Darkness Under the Water

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2008-11-11
  • Publisher: Candlewick
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This gripping, ultimately hopeful tale of an Abenaki-French Canadian girl in 1920s Vermont explores a dark episode in New England history. Just as the waters of a river roar through her town, Molly Ballou's life is riding on a swift current, where change comes faster than a spring flood. As a half - Abenaki Indian, half - French Canadian girl in Vermont, Molly is slowly realizing that her family and others like them are being targeted by a governmental effort to rid the state of so-called "poor citizens." Not only is Molly facing discrimination, but she is also haunted by the ghostly presence of her drowned older sister and her grieving mother's evasive love. Curious about her family's traditions, Molly finds herself drawn to Henry, an Abenaki boy whose connection to the natural world provides solace when Molly's mother tragically loses a baby and grows increasingly ill. With Henry's support, sorrow gradually gives way to the joy of self-discovery and allows Molly to look beyond hardship to a future of promise.

Author Biography

Beth Kanell is a poet and author of several travel and local history books. For this book, her first novel, she drew on family stories of farming and seafaring, a neighbor's tales of his Abenaki heritage, and the discovery that part of her own town, in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, had vanished underwater. She lives in Waterford, Vermont.


There is nothing I like about April.

Here in Waterford, Vermont, at least the snow stops, and the days are bright, if they're sunny days. But mostly they are not sunny in April. They are gray, and cold, and I don't care how many daffodils my mother says are open in the garden or how many vases my grandmother fills with pussy willows cut from the scrubby bushes by the river.

Because the river itself fills all of April.

It rains for days here, hard enough to wash the soiled banks of snow away from the muddy roads. Everything smells like rain. Not the soft summer smell of damp fields, and not the hiss of rain that rides onthunderclouds. But wet, moldy, unforgiving rain that leaks through the roof, seeps under the doors, turns clothing musty and books soft and woolen coats endlessly damp and stinking of sheep.

Worst of all, when it rains all through April, the river thrashes and churns with froth and logs and power. It roars and crashes and I hear it all through the town, in school, at home, and especially all night in my bedroom, in the darkness. And I think about Gratia, who was my older sister that I never met. I think of her light brown curls, like the one in Mama's dresser drawer. I think about how she got up early on Easter morning sixteen years ago, in 1914. It was an early Easter , in a year when I wasn't born yet. But almost. Gratia got up all by herself that day and put on her new red shoes, and ran out in the rain to stand on the bridge and see the river. She loved to be the first one up, Mama once told me. When I was younger, I asked her often to tell me stories of the little girl so much like me. But now that I am fifteen, almost sixteen in fact, so much older than Gratia ever was, Mama’s familiar stories leave me with questions.

What made Gratia go so close to the rail that day? There would still have been ice along the river edges. Maybe she tried to see into the flowing part of the river. Did she see something in the water, some log or drowned dog or someone's lost boat, lurching up and down, snagged and then torn loose again? Or maybe she dropped a stick into the water, like thevillage kids do still, and ran across the bridge to see it race out from the darkness underneath, in the rush of the southbound waters. Some days I imagine that her red shoes with their smooth new soles slipped onthe wet wood of the bridge, slipped and slid with her under the railing. Other days I see her in my mind's eye, climbing the rail to lean over it and letting go by accident or by some bravery that I'll never have, daringto hang farther out over the waters.

One night I pictured her face as she fell -- and it seemed I could almost hear her call out. To Mama? I would call for Mama if I were falling. But maybe it was Papa she screamed for.

And that, as anyone can see, begins a bad April night for me, a river- washed night of half dreams and fear.

But I don't wake Mama up ever. Lately she's cross so often, I wouldn't dare. I don't wake Papa, either, when he’s there. I'm too old, and neither of them would understand, anyway. So I punch my pillow, turn it over to the cool side, lie in bed, and pray that Jesus, or maybe Gratia, will walk out of the dark corner of the room, glowing with a halo behind her soft curls. So soft and sweet and always the small child. And perhaps Mama would be happier, and Papa would stay home with us.

But that's imagination, and not truth. Papa says, "The truth will set you free." So last night, the night before Easter, the twentieth of April, I climbed into the not- so- damp comfort of my bed, snuggling my feet against the hot water bottle brick that my grandmother provided. Outside, the rain rattled heavily on the windows and roof. I pulled the coverlet overmy head to hush the sound, but I couldn't breathe enough, so I put my face back out into the chilly air after all, trying to decide what the truth of Gratia would be now. I suppose she would be married, have children, even. I would be an aunt. The thought gave me no pleasure, just a twist of the lip at the strangeness of time.

The wind rattled the window frame and hurled the scent of wet darkness into my bedroom. Easter was the resurrection of the dead, I knew; could Gratia come back to life? Not likely. Nobody I knew ever talked about our own dead being anything except guardian angels. Maybe she was an angel. With red shoes? Disgusted with my own imagining, I punchedthe pillow again and rolled over.

Accidentally I fell into sleep, into the dangerous current of dreams. Somewhere I stood at the rocky top edge of a cliff, voiceless and armless, shaking, alone -- and last of all, there came walking out of a wet dark forest Gratia, my older but always fiveyear-old sister, dressed in something white and wet, dripping cold river water, standing beside me with white face and hands, saying something I wanted to hear but couldn't.

I have a diary. It's bound in red leather with a miniature lock and key. Mostly I don’t write in it while it's April.

But waking up just before seven on Easter morning, hearing Mama call sharply from downstairs and knowing it was the start of so much work and so little privacy for the day, I called down and said I'd be right there, then slipped the diary out of the bottom dresser drawer and wrote in pencil what was on my mind: "Easter Morning 1930. Sixteen years since Gratia drowned. Papa is not home yet from the woods. Five more days until my 16th birthday. Signed, Molly (Margaret) Ballou."

Like scratching a message on a cave wall on a desert island, nobody was going to see it, but I'd marked my being there.

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