Fowler, Lisa. Snakes & Stones
November 1st 2016 by Sky Pony Press
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central
Chestnut Hill's father is a traveling elixir (aka snake oil) salesman who travels around the south in 1921 trying to earn enough money to keep Chestnut and her triplet siblings Filbert, Hazelnut and Macadamia in food and clothing. This isn't easy, especially since the group is frequently run out of town by angry officers of the law who don't appreciate that there is an entertainment value in addition to the elixir. Chestnut is tired of traveling, and misses her mother dreadfully, and it doesn't help that she's not entirely sure why the family can't be with her mother. Joining the group is Abraham, a friend of her fathers who is black and has to deal with the prejudices of the time. When Chestnut steals a large amount of money from a general store, her father is eventually arrested and the children are put into foster homes. Will their mother come and retrieve them?
There are not too many books that cover the 1920s, which is a shame, since it was an interesting and diverse time. Snakes & Stones is a worthy entry to a short list that includes Long's Whistle in the Dark, Myers' Harlem Summer, and Fantaskey's Isabel Feeney: Star Reporter. It would be good to see more books on this era, since the best one is still the primary source Cheaper by the Dozen, the memoir by the Gilbreth children.
Chestnut is a concerned sister who is trying to care for her siblings the best she can, even if she does make some bad decisions in the process. Her longing for her mother is palpable and sweet, so readers should know that the resolution of the situation might be worrisome to younger readers-- Chestnut's mother does state that she doesn't want to raise the children. Still, the father is a strong support and is trying to do what he thinks best for his family.
Racial themes are apparent, and the father's equanimity about Abraham's background and in his own resistance to the societal expectations of the time are a nice touch. The treatment of African-Americans at the time isn't glossed over, but the group manages to work around as much as they can, which I imagine is the way that many people operated.
Snakes and Stones is a good choice for anyone who enjoyed the movie Paper Moon and want a family travel adventure set during an interesting and underappreciated time period.
I wish there had been less bad grammar (you know me and my tolerance for all things Southern) and more details about ordinary life at the time. I also don't think that Macadamia nuts would have been well enough known at the time for a family to name their child after them!