On Snowden Mountain

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 07 Jan 2020

Member Reviews

This World War 2 story set in the American Appalachian Mountains is a quiet, moving tale of families at home. Twelve-year-old Ellen knows enough to call for help after her Dad leaves for the War and her Mom won't get out of bed. What she didn't realize is that Aunt Pearl will insist on moving both of them from Baltimore to Snowden Mountain. She doesn't want to move, and yet there is no alternative.
Ellen goes through a bit of culture shock. The mountain world is new and backward to her: outhouses, the one-room schoolhouse, and the lack of electricity are just the beginning. Nearly everything is different from her life so far.
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Jeri Watts begins her book, On Snowden Mountain, with her 12-year-old protagonist Ellen out of options since she had burned up every pot and pan and used up all the groceries and credit at the store. Since her father volunteered for WWII and her mother has retreated into depression, she has no choice but to call in help from Aunt Pearl who whisks her and her mother away from Baltimore to Snowden Mountain – definitely not what she had in mind when she called for aid. 

The Appalachian setting and the people in it, strange to Ellen at first, set a place for her to learn that other people struggle in ways that are equally as hard as hers. The treatment of her mother’s mental illness by concealing it rings true to the time and place as does her keeping to herself the worry that she will inherit the trait.  Feeling out of place in the community where everybody knows everybody else and gossips about her family, she forms an unlikely friendship with Russell who is truant from the one-room school to hunt for skunks more often than he attends. He, too, is an outsider, a big kid also ridiculed because he hasn’t learned to read or cipher because of his absences. 

Russell and his mother, both abused by his father, show surprising strengths as well as weaknesses as the mother uses folk medicines and gentle talk to help Ellen’s mother and Russell shows a surprising talent and teaches Ellen about nature as she helps him with reading and numbers. 

On Snowden Mountain is a well-told quiet story for a middle schooler who likes realistic historical fiction set in a place and time that’s a little different. The ending doesn’t tie all up in a happily-ever-after place, but leaves the possibilities open for better times.
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While this book covered a lot of important topics and handled them in a sensitive manner, I am not sure who the target audience is. The subject matter is quite mature for younger readers and would better fit a YA audience.
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Jeri Watts’ On Snowden Mountain is a compassionate look at life when times are difficult and even harsh. It is a book of depth with many complexities that are not spelled out to the readers but given to them to think on just as Ellen had to do much thinking. 

WWII Snowden, Virginia is much different from the world today but the issues of parental separation, a sense of belonging, alcoholism, abuse, mental illness and prejudice is still just as current. Seeing through Ellen’s eyes and heart, we see what she observes, feels and begins to understand about people, actions and family. Perhaps as she finds her strength and place others can learn from her to find their own.

As an elementary school educator, I had thought from the cover that perhaps this would be s book for fourth to fifth graders but it is definitely a middle school maturity level story. Younger readers may not find the events disturbing but instead it may just go over their heads without any real thought as they read. Also the ending is abrupt leaving one wishing to know what happens at the end of the train ride with Ellen and her family but likewise with Russell and his mother. Perhaps the author wishes to leave that to our imagination but, boy, would I like to see these characters five or six years from when the book ended.

5 Middle School Stars
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I have come to trust a select number of publishers for their consistently good books.  One of those I particlarly trust is Candlewick Press, the publisher of  On Snowden Mountain, written by Jeri Watts.

Watts has crafted a tale of depth, touching on themes of loneliness, being an outsider, family dynamics, mental illness, and the affects of war. The main character, Ellen, at only twelve is left in charge of her ailing mother when her father voluntarily enlists in the military. When resources run out and she has nowhere else to turn, Ellen seeks out the help of her Aunt Pearl.

With Pearl helping to care for Ellen's mother, Ellen is able to enroll in school. But what a school! Ellen can't help comper her previous, modern, city school with the sub-par offering in the rural community where Aunt Pearl lives--it's like stepping back into the dark ages! Just imagine going from indoor plumbing to an outhouse and having to share one teacher for multiple grades!  

Ellen soon finds out that people can learn to create their own happiness and it doesn't depend on where you live or who you live with.  Ellen learns more about her mother's upbringing and comes to appreciate the strength and compassion (hidden below the surface) of her Aunt Pearl. And most importantly, Ellen finds out that friendship isn't always about what you can get, but what you can give.

This was a beautifully crafted tale about a girl who learns that while she can't change her circumstances, she can learn to rise above them.  Who would have thought that Ellen would learn so many life lessons on Snowden Mountain? 

Disclaimer: I received a free digital copy of On Snowden Mountain for the purpose of review. No other compensation was received.
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Candlewick Press is releasing some excellent titles. On Snowden Mountain is no exception. It's a heartfelt novel full of complex issues handled very sympathetically for its middle grade audience.

This WWII-set book starts with 12-year-old Ellen Hollingsworth, whose Aunt Pearl takes her and her mother to Snowden, Virginia, from their home in Baltimore. Ellen's father has proudly signed up for the war and her mother has retreated too far into herself to care for either of them. It's not easy to adjust to simple this way of life: there's no electricity and she's got a classmate who smells of skunks. But as she worries that she will fall to the same depression that has claimed her mom, she finds a way for both of them to find themselves.

Jeri Watts introduces the reader to some heavy topics here: alcoholism, abuse (both child and spousal), and mental illness (depression notably, and how children are forced to grapple with what befalls their parents), but they're dealt with deftly and certainly there are so many children dealing with these issues that it's a timely and important novel. In the book, it's Russell and Ellen dealing with them specifically, and both kids display a good amount of agency in handling their troubles responsibly and thoughtfully.

Ellen herself is a great character. She is not without her flaws--she's at first ungrateful to have been taken in by her aunt (and her decision to have Thanksgiving with Moselle instead of her family highlights this) and she treats Russell very badly at first, but she learns to grow and you can't help but love her.

I would absolutely recommend this book to a variety of readers: those who love historical fiction, those struggling with any of the issues that appear here, or anyone looking for a darn good story. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Candlewick Press for providing this review copy.
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What a beautiful book filled with love and friendship. Jeri Watts pulls you into the book with her well-developed characters. Through hardship and family struggles, Ellen discovers who she is. Depression and dealing with it in one's family is a main theme of the book. Ellen grows throughout the story, learning many lessons along the way. I  definitely recommend this book to others.
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So lovely!

I felt a gentle emotional pull all the way through to the end for Ellen and loved watching her grow. Snowden Mountain is a warm place for young readers to visit, a place where beauty, love, and friendship wait to welcome them as soon as they step off the boat.
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