools to candy jars. Browsing, we shuffled through narrow aisles. A few of us even played checkers on a checkerboard atop an old barrel. (Unfortunately, since then, I think that building burned down.)
Another time, during college, I was riding my bike with friends from Grand Rapids to Holland when a site caught my eye: an old, rundown former gas station. But no ordinary gas station—it was the one my uncle used to own.
It was attached to the house where he, my aunt, and two cousins lived during my early childhood. A place of many memories when I’d stay overnight, go horseback riding (they had a barn out back), play games, beg for candy from the gas station candy counter, and once even got a ride in a car that was getting jacked halfway up to the ceiling for repairs.
At night, my cousin always insisted on sleeping with the radio on, so I remember laying in bed engulfed in the popular tunes of the day: Ann Murray’s “Snowbird”, the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Daydream Believer”, and Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” (recorded by the Monkees).
Now I’ve dated myself. To this day, when I hear those songs, I think of my cousin’s house. The radio serenading. Candy bar snitching. Horseback riding. And romping around the gas station.
Upon seeing the abandoned gas station and house, I had to pull over and take a closer look. I peered through all the grimy windows. There I was, only ten years later, yet waves of nostalgia wafted over me. I could almost hear Ann Murray and Davey Jones crooning in the background. And my aunt calling us from the barn for supper.
It saddened me that only a shell of the house remained. No furniture. No people.
The novel The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery has this same back-in-time feel. It’s a split-time novel that goes between the 1960s-1980s and present day. It encompasses three generations of women: Glory Ann, her daughter Rosemary, and granddaughter Sarah. Glory Ann and Rosemary have worked in the Old Depot Grocery in Brighton, Tennessee since the 1960s. Sarah grew up and moved away, but returns hoping to join the family business during a time when Rosemary wants to sell it.
I’m guessing that Sarah’s return to Brighton and the Old Depot Grocery feels a lot like me looking through the windows of the dilapidated gas station. Looking past the dust to view the beauty of memories.
Incidentally, there’s a funny story of how the Monkees were forced to change a word in “Daydream Believer.” Check it out here.
Back Cover Blurb
Present Day. After tragedy plunges her into grief and unresolved anger, Sarah Ashby returns to her childhood home determined to finally follow her long-denied dream of running Old Depot Grocery alongside her mother and grandmother. But when she arrives, her mother, Rosemary, announces to her that the store is closing. Sarah and her grandmother, Glory Ann, make a pact to save the store, but Rosemary has worked her entire life to make sure her daughter never follows in her footsteps. She has her reasons–but she’ll certainly never reveal the real one.
1965. Glory Ann confesses to her family that she’s pregnant with her deceased fiancé’s baby. Pressured into a marriage of convenience with a shopkeeper to preserve the family reputation, Glory Ann vows never to love again. But some promises are not as easily kept as she imagined.
This dual-timeline story from Amanda Cox deftly explores the complexity of a mother-daughter dynamic, the way the secrets we keep shape our lives and the lives of others, and the healing power of telling the truth.
Though declining, the Old Depot Grocery is as dynamic as the employees with their signature green aprons. Cans of chicken soup line the shelves. The deli counter features potato salad. Miniature cowbells jingle against glass on the door.
Glory Ann, Rosemary, and Sarah each have their own perspective on the Old Depot Grocery, a family-owned town staple for decades. For Sarah, the granddaughter, the store holds the nostalgia of childhood memories. For Rosemary, the daughter (Sarah’s mom), the store holds pain, regret, and duty. For Glory Ann, the grandmother, the grocery store marked a new beginning and gave her family meaning and purpose.
Thus, they each have a different agenda. But there’s more trouble than meets the eye. Look deeper and learn the motivation for each of their desires. With different expectations of life and family, and differing definitions of success, they each hold onto secrets that impact the others.
These three storylines weave through the 1960s through 1980s and present day.
Sarah has been gone for twelve years. She attended college, traveled, and married a classy guy from New England. Her middle-of-the-night impromptu visit from Chicago takes her mother Rosemary by surprise. So does Sarah’s sudden interest in running the store.
Rosemary doesn’t ask many questions. Sarah will share more as needed. Rosemary guards her own concerns surrounding a doctor appointment.
But the secret-keeping started fifty-plus years prior, in June 1965, when Sarah’s grandma Glory Ann was pregnant out of wedlock at age nineteen. Unfortunately, the baby will never know her daddy, who died in Vietnam.
“It was a secret she’d wanted to take to her grave.
But some secrets demanded to be revealed.
Some secrets grew with time and had a life and heartbeat of their own.”
— Glory Ann, Chapter 2
Glory Ann’s parents force her to marry Clarence Clearwater, a reputable storekeeper, to save the family’s reputation. After all, her dad is a minister and could lose his church.
Chapter two catapulted me into Glory Ann’s anguish and riveted me with all that takes place before and after Clarence says, “Sir, I’d be honored to marry your daughter.”
Gradually, things come to light as we learn, decades later, why Glory Ann (or Nan, as Sarah calls her) keeps putting in orders they can’t afford and chases off developers. Outside town, big chain groceries and new construction prevail.
Rosemary desperately hopes to make a profitable sale. Full of regrets, she wants to ensure Sarah has opportunities beyond Brighton and the grocery store. Especially now that Sarah is a brand new widow. Sarah, however, doesn’t feel like she’s grieving. She just wants to forget everything that led to her husband’s death.
Decades earlier, Glory Ann is missing Jimmy while married to Clarence and starting over in a new town where her parents abandoned her. She talks to Jimmy and writes him, for it’s easier thinking about what her life should have been rather than face the reality of what it is. She finds more comfort in a memory rather than a real person.
Over the years, two old letters, a strange man showing up at the store, a family tragedy, and various other situations help draw the conclusion that “Maybe the truth didn’t set you free. Maybe it just caused pain.”
Perhaps the most noble character is Clarence, a faithful husband and devoted father to a daughter he didn’t sire. I loved the father-daughter talk between him and Rosemary when he scolds her for publicly calling out Bo Anderson whose family was given credit at the store.
I ached for the characters as they wrestled with their dilemmas. I felt their angst—the way they loved each other but lived at arm’s distance through the misunderstandings that arise from tightly held secrets. How would life had been different for them without the felt obligation to live alone in the shame of mistakes and regret?
The author takes us on the bumpy ride to forgiveness and redemption. It’s a ride of many miles and years, but it’s worth it.
Join me for some Q & A with Amanda Cox.
Questions about The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery:
What inspired you to write a split-time novel that encompasses mother-daughter relationships?
Amanda: My choice to focus on mother-daughter relationships blossomed from my relationship with my young daughter. As a child, I was more eager to explore my dad’s garage than my mother’s realm and life roles. I wanted to be like him. There was something about his world that was more attractive to me.
My daughter, on the other hand, is 100% a mommy’s girl–sticking close by my side, seeking ways to engage and enter into my world. Whether it is chores around the house, writing, or my other interests, she wants to learn what I’m doing and why. When she was a toddler, she modeled my speech patterns and phrasing like a little parrot, often to comical exaggeration. To my chagrin, there were times I’d catch her speaking impatiently to her brothers and I’d know exactly where she’d heard that tone before.
It hit me one day, just how much influence I had on her little life. She was following me, hungry to learn what it meant to be a woman in this world—lessons that I sometimes intentionally taught, and others that were unintentional. This revelation definitely made me more cognizant of my words and actions! I wanted her to know that being a woman is so much more than day-to-day roles!
And in this reflection, I saw just how much my mother had influenced me as a woman, even if that knowledge was not something I’d sought as a little girl. The way my mother mothered me, I wanted to give that to my children.
I would say that is the “secret” secret in The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery is the way mothers shape future generations, often in ways they don’t recognize.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Which of those was the impetus for The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery as well as your previous novel, The Edge of Belonging?
Amanda: Those beginning nuggets of a novel often come as a combination of things. Usually, a character or even an emotion/ambiance is the catalyst. For The Edge of Belonging, everything started with the character Harvey–who he was and how he came to be the man readers meet on that opening page. For The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery, it was the store’s setting and the ambiance of that place inspired the characters and plot.
What is your personal connection to the setting and to the plight of the characters?
Amanda: The store is named after a store my grandmother and grandfather owned. My mother and father both worked at Old Depot Grocery growing up, and as a child, when we made the trip to West Tennessee to visit family, a visit to Old Depot was always a part of the journey. I have fond memories of running up and down those aisles, playing games with my brother while the grown-ups talked.
Old Depot was not just a place to shop, but a place to gather. Sadly, the store closed when I was in my early teens as it faced similar struggles to those presented in the story. It was such fun bringing it back to life as a character in its own right.
How well did you know your main three characters—Glory Ann, Rosemary, and Sarah—at the beginning of the novel, or did you primarily get to know them as you wrote? Are any of them based on people you know?
Amanda: I usually know my characters pretty well when I begin writing. I have a good idea of who they are, who they would like to become, what motivates them, and why. Although, as I progress in getting the story down I always get to know new layers of who they are and why.
None of the characters are based on specific people, but they are composites of people I have met along the walk of life.
Did the plot stick to a pre-determined plan or did it evolve as you wrote?
Amanda: I had a pretty good idea of the direction of the plot before I began. I am not a strict outliner, but I had a general idea of where I was headed. When I write, the details tend to evolve as the story develops on the page. I always leave room for gaining a deeper understanding of a character. Their wound, situation, or plot might take a detour!
What are the challenges of writing a novel with two storylines in different decades?
Amanda: Because I am not a numbers person, making sure that all the dates are lined up with characters as they aged can be an undertaking for me, especially because I enjoy writing stories with characters who are living in both timelines! I had to make sure not to g=forget when their birthday fell in the year so that the age was correct.
Spacing out chapters to the right years and the right ages for life changes and coordinating that with what needed to happen in the overall story arc keeps me on my toes too!
Another challenge is making sure the story arcs in both the past and present are working in concert with each other.
Questions about writing:
What books have been most influential for you as a writer? Was there a book that sparked or confirmed your desire to be a novelist?
Amanda: When I was in third grade, my teacher read us Where the Red Fern Grows every day after lunch. I can remember thinking, “One day I want to write a book like this. A book that makes people feel something.” Beyond that, I have always been a consumer of stories. I know that in each story I’ve read in which an author poured their heart onto a page, I’ve been inspired and influenced by their art.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Amanda: I have a little bit of a hybrid process. I like to flesh out my characters and understand who they are as people and the things that have shaped them before I begin writing. I have a fairly clear idea of who a character is at the beginning of the novel, who they will be by the end of the novel, and the events that will need to happen to bring about that change.
This is your second published novel. How does it compare to your first one, The Edge of Belonging (2020)? Address plot, writing process, setting, characters, themes, and/or any other pertinent aspects.
Amanda: Both novels are set in rural Tennessee. The Edge of Belonging is set in an area I drive through when traveling to West Tennessee to visit family. Driving that stretch of highway was where the inspiration for the story came to me. The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery is set in a small town in West Tennessee similar to the town the real Old Depot Grocery existed.
Both novels deal with themes like relational restoration, emotional healing, and family dynamics. The Edge of Belonging focuses more on exploring how family can come together in unusual circumstances, and what truly makes a family. The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery focuses on the way that family dynamics are passed down across generations.
The writing process from my first novel to my second novel was very different. My first novel started as a single timeline novel. I wrote an entire timeline, before deciding to deconstruct the novel to write and add the second timeline. For The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery, I went into it with the plan to write a multi-timeline novel and wrote both the past and present simultaneously.
Please share something about a future project or the direction you want to go.
Amanda: I recently signed a contract with Revell for two more books, slated to release in the late summer of 2023 and 2024. My 2023 book is about a beekeeper who loses her father suddenly. At the reading of his will, she finds out that another young woman she has never met has inherited half-ownership of her father’s farm causing her to question everything she’s ever believed about her stoic and faithful father.
Like The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery and The Edge of Belonging, this book will explore themes like identity, family dynamics, and the legacies we leave behind.
Share a bit about your publishing journey. Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Amanda: I started writing about ten years ago. It began as a hobby—a cathartic exercise that tapped into my creative side after my small children went to bed for the night. I used my first novel as a training ground to learn how to communicate through story.
After the long journey of finishing that first book, I began exploring publication. I went into it with no expectations of getting published, but simply exploring the possibilities and committing to having the courage to step through the doors that opened. I attended writing conferences, met with agents and editors, found a critique group, wrote and rewrote my novels, and grew in my craft.
After several years, and many rejections, my second completed novel became my first published book. The contract came as a result of a Twitter event!
My advice to aspiring novelists is to soak up everything you can from those who are ahead of you on the writing journey. Treat every rejection and every yes as an opportunity to learn and grow in your craft.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery, you might enjoy my novel Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set in Holland, Michigan, this split-time novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Learn more and watch the book trailer here.
If you like southern fiction and/or stories set in the 1960s, you may also be interested in my recently re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, set in southern Appalachia in a small rural town that finds itself victim to changing times. The stories and wisdom of generations past come to bear on the troubles of 1968. Learn more and watch the book trailer here.
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Amanda Cox Bio
Amanda Cox is a therapist-turned-novelist who pens stories about characters finding hope, healing, and a sense of belonging. She is the author of the 2021 Christy Book of the Year, The Edge of Belonging and The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery, recipient of a Booklist starred review. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Bible and theology and a master’s degree in professional counseling. Her studies and her interactions with hurting families over a decade have allowed her to create multidimensional characters that connect emotionally with readers. She resides in Tennessee with her husband and three children. Visit Amanda on her website, her blog, Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, and Instagram.
Join me next time for a visit with author Tracy Groot.
Meanwhile, have you read The Secret Keepers of Old Depot Grocery? Or . . . what special places hold a lot of nostalgia for you? Answer in the comments below.