I'll start the new year with a review of Lisa Fowler's debut middle grade book, Snakes and Stones (Sky Pony, 2016). I'm holding onto my copy so I can review Fowler's great use of dialect, narration, and voice, but see below for Lisa's generous offer.
REVIEWYou may have heard how a book's setting can act like a character in a story. Although the setting for this book changes as twelve-year-old Chestnut Hill and her younger triplet siblings (Hazel, Filbert, and Macadamia) and their traveling salesman father go from southern town to southern town peddling his elixir, it also stays the same. It's 1921 and their old horse-drawn circus wagon is their home, storefront, and stage for their "show." Chestnut's job--which she hates--is to testify that the elixir has worked for her and to spot the doubters in the crowd.
When her family isn't working a crowd, Chestnut tries to keep order among her siblings, convince her father that selling his fake elixir is a lie, and somehow make it back to their mother--who will fix everything. All of this is told in Fowler's love-for-the-North Carolina-mountains voice. Chestnut's Southern narration helps create the setting for the book. Here's an example from the beginning:
I'm crouched in the corner of the wagon, huddled on top of the triplets the same way a mother hen would gather her brood up and under her wings for protection--way too much responsibility for an ordinary twelve-year-old in a dirty, torn dress, frumpled hair, and shoes with holes in them the size of Missouri. Especially a girl that's been snatched from her mama against her will. (p. 2)Her father gets run out of one town after another and Chestnut devises a plan to help her mother find them. She tacks up flyers in each town with a picture of their wagon with the name of the elixir painted on the side, and the name of the town they're headed to. She's not proud of keeping a secret from her father, but rationalizes he's the one who taught her to lie.
Her desire to find her mama rules her day and night and leads her to a decision she regrets. Alone in a store, she sees a wide open cash register with more paper money than she can imagine. An internal dialogue ensues:
But you need that money to buy a train ticket to get back to your mama. Girl being with her mama's not wrong. Girl going back to where she was when she got snatched away from her home's not wrong. Stealing's wrong but only if you don't have a good enough reason. (p. 115)Suddenly, life gets a lot more complicated as Chestnut's guilt eats a hole in her gut. The family is joined by Abraham, an old friend of their father who worked the coal mines with him before they lost their jobs. He provides another perspective.
"Mama didn't do nothing. It was Daddy who stole us away. Mama went to town, and while she was in the store, Daddy run off with us."
"You sure 'bout dat?" Abraham asks with raised eyebrows and more questions than answers on his face.
"Well yes, sir; I was there."
"Maybe you was, but things not always de way dey seem. You think about dat, missy. Jes' you think. Dat's all ol' Abraham say." (p. 157)
Abraham reveals that he and her father were raised together in an orphanage. Slowly, Chestnut begins to see her father in a new light. When he is put in jail because he's falsely accused of stealing the money which Chestnut took, her life unravels.
Without including a spoiler, her mother's return isn't at all what Chestnut imagined. Truth is spoken between her and her father. Forgiveness is given and received. The reader is left with a sense of closure for a story that will resonate in hearts and minds after the book ends.
Lisa Fowler's apt use of similes and metaphors makes the book a pleasure to read. Descriptions like, "My face is as hot as a fresh-pulled log from a fire." (p. 129); "Once we're in the heart of town, Daddy hops from the wagon and weaves like a bobwhite in an open field, trying his best to see if anyone's watching." (p.66); "Everyone knows adults stick together like warts on the back of an old toad." (p. 181) inspire me as a writer and add to the authenticity of this middle grade historical fiction.
Lisa is giving away a personally autographed copy of this book. Please leave me a comment (with your email address) by 6 PM on January 4th to enter. Share this on social media (or follow my blog) and I'll enter your name twice.