Cover image for Trouble the water
Trouble the water

First edition.
Physical Description:
278 pages ; 20 cm
Reading Level:
920 L Lexile
In the segregated south of Kentucky in 1953, twelve-year-olds Callie, who is black, and Wendell, who is white, are brought together by an old dog that is clearly seeking something or someone, but they not only face prejudice, they find trouble at a haunted cabin in the woods.


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From the award-winning author of Dovey Coe comes a sweeping tale of the friendship between a black girl and a white boy and the prejudices they must overcome in segregated Celeste, Kentucky, as the pair try to solve the mysteries surrounding a lonely old dog.

Eleven-year-old Callie is fearless, stubborn, and a little nosy. So when she sees an old yellow dog wandering around town by itself, you can bet she's going to figure out who he belongs to. But when her sleuthing leads her to cross paths with a white boy named Wendell who wants to help, the segregated town doesn't take too kindly to their budding friendship.

Meanwhile, a nearly invisible boy named Jim is stuck in a cabin in the woods. He's lost his dog, but can't remember exactly when his pup's disappeared. When his companion, a little boy named Thomas, who's been invisible much longer than he, explains that they are ghosts, the two must figure out why they can't seem to cross the river to the other side just yet...

And as Callie and Wendell's search for the old dog brings them closer and closer to the cabin in the woods, the simmering prejudices of the townspeople boil over.

Trouble the Water is a story that spans lifetimes, showing that history never truly disappears, and that the past will haunt us until we step up to change the present and stand together for what is right.

Author Notes

Frances O'Roark Dowell was born on a military post in Berlin, Germany on May 30, 1964. She received a B.A. from Wake Forest University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Poetry) from the University of Massachusetts. She has written numerous books including Where I'd Like to Be, The Secret Language of Girls, The Kind of Friends We Used to Be, Chicken Boy, and Falling In. She also writes the Phineas L. MacGuire series. She has received numerous awards for her work including Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Novel for Dovey Coe in 2001, the William Allen White Award for Dovey Coe in 2003, and the Christopher Medal for Shooting the Moon.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

It's 1953, and although race relations in the small town of Celeste, Ky., seem smooth, tensions bubble below the surface. When an 11-year-old black girl, Callie Robinson, starts following a stray dog, she crosses paths with Wendell Crow, a white boy her age who is looking for an abandoned cabin his father used to visit. An uneasy friendship blossoms as they begin to search for Jim, a boy whose name is carved into the cabin and who Callie is sure has a connection to the dog. Meanwhile Jim, a ghost who hasn't yet realized that he's dead, is unsure how he ended up in the cabin, which is also inhabited by another child's ghost whose past ties to the cabin's history as part of the Underground Railroad. Dowell (Anybody Shining) shifts focus among these and other characters, sensitively examining the ways that injustices past and present take a toll on communities and individuals. The consequences of taking a stand against racist attitudes are portrayed with realistic complexity as Dowell builds to a conclusion that offers glimmers of hope without sugarcoating the persistence of prejudice. Ages 9-13. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Life seems simple in Celeste, Kentucky, in 1953. Whites and blacks get along only because they leave each other alone, and strangers are noticed. An old yellow dog has shown up in town, and Callie, 11 and black, decides to find his owner, hoping to turn the story into an article for the local newspaper. She meets Wendell, a white boy her age, and the two discover an old cabin where, Callie knows, runaway slaves used to hide. Here the dog finds what he is looking for: the ghost of his former master, Jim, a boy who drowned several years earlier. With him is the ghost of Thomas, one of the runaway slaves. But as Callie's investigation heats up, so does the anger of one of Wendell's acquaintances, unhappy with the mixed-race friendship. While most novels of this era focus on integration and the violence of race relations, this novel part historical fiction, part ghost story has a gentler touch and could be used to springboard conversations about the time period.--Roush, Suanne Copyright 2016 Booklist

School Library Journal Review

Gr 4-6-In sleepy Celeste, KY, to "trouble the water" means to "stir the pot." That's something its residents never do, which is why blacks and whites live quietly-and separately-in one town. But it's 1953, and trouble is inevitable when the new public swimming pool has a whites-only policy, and Cassie, who is black, and Wendell, who is white, strike up a friendship while following a mysterious old dog. The children know they're not supposed to be seen together, but the dog leads them to an irresistible discovery: a dilapidated cabin with a ghostly presence tied to the town's abolitionist history. The novel's easy pace reflects the tempo of the rural, small-town setting. Dowell's uncluttered prose beautifully evokes Celeste's dusty streets and wooded paths. Dramatic, though without physical injuries or extreme violence, the climax hints at the conflicts yet to come in the struggle for civil rights. Cassie is a bright, courageous 11-year-old, unafraid to challenge convention: readers can see her growing influence on Wendell as he starts to question the status quo. Uniting the novel's two narrative threads-the cabin's ghosts and the unlikely friends-is the old dog, Buddy. VERDICT Patient readers will appreciate this quiet but powerful story about a time in American history when even the smallest ripple in the water could cause a stir.-Marybeth Kozikowski, Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

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 broadlyhe often defaults to period-typical stereotyping about race and gender, but he also has an intrinsic sense of fairnesshe 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) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.



Trouble the Water 1 The Old Dog The dog was old and close to dying. He woke slowly now that he was back, the sun warming the ache out of his bones. He had a flickering thought that he'd like to fall asleep and never wake, but he couldn't die until he knew the boy was safe. So every morning he pushed himself up and sniffed the air for the boy's scent, and when he didn't find any trace of it, he started for the river. Most nights he slept on the woman's porch, so that he could smell the river, hear the boy's calls if they came. His first night back, he'd gone to his old house, but when he'd barked, no one had opened the door or called out, "Hey, pup, ready for dinner?" If the boy had been there, he would have answered. He knew that the woman would give him scraps from the table in a bowl by the door when she saw him, and he knew that if he stayed too long, she'd try to claim him. She'd snapped a collar on him when he showed up the first time, but he'd complained so loudly that she'd finally taken it off. The old dog, like most dogs, couldn't parse out the particulars of human speech, but he could make sense of what people were telling or asking him from the pitch of their voices, the firmness or wobble of their words, so he'd known the woman wanted him to stay when she'd said, "You'd like it here, I swear you would," before she put the collar back on a peg just inside the doorway. The woman lived in the house by herself. No other human smells mixed with hers, no onion stink of a man home from the fields, no sweet scent of a child fresh out of his bath, traces of soap still in his hair, an untouched patch of dirt behind his left ear. The old dog had lived close to humans when he was young, close to the boy, and could sniff one on the air. They each had a particular smell, and there was only one human smell around the woman's house. It was a nice smell, a mix of river water and new grass and something sweet. The first small flowers of May. He didn't have words for any of these things, but he knew them. "Well, hey there, pup," the woman greeted him now as she emerged from the doorway with a basket in her hand. "I see you stayed for breakfast. Look at you, so slow to get up. Bet you got the arthritis in your bones, old thing like you." He followed her around the corner of the house and through the garden gate. "Got to get your vegetables picked first thing of a morning," the woman informed him as she set to work. "Bugs'll eat you alive if you come out here at night, skeeters and no-see-ums, they'll bite you all to pieces. Sun'll burn you up, you come out at noon. No, first thing of a morning, that's the best time. That's when you get things at their freshest." As she talked, she pulled tomatoes and squash and cucumbers off their vines and put them in her basket. The old dog sniffed the vegetables without much interest. Sometimes the woman scrambled him a pan of eggs, and cooked a few slices of bacon, and at the last minute threw in leftovers from dinner the night before. He knew all he had to do was follow along as she did her morning chores and chatted to him. The old dog liked the woman. He didn't mind waiting. Breakfast this morning turned out to be fried liver mush and cold roasted potatoes. He gulped down the liver in two swallows and sniffed the air for more. "Sorry, pup, you got the last of it," the woman told him. "Come back tonight, I might have some chicken for you. I'll take out the bones first, lessen you choke." The old dog recognized the sound in her voice as something he'd been feeling so long now it was like a natural-born part of him. It was the sound of something--someone--missing. On his long journey home, his nose in the air, hunting for the boy's scent, he'd let out a howl now and again, and you could hear that sound in his voice too. After breakfast he left the woman's house for the woods and the river, and was almost at the water when he heard a younger dog barking. How far away? Far enough that he couldn't be sure what--or who--the younger dog was growling at. Maybe the old dog, but probably not. He understood other dogs even better than he understood humans. Still, he took cover. When he sensed the danger was past, he slowly took to his feet again. Should he go back to the woman's house, rest under the cool shade of her front porch? When the sun got low enough in the sky, she'd come out to keep him company, and he liked that, liked her voice as it went up and down and drifted through his dreams. He was about to turn around when a feeling seized him, shot through his chest and around his ears like a winter wind. Follow the dog, the feeling told him. Sniffing the air, he understood. It wasn't just a dog in the woods; the wind carried the scent of a boy. And though he knew it wasn't his boy, maybe this boy could lead him to his boy. The old dog was dying. He knew he was dying. He knew he didn't have much time. He turned and headed deep into the woods. Excerpted from Trouble the Water by Frances O'Roark Dowell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.