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Trouble the Water


About The Book

From the award-winning author of Dovey Coe comes a “powerful” (School Library Journal) tale of the friendship between a black girl and a white boy and the prejudices they must overcome in segregated Kentucky as they try to solve the mystery surrounding a lonely old dog.

Eleven-year-old Callie is fearless, stubborn, and a little nosy. So when she sees an old yellow dog wandering around town by itself, you can bet she’s going to figure out who he belongs to. But when her sleuthing leads her to cross paths with a white boy named Wendell who wants to help, the segregated town doesn’t take too kindly to their budding friendship.

Meanwhile, a nearly invisible boy named Jim is stuck in a cabin in the woods. He’s lost his dog, but can’t remember exactly when his pup’s disappeared. When his companion, a little boy named Thomas, who’s been invisible much longer than he, explains that they are ghosts, the two must figure out why they can’t seem to cross the river to the other side just yet…

And as Callie and Wendell’s search for the old dog brings them closer and closer to the cabin in the woods, the simmering prejudices of the townspeople boil over.


Trouble the Water 1 The Old Dog
The dog was old and close to dying. He woke slowly now that he was back, the sun warming the ache out of his bones. He had a flickering thought that he’d like to fall asleep and never wake, but he couldn’t die until he knew the boy was safe. So every morning he pushed himself up and sniffed the air for the boy’s scent, and when he didn’t find any trace of it, he started for the river.

Most nights he slept on the woman’s porch, so that he could smell the river, hear the boy’s calls if they came. His first night back, he’d gone to his old house, but when he’d barked, no one had opened the door or called out, “Hey, pup, ready for dinner?” If the boy had been there, he would have answered.

He knew that the woman would give him scraps from the table in a bowl by the door when she saw him, and he knew that if he stayed too long, she’d try to claim him. She’d snapped a collar on him when he showed up the first time, but he’d complained so loudly that she’d finally taken it off. The old dog, like most dogs, couldn’t parse out the particulars of human speech, but he could make sense of what people were telling or asking him from the pitch of their voices, the firmness or wobble of their words, so he’d known the woman wanted him to stay when she’d said, “You’d like it here, I swear you would,” before she put the collar back on a peg just inside the doorway.

The woman lived in the house by herself. No other human smells mixed with hers, no onion stink of a man home from the fields, no sweet scent of a child fresh out of his bath, traces of soap still in his hair, an untouched patch of dirt behind his left ear. The old dog had lived close to humans when he was young, close to the boy, and could sniff one on the air. They each had a particular smell, and there was only one human smell around the woman’s house. It was a nice smell, a mix of river water and new grass and something sweet. The first small flowers of May. He didn’t have words for any of these things, but he knew them.

“Well, hey there, pup,” the woman greeted him now as she emerged from the doorway with a basket in her hand. “I see you stayed for breakfast. Look at you, so slow to get up. Bet you got the arthritis in your bones, old thing like you.”

He followed her around the corner of the house and through the garden gate. “Got to get your vegetables picked first thing of a morning,” the woman informed him as she set to work. “Bugs’ll eat you alive if you come out here at night, skeeters and no-see-ums, they’ll bite you all to pieces. Sun’ll burn you up, you come out at noon. No, first thing of a morning, that’s the best time. That’s when you get things at their freshest.”

As she talked, she pulled tomatoes and squash and cucumbers off their vines and put them in her basket. The old dog sniffed the vegetables without much interest. Sometimes the woman scrambled him a pan of eggs, and cooked a few slices of bacon, and at the last minute threw in leftovers from dinner the night before. He knew all he had to do was follow along as she did her morning chores and chatted to him. The old dog liked the woman. He didn’t mind waiting.

Breakfast this morning turned out to be fried liver mush and cold roasted potatoes. He gulped down the liver in two swallows and sniffed the air for more. “Sorry, pup, you got the last of it,” the woman told him. “Come back tonight, I might have some chicken for you. I’ll take out the bones first, lessen you choke.”

The old dog recognized the sound in her voice as something he’d been feeling so long now it was like a natural-born part of him. It was the sound of something—someone—missing. On his long journey home, his nose in the air, hunting for the boy’s scent, he’d let out a howl now and again, and you could hear that sound in his voice too.

After breakfast he left the woman’s house for the woods and the river, and was almost at the water when he heard a younger dog barking. How far away? Far enough that he couldn’t be sure what—or who—the younger dog was growling at. Maybe the old dog, but probably not. He understood other dogs even better than he understood humans. Still, he took cover.

When he sensed the danger was past, he slowly took to his feet again. Should he go back to the woman’s house, rest under the cool shade of her front porch? When the sun got low enough in the sky, she’d come out to keep him company, and he liked that, liked her voice as it went up and down and drifted through his dreams.

He was about to turn around when a feeling seized him, shot through his chest and around his ears like a winter wind. Follow the dog, the feeling told him. Sniffing the air, he understood. It wasn’t just a dog in the woods; the wind carried the scent of a boy. And though he knew it wasn’t his boy, maybe this boy could lead him to his boy.

The old dog was dying. He knew he was dying. He knew he didn’t have much time. He turned and headed deep into the woods.

Reading Group Guide

A Reading Group Guide to

Trouble the Water

By Frances O’Roark Dowell

About the Book

Eleven-year-old Callie is fearless, stubborn, and a little nosy. So when she sees an old yellow dog wandering around town by itself, you can bet she’s going to figure out who he belongs to. But when her sleuthing leads her to cross paths with a white boy named Wendell who wants to help, the segregated town doesn’t take too kindly to their budding friendship.

Meanwhile, a nearly invisible boy named Jim is stuck in a cabin in the woods. He’s lost his dog, but can’t remember exactly when his pup’s disappeared. When his companion, a little boy named Thomas, who’s been invisible much longer than he, explains that they are ghosts, the two must figure out why they can’t seem to cross the river to the other side just yet . . ..

As Callie and Wendell’s search for the old dog brings them closer and closer to the cabin in the woods, the simmering prejudices of the townspeople boil over.

Trouble the Water is a story that spans lifetimes, showing that history never truly disappears, and that the past will haunt us until we step up to change the present and stand together for what is right.

Discussion Questions

1. Trouble the Water takes place in Celeste, Kentucky. Describe the setting of the story.

2. Characterize Callie. How does she first encounter the old dog and why is she interested in him?

3. Describe how Callie and Wendell meet. Do they become friends at first?

4. Who is Carl Jr.? Discuss his role in the story and his relationship with Callie.

5. Describe the cabin. Why are Callie and Wendell interested in it? What lore surrounds the cabin?

6. Discuss how Callie and Wendell are alike and how they are different. Use evidence to support your discussion.

7. Jim is "nearly invisible." Discuss what has happened to him. Does Buddy recognize him? Explain.

8. Who is Mr. Renfrow? Why does he want to help Callie?

9. Callie and Wendell develop a friendship. How does their friendship create unrest in the community? Are either of them concerned about how they are viewed by those in the community?

10. The author uses a third-person point of view in telling the story. What advantage does this offer the story? Reference examples in your response.

11. Identify one of the story’s themes. Explain how the author develops the theme by using evidence from the text.

12. Define segregation. Reference examples of segregation in the story. In what ways do Callie and Wendell defy community expectations?

13. Why does Callie take Wendell with her to visit Jim's mother? How does Jim’s mother respond to the news about Buddy?

14. How does Jim end up living in the cabin? Why does he stay there? Why does he never return to his home?

15. What historical background does the novel provide about race relations? Is racial tension an issue in society today?

Extension Activities

1. Create a character map of either Callie or Wendell. Use evidence from the text to identify key words that describe either character. Share your final product with the class.

2. Identify the time period of the story. Then investigate race relations in rural communities at this time. Prepare a media presentation or essay that explains ways in which the book paints a historical picture of this time period.

3. An epilogue is a follow-up to a book that serves to “wrap up” aspects of a story that are not resolved by story’s end. Reread the last scenes that involve Buddy and Jim; then write an epilogue in which Jim and Buddy are reunited. Share your epilogue with others in your class.

4. Talk with others in your community and identify a piece of local folklore, legend, or little known history. Conduct your own investigative reporting surrounding the topic and write up a newspaper article detailing what you find. You might, instead, work as a class to develop a website or wiki page where you can host multiple pieces of community folklore and history.

5. Personification is a literary element in which human qualities are given to objects, animals, or ideas. Identify a favorite scene in the story featuring Buddy. Rewrite that scene from Buddy’s perspective using first-person point of view.

Guide written in 2016 by Pam B. Cole, Ph.D., Associate Dean and Professor of English Education and Literacy, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

About The Author

Photograph (c) Clifton Dowell

Frances O’Roark Dowell is the bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Dovey Coe, which won the Edgar Award and the William Allen White Award; Where I’d Like to BeThe Secret Language of Girls and its sequels The Kind of Friends We Used to Be and The Sound of Your Voice, Only Really Far AwayChicken BoyShooting the Moon, which was awarded the Christopher Award; the Phineas L. MacGuire series; Falling InThe Second Life of Abigail Walker, which received three starred reviews; Anybody Shining; Ten Miles Past NormalTrouble the Water; the Sam the Man series; The ClassHow to Build a Story; and most recently, Hazard. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. Connect with Frances online at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books (May 3, 2016)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481424639
  • Grades: 4 - 8
  • Ages: 9 - 13
  • Lexile ® 920L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

In sleepy Celeste, KY, to “trouble the water” means to “stir the pot.” That’s something its residents never do, which is why blacks and whites live quietly—and separately—in one town. But it’s 1953, and trouble is inevitable when the new public swimming pool has a whites-only policy, and Cassie, who is black, and Wendell, who is white, strike up a friendship while following a mysterious old dog. The children know they’re not supposed to be seen together, but the dog leads them to an irresistible discovery: a dilapidated cabin with a ghostly presence tied to the town’s abolitionist history. The novel’s easy pace reflects the tempo of the rural, small-town setting. Dowell’s uncluttered prose beautifully evokes Celeste’s dusty streets and wooded paths. Dramatic, though without physical injuries or extreme violence, the climax hints at the conflicts yet to come in the struggle for civil rights. Cassie is a bright, courageous 11-year-old, unafraid to challenge convention: readers can see her growing influence on Wendell as he starts to question the status quo. Uniting the novel’s two narrative threads—the cabin’s ghosts and the unlikely friends—is the old dog, Buddy. VERDICT Patient readers will appreciate this quiet but powerful story about a time in American history when even the smallest ripple in the water could cause a stir.

– School Library Journal, March 2016

It’s1953, and although race relations in the small town of Celeste, Ky., seemsmooth, tensions bubble below the surface. When an 11-year-old black girl,Callie Robinson, starts following a stray dog, she crosses paths with WendellCrow, a white boy her age who is looking for an abandoned cabin his father usedto visit. An uneasy friendship blossoms as they begin to search for Jim, a boywhose name is carved into the cabin and who Callie is sure has a connection tothe dog. Meanwhile Jim, a ghost who hasn’t yet realized that he’s dead, isunsure how he ended up in the cabin, which is also inhabited by another child’sghost whose past ties to the cabin’s history as part of the Underground Railroad.Dowell (Anybody Shining) shifts focus among these and other characters,sensitively examining the ways that injustices past and present take a toll oncommunities and individuals. The consequences of taking a stand against racistattitudes are portrayed with realistic complexity as Dowell builds to aconclusion that offers glimmers of hope without sugarcoating the persistence ofprejudice. Ages 9–13.

– Publishers Weekly, March 14, 2016

It's 1953 in Celeste,Kentucky, and 11-year-old Callie Robinson wants to report news for the localblack newspaper, the Advance. Wendell Crow is quite the opposite; the white boyspends his summer days by the river, hoping no one will notice him.When Calliegoes in search of a stray dog and Wendell tries to find an old cabin said to behidden in the woods, the two children inevitably cross paths and join forces.Both cabin and dog lead Callie and Wendell to learn about a white boy whodrowned in the river some years prior. The third-person narration alternatesits focus primarily between Callie and Wendell but also includes Mr. Renfrow, theAdvance's editor, and two ghosts: the drowned boy and an enslaved child whodied there heading north. The inclusion of the ghosts stresses the importanceof remembering the past, but unfortunately, they dilute the urgency of thepresent-day plot. Segregated Celeste's balance depends on not "troublingthe water," but Callie and Wendell's mystery plays out against Mr.Renfrow's call for the integration of the town swimming pool; both lead toviolence. Dowell writes a quiet story that largely relies on metaphor andindirection to guide its readers. Callie is limned with bold strokes: she isbrave, feisty, and determined. While Wendell too is drawn broadly—he oftendefaults to period-typical stereotyping about race and gender, but he also hasan intrinsic sense of fairness—he is given more of a character arc, asexpressed when Mr. Renfrow tells Callie that Wendell is only just learning whatit means to be "an eyewitness to injustice." The conclusion leavesCallie and Wendell's, and Celeste's, story unresolved.Readers who identify withWendell may feel a call to action; those who identify with Callie may just beexasperated at the inaction. (Historical fiction. 9-12)

– Kirkus Reviews, 4/15/16

Life seems simple in Celeste, Kentucky, in 1953. Whites and blacks get along only because they leave each other alone, and strangers are noticed. An old yellow dog has shown up in town, and Callie, 11 and black, decides to find his owner, hoping to turn the story into an article for the local newspaper. She meets Wendell, a white boy her age, and the two discover an old cabin where, Callie knows, runaway slaves used to hide. Here the dog finds what he is looking for: the ghost of his former master, Jim, a boy who drowned several years earlier. With him is the ghost of Thomas, one of the runaway slaves. But as Callie’s investigation heats up, so does the anger of one of Wendell’s acquaintances, unhappy with the mixed-race friendship. While most novels of this era focus on integration and the violence of race relations, this novel—part historical fiction, part ghost story—has a gentler touch and could be used to springboard conversations about the time period. — Suanne Roush

– Booklist, May 1, 2016

Callie, Wendell, Jim and Thomasare four children in 1950s Celeste, Ky., who are linked by an old goldenretriever, and not much else. Plucky would-be newspaper reporter Callie is an11-year-old black girl itching for adventure but not finding much, until thatunfamiliar yellow dog starts hanging around town. Wendell is a white boy abouther age, burning with curiosity about an old cabin in the woods where hisfather used to play. Jim, who inhabits that cabin, is another white boy,mystified by his seeming invisibility and strange ability to pass throughwalls. He can't remember how long he's been like this--he doesn't feel dead--or why hegets such a sick feeling when he comes close to the Ohio River. Thomas, thespirit of a once-enslaved black boy who's been in the cabin even longer thanJim, is waiting for someone to "carry me across the river, so I can meetmy folks on the other side."

The stories of these four children wend their way toward each other like thepoison ivy-strewn paths through the woods surrounding the cabin. Despite herolder brother's question, "You know there ain't no ghosts, don'tyou?" Callie is sure the cabin must be haunted: "That place feltfunny. Felt cold and, well, occupied."Callie and Wendell work together to get to the root of the ever-expandingmystery about the cabin, the agitated yellow dog and a boy who drowned a longtime ago. Callie knows a part of the mystery that Wendell doesn't: that thecabin was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.

The town of Celeste is not ready for a black girl and a white boy to walk downthe street together, let alone join forces, nor are they ready for an actionthe black newspaper is advocating--to integrate the local swimming pool.Because of the "uneasy peace between white and colored in Celeste,"people don't like to "trouble the water." The feeling of injustice isold news to Callie in this "mean old world," but Wendell is juststarting to wake up to the sting of it. As both characters ponder whetheranything can be done to make a difference, their viewpoints evolve.

Frances O'Roark Dowell (DoveyCoe; ChickenBoy; the Secret Language of Girls trilogy) has written a spooky,slow-burning, multi-layered novel, with lively and pitch-perfect dialoguereminiscent of Harper Lee's ToKill a Mockingbird. The unsettled spirits of Jim and Thomas overlapin the cabin, neither boy ready to cross the proverbial--and literal--river toallow their spirits finally to rest. They are only freed, ironically, by theactions of a town ignited by prejudice. Callie and Wendell--troubled spirits intheir own right--form a near-friendship based on what they can share, with acautious hope for a future without boundaries between black and white.

Shelf Talker:In Frances O'Roark Dowell's novel, a feisty black girl and a wary white boycome together in a racially tense 1950s Kentucky town.

– Shelf Awareness, 4/20/16

Awards and Honors

  • CBC/NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book
  • Bank Street Best Books of the Year

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