Monday, December 05, 2016

Do The Right Thing: Sticks and Stones by Lisa Fowler.

Daddy don't say a word. The bumping up and down of the wagon jolts me back to the problem at hand. He's mad, all right, but what he's not got a clue of is that I'm fuming, too. I don't like the lying Daddy wants me to do, but what's worse is that he's making me do it in front of the triplets. I know by the looks of things we've crossed over the county line from Chattanooga. Words I can't suck back come spewing from my mouth.

"This wouldn't be happening if Mama was here. Huh! She wouldn't let me or the triplets help you tell lies in the first place. I fold my arms across my chest sort of proud and haughty-like. "The way I see it you was too busy snatching up money, jumping around like a chimpanzee in a tree, and passing out lies to--"
"Whoa!" Daddy pulls hard on the reins and Old Stump clip-clops to a halt. "Get down!" he whispers.

"GET. DOWN." He motions me off the wagon. From the corner of my eye, I see the wagon wobble. Filbert, Macadamia, and Hazelnut are moving close, so they can hear.

Then he does it. I mean he really does it. He takes off, leaving me standing on the dirt road, alone in the dark.

Working in the Kentucky coal mines isn't buying Mama that big house she wants, and one day Daddy takes twelve-year-old Chestnut and the triplets off in a traveling medicine show wagon, telling them that he going to make a pot of money and make Mama happy again, but from the short rations he's keeping them all on, Chestnut doesn't believe he's making much money at all. The triplets are getting ragged and skinny and Chestnut never gets quite enough to eat. Old Stump is pretty worn out, and the wagon is crowded, and it just kills Chestnut to pretend to be from every single town, bragging about how that traveling man's elixir cured her granny of everything that ails her, just to fool the customers into buying the stuff. She knows Daddy's elixir is "snake oil" tonic, made of grass clippings and flavorings, and that he's taking them all farther and farther away from Mama.

Daddy stops and waits for her to catch up a ways down the road, but Chestnut is still angry, angry enough to take matters into her own hands. She starts drawing up and posting advertising signs showing their wagon and telling all and sundry the next town they're heading for, so that Mama can know where to look for her missing kids. But it's been nigh onto two years, and Mama hasn't come for them. And as they travel across Mississippi, Chestnut is losing hope.

They meet up with an old black man, Abraham, Daddy knows from the coal mine back home, and he joins up with them to play his banjo as the triplets sing. The crowds do get a little bigger, but Chestnut notices that their meals aren't getting any bigger. Abraham tells her it was not her Daddy's choice to take them off from home with him, but Chestnut believes Daddy is just using the triplets to sing and look cute and her to work the crowd of suckers for him. And if it looks like if Mama can't find them, Chestnut herself is going to have to run away and go find her.

And then, in a general store in Beaumont, just west of the Texas line, Chestnut gets her chance to get enough money for a bus ticket back to Kentucky.

I tag along as usual, and when we get to the general store, I scatter. Abraham and Daddy are loading up on supplies. "Excuse me, sir," Daddy babbles on to the man behind the counter. "Where do you keep your nails?"

The man takes money from the customer beside Daddy and slides the bills into the cash drawer. He leaves the cash register wide open and moves off, showing Daddy to the nails. I take a quick look around. There's not a soul in sight. I move quick. Paper money! I reach for it, quick as a flash.

Stealing's wrong--but only if you don't have a good enough reason.

But when the law catches up with them, Daddy goes to jail for stealing the money, and the sheriff calls Mama to come down on the next train, Chestnut realizes that she can't leave Daddy in jail, and she confesses taking the money. And when her pretty, well-dressed mama arrives and says her piece, Chestnut realizes that she's had it all wrong from the git-go, and her opinion of Daddy takes a turn for the better.

Set in the rural South in 1921, Lisa Fowler's Snakes and Stones (Sky Pony Press, 2016) features a hard-headed, funny, and spirited narrator with plenty of spunk and ginger in her, as she takes care of her little sister and brothers and does what's right in the face of much she does not understand. It's hard for our young heroine to accept that it's Daddy who's been trying to do the right thing all along, and as she finds out for herself, it's not always so easy to know what that right thing is. With a feisty and plucky heroine and the sights and sounds of a traveling medicine show along the road, this is a novel that engages readers right away and takes them along for a ride they'll never forget.

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