Darkness under Water

( 3 )


This gripping, ultimately hopeful tale of an Abenaki-French Canadian girl in 1920s Vermont explores a dark episode in New England history.

Just as the waters of a river roar through her town, Molly Ballou's life is riding on a swift current, where change comes faster than a spring flood. As a half - Abenaki Indian, half - French Canadian girl in Vermont, Molly is slowly realizing that her family and others like them are being targeted by a governmental effort to rid the state of...

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This gripping, ultimately hopeful tale of an Abenaki-French Canadian girl in 1920s Vermont explores a dark episode in New England history.

Just as the waters of a river roar through her town, Molly Ballou's life is riding on a swift current, where change comes faster than a spring flood. As a half - Abenaki Indian, half - French Canadian girl in Vermont, Molly is slowly realizing that her family and others like them are being targeted by a governmental effort to rid the state of so-called "poor citizens." Not only is Molly facing discrimination, but she is also haunted by the ghostly presence of her drowned older sister and her grieving mother's evasive love. Curious about her family's traditions, Molly finds herself drawn to Henry, an Abenaki boy whose connection to the natural world provides solace when Molly's mother tragically loses a baby and grows increasingly ill. With Henry's support, sorrow gradually gives way to the joy of self-discovery — and allows Molly to look beyond hardship to a future of promise.

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Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Jenny Ingram
Sixteen-year-old Molly Ballou lives in a rural Vermont logging town in the 1920s with her parents and her paternal grandmother, who retains some of their traditional Abenaki ways. The town is isolated, and a dam under construction means that part of the community will soon be underwater. Molly and her best friend, Katy, from a Catholic family, are the top students in their small school, and when their teacher encourages them to attend teachers' school in Burlington, both girls are prompted to think hard about their futures. Complicating their choices is a fledging eugenics movement in Vermont that would discriminate against both of their families, and the late pregnancy of Molly's mother. Under pressure, Molly's family continues to assimilate, but at the same time, she begins a friendship and romance with an Abenaki boy living more traditionally than her family. The story follows Molly through three seasons, as she experiences major changes in her life, both good and bad. Kanell's novel provides a good slice-of-life portrait of small-town Vermont in the early twentieth century, and she excels here. The story line centered on the eugenics project and the visit of government nurses to the town is overdramatized and does not blend with the rest of the narrative. It might lead savvy teens to disregard the book and overlook the author's message. Reviewer: Jenny Ingram
Children's Literature - Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger
Young Molly Ballou hates April because that is when the river fills with water. The river took her sister Gratia years ago and continues to threaten her and her family. Now Gratia's memory haunts Molly, questioning her plans for the future and her growing friendship with Henry. Racial and political tensions rise, too. Molly and her family are part Abenaki and part French Canadian. As such, they become part of the group targeted by the government's effort to rid the state of Vermont of its "poor citizens." This effort might hurt her family personally. Then Molly's mother becomes very ill when she loses a baby. Did the nurses who came from out of town really help her? Or did they do something to make her become even more ill? When Molly comes home to find a tragedy right in her home, she must rely on herself—and, maybe, Henry—to find a hopeful future. Reviewer: Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger
KLIATT - Aimee Coile
Molly Ballou lives with the constant memory of her older sister, who was swept away by the river when she was only five years old. It is rural Vermont in the 1920s. Molly embraces her grandmother's traditions as part of the Abenaki, against whom there is discrimination. Her mother is less involved in the Abenaki culture; she is distracted by grief for her lost eldest child and by a new pregnancy. It is Molly who experiences the discrimination in town. Mollie must sort through her feelings about her mother's anger and sadness, her growing affection for Henry, also Abenaki, her desire to learn more from her grandmother, and the mission of several nurses in town. Readers will be drawn into this historical story to learn about a time of discrimination against Native Americans that is not widely known. Reviewer: Aimee Coile
School Library Journal

Gr 8 Up

Molly and her Abenaki family get caught up in a government eugenics project set to rid Vermont of "weak links" in the genetic code. Although the teen and her family are largely accepted in their small 1920s community, outsiders come to enforce the governor's decree that Vermont is only for "real" Yankees. Amid this turmoil, Molly must also cross into womanhood, leaving school to help her pregnant mother with the washing and having her first experiences with boys. Throughout the story, the river rages in the background, and Molly hears the voice of her dead sister, Gratia. The day her mother gives birth, two nurses from the project show up at her house, and Molly believes they purposely kill the baby and cut her mother to prevent her from having more children. Kanell infuses her story with imagery and metaphors. Although the true history of the Vermont Eugenics Project looms in the background, the story really centers around Molly's coming-of-age. The author has created many disparate threads, most of which she has woven together into a subtle, richly drawn historical novel, though some elements, like the voice of Gratia, fail to reach a satisfying conclusion. However, fully drawn characters, beautiful use of language, and an interesting topic will be enough to draw in many readers.-Kim Ventrella, Ralph Ellison Library, Oklahoma City, OK

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780763637194
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Publication date: 11/11/2008
  • Pages: 320
  • Age range: 12 years
  • Lexile: 850L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Beth Kanell is a poet and author of several travel and local history books. For this book, her first novel, she drew on family stories of farming and seafaring, a neighbor's tales of his Abenaki heritage, and the discovery that part of her own town, in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, had vanished underwater. She lives in Waterford, Vermont.

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Read an Excerpt

There is nothing I like about April.

Here in Waterford, Vermont, at least the snow stops, and the days are bright, if they're sunny days. But mostly they are not sunny in April. They are gray, and cold, and I don't care how many daffodils my mother says are open in the garden or how many vases my grandmother fills with pussy willows cut from the scrubby bushes by the river.

Because the river itself fills all of April.

It rains for days here, hard enough to wash the soiled banks of snow away from the muddy roads. Everything smells like rain. Not the soft summer smell of damp fields, and not the hiss of rain that rides onthunderclouds. But wet, moldy, unforgiving rain that leaks through the roof, seeps under the doors, turns clothing musty and books soft and woolen coats endlessly damp and stinking of sheep.

Worst of all, when it rains all through April, the river thrashes and churns with froth and logs and power. It roars and crashes and I hear it all through the town, in school, at home, and especially all night in my bedroom, in the darkness. And I think about Gratia, who was my older sister that I never met. I think of her light brown curls, like the one in Mama's dresser drawer. I think about how she got up early on Easter morning sixteen years ago, in 1914. It was an early Easter , in a year when I wasn't born yet. But almost. Gratia got up all by herself that day and put on her new red shoes, and ran out in the rain to stand on the bridge and see the river. She loved to be the first one up, Mama once told me. When I was younger, I asked her often to tell me stories of the little girl so much like me. But now that I am fifteen, almost sixteen in fact, so much older than Gratia ever was, Mama’s familiar stories leave me with questions.

What made Gratia go so close to the rail that day? There would still have been ice along the river edges. Maybe she tried to see into the flowing part of the river. Did she see something in the water, some log or drowned dog or someone's lost boat, lurching up and down, snagged and then torn loose again? Or maybe she dropped a stick into the water, like thevillage kids do still, and ran across the bridge to see it race out from the darkness underneath, in the rush of the southbound waters. Some days I imagine that her red shoes with their smooth new soles slipped onthe wet wood of the bridge, slipped and slid with her under the railing. Other days I see her in my mind's eye, climbing the rail to lean over it and letting go by accident or by some bravery that I'll never have, daringto hang farther out over the waters.

One night I pictured her face as she fell — and it seemed I could almost hear her call out. To Mama? I would call for Mama if I were falling. But maybe it was Papa she screamed for.

And that, as anyone can see, begins a bad April night for me, a river- washed night of half dreams and fear.

But I don't wake Mama up ever. Lately she's cross so often, I wouldn't dare. I don't wake Papa, either, when he’s there. I'm too old, and neither of them would understand, anyway. So I punch my pillow, turn it over to the cool side, lie in bed, and pray that Jesus, or maybe Gratia, will walk out of the dark corner of the room, glowing with a halo behind her soft curls. So soft and sweet and always the small child. And perhaps Mama would be happier, and Papa would stay home with us.

But that's imagination, and not truth. Papa says, "The truth will set you free." So last night, the night before Easter, the twentieth of April, I climbed into the not- so- damp comfort of my bed, snuggling my feet against the hot water bottle brick that my grandmother provided. Outside, the rain rattled heavily on the windows and roof. I pulled the coverlet overmy head to hush the sound, but I couldn't breathe enough, so I put my face back out into the chilly air after all, trying to decide what the truth of Gratia would be now. I suppose she would be married, have children, even. I would be an aunt. The thought gave me no pleasure, just a twist of the lip at the strangeness of time.

The wind rattled the window frame and hurled the scent of wet darkness into my bedroom. Easter was the resurrection of the dead, I knew; could Gratia come back to life? Not likely. Nobody I knew ever talked about our own dead being anything except guardian angels. Maybe she was an angel. With red shoes? Disgusted with my own imagining, I punchedthe pillow again and rolled over.

Accidentally I fell into sleep, into the dangerous current of dreams. Somewhere I stood at the rocky top edge of a cliff, voiceless and armless, shaking, alone — and last of all, there came walking out of a wet dark forest Gratia, my older but always fiveyear-old sister, dressed in something white and wet, dripping cold river water, standing beside me with white face and hands, saying something I wanted to hear but couldn't.

I have a diary. It's bound in red leather with a miniature lock and key. Mostly I don’t write in it while it's April.

But waking up just before seven on Easter morning, hearing Mama call sharply from downstairs and knowing it was the start of so much work and so little privacy for the day, I called down and said I'd be right there, then slipped the diary out of the bottom dresser drawer and wrote in pencil what was on my mind: "Easter Morning 1930. Sixteen years since Gratia drowned. Papa is not home yet from the woods. Five more days until my 16th birthday. Signed, Molly (Margaret) Ballou."

Like scratching a message on a cave wall on a desert island, nobody was going to see it, but I'd marked my being there.

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