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.
About the Author
In another life I would probably be a short-order cook—flipping pancakes, whipping up cheese grits, frying eggs, microwaving soy sausages, making drop-biscuits, sectioning oranges and grapefruits, cutting up fresh pineapple, brewing coffee, pouring OJ. On weekends when my two older daughters, Maggie and Eva, were in middle and high school that’s what I did just about every Saturday and Sunday morning when their cheerleading squad or swim team or Odyssey of the Mind friends spent the night. And it’s what I still do most mornings with our younger daughters, Lili and Claire, while Janet, my wife, makes their school lunches. We’re all there together in our big kitchen with our dog, Greer, eating and talking and carrying on, reading the newspaper, cracking jokes, making bad puns, sharing plans for the day. It’s one of the most joyful things in my life. Well, that and getting to be a professor at a liberal arts college in Virginia, and teaching Ashtanga yoga, and helping Janet lead the religious education program at our local Unitarian Universalist Church.
And, of course, writing stories—something I’ve been doing my whole life. I used to get scared a lot at night when I was little, and my big brother Wayne would only let me sleep in his bed if I could make up stories good enough to entertain him. In my book Down Sand Mountain I wrote about that and a lot of other things that happened when we were growing up. It seems that everything I’ve ever done somehow ends up in my books. My work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate working with abused and neglected children helped me write about the foster care system in What Comes After. Some trouble I got into as a rebellious teenager is making its way into my next book, Juvie. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll even try writing a cookbook: The Short-Order Dad.
Three things you probably didn’t know about me:
1. I once played basketball in southern Sudan, on the bank of the Nile River, with members of the Dinka tribe, the world’s tallest people.
2. I once saw a UFO at the pyramids in Egypt, and I’m not making that up.
3. I once ran the Pike’s Peak Marathon, which starts at seven thousand feet and climbs to fourteen thousand: fourteen miles up, fourteen miles down.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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...
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.