Down Sand Mountain

Down Sand Mountain

5.0 5
by Steve Watkins

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In a tale full of humor and poignancy, a sheltered twelve-year-old boy comes of age in a small Florida mining town amid the changing mores of the 1960s.

It's 1966 and Dewey Turner is determined to start the school year right. No more being the brunt of every joke. No more "Deweyitis." But after he stains his face with shoe polish trying to mimic

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In a tale full of humor and poignancy, a sheltered twelve-year-old boy comes of age in a small Florida mining town amid the changing mores of the 1960s.

It's 1966 and Dewey Turner is determined to start the school year right. No more being the brunt of every joke. No more "Deweyitis." But after he stains his face with shoe polish trying to mimic the popular Shoeshine Boy at the minstrel show, he begins seventh grade on an even lower rung, earning the nickname Sambo and being barred from the "whites only" bathroom. The only person willing to talk to him, besides his older brother, Wayne, is fellow outsider Darla Turkel, who wears her hair like Shirley Temple and sings and dances like her, too. Through their friendship, Dewey gains awareness of issues bigger than himself and bigger than his small town of Sand Mountain: issues like race and segregation, the reality of the Vietnam War, abuse, sexuality, and even death and grieving. Written in a riveting, authentic voice, at times light-hearted and humorous and at others devastating and lonely, this deeply affecting story will stay with readers long after the book is closed.

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Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Anita Barnes Lowen
Dewey is set to start seventh grade, and in spite of his worries, this year everything is going to be different—no Deweyitis, no teasing, no being the butt of everyone's jokes. Unfortunately, the first day of school and following days and weeks are downright awful. Dewey (hoping to be the shoeshine boy in next year's minstrel show) smears his face with shoe polish; it goes on much easier than it comes off. Now he is known as Sambo, and the school bullies will not let him use the bathroom; it is "white's only." If Dewey thought the first day of school was the worst day of his life, he is learning that that is not necessarily so. "Then I thought the night me and Wayne and Darla snuck out to the Skeleton Hotel was the worst day of my life. Then...the day Dad made me and Wayne pass out campaign flyers in the Boogerbottom and the colored kids chased us was the worst day." Then, there is the day he is accused of poisoning the school bully. There is one thing Dewey knows now: "I was pretty sure that there were going to be still more worst days..." Set in Florida in a small, blue-collar town in the mid 1960s, this coming-of-age novel addresses the issues of racism, segregation, budding sexuality, war, and death. Told in first person, readers will be touched as Dewey struggles to come to grips with the reality of the world around him. Reviewer: Anita Barnes Lowen
VOYA - Ann T. Reddy-Damon
Seventh grader Dewey Turner has a series of mishaps including donning "blackface" the day before school starts, sneaking out with his girlfriend who then leaves with his older brother, and being chased while passing out political fliers for his father who is running on the campaign promise of paving the streets in the Negro section of their 1966 Florida town. From these and other experiences, he learns a valuable lesson: "I was pretty sure that there were going to be still more worst days, maybe every day setting a new record for the worst, and it would go on like that for the rest of my life.o Watkins pulls off an incredible feat in this novel capturing the racial prejudices and Vietnam War tensions of the era through the eyes of a seventh grade boy. The text is neither dated nor sensationalized; rather, the reader feels Dewey's nanvetT and anxiety without the taint of historical perspective. He portrays Dewey as an innocent boy in a dangerous world. Although the plot is compelling, it is the character's development that propels the story. For those students who read The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 (Delacorte, 1995/VOYA December 1995) in middle school, this book poses a great counterpart for the mature reader. Dewey nanvely faces hints of sexual abuse, racism, and adult indiscretions and does not always know how to react or feel, much as teens today. Reviewer: Ann T. Reddy-Damon
School Library Journal

Gr 7-9

Things are anything but tranquil along the Peace River as Dewey starts seventh grade in Sand Mountain, FL, in 1966. From his nascent desire to wear blackface to play the part of the shoe-shine boy in next year's Rotary Club Minstrel show, to his dad's doomed run for city council that includes a plan to pave streets in Boogerbottom, the part of town where Negroes live, racial issues are underlying themes in the story. Layered above are Dewey's well-justified apprehensions about bullying at school, his "Americanism vs. Communism" class, and his lack of friends. Eighth-grade brother Wayne offers no help. Dancing lessons with Darla, a Shirley Temple wannabe about whom rumors circulate, and her "prissy" twin brother, Darwin, further confuse him. Vietnam vet Walter Wratchford, who rescues the miserable, soaked, dirty Dewey after he skips the first day of school to play at the creek, seems weird. The beauty is in the telling of this bildungsroman, as what is unspoken about the murky racism, sexual climate, and political realities of the time effectively build into a pervasive fog of unease. Readers will understand that Dewey's innocence dims his understanding of the politics of hate, but will easily identify with his deeply felt fears. And they'll share his wonder and confusion about his first kiss and first masturbatory sexual experience with Darla. Readers who enjoyed Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars (Clarion, 2007) or Lance Marcum's The Cottonmouth Club (Farrar, 2005) will find sliding down Sand Mountain a faster ride, but infused with similar-and satisfying-gravitas.-Joel Shoemaker, Southeast Junior High School, Iowa City, IA

Kirkus Reviews

Sand Mountain, Fla., circa 1966, has a segregated population emotionally wrestling with Jim Crow laws. Dewey Turner, a lonely youth entering seventh grade, seeks popularity but makes the unfortunate decision to paint his face with black shoe polish, pretending to be in a minstrel show. He endures racial taunts and can only latch onto one friend, sassy fellow outcast Darla Turkel, who wears her hair in Shirley Temple curls. Watkins's well-constructed coming-of-age novel at first appears to be something of a nostalgia trip, with references to black-and-white TVs, late-night snipe hunts and pogo sticks. Adults appear as both positive and negative role models, but it's Walter Wratchford, a listless Vietnam veteran, whose disillusioned comments open Dewey's mind to the racial hatred simmering beneath the seemingly innocent Sand Mountain atmosphere. As the story moves to a stunning climactic scene, logical character and content comparisons will be made to To Kill a Mockingbird. Although not a fly-off-the-shelves selection, this title may be paired with Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars (2007) as titles set in the '60s suitable for multigenerational reads. (Historical fiction. 12-14)

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Product Details

Candlewick Press
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)
NC1200L (what's this?)
Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt

It was the middle of August 1966, and me and Wayne and Dad and about two hundred people were sweating and stinking in the auditorium of the Sand Mountain High School, home of the Mighty Mighty Miners. We were there for the Rotary Club Minstrel Show, but Wayne fell asleep after fifteen minutes. When he did that in church, Mom always said it was because of his hay fever and let him alone. That night of the minstrel show, I stayed awake with Dad, who was the treasurer of the Rotary Club, although as it turned out he fell asleep, too. I sometimes wished I had hay fever like them so I could fall asleep anywhere. I also wished I had a bag of marbles with me, since the auditorium floor was slanted and if you dropped them on the hardwood floor, they would probably roll all the way down to the stage. Not that I wouldn’t about die if I ever did that and got caught.

Dad couldn’t carry a tune — that’s what my mom said. I remember the day she said it, I asked her, "Carry it where?" and she said, "Oh boy, here we go again." Anyway, that’s why he wasn’t in the minstrel show but down in the audience with us. They started up with a prayer, "Lord bless us and keep us," then the Pledge of Allegiance, then the Rotary Club song "R-O-T-A-R-Y, that spells Rotary. R-O-T-A-R-Y is known on land and sea. From north to south, and east to west, He profits most who serves the best." After that a guy sang "Old Man River," then a kid I knew shuffled onto the stage and it was Boopie Larent, who was twelve, the same as me, and used to be a friend of mine. We were in the same kid choir at the Methodist Church. He wore a white bow tie, which I bet somebody tied for him, and white gloves, and big white lips, and his face was shoe-polish black, not like real colored people. He sang "Chattanooga Shoe-Shine Boy," which was about a very happy colored boy who shined people’s shoes and made them happy, too.

Boopie carried a shoe shine kit and danced soft-shoe. That’s what my dad told me it was. It just looked like sliding around to me, then some leaning way forward, and some running in place to keep from pitching over on his face while he windmilled his arms. The only other kids I ever saw dance before that were the twins Darla and Darwin Turkel, who always tap-danced at County Fair, where my dad worked in the Rotary Club corn-dog booth. Darla and Darwin were all dressed up with their mom a couple of rows in front of us that night at the minstrel show. Their mom used to wear a mermaid costume and do underwater ballets and stuff over at Weeki Wachee Springs by the Gulf of Mexico. Now she taught dancing lessons sometimes. Darla had fifty-two ringlets in her hair, just like Shirley Temple, or that was the story, anyway. Everybody said to stay away from Darwin — he was worse than a girl.

I realized something about halfway through Boopie doing the "Chattanooga Shoe-Shine Boy." "Is that my shoe-shine kit? I asked my dad. I was holding his hand, feeling his calluses. I was too old to be holding his hand — when you get to be twelve, you’re too old for a lot of things — but I did it anyway and he let me when it was dark like that in the auditorium and nobody could see. I liked how it felt from him working at the phosphate mine where he was an engineer, only not the kind that drove a train.

I thought maybe my dad was listening to the show and that’s why he didn’t answer, so I asked him again. “Is that the shoe-shine kit you bought me, Dad?” I don’t know why it made me mad. But if it was my shoe-shine kit, I thought I ought to get to be the Chattanooga Shoe-Shine Boy. Everybody was laughing at old Boopie up there, and the harder they laughed, the more I wished it was me. I wanted to be funny like that, and dance, and sing, and wear a white tie and white gloves and white lips and shoe-shine face darker than the colored people.

DOWN SAND MOUNTAIN by Steve Watkins. Copyright © 2008 by Steve Watkins. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Somerville, MA.

"R-O-T-A-R-Y, That Spells Rotary" from the Rotary songbook by Norris C. Morgan. Copyright © 1923 by the Rotary Club of Wilmington, DE. Reprinted by permission of the Rotary Club of Wilmington, DE.

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Meet the Author

Steve Watkins, an associate professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, is a short-story writer and winner of a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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Down Sand Mountain 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
NewsmanFL More than 1 year ago
Steve Watkins sensitively re-creates the claustrophobia and emotional complexity of being 12. You begin to notice your parents' flaws. You come to share (without much real understanding) the anxiety of global events, see how pain and dysfunction thread through your family and your friends', judge societal injustices such as racism, wade through the bafflement of sexuality, parse grownup situations with a limited vocabulary. You have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but as will be your fate, can't always judge which is which, because sometimes lying is right and usually it's some of both.

Because this book is set in the 1960s, it is like a reassuring letter from parent to child. The particular issues and struggles have evolved, but the central feelings of the age are eternal. Just like Dewey's parents in their finer moments in the book, this sensitive tone extends a hand of comfort to the foreheads of Watkins' young readers (and reminds parents to slow down and pay attention for chances to do the same). Indeed, you sense Watkins' parenting experiences inform the story as much as his memories of being Dewey's age.

DOWN SAND MOUNTAIN is an intense, immersive, sad, hilarious and aching adventure. It captures the jungle social structure of high school, with predators and prey, where natural selection has cast the die for the Darwin Turkels of the world -- and maybe for us as the narrator, Dewey, too. The story elevates these universal teenage struggles to literal life-and-death -- just as they feel when you're living them. I closed the back cover marvelling that I survived.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well, i Twelve and i liked it! I dont know what these big ol' honkin long reviews are for! I read this as an actual book, and i thought it was G-R-E-A-T GREAT!! Its a suitable book for all ages. But there are some parts that aren't appropriate for ages twelve or under...
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
It's 1966 and there is still a lot of racial tension and discrimination in this small Florida town. The Vietnam war is in high gear, and Dewey Turner has many personal issues to deal with.

Dewey desperately wants to be the "Shoeshine Boy" in next year's minstrel show at school, but dying his face with black shoe polish turns out to be the wrong thing to do because it won't wash off. The kids start calling him Sambo, and then the bullies won't let him use the bathroom that they have labeled "Whites Only," and continue to do so long after the shoe polish wears off.

He is ostracized by his classmates, picked on by bullies, and his father deals out discipline with his belt.

Dewey's brother, Wayne, is the only person willing to talk to him besides another outsider, Darla Turkel. Darla is a bouncy, Shirley Temple look-alike who befriends Dewey.

His problems escalate when his dad sends him and Wayne into Boogerbottom, the black section of town, to deliver campaign posters - and they run into more trouble than they can handle.

DOWN SAND MOUNTAIN is an authentic look back in history, and a riveting chronicle of the emotional issues of being a teenager. It does introduce some sexual complications in a couple of scenes that I thought should have been omitted - the story is great without those problems.

Overall, though, this is a fast-paced story filled with the emotional roller-coaster of teen angst. The characters are realistic and compelling. It is a complex story that is by turns funny, sad, lonely, and sometimes frightening, but one thing is for sure: it will stay with you long after the last page is finished.