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Beat the Turtle Drum

Beat the Turtle Drum

4.6 6
by Constance C. Greene

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An ALA Notable Book and an IRA-CBC Children’s Choice: Losing your sister can mean losing your best friend too

Thirteen-year-old Kate is thrilled for her sister, Joss, when Joss finds out she gets to keep a horse for a week as a birthday present.

Then in one tragic moment, all of the happiness is gone, and numbness and grief overwhelm the


An ALA Notable Book and an IRA-CBC Children’s Choice: Losing your sister can mean losing your best friend too

Thirteen-year-old Kate is thrilled for her sister, Joss, when Joss finds out she gets to keep a horse for a week as a birthday present.

Then in one tragic moment, all of the happiness is gone, and numbness and grief overwhelm the family. Kate cannot imagine how she’ll survive but knows somehow she must come to terms with her loss. In this heart-wrenching story, Kate strives to find a place where joyful memories and painful loss can coexist.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Greene brings her trademark blend of quirky humor and acute perception to this bittersweet tale of two sisters' summer together. Ages 10-up. (Mar.)

Product Details

Open Road Media Teen & Tween
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File size:
585 KB
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

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Read an Excerpt

Beat the Turtle Drum

By Constance C. Greene


Copyright © 1976 Constance C. Greene
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0089-5



My sister Joss is saving up to rent a horse. A man named Mr. Essig over in West Norwalk rents them by the week for thirty dollars. Joss has seventeen saved. Her birthday is next month. She tells everyone she doesn't want any presents. Just money.

Joss is going to fix up the garage for the horse to live in. Mr. Essig, though not a person to warm the cockles of my or anyone else's heart, will throw in some hay for free. He'll also van the horse to and from our house.

Mr. Essig looks like a member of the Mafia, only he's poor. He also looks like a gypsy. He has thick black hair all over him. That is, the parts you can see. He also has a gold tooth and a big scar running from his eyebrow to his mouth. He wears tall black boots and a scarf around his head. My mother says he's playing to the balcony in that outfit.

Joss thinks Mr. Essig is the neatest man. She rides her bike over to his house every Saturday to check out the horses. He has five, in various stages of decay. They are the most beat-up-looking animals I've ever seen. When you're downwind of Mr. Essig's house, you can smell the horses mixed in with quite a lot of other smells. Mr. Essig's front yard is full of cars that don't run. He's got an old convertible with no wheels and a Volkswagen bus with no windshield. He's going to fix up the cars and sell them, he says.

Mrs. Essig is blowsy. I was delighted the first time she came to the door when Joss and I rang to ask if we could look at the horses. Mrs. Essig talks with a cigarette hanging from her mouth. She has such big breasts she can't button her blouse across them. Her hair is blond at the ends and dark at the roots. She has a heart of gold, I think. I'd never seen a truly blowsy person before I met Mrs. Essig.

Joss can wind people, especially my mother and father, around her finger. She has been working on renting a horse for more than three years. Naturally, she would rather buy one, but she's about given up on that.

My father agreed to the rental bit finally when Joss wore him down. He says where we live isn't zoned for horses, but for a week no one can possibly object.

Joss will be eleven next month. I'm almost thirteen. Oddly enough, we're very good friends. Not too many people I know can say that. It's a rare thing to be friends with your sister, especially when she's your parents' favorite.

My father and mother are totally unaware that Joss is their favorite. They'd probably get really mad if anyone suggested it. They treat us equally well. Or unwell, as the case may be. When my mother's prize Spode teapot was broken while Mrs. Hadley was sitting with us, we both got yelled at. Actually, it was my fault. I was warming it with hot water before we made tea, as the English do. It slipped and fell into the kitchen sink. Mrs. Hadley had told me about this quaint custom. You might almost say it was her fault the teapot got broken.

I'm perceptive about human relationships, which is a good thing. I plan on being a poet and a playwright when I'm twenty-one. Sooner, if I can manage it. Perception is essential for poets and playwrights. That's why I know if my parents had to make a choice between us, if one of us had to be sent through enemy lines to get help, I would be the one. Just as, if we were all in a boat and the boat capsized, and we had only one life jacket, they would put it on Joss. They wouldn't plan it that way. That's the way it would be.

Which is why it's even more unusual that Joss and I are friends.

I realize that what I've just said puts my mother and father in an unflattering light. I don't mean to do that. I love them. They are good people, reasonably compassionate and not too rigid in their ideas.

My mother worries about us too much. If we sneeze or cough even once, she puts us to bed and calls the doctor. If we're not home from school in fifteen minutes, she imagines us lying in the gutter, mowed down by a hit-and-run driver. Or dragged into a light blue car with Connecticut plates by a man with slick dark hair and peculiar eyes.

My father is too impatient. He flies off the handle much too easily, and he doesn't let me finish my explanations of things. I've noticed he gets mad when someone interrupts him, however.

Outside of these failings, they're all right. To expect people to be perfect just because they're adults and/or parents is unrealistic, I think.

Last Sunday Joss decided to build a proper barn for her horse.

"What horse wants to live in a garage?" she asked indignantly. Probably this was due to the fact that we'd seen a television program about ranching in Wyoming, where no self-respecting horse would've been caught dead sleeping in a garage.

"We could tear down that old shed in back of the Smiths'," Joss said. "It can't be that hard to build a barn. A small one, that is."

Joss called up everybody she knew. "If you help, you can have a ride," she promised. A girl in Joss's class said she wasn't allowed to do manual labor on the Sabbath.

"All right for you," Joss said darkly.

The Collins twins, Ellen Spicer, my friend Sam Brown, and Tootie Simms showed up. Tootie is eight. He lives two houses down from us. He's big for his age and not the brightest kid on the block. When Joss had a strep throat last year, he sent her a handmade get-well card that said: "To Joss. The Best Person I Know. I Love You. Tootie." Joss still keeps that card in her top drawer. She didn't show it to anyone. Only me.

Everyone arrived wearing their old clothes and an expectant air. The twins each carried a rusty hammer. Tootie had filched a bag of new nails from his father, and Sam had a set of blueprints he said might come in handy.

"They were originally for a bomb shelter my grandmother was going to build about twenty years ago," Sam explained. "Then she moved to a condominium in Florida instead."

Joss told me later that she thought the horse might freak out if it knew it was living in a bomb shelter, but she thanked Sam. "They're very handsome," she said.

We all trooped to the woods in back of Smiths' and tore down the old shack. It was on its last legs anyway and didn't require much effort. Tootie got a splinter in his hand as big as a toothpick. It was so big, in fact, it was easy to pull out. Tootie was very brave. He closed his eyes and hung on to me while Sam pulled.

"I didn't cry once," he kept saying for the rest of the day. I painted a big slash of Mercurochrome over the wound so he'd have something to show for it.

We lugged the boards back to our yard and started in. Tim Collins kept getting in everybody's way. He also kept hammering his fingers instead of the nails. "I'm leaving," he finally said in disgust.

"You always quit when the going gets rough," his brother George said. George had been born five minutes after Tim. He was more patient and tried harder.

After a while Ellen said she had to go wash her hair. She washes her hair frequently. Everyone started to snarl at everyone else. The sun was hot, and a bunch of wasps were giving us a hard time. I went up to the house for a bucket of water to drink. Sam tied a handkerchief around his forehead to keep the perspiration from getting in his eyes.

"I thought it was going to be easy," Tootie said. "You said it would be easy," he said accusingly to Joss.

"Listen, if you want something bad enough you have to work for it," she told him sternly. "How do you think our forefathers felt when they went into the wilderness and had to build log cabins and all that stuff? You think that was easy? Some forefather you'd make."

That shut Tootie up for a few minutes. Then he said, "I have to go to the bathroom."

Joss was hammering up a storm. "You can use ours," she said.

"My mother doesn't like me to use other people's bathrooms," Tootie said, backing off.

"Oh, yeah? You've used ours plenty of times," Joss said. Tootie didn't bother to answer. He broke into a run and disappeared from view.

"If that kid thinks he's going to ride my horse, he's nuts," Joss said crossly. By this time it was me and Joss and Sam and George Collins and a bunch of boards that looked like a falling-down shack, which is what they'd looked like in the first place. Except that now it was in our back yard instead of the Smiths'.

"Wait'll Dad gets a load of this," I said.

"Maybe he'll be late getting home and it'll be dark," Joss said hopefully.

Luck was on our side. The wind rose and lightning flashed. We went inside and watched while the rain started.

"Looks like a northeaster to me," Sam said. Whatever it was, when the sun came out, our barn was mostly lying on the ground in a sad little heap.

"We could try again tomorrow," George said.

After a small silence Joss said, "I don't think the horse will mind sleeping in our garage."

Sam took off his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. "Yeah," he said, "we can make a sign that says 'barn' and tack it up over the door. He'll never know the difference."

Tootie came across the lawn. "I'm back," he said.

Joss put her hands on her hips and frowned. "You are what is known as a fair-weather friend, I'm sorry to say," she told him.

"Can I have a ride, Joss? Can I?" Tootie asked.

"I'll have to see," she said.

Joss and I share the long, narrow bedroom at the back of our house. Someday, if we ever move, we might each have our own room, but right now we share.

Sometimes I wish I had my own room. If only we had a garret, I would like a room there, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning or the Bronte sisters. I believe if one writes poetry in a garret, it frequently turns out better. However, until we buy a house that has one, I'll settle for bunking in with Joss.

Sometimes she shouts out loud in her sleep and wakes me. Other times she talks. Mostly about horses.

"Do you think it would be a good idea for me to buy a martingale for my horse?" she'll say. Or, "When I get my horse, I'll have to be very careful it doesn't eat snow. A horse can get colic from eating snow."

"Since you're getting it in June, I don't think there's too much chance there'll be snow on the ground," I told her. As for a martingale, I don't know what it is, so I reserve judgment.

Joss is my chief sounding board for trying out my poetry. If she has a fault, it's that she's too uncritical. She almost always says, when I'm finished, "That's lovely, Kate," in a sleepy voice. "I think you're a very good poet. I think when you're grown up, you'll be famous and people will read your poetry all over the world."

Only rarely does she say, "I don't get it. What's it mean?" That's usually when the poem is so deep I'm not sure I understand it myself. That's one of the primary dangers of a poet—being too profound. Some people like profound poems, but mostly, I think, they want to understand what they read.

I try to write middle-of-the-road poems, poems a child can understand but which are really very deep. It isn't always easy.

Last night Joss shouted out in her sleep so loud she woke me up. So I shook her until she woke up.

"Cut it out," I said. "You're making too much noise."

"I didn't make any noise," she mumbled, sitting up. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.

This morning she didn't even remember. "You're crazy," she said when I asked her what she had dreamed about. "I don't dream. Only once in a while I dream I'm racing in the Kentucky Derby. Then when my horse comes in first and they hang that big horseshoe of flowers around his neck, he bucks me off and I go flying up into the stands. Then I usually wake up."

One of the really nice things about Joss is her eyes. They are very large and have enormous pupils. Around the edges of the pupils, they are blue or green or gray—whatever she wants them to be. They reflect her moods. I have heard that the eyes are the mirrors of the soul. Joss's soul stares out at the world every day of the week. Why shouldn't it? She has nothing to hide.

"Kate, do you ever think about dying?" Joss asked me. She was polishing the riding boots my mother had bought for her at the Salvation Army store. They are only a little too big and in very good condition. Joss stuffed tissue paper in the toes, and they fit her fine. She polishes them every day before school with special soap to restore the leather.

"No," I said.

That wasn't strictly true.

"Sometimes," I told her. "Why?"

"You know what they said in church last Sunday," Joss said. She bent over her polishing job, and her hair hid her face. "They said everyone was born and everyone dies."

I waited.

"That seems fairly obvious," I said when she didn't go on.

"Well, I've been thinking, and I don't believe that I'm going to die. Or you either, for that matter," she said.

"How about Mom and Dad?" I said.

"Oh, they're going to die years and years from now," she said. She was very serious. "When they are terribly old and don't care any more. After you and I are grown up, then Mom and Dad will die and it won't matter."

"How come we're not going to die?" I asked her. "What will happen to us? We'll go on living and stay young. All our friends will get old, and pretty soon we'll be younger than anyone on earth. We'll be playing hopscotch when we're ninety- five, for Pete's sake."

I tried to make her smile. She wouldn't.

"You remember when they said last Sunday that dying was just a beginning?" Joss's pupils were so huge they made her eyes look black. "A beginning of what, I'd like to know."

"Girls, you'll be late," my mother called.

"Joss, listen," I said, "it's one of those things that's practically impossible to explain. How do I know?"

Joss put her boots back in the closet tenderly, as if she were putting a baby to bed.

"I don't want to talk about it any more," she said.

"Who brought it up?" Just because Joss and I were sisters and friends didn't mean I couldn't get sore at her. "Just who the heck brought up the subject anyway?"

"Girls," my mother called again, "Tootie's here to walk to school with Joss. Get a move on."

Joss beat me down the stairs.

"Hey, Toot, what's up?" she said, getting her books from the hall table. She was reading Misty of Chincoteague for the eighteenth time. She brought it to school with her every day just in case she had some spare time to read. She could recite chapters from it the same way my father can recite "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

"I read the best book last night," Tootie told us. "It was so easy." He rolled his eyes. "You wouldn't believe how easy it was." Tootie was a slow reader. He came from a family of kids who devoured books the same way they ate potato chips—with great ease and appetite.

"Good for you," Joss said.

"It was so easy," Tootie went on, "that even my little brother couldn't read it."

I thought about what Tootie had said all the way to school on the bus, but I still couldn't figure it out.

The only person who might possibly object when Joss rents her horse is Miss Pemberthy. She lives across the street from us in a big white house. I know it's none of my business, but that house is entirely too big for one person. I think Miss Pemberthy should take in foster children or something.

I mentioned this to my mother.

"Fat chance," she said.

Miss Pemberthy accused Tootie of pulling up her prize dahlia bulbs. Tootie, of all people. He wouldn't harm a dandelion, much less a prize dahlia. Miss Pemberthy called Tootie's mother and said if he didn't stay off her property, she wouldn't be responsible if he slipped off her stone wall and broke a bone or two. Tootie's mother said she got the distinct impression that Miss Pemberthy was thinking of greasing the stone wall to make it good and slippery for Tootie's benefit.

Miss Pemberthy was in the army in World War II. She was a sergeant, I think. Sergeants, I understand, are very domineering people. They wouldn't get to be sergeants if they weren't.

The sign in her driveway says: "NO TURNING IN THE DRIVEWAY."

Not "Please" or anything. Just "NO TURNING."

Miss Pemberthy likes to maintain the standard of excellence achieved in our neighborhood by constant vigilance. That's what she told my mother when our dog Hazel got into her garbage and spread it around a little. Hazel smelled the lamb bone way down at the bottom of the garbage pail. Hazel likes lamb better than anything. If Miss Pemberthy had just given Hazel the bone straight out, she could've avoided all that mess. My father made Joss and me go over and pick up all the junk from Miss Pemberthy's lawn.

All of which makes me think Miss Pemberthy might object about the horse.

"Miss Pemberthy isn't going to like it when you rent your horse," I told Joss.

"Tough beans," Joss said. She was adding up how much it would cost to buy a bottle of horse shampoo, containing lanolin and deodorizer, plus some veterinary liniment to aid in the relief of temporary muscle soreness due to overwork or exertion.

"It all adds up to a terrible lot," she said, sighing.

"Maybe you better forget the whole thing," I told her.


Excerpted from Beat the Turtle Drum by Constance C. Greene. Copyright © 1976 Constance C. Greene. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Constance C. Greene is the author of over twenty highly successful children’s and young adult novels, including the ALA Notable Book A Girl Called Al, Al(exandra) the Great, Getting Nowhere, and Beat the Turtle Drum, which is an ALA Notable Book, an IRA-CBC Children’s Choice, and the basis for the Emmy Award–winning after-school special Very Good Friends. Greene lives in Milford, Connecticut.

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Beat the Turtle Drum 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book in junior high many years ago. This was the first book that made me cry. All young and older sisters should read this book. Remarkable!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
iknoudo More than 1 year ago
This book was a very easy and quick read for me. It shows the bond that siblings can have even when they aren't very close and jealousy can come into play. Also, the way that hard work and determation can pay off. It was very emotional and touching for me but very easy, something that might be read just for fun.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is beyond wonderful. EVERYONE and I mean everyone should read this book. Great! It shows a valuable lesson. It is about two sisters, Kate and Joss who are great friends. Joss' dream is to have a horse. Everything is going great, THEN... This book is a 'must read.' It grabs you at the tip of your seat. It was the first book that tears came flowing down my cheeks. REMARKABLE!!!!!!!!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Hi,my names Emma and have i got a book for you. This book is called Beat the Turtle Drum.This book raises a lot of questions. What is going to happen next? This story opens your eyes making it interesting so you want to read more so you can find out the ending to the book.