Whistle in the Dark

Whistle in the Dark

5.0 1
by Susan Hill Long

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Clem wants a dog for his thirteenth birthday, but what he gets is a miner's cap. It is the 1920s in Leadanna, Missouri, and Clem must become a man, leaving school and joining Pap in the lead mines--money is tight in the Harding household. Meanwhile, Lindy, whose face bears a scar from an accident that left her motherless, is forced to help her abusive father sell


Clem wants a dog for his thirteenth birthday, but what he gets is a miner's cap. It is the 1920s in Leadanna, Missouri, and Clem must become a man, leaving school and joining Pap in the lead mines--money is tight in the Harding household. Meanwhile, Lindy, whose face bears a scar from an accident that left her motherless, is forced to help her abusive father sell moonshine. As Clem searches for another way to support his family, the two become friends. Then disaster strikes: a death, a mining accident, and then a tornado. In the aftermath, Lindy takes advantage of her chance to flee Leadanna, and Clem is torn between following her and staying behind to help his family. This beautifully written coming-of-age novel shines with true characters, a vivid setting, and heart-felt relationships.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 09/30/2013
Long, the author of several early readers, reaches out to older children in this dignified and supple middle-grade story. In 1920s Leadanna, Mo., bookish 13-year-old Clem Harding is yanked out of school to work in the local lead mines. Clem dreads the prospect of sharing the depressing fate of his grandfather, who continues to suffer from mining-related illnesses: "There was nothing about the mine that would ever change Clem's first impression: it was a busy little hell straight out of the Bible." While Clem fantasizes about escaping the mine, his reality is stark: his family is poor, and his younger sister's epilepsy is a constant worry. Circumstances begin to appear less bleak when he adopts a stray dog and befriends an optimistic outsider named Lindy who sells moonshine with her dangerous father. Long writes with modest restraint, never drifting into sentimentality or overpowering the story with historical details, while remaining squarely centered in the story's time and place. The novel sings with graceful recurring motifs, true emotions, and devastating observations about the beauty that can be found in the darkest hours. Ages 8–12. (Sept.)
Children's Literature - Peg Glisson
Clem's thirteenth birthday is his last day in school. Against his wishes, his "present" is a life in the mines, although what he really wants is a dog. He hates the idea of mining but his sense of loyalty and responsibility lead him to acquiesce, for he understands his family's need for money. His younger sister's epilepsy medicine is costly and his grandfather's "miner's consumption" prevents his working anymore. He dreams and schemes to find another way to bring in some money, even selling moonshine with his friend Lindy. Theirs is an unusual friendship—tentative at first but evolving into something much deeper. Lindy understands Clem's pain and despair as she was abandoned by her mother and is abused by her father; yet, like Clem, dreams of something better. Clem's dream is to leave Leadanna, MO and be a writer, and he is good at writing. He weaves stories for his sister, then for Lindy, as a distraction for each of them and for himself. When disaster strikes his town, Clem comes to terms with his place in the world, yet miraculously begins to find a way to satisfy everyone's needs. Long's beautifully crafted writing earned her the Katherine Paterson Prize; she has created a memorable cast of characters, most with flaws and good qualities, and a setting easily imagined. Historically, the book is mostly accurate. Child labor laws were in existence but often ignored in small mining towns; workers' compensation laws were in effect in many states by 1920; a huge tornado did strike in 1925. However, the Fujita scale for rating tornadoes was not introduced until 1971, making the reference to a F-5 tornado inaccurate. An author's note addresses her using the name of a real town for her Ozark hamlet. Readers will relate to Clem's sense of inevitability and powerlessness; they too often ponder the day they will quit being a child. Reviewer: Peg Glisson
School Library Journal
Gr 4–8—Thirteen-year-old Clem lives in Leadanna, Missouri, in the 1920s. He's a good student who likes to make up stories for his sister and who dreams of a life beyond his small mining town. Money is tight, so when his father pulls him out of school and hands him a miner's cap, Clem sees his hopes of getting an education fade when he joins the other men who make a living working underground. After tragedy strikes, he becomes the only one able to provide for his family. Faced with difficult situations (including the temptation to join a moonshine operation, his sister's epilepsy, and other challenges), Clem grows up quickly. With the help of a friend who must handle many hardships of her own, and the unexpected appearance of a faithful stray dog, Clem is able to find a way to make his dreams come true. This novel offers readers a look at the hardships found in American mining communities. An author's note clarifies the factual events interspersed in the story. Well-developed characters, rapid plot development, and interesting scenes make this a debut that will appeal to reluctant readers.—Denise Moore, O'Gorman Junior High School, Sioux Falls, SD
Kirkus Reviews
A sadly flawed premise undermines Long's debut novel, early chapters of which won the Katherine Paterson prize. On his 13th birthday, Clemson joins his father in the depths of their small Missouri town's lead mine. Clem hates mining, but his grandfather's disability due to "miner's consumption" and doctor bills from his sister's epilepsy mean his family needs the money he'll earn. Despite the manifest need, every day he hopes his Pap will release him, just as every week Grampy writes to the mining company in hopes of "compensation." The writing is at times lovely, and it charts Clem's emotional state with precision. His relationship with Esther and friendship with a bootlegger's daughter are particularly touching. Unfortunately, that clarity does not extend to the actual mining, which, though Clem clearly hates it, is never made real for readers. He descends with a shovel; he "mucks" for ore; he ascends. More seriously, Long's story is anachronistic in both directions: The characters have 21st-century sensibilities, even as Clem seems to live by 19th-century rules. Unlike in the 1800s, in 1924, when the story begins, Missouri state law prohibited mines from employing anyone under age 16. And as there is evidently no union nor any clear precedent, Grampy's expectation of compensation for his lung disease seems highly unlikely. The at times lyrical writing cannot compensate for the flawed history. (Historical fiction. 8-12)

Product Details

Holiday House, Inc.
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Sales rank:
740L (what's this?)
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Meet the Author

Susan Hill Long has worked as an editor and has written several award-winning books for beginning readers. Her honors include Bank Street College Best Books and the Katherine Patterson Prize. She lives in Oregon with her husband and two daughters. She was inspired to write this, her first novel, when she heard Garrison Keillor, on his program The Writer's Almanac, talk about a group of men working deep underground in the mines, unaware of anything out of the ordinary happening on the surface until the power went off and they climbed through the darkness to discover above the total destruction of their town. This was the great Tri-State Tornado of 1925, which plays a crucial role in Whistle in the Dark.

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Whistle in the Dark 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
rlulic More than 1 year ago
This is an exceptional book. The story is engaging and moving, and the writing is beautiful. I cannot recommend this enough, especially if you liked Tiger Rising or October Sky. One of my all-time favorite children's books.