Trouble the Water by Frances O’Roark Dowell

In 1953, in a small town in Kentucky, an 11-year-old black girl named Callie sees an old dog wandering near the river for days. She wants to find out who he is and where he belongs. Meanwhile, a white boy of the same age named Wendell decides to look for an old cabin in the woods that his father has told him he played in as a child. The two children cross paths and find the cabin together. Callie has heard stories that the cabin was used to help runaway slaves hide as they attempted to cross the river to gain their freedom. Inside the cabin, the children find the name Jim carved into the wood. Callie, stubborn, bold, and inquisitive, decides to investigate the cabin, the dog, and the name Jim further. This leads to the discovery of a boy drowned in the river 10 years ago whose dog was thought to have drowned with him. Callie believes the dog she has found is Jim’s dog, still looking for him. The reader also meets the spirit of Jim, trapped between here and heaven and not quite sure that he is dead, as well as the spirit of another boy, Thomas, a runaway slave who died in the cabin. Thomas has not crossed over because he is waiting for his family to come and get him. Callie and Wendell form a tentative friendship, both knowing that black and white are not supposed to be friends in their small town. While they are investigating the past, the town is presently in a state of tension because of an article in the black newspaper suggesting that the new town swimming pool be open to blacks and not white only. All these events, past and present, draw in Callie and Wendell. Touching on friendship, loyalty, loss, and the issue of race inequality, this is a moving book that will touch children and introduce them in an age-appropriate manner to the issues that led to the Civil Rights Movement. We can see that Callie will one day be leading the charge for civil rights; Wendell is not quite there yet, but he will be. He is willing to stick his neck out for Callie and he believes in fairness. The book shows how one person can make a difference, or at least do their part; otherwise there would never be change. The book is also a lovely homage to the loyalty of dogs to their people, showing us how Jim’s dog would not give up until he found Jim and helped him move on. This is a beautiful story, tender, with moments of sadness, but leaving the reader with an uplifted feeling.


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