TROUBLE THE WATER by Frances O’Roark Dowell


Age Range: 9 - 12
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It’s 1953 in Celeste, Kentucky, and 11-year-old Callie Robinson wants to report news for the local black newspaper, the Advance. Wendell Crow is quite the opposite; the white boy spends his summer days by the river, hoping no one will notice him.

When Callie goes in search of a stray dog and Wendell tries to find an old cabin said to be hidden in the woods, the two children inevitably cross paths and join forces. Both cabin and dog lead Callie and Wendell to learn about a white boy who drowned in the river some years prior. The third-person narration alternates its focus primarily between Callie and Wendell but also includes Mr. Renfrow, the Advance’s editor, and two ghosts: the drowned boy and an enslaved child who died there heading north. The inclusion of the ghosts stresses the importance of remembering the past, but unfortunately, they dilute the urgency of the present-day plot. Segregated Celeste’s balance depends on not “troubling the water,” but Callie and Wendell’s mystery plays out against Mr. Renfrow’s call for the integration of the town swimming pool; both lead to violence. Dowell writes a quiet story that largely relies on metaphor and indirection to guide its readers. Callie is limned with bold strokes: she is brave, feisty, and determined. While Wendell too is drawn broadly—he often defaults to period-typical stereotyping about race and gender, but he also has an intrinsic sense of fairness—he is given more of a character arc, as expressed when Mr. Renfrow tells Callie that Wendell is only just learning what it means to be “an eyewitness to injustice.” The conclusion leaves Callie and Wendell’s, and Celeste’s, story unresolved.

Readers who identify with Wendell may feel a call to action; those who identify with Callie may just be exasperated at the inaction. (Historical fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: May 3rd, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2463-9
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2016


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