Title: Snakes and Stones
Author: Lisa Fowler
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Pub. Date: November 1st, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade
Twelve-year-old Chestnut Hill’s daddy stole her and the triplets away from their mama. At least, that’s how Chestnut remembers it.
It’s 1921, and after nearly two years on the road with his traveling elixir show, Daddy’s still making no move to go back to Kentucky and buy Mama that house. So Chestnut is forced to come up with her own plan to get home. At night, when Daddy and the triplets are in bed, she draws up flyers with the name of the next town they’ll be traveling to. Before they leave each town and hoping her mama will see them, she nails up the flyers, leaving Mama an easy trail straight to her children.
When that doesn’t work, Chestnut is forced to try something bigger. But when her newest plan lands Daddy in jail and Mama has to come to the rescue, Chestnut discovers that things are not always as they seem. Written with a wonderful mountain hillbilly voice, Snakes and Stones has a mystery at its heart and lovable, strong, and complicated characters.
EXCERPT: Stealing Money and Telling Lies
There hasn’t been a traveling salesman in this neck of the woods in more than two years; that’s what some in the crowd are saying. You’d think the folks in this Podunk town would be happy we’ve come, but they’re not. Matter of fact, by the sound of the ruckus, they’re fixing to run us out of the county. Maybe even clean off the map.
“Charlatans! Snake oil peddlers! Hoodlums! Swindlers!”
They’re mad, I tell you, and getting madder by the minute.
They’re brash and loud with their shouts, thrashing our wagon with sticks and branches, slinging stones that thump and thud and make hollow sounds against the old wooden red and white circus wagon.
Chestnut Hill, keep them babies inside!” Daddy hollers. Around us, we hear crashing as the elixir bottles stacked on the side of the wagon shatter.
I’m crouched in the corner of the wagon, huddled on top of the triplets the same way a mother hen would gather her brood up and under her wings for protection—way too much responsibility for an ordinary twelve-year-old in a dirty, torn dress, frumpled hair, and shoes with holes in them the size of Missouri. Especially a girl that’s been snatched from her mama against her will.
The wagon shimmies like warm jelly when Daddy slams the wooden flap down on the side, and it makes me feared that the wooden pegs holding it together will pop clean out of their grooves at any second. With one swift thud, he shoves the bolt across the flap, and takes off running, his black patent leather shoes making a slapping sound against the weathered brick pavers of the street. If there ever was a doubt, it’s gone now. We’re up to our earlobes in trouble.
My leg muscles ache from wanting to run. With every stone and bottle and stick that’s hurled and bounced off the side of the wagon, I jump and dodge worse than a late-evening gnat being chased by an angry hand, same as I would if I was on the outside and every last one of them was hurled straight toward me.
I hear those familiar shoe slaps again and know Daddy’s close, and as much as it pains me to admit it, just the thought brings me comfort.
Breathing deep comes easier too as I hear Daddy’s voice offering up some soothing words to our horse, Old Stump. I reckon surely the wagon will rock from side to side as he climbs aboard and plops down on the wooden seat behind her, but it don’t. Daddy is still on the ground with the mob, and that shoves fear even deeper into my belly.
Fuzzy-headed Hazel—stubborn as a donkey knee-deep in a manure patch and still way too much a baby at seven—is sobbing again, only this time them sobs aren’t silent. This time they’re weeping and wailing sobs. Sobs to wake up all the corpses in the graveyard sobs. Moaning, howling, blubbering bawls of sobs.
Makes me want to slap the sob right out of her.
But I don’t.
I’m not a slapper.
Chestnut, you’re smothering me!” Mac says with a lisp that I reckon he’ll never outgrow.
Hush up, you. You’ll think smothering if that angry mob turns us over and spills us out,” I say, trying as best I can to hold to the wooden walls and protect the triplets. “They’ll beat the living tarnation out of the lot of us if they get their hands on us.”
“I don’t care. I can’t breathe!”
I pull back just enough to let in a bit of air but still hold them close
We didn’t do nothing wrong!” Hazel throws her head back and wails.
“Humph! We did too,” I say, soft enough so’s only a bedbug could hear. “We stole their money and told them lies.”
Without some sort of help, Daddy alone with that mob don’t stand a chance. Filbert must have thought it too because just at that second he breaks my grip, jumps to his feet, and eyes the door.
“Where are you going?” I holler.
Filbert, with his autumn leaf–brown hair and eyes the color of a stormy sky, moves closer to the door. Tears as big as baseballs roll the length of his dimpled cheeks.
“Daddy needs help. Can’t you hear them people? They’ll kill him!”
“Get back here!” I snatch for him even though he’s well beyond my grasp. “I said get back here now! Filbert!”
“Let me be, Chestnut,” he yells, his eyes wide and darting back and forth.
With arms flailing and teeth clenched, he’s more a caged animal than a worried boy in back of a wagon. Mama always said he was blessed with more guts than brains, and I reckon he’s proving that more with each passing day.
“You didn’t see their faces like I did,” he says. “If we don’t help, Daddy’s sure to take a walloping from that mob.”
He swipes at a cheek with his sleeve but does nothing about the leaking from his nose threatening to sneak past his lips and into his mouth. Slinging wide the double doors, he bolts like lightning down the steps, his mission-bag shirt untucked and wrinkled like he’s slept in it a month, and his pants practically threadbare at the knees.
Instantly I know my hide’s going to catch the devil from Daddy, but there’s nothing I can do now ’cept stand here crouching, trying to protect the other two.
Straining to hear, I can pick out Filbert’s war whoops from among the crowd. If I’d ever wished to be in two places at once it’s now, but wishing never did make things so. I’ll just have to hope and pray that Filbert has the good sense to take care of himself out there.
And as for Daddy, I say let him take a walloping. It might just do him good. Anyway, it serves him right for forcing us to help with his lying, cheating schemes.
But just as quick as those thoughts come to sloshing around in my head, even more thoughts come beating down the door to my heart.
Chestnut Hill, that’s your daddy out there. That crowd’ll kill him if they get the chance, and now’s their chance. What in the world are you thinking? Get up off this floor and help your poor old daddy right now!
Mama says the worst thing a body can be is conflicted, and with both the good and the bad thoughts sloshing together in my brain, I reckon you could say that conflicted is exactly what I am. Reckon all that’s left is to figure out which of them conflicting thoughts to listen to—the head thoughts, or the heart’s.
“Stay here!” I shout, jumping up and flinging an outstretched finger toward trembling Mac and blubbering Hazel.
Stopping just inside the doors of the wagon, I hesitate, studying the lay of the land. To the left, under the wide open arms of a stubby young sycamore, a crowd is gathered like angry bees around a hive. There are even children watching.
With angry fists shoved into the air, they’re hollering loud and stirring up the pot. In the dusky light of early evening, even a blind groundhog could see these folks are out for blood.
The men are wadded—on the ground—flopping around on top of each other like fresh-strung fish on a creek bank, dirt flying out from among them like dust storming the prairie.
And Filbert? Well, I don’t yet see my brother, but knowing him like I do, I’d say he’s right down in the thick of things, in the middle of that filthy wad.
All of a sudden and just as I’m about to jump from the wagon, one of those wadded floppers comes up for a breath of fresh air. Good thing, too, otherwise I might never have laid eyes on my brother—hanging on for dear life with one hand gripped to the back of that man’s shirt, clobbering him in the head and hollering, “You get off my daddy right now!”
Clearly the man’s a discombobulated mess, but Filbert’s hanging on, the same as he would if he was being bucked by a wild horse.
Jumping off the back of the wagon, I scoop up the first stick with a promise.
I’m taking out wadded floppers faster than a bullfrog sucking up skeeters, and every single one I swat stands up, grabs his head, and staggers around like he’s not got a clue of what’s hit him.
Just as I pull way back on my stick, searching for my next flopper, something grabs hold to my arm.
GUEST POST: Lisa Fowler, SNAKES & STONES
“Why did you choose to write Snakes and Stones?”
Thank you for asking, that’s a great question.
Chestnut Hill’s story began with nothing more than a great character, and like so many stories, characters often whisper to us in the wee hours of the night and shout to us through the noise of the day. Chestnut would not let me rest until I put pen to paper and wrote her story down.
The Hill family – Daddy and his little nut farm: twelve year old Chestnut and seven year old triplets Hazel (Hazelnut), Filbert, and Mac (Macadamia) – spend most of their time in an old circus wagon, traveling throughout the south, selling elixir and making music.
Chestnut watches and learns at the feet of a father she doesn’t much care for because she believes he’s snatched her and her triplet siblings away from their mother and the chance at a loving, happy home.
Once they meet up with an old friend, Abraham, their music and story really begins to resonate with “the folks” and the shifty business of a Snake-Oil salesman begins to take on new life. It’s not until Abraham hints to Chestnut that daddy’s clinging to secrets; secrets that Chestnut doesn’t want to believe, that she begins to grapple with the bad choices she’s made.
In order to put her broken family back together Chestnut wrestles with guilt, her conscience, and with things as she believes them to be. It’s safe to say that she learns a valuable lesson in the meantime: Things are not always as they seem to be.
Geared for ages seven and beyond, Snakes and Stones is really a must-read for anyone who loves a fast-paced story full of humor, mystery, and love. At its core Snakes and Stones is a story about family and the struggles faced when children are at odds with their parents. Now more than ever I believe that this struggle between parents and children is something most families can relate to.
Thank you for having me and I hope you enjoy reading Snakes and Stones.