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.