A heartfelt middle grade companion to Marshfield Dreams that captures the boyhood years of twelve-year-old Ralph Fletcher in relatable episodes of everyday disappointments and triumphs.
As the oldest of nine kids, Ralph was often cast as another parent to his siblings rather than as an older brother; teetering between these two conflicting roles, Ralph longed to be home alone on a sick day, but hated the emptiness of feeling left behind. He loved to play sports with his neighborhood friends but resented the skillful victories of his younger brother. Thrust into the expectations of impending adolescence, Ralph was curious about girls, but embarrassed to take part in the school square dance. This satisfying memoir offers a snapshot of those pivotal moments between grade school and high school, all while tracing the roots of Ralph Fletcher’s acclaimed storytelling.
Christy Ottaviano Books
|Publisher:||Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||9 - 14 Years|
About the Author
Ralph Fletcher is the author of a wide range of books for young readers from picture books through novels, including Marshfield Memories, Marshfield Dreams, Guy-Write, and The Sandman. He also teaches workshops on poetry and writing. Mr. Fletcher lives with his family in Lee, New Hampshire.
Read an Excerpt
Grandma made strawberry shortcake the exact same way Mom made it, so why did Grandma's taste different? The biscuits and whipped cream were the same, but the strawberries in Grandma Annie's dessert left an odd tang on my tongue. I was too polite to mention it, though when I was ten, it really made me wonder. I considered it one of the great mysteries of the world.
Then one night, just before I fell asleep, it hit me — Grandma Annie sliced the strawberries on her old cutting board. Over the years, she had cut countless cloves of garlic on the same wooden board. That garlicky taste must have bled into the wood and stained the flavor of the strawberries. Mystery solved.
As I got older, I learned that a similar kind of staining could happen with words. You'd have a regular word, but over time its original meaning could change in an unexpected way. Take the word buffalo.
There were eight kids in our family — Ralph (that's me), Jimmy, Lainie, Tommy, Bobby, Johnny, Joey, Kathy — and I was the oldest. The kids in our family called Dad's white bathrobe his buffalo, though I'm not sure how it got that name. Maybe it was because the shaggy robe resembled one of those impressive beasts. Or maybe it was because my father traveled a lot as a book salesman, moving around the country the way buffalo once roamed the western plains. But it's probably simpler than that — most likely one of my siblings called the robe buffalo, and the name stuck.
On Sunday night, Dad loaded up his car with boxes of books and left for another business trip. By midweek we would start pestering Mom.
"When's Dad coming home?"
"Friday. I already told you."
After supper, if we had finished our homework, Mom let us watch an hour of TV.
"Could we get out Dad's buffalo?" Elaine (or Lainie, as we called her) asked wistfully.
Mom put her hands on her hips. "Well ..."
"Please?" Lainie begged. "Just for a little while?"
Lainie, Jimmy, Tommy, and I raced upstairs to our parents' bedroom. The buffalo always hung on a particular hook in the closet. We jostled each other to see which of us could pull it down and drag it to the living room. Then we wrapped it around us while we watched TV. The buffalo was big enough to envelop three or even four kids in its shaggy warmth.
Beyond its warmth and softness, the most wonderful thing about that buffalo was the way it soaked up Dad's smell, his essence. I sat there, surrounded by his comforting scent, and discovered that if I closed my eyes and breathed in the smell, I could almost believe he was holding me in his strong arms.
For me, the word buffalo is changed, stained like the berries in Grandma Annie's strawberry shortcake. The word makes me think of the mighty beasts that thundered across the Great Plains until they were almost wiped out by white settlers. But buffalo has another, more personal meaning that's connected to my father. It reminds me of missing him all those nights when he was away on business trips, as well as the comfort and security I felt when he finally came home.CHAPTER 2
"Spring cleaning!" Dad announced at breakfast. "Mom and I are going to clean the garage."
"O-kay," I said carefully.
"All helpers are welcome," he added.
Inwardly, I groaned. It was exactly the sort of project I always got roped into. But today I was lucky; Dad cut me loose and told me to go play. I grabbed my jacket, laced up my sneakers, and hurried outside before he could change his mind.
The backyard was deserted. I looked over at Andy Hunt's house, but there was nothing stirring there, either. At the edge of the woods I glimpsed a red coat — my sister Lainie standing with my brothers, not far from the swamp. I ran over to join them.
It was late March. Technically spring had arrived, but it must have forgotten to tell the air because there was still a nasty bite. Bright sunlight bathed half of the swamp; the other half was swaddled in shadow. I could see water glistening on the sunny part, but the shadowy section was still crusted over with a layer of ice about a quarter inch thick. Tom and Bob began stomping on the ice, making crunching sounds, as if trying to free the pond from the tyranny of winter. Johnny, who was four, hesitated for a second before he started doing it too.
"Careful," Lainie warned.
I stood there frowning, watching my brothers do their demented dance — STOMP, STOMP, STOMP — on the thin ice.
"You're going to get muddy," I muttered.
Jimmy smiled. "So what?"
"Hey, look!" Lainie cried.
At first I couldn't see what she was pointing at. An arrowhead, maybe? I knew for a fact Native Americans had wandered through these woods only a few hundred years ago. But then my eyes detected two little orbs — a pair of soggy eyes — floating just above the surface of the water.
Bobby grinned. "Froggies!"
Jimmy didn't waste any time. He squatted down, and his arm darted forward — splash! When he pulled it back I could see that he had grabbed one. The critter squirmed, panicked, trying with all its might to break out of Jimmy's grip. But Jimmy wasn't eager to let go.
"Get a bucket," he ordered.
That was just like Jimmy, to start barking orders and expect everyone to jump to his demands.
"I'll go," Tommy cried, and took off, heading in the direction of our house.
Lainie leaned forward, studying the frog in Jimmy's hand. She squinted up at him.
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Keep it," Jimmy replied. "Obviously."
He squatted down again. His arm leapt forward — bang! — he had snatched another one. Now he had frogs clasped in both hands. When Tommy returned, Jimmy plopped them into the plastic bucket.
Bobby caught one next. He grinned at me, his eyes bright and sparkly. "It's easy!"
"Yeah, they're pretty sluggish," Jimmy muttered. "I think they're still waking up."
Jimmy caught a few more. Tommy and Bobby captured frogs at the exact same moment and added their catch to the bucket.
"That's eight," Jimmy yelled. "C'mon, Ralphie. There's a ton in here!"
I felt myself holding back like I often did, but this time for some reason my resistance melted away. Maybe the other kids' excitement infected me, because catching a frog suddenly became THE most important thing in the world. I spotted one and slowly crouched, balancing myself on a flat log. I lunged, but the frog chose that exact moment to jump away, so I only got his right foot. He attempted to escape, but I held on and wrapped him in my hands, trying not to squeeze too tight. The critter felt funny in my grip — all muscle and soft bones — slimy but surprisingly soft.
"I see another one!" Lainie cried.
"Grab it," Jimmy told her.
She made a face. "But what if it bites me!"
He groaned. "Frogs don't bite — they don't even have teeth."
So Lainie caught one — "HA!" — and added it to our haul.
Bobby and Tommy were wearing brand-new white sneakers. I watched as Bobby lost his balance, causing him to drag a foot in the muddy water.
"You're getting your sneakers dirty," I warned.
Bobby looked at me, puzzled, like I was speaking a foreign language.
"What's more important?" Tommy demanded. "Catching frogs or keeping your sneakers clean?"
"What do you think Mom's going to say?" I shot back.
Jimmy laughed. "Mom's not here, in case you didn't notice."
By now everybody had become obsessed with catching frogs. More and more of them got crammed into the bucket.
"Fifty!" Jimmy cried, staring into the mass of squirming green creatures. "That's a whole lotta frogs."
Johnny let out a triumphant whoop. "We're rich!"
Looking at Johnny made me cringe. He was a total wreck. Somehow he had managed to get a streak of mud on his forehead. Tommy and Jimmy were filthy too. Their shoes, jeans, and jerseys were mud spattered. I had managed to stay relatively clean.
"That's enough," Jimmy said, standing up straight. "Let's give it a rest."
"What's the final count?"
Jimmy smiled. "Sixty-three."
I did the math in my head: 63 frogs = 126 soggy eyes.
"A world record!" Johnny cried.
"Pretty close," Jimmy agreed. "C'mon, Ralphie, give me a hand."
He found a stick and inserted it through the bucket handle. With Jimmy carrying one end and me lifting the other, we managed to carry the heavy bucket back to our house.
Dad came outside, curious to see what all the commotion was about. When he peered into the bucket his eyes grew wide.
"Frogs!" Bobby yelled. "Look, Daddy, we got a million."
"Sixty-three." Jimmy smiled. "We hit the mother lode!"
Dad stood up. For a long moment he stared at my brothers, every one of them filthy and reeking of swamp mud. Then he leaned forward to take another look in the bucket.
I didn't know how he would react, but I could see that he was angry. I'm not sure if it was the father in him that was furious to see us sopping wet, new Keds sneakers soaked through on a cold day — maybe he worried we'd catch pneumonia — or if it was the naturalist in him who was outraged that his kids would endanger the lives of God's innocent creatures.
Or maybe a little bit of both.
"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
"We caught —" Lainie began, but he cut her off.
"I see what you caught," he barked. "You captured those frogs and took them away from their home."
Nobody said anything.
"Where did they live?"
"The swamp," Jimmy said, pointing.
"C'mon," Dad said firmly. "It's not too late to make this right."
He picked up the heavy bucket as if it weighed no more than a feather and carried it toward the woods. Dad walked with long, easy strides, and we had to hurry to keep up with him. When he reached the swamp, he unceremoniously dumped the frogs back into the water.
What a sight that was! An incredible green waterfall of amphibians! When they hit the muddy water the creatures paused for a few seconds, as if stunned by their good fortune. Then they roused themselves, one by one, and began darting off to every corner of the swamp.
After Dad left, I noticed Johnny had a sad expression on his face.
"I want my frog!"
"Dad's right," I said. "The swamp is their home — this is where they belong."
"Yeah," Lainie agreed. She touched Johnny's forehead where there was a slash of half-dried mud. "And right about now you belong in the bath!"CHAPTER 3
Mom stood at the washing machine next to a laundry basket overflowing with wet, dirty clothes from our swampy frog-catching expedition.
"I've never seen such filthy clothes," she muttered. "Look at this."
She held up a pair of sneakers — Tommy's, I guessed — except they weren't new or white anymore. It looked like someone had dunked them in a pool of thick black mud. Which wasn't far from the truth.
"I bought these sneakers two weeks ago." She shook her head. "This swamp mud is like glue...."
She dropped the sneakers — thump thump — into the washer. Then she dumped in the rest of the clothes.
"You'd think the kids would notice what was happening, wouldn't you?" Mom continued. "I mean, you'd think they'd be smart enough to see that they were surrounded by mud and maybe, just possibly, a little voice in their head would say, 'This isn't such a smart idea. We shouldn't be doing this.'"
"I know." I spoke in my smallest voice, maybe hoping she'd forget I was there, but she swiveled around to face me.
"You were there, too, weren't you?"
"Uh, well, sort of," I mumbled.
"Yeah, I was," I admitted.
She folded her arms. "So why didn't you do something?"
I didn't meet her gaze because I knew exactly what she meant. I was the oldest kid at the great swamp fiasco, which meant that I wasin charge. I should have stopped it when the mud started flying.
"I tried to," I said feebly.
Her expression turned skeptical. "Tried?"
"I told them to stop, but they didn't listen. ..." That sounded pretty lame, so I let my words peter out.
Anyway, deep down, in that part of me that was still a ten-year-old boy and not the Oldest Kid in the Family, I knew it wasn't fair to blame it on my brothers and sister. Mom hadn't been there, so she didn't get it. And I couldn't find the right words to tell her. How could I explain how excited we got when the first pair of soggy eyes suddenly materialized, floating on the surface of the swamp? How could I get her to understand what it felt like to capture the first frog of spring, to hold that wild squirming creature with its panicked heart in my bare hands?
Mom stepped closer, a frustrated expression on her face. She wasn't very tall, so we stood eye-to-eye.
"What are we going to do about the kids?" she asked wearily.
It was a question she'd asked me a dozen times before. I hesitated, not sure what to say. For some reason, Mom never included me when she complained about "the kids." I guess it didn't occur to her that I was a kid too. And it never occurred to me, either.
That was my unusual role in the Fletcher family. Not one of the grown-ups, but not really one of the kids, either. I was sort of in between. Not yet a teen, more like a tween. At times it felt like a lonely place to be.
"I'm serious," she persisted. "What are we going to do about the kids?"
In my head I pictured Jimmy and Tommy and Bobby and Johnny and Joey — all their stunts and schemes and crazy antics. For the most part, Lainie acted in a civilized manner, but my brothers? That was a whole different story.
"I, uh, I don't know," I mumbled.
It wasn't a satisfying answer, but at that moment it was the best, most honest one I could come up with.CHAPTER 4
I lived in Marshfield, though we didn't pronounce it how you might expect. If you get a checkup, the doctor says, "Open your mouth and say ahhhh!" That ahhhhh was the very sound we made when we spoke the name of our town: Mahhhhhhhhhshfield (that was the Massachusetts accent in the 1960s). I feel like I should apologize to the r in Marshfield because when we said that word we forgot it, or simply ignored it.
Marshfield means a field of marshes. My family lived inland, in a wooded area, but you didn't have to drive very far toward the ocean before you found yourself passing miles and miles of salt marshes. Though I often saw those marshes, I was curious about what it would feel like to be inside one of them.
One Saturday Dad's best friend, Dexter Harris, took us clamming. We would dig for them in a clam flat, but to get there we first had to pass through a marsh field. While we hiked, Dexter tried to educate us.
"A salt marsh is an important place in nature," he explained. "All kinds of birds, plants, insects, and fish live here. This place is teeming with life."
Lainie wrinkled her nose. "It smells stinky."
Dexter smiled. "That's the smell of the mud in low tide. You'll get used to it. So how are you guys doing? Tommy? Everything okay?"
Tommy chewed his lower lip. "No."
"What's wrong?" Jimmy asked.
"I don't like this place," Tommy muttered.
We reached a tiny stream. It was a small gap, barely a foot wide. We stepped over easily — everybody except Tommy.
"C'mon," Dexter urged. "It's no big deal. Just step across."
"No!" Tommy objected. He looked down, eyes wild with fear and panic. "There's mud down there! There's quicksand!"
"There's no quicksand," Lainie assured him. Suddenly her eyes narrowed; she glanced up at Dexter. "Is there?"
"Probably not, though you do need to be careful," he told her. "If you're in the mud when the tide comes in, you could get stuck. I heard one guy got stuck in the mudflat when the tide came in, and the mud swallowed his car."
I blinked at him. "Really?"
He nodded. "But I seriously doubt there's any quicksand around here. C'mon, Tommy, all you've got to do is step over to the other side. It's not far at all. You can do it!"
"No!" Tommy cried.
Jimmy shook his head in disbelief. "What a baby!"
"Shhh," Dexter told him. "Making fun of him won't help. C'mon, Tommy, we gotta move. I promised your mother we'd bring home a bucket of steamers, and she's going to be mighty mad if we don't."
"I can't —" Tommy pleaded. So Dexter picked him up and swung him to the other side.
"Oh!" Tommy gasped, amazed to find himself on solid land instead of getting sucked down into the ooze.
We continued trekking through the marsh. My brother stayed miserable. The moment we reached the tiniest rivulet, the smallest gap, he halted and wouldn't budge. Each time Dexter had to lift him to the other side.
Gradually Tommy began to relax, which was a relief. Now I could stop worrying about him and start to appreciate my surroundings. The marsh was full of birds: gulls and terns and red-winged blackbirds. I loved the feel of the spongy ground and being enveloped by the tall, tall grass. The wind singing through the grass made a soft, high-pitched sound. Down low, beneath the tops of the grass, I felt cocooned and protected from the wind.
"The marsh is the place where the ocean shakes hands with the land," Dexter said.
I loved that thought and wanted to remember it always. I was a kid who loved the sound of words. I marveled at how they could paint a mind picture, how they could work together to create a mood or feeling. When I heard a word or a thought that caught my attention, I wrote it down in a little notebook I kept hidden between my box spring and mattress. I didn't know it then, but that little notebook I kept hidden between my box spring and mattress. I didn't know it then, but that little notebook would become precious to me. It would serve as a piggy bank of language, words, and ideas I would draw upon again and again as I became a writer.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Marshfield Memories"
Copyright © 2018 Ralph Fletcher.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Pocketful of Trouble,
Big Brother Shadow,
Funsies and Keepsies,
Cousins by the Dozens,
Sky Hook and a Bacon-Stretcher,
The Marshfield Fair,
November 22, 1963,
Driving at Night,
The Language of Laughter,
All-Chocolate Necco Wafers,
On the Back of the Bus,
A Conflict of Interest,
The Other Fletchers,
The Final Fletcher,
Also by Ralph Fletcher,
About the Author,