Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Sonny's House of Spies

Sonny's House of Spies

4.0 1
by George Ella Lyon

See All Formats & Editions

Sonny is only one of the spies at the Bradshaw house in Mozier, Alabama. But as a child he saw a tray full of dinner come flying across the front hall at his father. His mother's aim was dead on. And Daddy's departure promptly followed.

Loretta, Sonny's older sister, spies by eavesdropping. As she tells him, "How else am I going to survive in a family


Sonny is only one of the spies at the Bradshaw house in Mozier, Alabama. But as a child he saw a tray full of dinner come flying across the front hall at his father. His mother's aim was dead on. And Daddy's departure promptly followed.

Loretta, Sonny's older sister, spies by eavesdropping. As she tells him, "How else am I going to survive in a family tight-lipped as tombs?"

But the kids' spying only scratches the surface of what's really going on in this 1950s family in the deep South. While Deaton, the youngest, worries about pirates and vampires, and Uncle Marty, family protector, serves up scripture with every bite at the Circle of Life donut shop, somebody is watching.

Somebody unsuspected by Sonny. But at thirteen he knows something's fishy, and he intends to find out what. That's why one Friday after Uncle Marty pays him for dishwashing at the Circle of Life, he sneaks out of town, first by bike and then by bus. Selma, his mama; Mamby; Nissa; Uncle Sink; Aunt Roo; his sister and brother — nobody from that all-too-serious but often hilarious crew has a clue where he's gone. And even Sonny can't say exactly what he's after, until those tight-lipped tombs start talking, and life in the house on Rhubarb changes for good.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Racially divisive, homophobic, post-WWII Alabama serves as the setting for Lyon's (Borrowed Children) exceptionally well-crafted coming-of-age story. Sonny Bradshaw is six when his father walks out, leaving him, baby brother Deaton and the acerbic eldest child, Loretta, in the care of their emotionally fragile mother. Over time, portly "Uncle" Marty, owner of a donut shop where he serves up Bible verses with the clairs and fritters, "reaches out" to the family, sharing meals and offering Sonny a job the summer he's 13. "Viruses reach out to you too," notes Loretta, who gets the best lines in a book full of spot-on dialogue. At the shop, Sonny uncovers a letter to Marty from his absent father that sets in motion a dramatic series of events culminating in a confrontation with Marty about homosexuality and sin, followed by a fatal fire. Lyons deftly contextualizes Sonny's horror at the discovery his father is a "queer," a stigma so threatening some would rather die than live with it. A subplot about the family's African-American maid highlights the equally insidious racism of the period but pushes the plot almost to the point of boiling over. Fortunately, Lyon's sharply drawn characters steer the story away from melodrama, and she balances the heavy elements with humor: a birds-and-bees conversation between Sonny and Deaton comparing human anatomy to hot dogs and buns is hilarious. The ending, which leaves Sonny in a romance with an undeveloped minor character, is not as satisfying, but the rest of the story more than makes up for it. Ages 11-14. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
With her characteristic eloquent writing, the author presents a touching story about Sonny, an Alabama boy searching for his father in the late 1940's. Sonny's father abandoned the family, but still, Sonny idealizes him. One day, Marty, a Pentecostal preacher, befriends Sonny and his family. Sonny finds his father's name and address among Marty's papers and travels to Mobile to try to find him. The trip is unsuccessful, but gradually through a sequence of tragic events, Sonny discovers that his father is gay and had abandoned the family in order to pursue his own life, sending Marty to care for his family. When Sonny confronts Marty with what he has learned, Marty confesses that he, too, is gay and has, in fact, always loved Sonny's father. Almost everyone in the town either knows the truth about Sonny's father or at least suspects bits and pieces of it. Through Sonny's persistence in uncovering the layers of lies around his family and through the ensuing pain, the family is liberated from the shackles of secrecy. There is another embedded, tender story about Sonny's love for the African-American daughter of their housekeeper. This book is highly recommended for readers mature enough to handle the sensitive subject matter. 2004, Simon & Schuster/Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Ages 14 to 18.
—Kathy Egner, Ph.D.
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-A poignant story set in Alabama in the 1950s. Thirteen-year-old Sonny longs for his father, who left the family when he was six. Uncle Marty, a local bachelor and an Elder at the One-Way Word of Faith Tabernacle, begins to escort the family to church, becoming a friend to Sonny's mother. The boy has a humorous way of describing his elders, seeing their foibles, yet remaining positive and sympathetic toward them. One day while working in Uncle Marty's Circle of Life donut shop, he finds a letter from his father and goes to Mobile to look for him. After an unsuccessful trip, he confronts Marty, who confesses that both he and Sonny's father are homosexual, and that he was asked to look after the family when the boy's dad left. Soon afterward, Marty dies in what is likely suicide, and Sonny realizes that his father is just a weak, selfish man. There is an affecting subplot concerning Sonny's feelings of unrequited love for the daughter of a family servant. He learns that the way one looks at things affects one's life, and begins to understand that secret keeping is harmful. In a postscript, Sonny explains all of the positive changes that have occurred within his family as a result of the spilling of all the family secrets. Lyon conveys a strong sense of Southern life through the cadence of speech, wonderful turns of phrase, and the patterns of daily life. Sonny, smart-mouthed older sister Loretta, and their mother are all well-drawn, realistic characters with whom readers will sympathize.-B. Allison Gray, John Jermain Library, Sag Harbor, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Life changed for Sonny and his family when his father walked out the door. At six, Sonny felt sure that if he just figured out the right thing to do, life would return to normal and his father would return home. At 13, Sonny is much more aware of ambiguity. His dawning understanding of the world around him ranges from recognition of the pervasive racism of small town 1950s Alabama to the discovery that a long-time family friend has been hiding his knowledge of where Sonny's father went-and why he left. In the hands of a less-talented writer, the plot might have seemed both overstuffed and melodramatic. Sonny copes with unexplained "spells," develops his first crush, and discovers a sensational secret. There's also an amputation and a deadly fire. But Lyon expertly weaves together plot, setting, and a cast of unforgettable characters to create a compelling, believable, emotionally honest tale about one boy's coming of age. You'll know Sonny when you're finished reading his story-and you'll be glad you do. (Fiction 12-14)

Product Details

Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
11 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

You don't know my daddy.

He's strong.

He used to hold me over his head in one hand.

Now he can hold me in both hands and fly me through the air. I'm a Spitfire.

At Grandpa's he lets me stand on his shoulders and pick the highest peach off the tree.

Daddy makes things work, inside and out. He fixes the clock. He fixes the car.

And he is smart. That's what my mama is always saying: "Leon has the quickest mind of anybody."

For his work, he looks at land for the paper mill. He puts numbers on paper and draws lines with special tools and then they know how to make a road.

When we were going to Uncle Hickman's house, and I was in the backseat with my sister Loretta and Mama was up front with Daddy and the baby (who doesn't know anything, only spits and cries), Daddy said, "Sonny, someday when I'm long gone and you're driving out to the homeplace, you'll remember that your daddy built this road."

"Yes sir," I said. Long gone? Where would Daddy go?

"He means dead," Loretta said, pressing her thumb into my forehead so hard I was sure she'd left a dent.

I remember what Daddy said about the road.

Like I remember how he smells: tangy from shaving in the morning, sweaty and dusty at night.

But when they say, "Sonny, you just forget that," I don't remember anything.

I am good at forgetting and remembering. Mama scratched me once, real bad down my back, and I don't remember that. How she shrieked, "Now for the love of God, would you hush?"

I remember how Mamby put Mercurochrome on the scratches, how it stung and I didn't cry, and when I told her it was the neighbor's cat Zooko who scratched me 'cause he thought I was a tree, she said, "Some cat."

I don't remember when Daddy was gone for a long time and Mama said it was for business, but Grandpa said, "The road to Hell has got a layover at Natchez."

Nobody has told me to forget last night yet. Daddy didn't come home for dinner. Mama gave us some sugar bread and put lids on all the pots on the stove. Finally it was so late that she put the baby to bed and the streetlights came on and we sat at the kitchen table and started passing bowls around. Loretta asked why we hadn't had a blessing.

Mama looked sharp at her and said, "I guess I'm not feeling very thankful."

When Loretta took her first bite, she said, "I can see why." The food had got thick and sad.

"That remark earns you the dishes," Mama told her. Loretta's only nine but she's tall. She can reach the faucets.

"I'll help," I said, hoping to stop a fight.

"Thank you, Mr. Butterfingers," Loretta said.

"He can scrape out the pots," Mama said.

Before I did that, Mama fixed another plate.

"Is that for Daddy?" Loretta asked.

Mama nodded.

That made me feel better. Daddy would be home to eat. I started scraping the yellow and green food globs into the garbage.

"Won't it get cold?" Loretta asked.

"It's already cold," Mama said. She got out a long box and unrolled foil from it to cover the plate. Then she set Daddy's dinner with its silver blanket in the oven. "I'm going to check on the baby. Sonny, you finish that and get ready for bed."

When she was out of the kitchen Loretta said, "She'll send me to bed too. We never get to see the good stuff."

I stood still, trying to think what she meant.

Loretta whapped me on the chest with a dish towel. "Stop thinking, Sonny! You'll have a spell!"

So I put the last plate on the counter and went upstairs and got into my new summer pj's with the white sailboats painted on them. I'd already had a bath back when we were hoping to eat with Daddy. I sat on my pillow with my knees up to my chin, then slid myself between the sheets like you put your hand in your pocket. That way nothing can snatch me in the night.

The phone ringing woke me up.

And Mama's voice. "We're just fine, Roo." Oh, it was Aunt Roo. That was good. "Well, no, he's not, but that doesn't mean — " She was quiet for a minute, listening. "Tell her I said she's a liar, then. A filthy liar! And you of all people shouldn't listen to her." Mama slammed down the phone.

My mama doesn't say "liar" or "filthy."

I slid out of the bed-pocket to sit on the stairs, in the shadows where she couldn't see me. I had to see if it really was my mama who said those words. But she had left the wide hall where the phone sits on the marbletop table and gone through the dark dining room to the kitchen. I heard a cupboard door open and then the rattle of dishes and she came back with Daddy's supper on a tray. She balanced this by the phone. Then she took off her shoes. My mama doesn't go barefooted. Even if she has on her nightclothes, she wears slippers.

I got sleepy, but the uuff of the front door woke me. It sticks a little. Then Daddy said in his saved-for-night voice, "Why, Selma!" and Mama lifted that tray to her shoulder like a waitress and heaved it at him.

"You missed your dinner, but it didn't miss you," Mama said.

I am really going to have to forget the crash and splush and clack of that china and silver, that roast beef and creamed corn and that little tray with the butterflies on it, and Daddy yelling, "God damn it!"

And Mama saying, "You think I don't know you're up to no good? This is humiliating, Leon. Even Roo's neighbor knew you weren't home. Why you want to throw away your plateful in this life I do not know."

But you threw it, Mama, I wanted to say. Why didn't you go to bed like you told us to? Why didn't you just forget it?

Daddy bent over the mess and got a glob of corn on his finger. Then he came up to Mama and wiped it on her cheek. "Because I don't like the food," he said.

And she slapped him across the face. It sounded like little thunder, and I let go my breath and the pee I'd been holding. I couldn't run to the toilet because they'd hear me. I just let it happen, like everything else. There must have been a dipperful.

Then together they picked up the broken dishes, put them on the tray, and went out to the kitchen. Later Daddy came back with a rag.

I knew then to run get in bed, because in a minute they'd be coming up the stairs.

Nobody woke me up today. Just too much light.

No smell of breakfast, no baby crying.

From the top of the stairs I saw suitcases in the hall. The front door was open.

I ran down and out, summer grass licking my feet.

Daddy was loading the car. I jumped on his back and he almost lost his balance.

"Hey, Son!" he said.

I didn't answer. I could feel sweat through the white shirt I'd watched Mamby iron yesterday. He straightened up. "No time to play monkey," he said.

I didn't move. His backbone was knobby against my cheek. His suspender so close to my eye looked like a road.

"I said, Get down, Sonny."

I did, but I held his arm as I slid and then I bit him on the meaty part of his hand.

"Why, you little hellion!" he said, slinging me off.

I ran into the house to get my clothes on.

My daddy's hand tasted like metal, but sweet, too, like dough, and salty like tears in a pillow slip. It tasted like clothes and the leather suitcase handle.

I got back outside as fast as I could and stood on the running board. Maybe I could hide in the car when he wasn't looking.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"Natchez," he said.

"For how long?"

"I don't know, Sonny. It's business."

"But Grandpa says — "

"Forget what that old man says. You listen to me."

He was talking about Mama's daddy. It made me shiver. And the shivers sent Mama's words right out of my mouth: "You think I don't know — " But I didn't know, so I had to stop.

"Don't know what?" He set the box he was carrying on the roof of the car. Maybe he would turn around now. Maybe he would carry it back in the house.

"That you're up to no good." I was ready for him to slap me like Mama slapped him.

But he just said, soft like it was a secret, "You see why I've to go, Son. A man can't live in a house of spies."

I wanted to say, I'm not a spy! but I had watched from the stairs.

"You remember that," Daddy said.

And he walked back to the house for the last load. He had just given me a test. Really I'm supposed to forget what he said. Grown-ups test you sometimes.

You don't know my daddy. He would never call me a spy. He would never go off and leave us. I just have to figure out what to remember, what to forget.

Copyright © 2004 by George Ella Lyon

Meet the Author

George Ella Lyon is the author of Trucks Roll! and Planes Fly! Now, Boats Float!, cowritten with her son Benn, adds a new mode of transport to this travel series. Among George Ella’s other books are the ALA Notable All the Water in the World and What Forest Knows. A novelist and poet, she lives with her family in Lexington, Kentucky. Visit her online at GeorgeEllaLyon.com.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Sonny's House of Spies 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago