Trouble the Water
Written by Frances O’ Roark Dowell
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2016, 288 pp.
In 1953, whites and blacks in the small town of Celeste, Kentucky do not mix socially. Despite the racial divide in their town, Callie, an 11-year-old black girl, and Wendell, a white boy, join forces to track a mysterious dog. Although the townspeople of Celeste do not approve of them spending time together, they develop a bond of friendship. As they search for the dog’s owner, they come upon an old haunted cabin in the woods inhabited by the ghosts of two boys. Their adventure allows Callie and Wendell to learn about the history of the cabin as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The ghosts and the cabin force them to consider the past and present of their town. Callie and Wendell confront issues of racial prejudice that include a past of slavery and a present of segregation. This story addresses how past and present social injustices affect communities and the individuals who live in them.
Trouble the Water would make a great book for middle grade readers. Dowell’s storyline shifts focus between several side stories and time periods, which could make it difficult for some students to identify the main storyline. With multiple side stories, students could be encouraged to read Trouble as part of a literature circle or in paired reading.
The author, Frances O’ Roark Dowell, moved often while growing up as the daughter of a career Army officer. As an Army brat, she lived throughout the United States and Europe changing schools frequently. Dowell credits the frequent moving with her ability to easily strike up conversations with strangers. Dowell now lives in North Carolina with her husband and two sons. As a young girl, Dowell’s love of writing poetry helped her to make an early decision to become a writer. Dowell’s education includes an undergraduate degree in English from Wake Forest University and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She considers herself a Southerner because she spent most of her adult life in North Carolina. Dowell says that living in the South has a strong influence on her writing and so she sets her books in the South with the people, places, and weather she knows best.
Two books that could be paired with Trouble the Water are Robin Talley’s (2014) Lies We Tell Ourselves and Harper Lee’s (1960) To Kill a Mockingbird. Both Tally and Harper set their story in the Jim Crow South and address the theme of doors opening and shutting in regards to race relations. Lies We Tell Ourselves addresses race relations in the South during the early stage of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1959, Sarah, a black girl, and Linda, a white girl, confront school desegregation in Virginia from opposite sides of the event. When Sarah and Linda are assigned to work on a school project together, they eventually face difficult truths about racism. The well-known To Kill a Mockingbird paints a picture of a small town in Alabama during the 1930s. Over the course of a summer, siblings Jem and Scout learn that all people are not treated the same by society. When their father, an attorney, defends a black man jailed on trumped-up rape charges, the trial exposes racism and stereotyping.
Megan McCaffrey, Governor’s State University, Chicago, IL