Up a Creekby Laura E. Williams
A thoughtful coming-of-age novel about a young woman struggling to connect with her eccentric mother.
"I picked up my poster, raising it so everyone could see that if they chopped down these old oak trees, they'd be killing the South as well. I held it high like I meant it, and I walked around Oak Square forty-six more times that day, till all that was left
A thoughtful coming-of-age novel about a young woman struggling to connect with her eccentric mother.
"I picked up my poster, raising it so everyone could see that if they chopped down these old oak trees, they'd be killing the South as well. I held it high like I meant it, and I walked around Oak Square forty-six more times that day, till all that was left of the sun was a buttery smear in the sky."
Miracle Bott's activism is a constant embarrassment to her thirteen year old daughter, Starshine. Why does Miracle spend all her time fighting causes? And how can Starshine's grandmother remain so supportive? After all, the 60's were a long time ago.
First Miracle tries to save the whales, then the ozone layer, and now it's the old oak trees in the town square. But when Miracle decides to protect one of the oaks by living in it, she may have gone too fartoo far for the mayor, the community, and especially her daughter. Now Starshine must find a way to make Miracle come down from the tree before their relationship becomes a lost cause.
In her warm, evocative style, Laura Williams explores the relationships between three generations of women struggling to find connections.
- Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.66(w) x 8.34(h) x 0.63(d)
- Age Range:
- 10 - 15 Years
Read an Excerpt
Up a Creek
By Laura E. Williams
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2001 Laura E. Williams
All rights reserved.
"Raise that poster high, honey," my mama urged, coming up behind me and pushing my elbows in the air. "We need to let the mayor know we mean what we say."
I groaned to myself. My arms ached from carrying the bright orange poster. Miracle (Mama liked me to call her by her first name) had written across it in big black letters, SAVE THE OAKS, SAVE THE SOUTH. I didn't know what saving a bunch of oak trees had to do with saving the South, but Miracle said it was one and the same. Just like she said saving the whales was saving the ocean was saving the earth was saving the people, even though she didn't know if saving people was worth it.
Me, I didn't care much for saving anything. I was burning hotter than a barbecue grill, and all I wanted to do was run through the sprinkler, even if I was too old for such a thing.
"That's my girl," Miracle said, pushing my elbows up a bit higher. "I can always count on you, Starshine." As she swept past, I got a whiff of her perfume. Patchouli. It smelled like dirt, but she said that's why she wore it. Made her feel like Mother Earth. She even looked like Mother Earth, with her long brown hair and the strong, straight line of her shoulders — as if she could carry the world on them. I have the same shoulders, only they don't make me look strong, just wide as a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints.
Seemed like the whole town was around Oak Square that day. Half of us to protest the cutting down of the big, old oak trees, each with its monster limbs twisting and stretching up to the sky. The other half of the town was there to watch. The mayor and the town council wanted to use the land for a new town hall. There were news cameras and reporters asking questions and filming us sweaty folks walking around with posters. Even on the shady side of the square it was hot. Hot, hot, hot.
"Hey, Starshine," Jenna called. My best friend came up and walked alongside me, looking as if she had just stepped out of a refrigerator. With her moon face and doughy body, kids took to calling her Giant Jenna or Jiggling Jenna. But she just laughed her head off like she didn't care one pea pod's worth. I never even saw her cry over it, and I figured that's why we were best friends. Neither one of us had any use for tears.
"Want to carry this for a while?" I asked, waving the poster in front of her face.
Jenna took a step away from me. "Are you kidding? My daddy would kill me if he caught me protesting. He wants to cut down these dumb ol' trees. Says it's progress. And he says your mama —"
"Never mind," I interrupted. I surely didn't need to hear again what Mr. Charbonet thought of my mama. I'd heard it plenty of times before, and I'd sure enough hear it again. Then there was listening to what Miracle had to say about Mr. Charbonet. Him having a Northern heart under that Southern drawl he pretended, and so on.
Jenna looked around and grinned. "If you smile real pretty, maybe you'll make it onto the news."
I bared my teeth at her.
She laughed. "I don't think this town has seen so much excitement since that man broke out of jail and Miss Anna thought she saw him at the Gas Shack pumping high octane into a 1973 Mustang convertible. Course, the police found out it was only Jeremy Ivy wearing a baseball cap when they pulled him over with their guns drawn."
I shook my head. "I don't know how you remember all those details. That happened three years ago."
"Except for your mama, this town is boring as a flea circus. So when something exciting happens" — she threw up her hands — "I remember it."
"You never remember what's on a math test."
She wrinkled her nose at me. "Math is entirely different, and you know it. Besides, you're not so good at math, either."
I lifted one shoulder. I couldn't argue with that.
"Want to come over and swim later?" Jenna asked.
"Sure I do, only I can't." Sweat trickled down my neck. "I promised Miracle I'd stay here all day."
Jenna shook her head. "It was easier when we wrote those letters to the senators about the baby seals for Miss Miracle."
I nodded. My mama always had a cause, and that meant I had no choice but to have the same cause. And whenever I could, I dragged Jenna into it, too. With one hundred letters to handwrite, it went a lot faster with both of us holding a pen.
"Now she's making you do hard labor," Jenna went on. "I think there are laws against that. Want me to ask my daddy to look into it for you?" she teased, her blue eyes nearly folding up in her face.
"Your daddy doesn't need more business," I said in a grumpy voice, but Jenna knew me well enough to know I was only kidding. "He already represents most of the town. Folks'll have to start suing people from other counties pretty soon 'cause your daddy can't argue against himself in court."
"He'd try if he thought he could get away with it, though," she said with a laugh, walking beside me. I cracked a smile. But pretty soon it slid off my face along with the sweat.
"Now, you're sure you can't come swimming?" Jenna asked one last time.
I imagined the sparkling blue pool the Charbonets built last summer in their backyard, surrounded by azaleas and magnolia trees. Shady and cool. I sighed. "I'm sure."
She shrugged. "See you tomorrow morning, then. Only seven more days of school!"
I waved my poster in good-bye as she walked away. Seven more days and then freedom for two whole months. Freedom, that was, unless Mama latched onto a new cause and dragged me into it. But maybe it'd be something as easy as stuffing envelopes for the Save the Wild Turkey Foundation like we did last summer. Anyway, it'd be summer, and that meant no lessons and no homework and no Mrs. Wermer. Suddenly, the poster seemed lighter and the sun not so hot.
As I rounded the corner, my grandmother came out of the house and made her way across the crowded street, heading right for me. Our house lined up with six others on our side. All together, there were twenty-eight houses that faced Oak Square. The houses were all old, but not as old as the trees, and they had faded wood siding and front and back porches and a pair of scrawny columns holding up the roof over the front door.
"Lordy, it's hotter than the devil's backyard out here," my grandmother said when she reached me. She flapped a delicate hand in front of her face. With her other hand she offered me a tall glass of fresh lemonade.
I scooted out of the way of the other picketers and leaned my poster against my leg. "Thanks, Memaw," I said, before I guzzled half the glass. The sour sweetness tingled just below my ears, and the coldness gave me an instant headache, but it was worth it. I finished the rest in another long swallow. The leftover ice clinked in the glass. I longed to dump the melting chunks down the front of my shirt, but I knew it wasn't proper behavior for a Southern girl. And me, I was born and bred right here in Louisiana, and that made me about as Southern as one can get, which Memaw took no shortage on reminding me.
As though she knew what I was thinking, Memaw snatched the glass out of my hand. She rolled it back and forth against one of her red cheeks, then the other.
I picked up my poster. "You should go inside and sit in front of the fan," I told her.
"I have a pie in the oven and a pile of mending to do. There's no time for lollygagging." When she wanted to, she could be sharp.
"But you look hot and tired," I insisted. "Forget the mending and lie down a bit, why don't you?" I wished I could lie down myself, in a tub of cold water.
"Miss Lucy," Miracle said to her mama as she stepped to the side to join us. "What are you doing out in this heat? Are you going to help us picket after all?"
Memaw shook her head. Her closely cropped hair didn't even move.
Miracle waved her arms at everyone. "Isn't it grand? All these people here to help save the oaks?"
Memaw clucked her tongue. "It's a fine thing," she agreed. "But don't mistake activity for achievement."
I saw Miracle clench her teeth, but she didn't say anything back. It was hard to reply to any of Memaw's sayings, and she sure had a drawer full of them.
"Well," Miracle finally said, pushing some of my dark wavy hair behind my ear.
"Well," Memaw said, like she had to finish Miracle's sentence, "I'm going inside. I have to get to that mending, and the house won't dust itself."
Miracle frowned. "I swear there's not one speck of dust in that place. Why don't you put your feet up a bit?"
"What for?" Memaw demanded. "There'll be plenty of time to rest when I'm dead." With that, she marched away, silent in her red shoes and bright white socks. From the back she didn't look like anyone's grandmother.
Miracle and I watched her cross the street and go into our house. Miracle let her breath escape in a loud huff.
"It's a good thing we live with Memaw so we can keep an eye on her. She means it when she says she won't rest till she falls down dead, I swear!"
"Really?" I asked, worrying now that Memaw was out of sight.
"I pray not," Miracle said quietly. Then she brightened. "And what about you? Not going to faint in this heat, are you?"
I grinned. "I don't think so."
"Good." She squeezed my arm before striding off to perk up another sagging picketer.
I lifted my poster, raising it up so everyone could see that if they chopped down these old oak trees, they'd be killing the South as well. I held it high like I meant it, and I walked around Oak Square forty-six more times that day, till all that was left of the sun was a buttery smear in the sky and everyone had gone home except me and Miracle.CHAPTER 2
After our really late supper on account of Miracle being a vegetarian and having to go to the market to get more tofu burgers, she and I sat on the sagging couch in front of the TV. We watched the local ten o'clock news while Memaw washed the dishes in the other room. I sat with a slice of Memaw's key lime pie on my lap. It nearly melted in my mouth. I took tiny bites to make it last longer, enjoying the tingle of sourness right behind my jaw.
"Shhh," Miracle said, "here it comes."
I stopped chewing. Miracle turned the volume up over the clattering silverware and tuneless humming coming from the kitchen.
"The protest continued around Oak Square today, led by Miss Miracle Bott," said the anchorman. I remembered him from when he gave a talk at our school during career week. (Me and Jenna had a bet about the hair on the top of his head.) "With more on the story," he went on in his preacher voice, "here is Luinda Smith. Luinda?"
The camera switched to Luinda Smith who stood in front of an oak tree, a light glaring in her face. "Thanks, Mike. I'm here at Oak Square, so long a place of quiet, now a place of heated controversy. As you can see, the protesters have all left and are probably sitting at home wondering about the fate of the square."
The scene then shifted to earlier this afternoon on the picket line. Miracle grabbed my knee. "Look, Starshine, there you are."
Yep, there I was with my sweaty, frowning face up close on the TV screen. I groaned.
The camera cut to Miracle, looking relaxed and determined. "Destroying these trees is not progress," she was saying into the reporter's microphone. "It's murder. These live oaks have been here longer than this town. They have more right to be here than we do. They give shade and comfort, and they clean the air. What right do we have to destroy them?"
When the scene switched back to the reporter, Miracle let go of my knee. "They cut out the good part," she said. "The part where I said Mayor White is a puffed-up politician who is going to destroy the earth with his progress."
I rolled my eyes. Not that anyone in this town would be shocked by anything Miracle Bott did or said, even on TV. But I often had the feeling my mama forgot she had a daughter named Starshine, of all things, in middle school. And no one knew better how to make fun of somebody who had a weird name and a weirder mother than a kid in middle school.
On TV, Luinda Smith said, "Back to you, Mike."
Mike pulled his bushy black eyebrows together like he really cared about this issue. "How do you think this will all work out?" he asked in a concerned tone.
Luinda shrugged on her side of the split screen. "The mayor assured me he's not backing down on this, and the town council has already voted to move forward. I'm afraid there will be no miracles here." She grinned at her pun.
The news moved on to a big fire in nearby New Orleans. I flicked off the TV, and Miracle flopped back against the couch.
"You tried," I said.
She snorted. "Not hard enough."
I thought about the hours walking around the square. That felt like hard enough to me.
Memaw, finished with the dishes, stood in the doorway, her hands on her broad hips. "You two look like rag dolls, all floppy and unhappy. What's gotten into you?"
"They're going to cut down the trees anyway," I said, when Miracle didn't look up.
Memaw humphed and scratched a hand through the nearly white spikes atop her head. "What did you expect? Little raindrops will wear down the biggest boulders, but it's not going to happen in one day. Takes time."
"There's no more time left," I said. "It's over."
Miracle stood up abruptly. "Well, you two say what you like, but I'm not giving up on those trees. They need me." She stalked out of the room, leaving behind just the faintest smell of dirt and the sound of her skirt flapping with each step.
I peeked up at Memaw, still standing solid in the doorway. "She won't give up, that one," she mumbled.
"But she has to," I said. "What choice does she have? The mayor said —"
Memaw cut me off with one of her looks. "How old are you?" she demanded.
"Thirteen," I said. I knew what was coming.
"And how long have you known your mother?"
"And what's our last name?"
"Now don't you forget it." She went back into the kitchen.
Jenna had heard that exact conversation once and I'd had to explain it to her. But it made perfect sense to me. The only thing I wondered about was if Miracle had gotten married, she wouldn't be a Bott and neither would I, and Memaw wouldn't be able to use that argument. But that's not the way it was.
I got up and went onto the back porch. The rose garden smelled like fertilizer, and the blooms glowed in the light sparkling out through the windows. There were more than one hundred rosebushes in all, and they were Miracle's pride and joy. Every day she weeded them and talked to them, petting their delicate petals with the tips of her fingers.
I sat on the swing, and it creaked softly with each swoosh back and forth. Miracle was up in her room, and I heard her stomping around. Then the Moody Blues floated down, sounding scratchy and old as the album turned on the record player Miracle had bought at a tag sale. She said she liked the sounds of the albums better than the CDs and that nothing should be so perfect.
Nights in white satin
Never reaching the end
Letters I've written
Never meaning to send
I wondered what use there was in writing a letter you never meant to send. All the letters I ever wrote for Miracle — to politicians, to Greenpeace, to oil refineries and other polluting places — were sent right away. Miracle couldn't get them in the mail fast enough.
Memaw appeared on the porch, carrying two glasses of iced tea. She put them on the rickety table and stepped down to the herb garden where she picked a couple sprigs of mint. After she put them in the glasses, she handed one to me, then settled easily on the swing with a small hop. It creaked and groaned in loud protest. I sipped the tea, and the mint tickled my nose. I crushed one of the leaves and inhaled the tangy scent.
Memaw and me sat quiet, rocking back and forth, looking at the roses. My back ached from holding the poster above my head all day. I had known before I started that all that picketing wasn't going to do any good, but I couldn't say no to Miracle. And Miracle couldn't say no to any hopeless cause.
"Memaw, tell me the story," I finally said.
I saw her lips turn up in a soft smile. "That old story?" She knew what story I meant. How many times had she told it? Maybe two hundred? Two thousand?
I took her hand, threading her bony fingers between mine, which were already larger and thicker than hers.
Excerpted from Up a Creek by Laura E. Williams. Copyright © 2001 Laura E. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Laura Williams comes from a family of strong women, like Starshine. She is the author of several acclaimed novels including The Ghost Stallion and Behind the Bedroom Wall, for which she received a Jane Addams Peace Award Honor. When she's not writing, Ms. Williams spends her time painting, drawing, and creating stained-glass. She lives in Avon, Ohio with her husband and two children.
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