“Henry Smith’s father told him that if you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.”
But Trouble comes careening down the road one night in the form of a pickup truck that strikes Henry’s older brother, Franklin. In the truck is Chay Chouan, a young Cambodian from Franklin’s preparatory school, and the accident sparks racial tensions in the school—and in the well-established town where Henry’s family has lived for generations. Caught between anger and grief, Henry sets out to do the only thing he can think of: climb Mt. Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine, which he and Franklin were going to climb together. Along with Black Dog, whom Henry has rescued from drowning, and a friend, Henry leaves without his parents’ knowledge. The journey, both exhilarating and dangerous, turns into an odyssey of discovery about himself, his older sister, Louisa, his ancestry, and why one can never escape from Trouble.
About the Author
Gary D. Schmidt is the best-selling author of many books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor and Printz Honor book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and the Newbery Honor book The Wednesday Wars. He is a professor of English at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Read an Excerpt
Henry Smith’s father told him that if you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.
So the Smiths lived where their people had lived for exactly three hundred years, far away from Trouble, in Blythbury-by-the-Sea, where the currents of the Atlantic give up their last southern warmth to the coast of Massachusetts before they head to the cold granite shores of Maine. From the casement windows of his bedroom, Henry could look out over the feathery waves, and on sunny days—and it seemed as if all his life there had been only sunny days—he could open the leaded-glass doors and walk onto a stone balcony and the water would glitter all the way to the horizon. Henry’s first word had been “blue.” The first taste he could remember was saltwater. The first Christmas gift that meant anything to him was a kayak, which he had taken into the water that very morning, so calm had the sea been, because Trouble was so far away.
Henry Smith’s house, begun in 1678 with the coinage of his seventeenth-century merchant ancestors, stood on stone ledges, braced against the storms and squalls and hurricanes and blizzards that blew out of the northeast. Its beams were still as straight as the day they had been hewn, and Henry could run his hands along the great oaks that dwelled beneath the flooring and feel the sharp edges left by the ancient maul strokes. The house had been changed and added to and changed again for a century and a half, so that now, under a roof of dark and heavy slate, three staircases wound to the second and third floors, and a fourth climbed up until it struck a wall whose ancient framing only suggested the doorway that had once been there. The house’s eight fireplaces were each big enough to stand in, and one had a hidey-hole that huddled beside the hearth and was guarded by a secret panel in the wood closet. Henry and his brother, Franklin, and his sister, Louisa, would hide in it during the winter, because it was always warm. The floors of the house were wide pine downstairs, wider oak upstairs, quarried stone in the kitchen and the end-rooms behind it, and Italian ochre tile in the parlors.
The north parlor held lacquered Asian furniture brought back from Hong Kong and Singapore aboard nineteenth-century steamers. The south parlor showed the French Impressionist collection, including two Van Goghs and a small Renoir. The downstairs hall was an armory of Revolutionary War flintlocks that the Blythbury-by-the-Sea Historical Society borrowed for exhibitions on the Fourth of July because they still fired.
The library held two shelves of medieval prayer books whose gold and red ad usums flashed as if they had just been scripted beneath the stern and glowing icons hanging on the dark paneling.
Henry and his father would sometimes read them—“for the use of” this abbey, “for the use of” this monastery, “for the use of” this court—and then look out toward a gold and red sunset. “This house will stand until the Apocalypse,” Henry’s father would say reverently.
Henry believed him.
Blythbury-by-the-Sea had grown up slowly around the Smith house. Now it was the kind of town where no one who lived there, worked there. Weekdays, the dark suits commuted in sleek foreign cars to downtown Boston—Henry’s father drove to a prestigious and well-regarded accountancy firm where he was a partner—and then the suits came back at suppertime, glad to have escaped the noisy crowd of the city. On Sundays, Henry’s family went to St. Anne’s Episcopal Church—where their family had owned a pew since 1680—and in the afternoons, they took long walks beneath the broad maples of Townshend Park, or drove up to New Hampshire to buy maple syrup, or if the weather was warm, they climbed down into Salvage Cove, the long stretch of perfect white sand and huge black boulders below their house. Local guidebooks called it the finest private beach on the North Shore. Looking at the shore from the library windows, Henry agreed.
On Monday mornings, Franklin and Louisa drove early to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Preparatory High School—where no one wore uniforms. Thirty minutes later, Henry’s parents drove him to the John Greenleaf Whittier Academy—where all seventh- and eighth-grade students wore uniforms involving a white shirt, blue blazer, red-and-white tie (the school colors), khaki pants, black socks, black loafers, and—no kidding—red-and-white boxers. Longfellow Prep and Whittier Academy were both old schools, made of burnt brick and filled with kids whose names were so Anglo-Saxon that King Richard the Lion-Hearted would have recognizeed them all. In the fall, they played rugby; in the spring, they rowed crew.
No one was surprised that Henry, who was one of the smaller rugby players, liked spring a whole lot better than fall—especially since he could never hope to match the rrrrrecords that Franklin—Franklin Smith, oh Franklin Smith, the great lord of us all, Franklin Smith—had put up on the wooden Athletic Records panels for his rugby play.
Which Franklin reminded Henry of whenever he chose to notice him.
Blythbury-by-the-Sea was the kind of town where oaks and maples shaded quiet clapboard and brick and stone houses that had seen a whole lot of New England winters and were doing fine, thank you.
Tight and prim, their windows presided over Main Street, whose two narrow lanes meandered into the town center, where tourists up from Boston and New York came to visit boutiques and rare-book shops and antique stores and fancy-jewelry artisans and gourmet delis. Occasionally, one of the town’s two policemen would stroll past the boutiques and delis, sometimes stopping to pick up a bit of litter that someone from out of town had dropped.
Which is about the most they did in a day, because Blythbury-by-the-Sea was a town that Trouble could not find.
This is not to say that Trouble didn’t try.
An autumn ago, Franklin had sprained his ankle so badly in rugby practice that he wasn’t able to play in the Eastern Regionals. The entire student body of Longfellow Prep went into mourning. The sprain was so severe that Franklin couldn’t even drive, so Mrs.
Smith drove him and Louisa to school.
Everyone at Longfellow Prep thought that Mrs. Smith drove because Louisa—who did have her driver’s license, after all—was distraught about Franklin and the Eastern Regionals. But, really, it was because Louisa was a terrible, awful driver who panicked at stop signs, stoplights, and crosswalks. Mr. Smith said that she should never be allowed behind the wheel of the BMW—never mind the Fiat!
There had been four trips to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston over Franklin’s ankle, and the doctors had warned that the sprain meant that he might walk with a pronounced limp for quite some time. Still, Franklin rode the team bus down to Foxboro and crutched his way over to the course to watch Louisa run in her third State cross-country finals—and take first, even though she was still only a junior.
And he drove in the Academy bus to Henry’s rugby Districts in Deerfield, where Franklin was lauded as the star alumnus that he was, and where Whittier was whipped by Kenilworth with a score that Henry tried to forget but that Franklin wouldn’t let him. By Thanksgiving, Franklin had decided to discard his crutches. By Christmas, no one who didn’t know about the sprain would have noticed a limp. By the first January thaw, he was again running five miles a day, and people who lived in the clapboard and brick and stone houses clapped when he went by.
And Longfellow Prep won the Eastern Regionals, after all—which Franklin was mostly happy about.
Two summers ago, Henry had fallen while climbing the black boulders in Salvage Cove, just beneath his family’s house.
It was a long fall, ten or twelve feet.
If he had fallen a bit to the right, he would have landed on sharp stone wedges that would have broken whatever hit them. If he had fallen a bit to the left, he would have landed on sharper mussel beds that would have cut him up.
But he landed right between them, into calm water whose tidal current gently led him back into shore. At dinner that night, Franklin said that he guessed he should teach Henry how to climb. He’d show him how to set his hands and balance his footing. He’d show him how to test rock holds and how to use his fist as an anchor in a fissure. And maybe, if he got good enough, he’d take him up to Katahdin.
Maybe they’d even climb through the Gateway and up to the Knife Edge. “That would be something to see, little brother,” he’d said, and he’d reached over and rumpled Henry’s hair.
Henry almost bowed down and did worship.
And Henry’s father said again, “If you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.” That was why Henry wasn’t ready for it on the evening of his fourteenth birthday, while he adjusted the straps of the backpack his parents had given him so he could show Franklin how prepared he was for their hiking trip up Katahdin, because Franklin had finally, finally, finally agreed to take him, even though he told Henry that he’d never make it, that he’d have to quit halfway up the mountain, that they’d have to turn back, that he was only going because their father wanted him to take his little brother—who, Franklin said again, would never make it. On that night, looking out the north parlor window, his parents standing beside him and holding back the curtains, Henry couldn’t understand why the town’s one patrol car was moving slowly down their drive, heading toward their house. It had been a spring colder than usual, and the trees were still unleafed, so they could see the patrol car’s red light revolving and throwing fire onto the mostly bare oaks and maples. They walked out into the dark back gardens, dark because the moon was still not up and the sky was starless.
The red light struck them full, so that when Henry looked up at his parents’ faces, they were covered with blood.
Which is how he saw his brother’s face when they reached the hospital.
The streaks of red were ghastly against his skin, which was stark white. The perfect tan that Franklin always carried had vanished and left behind this shocked pallor. Henry’s mother stood at the foot of the bed, her hands tight on the aluminum rail, her eyes wide and unblinking. His father stood beside her, stiff, straight, his hands up to his face. Neither had taken their coats off.
Henry sat down on his brother’s bed. A clear plastic mask covered Franklin’s face, and he breathed into a clear plastic tube that circled around behind him. Both of his eyes were bruised and swollen shut. His right arm lay white and still, tucked tightly beside him outside the sheet. Another clear plastic tube coiled out from the crook of his elbow. Dried blood edged his fingernails. At first, Henry thought that the other arm must lie beneath the sheet. But it wasn’t beneath the sheet.
It just wasn’t there.
A dribble of saliva came from underneath the mask over Franklin’s mouth. Henry reached to wipe it away.
“Don’t touch that,” said his father. His mother began to moan quietly.
Henry sat on his brother’s bed for a long time that night, as his parents came in and went out and came in and went out. There were the doctors to deal with and medical decisions to be made: “A brain scan once he’s stable,” said Dr. Burton. “Relieve some of the pressure, and then assess the damage,” said Dr. Giles. There were the two town policemen, who came to inform the Smiths officially that they had arrested the driver who had slammed into their jogging son. Running, thought Henry. Not jogging.
There was Father Brewood, who knew enough to say nothing but a prayer. And there was the reporter from the Blythbury-by-the-Sea Chronicle, who sensed that he might have a story with more drama than a rugby score and sneaked into Franklin’s room to get a quick picture of him before the two Blythbury-by-the-Sea policemen manhandled him on to an elevator. Franklin’s eyes opened when the reporter’s camera flash went off. But he didn’t blink. He stared out straight, intent, still. “What is he looking at?” thought Henry. He reached his hand out in front of Franklin’s eyes, but his brother looked right through Henry’s fingers, focusing beyond them.
“Franklin,” said Henry.
His brother’s eyes closed.
Late, late at night, when there was no more to see, Henry’s parents decided to go back to the house. Louisa hadn’t been home when the policemen came; no one had told her yet. They tried to get Henry to come, too. “There’s no more we can do here tonight,” his mother said. Henry ignored her. He had never ignored his mother before.
After a very silent while, his parents left. Henry stayed on Franklin’s bed.
Cold. The low hum of the overhead light, the clattering and clicking of elevator doors. The smell of antiseptic, of clean sheets, of bandages. The slight wrinkle of corruption in the air.
Outside, a nurse patrolling the nearly empty hallways with the steps of someone who knows that all the world is asleep and it shouldn’t be awakened. Henry felt strangely peaceful—and guilty for feeling peaceful. But the lights in the room were dim and his brother was so still. He could hear Franklin’s breathing, timed with the rhythms of the quiet machine behind him. The one window in the room was opaque with the reflection of the light over his brother’s bed. Sometimes Henry crossed the room and leaned his forehead against the cold glass so he could see out. As the night went on, he did this more and more. He needed to remind himself that this one room wasn’t the whole world.
Close to dawn, a nurse came in to change the dressing on the stump. “Do you want to wait outside?” she asked.
Henry shook his head. He wanted to watch. He wanted to see everything.
“I think that you had better wait outside,” said the nurse.
She led him into the hall and then around the corner, and he sat down in a vinyl chair by the nurses’ station. He let his head fall back against the wall.
He closed his eyes.
And he saw himself with his brother, hefting their packs up higher and on their shoulders as they climbed through the Gateway and up, up to the Knife Edge, Franklin turning to him and saying, “I knew you’d make it. I knew it all along,” and Henry nodding, not needing to say anything.
When Henry’s parents came back to the hospital the next morning, they found him asleep in the vinyl chair. One of the nurses had put a striped cotton blanket over him, and he had curled up and fit as much of himself under it as he could.
They woke him, and together they went back to Franklin’s room. Nothing had changed. Franklin still unmoving. Clear plastic mask and tubes. His eyes closed.
His breathing still the same, in time to the rhythms of the quiet machine. The new bandage on the stump of his arm stained at the end. Henry thought he could smell whatever was doing the staining.
Perhaps the only thing that was different was that the sun was up and Henry could see out the window. And his father hadn’t shaved—which was, Henry thought, the first time that had ever happened.
Louisa had not taken the news well, his parents told him. She had been waiting for them when they got home, holding the quick note that Mrs. Smith had left for her in the kitchen. They told her about the accident. They told her that Franklin’s arm was gone. That his brain had swollen and that the doctors were using drugs to relieve the pressure.
That there would be tests as soon as the swelling went down. That everyone had to hope for the very, very best.
Then Louisa had dropped the note to the quarried stone floor and run up to her bedroom.
They had heard her through the night, but she would not open her door to them.
She would not open the door in the morning before they left.
His mother reached out to Henry and drew him to her. He could not remember another time when she had held him so tightly. Or when his father—with his eyes closed and his hands up to his face again—had looked so . . . empty—as if the soul had left his body, and his body understood that it would never come back.
They stood that way, together at the foot of Franklin’s quiet bed. That was how Father Brewood found them. They stayed that way during the psalm he read to them—“In the time of my trouble I sought the Lord: I stretched forth my hands unto him, and ceased not in the night season.” But during his prayer—“Look down upon Franklin Smith, your servant”—Henry’s stomach started to growl. Loudly. Then very loudly. “I’m sorry,” said Henry when Father Brewood had finished.
“No matter what happens, there is always the business of the world to attend to,” said Father Brewood.
Henry went downstairs to the hospital cafeteria to find some breakfast. It was quiet and still there, too, and the mopped floor smelled slightly of disinfectant, as if someone had thrown up and the janitor had made a job of it.
He found a waxed carton of orange juice and a pastry with no filling; they were both as tasteless as Henry expected them to be. He took small bites and ate slowly. He didn’t need to hurry back to the room. Nothing would change, though he wanted more than he could say to have things go back to the way they had been before his birthday. But Henry was wrong. He knew it as soon as the elevator doors opened and he stepped onto his brother’s floor. A white-coated doctor ran past him, and the nurses’ station was empty.
Henry sprinted toward Franklin, and when he turned the corner of the hall, he saw his parents standing outside the room, his mother holding his father, together looking inside. Father Brewood stood beside them, his hands on them both. The running doctor was pushing past them.
The sounds that were coming from the room, the terrible sounds . . .
The smell of the cafeteria disinfectant came back into his throat, and Henry threw up.
The next time that Henry saw Franklin, his brother had a strap drawn tightly across his chest. His right arm was strapped down. The thought came into Henry’s head: They don’t need to strap down his left arm, because it isn’t there anymore. I wonder where it is? He went to sit again on his brother’s bed.
He fingered the taut straps.
Dr. Giles was back in the room. There was a seizure, he said. Significant swelling of the brain still. Whatever damage there had been may now be more extensive. If the scan is positive, then surgery will be recommended to control the swelling. No visitors now.
Stimulation to a minimum. Hope for the best.
Henry couldn’t say whether the rest of that day went quickly or whether it dragged its wearisome self along. The brain scan came back with a report of “indeterminate brain activity.” The decision was made, and Franklin was taken immediately into surgery to relieve the swelling. They waited for about forever. Finally, he came back, the top of his head wrapped in bright white bandages, his eyes closed. All the blood cleaned from his face and fingernails.
“With some patients, the scans are simply impossible to decipher accurately,” said Dr. Giles. “But we’ll be able to tell more in twenty-four hours. We’ll have another scan then.” Sitting on his brother’s bed, fingering again the taut straps.
Eating in the hospital cafeteria. Thick roast beef with thick brown gravy.
Canned corn. Canned carrots, tasting like the canned corn. And all of that seemed to take no time at all, because there was no time at all. There was only Now. In the hospital. Where they all sat in the middle of Trouble.
That night, Henry went home with his parents. He was astonished that the world was pretty much as it had been before he had gone to the hospital. He was astonished that he was sitting in a familiar car, riding along familiar streets, idling into the carriage house, walking through the back door of his home, climbing the stairs, coming into his own room. Is it possible for everything to change, and for nothing to change? He opened his casement window, and the clean salt smell of the sea rose to him. He could hear the waves cresting onto the black boulders along the cove, one after the other. The moon was coming up, throwing a startling silver light along the undersides of the clouds and setting them apart from the darkness.
Henry lay back on his bed and fell into sleep.
And dreamed again of the Gateway. His brother was ahead of him, always ahead of him, hefting his backpack up around his shoulders. He turned back to Henry.
“I knew you’d make it,” he was saying again.
And Henry desperately wanted to say something to him. Something to let him know how wonderful it was to be up on the mountain with him. Something so beautiful that they would both begin to cry.
But when he opened his mouth, all he could say was “Indeterminate brain activity.” And still asleep, Henry did begin to cry, and the waves below him galled themselves on the dark stone ledges beneath the house.
What People are Saying About This
"Nothing is at it seems when Trouble arrives in varied and symbolic ways for two families and two communities. Franklin Smith, the arrogant scion of an aristocratic New England family, is accidentally struck while running and subsequently dies. The blame is accepted by a classmate, a Cambodian immigrant from a nearby town. When legal technicalities prevent Chay Chouan from being jailed, the perceived miscarriage of justice reverberates through idyllic Blythbury-by-the-Sea. Franklin's younger brother, Henry, becomes determined to climb Mount Katahdin, a feat that Franklin had coldly suggested might prove Henry had guts. Henry sets out hitchhiking for the mountain with best friend question. Somewhat improbably they are picked up by Chay, who has been expelled by his father and is now driving the truck that killed Franklin. Their symbolic journey predictably includes moments of danger, self-discovery, and reconciliation, fortunately leavened by the humorously ironic Sanborn. Complex structure allows revelations into the character of Chay, child of a violent refugee camp, unwanted product of rape, lover of poetry, and protector of Henry's sister (in a Romeo-and-Juliet twist). Teeming with plot elements, some of which may seem too purposeful, and richly veined with social and psychological crosscurrents, this story may be seen as allegorical in its intent and representation. Nevertheless it contains Schmidt's eloquent language and compelling characters, as well as compassionate examinations of the passage from childhood to adulthood and of the patters of common experience and mark and unite us as humans."School Library Journal, starred review
"Henry and his family live the charmed existence of the well-bred, well-heeled New England old-money crowd, exemplified by successful, professional parents, a coastal home that has been in the family for hundreds of years, and bright, athletic children attending posh private academies and always rising to the challenges expected of them. That world shatters when Franklin, Henry's elder brother and role model, is hit by a truck belonging to Chay Chouan, the son of a Cambodian refugee, leaving Franklin with only one arm and indeterminate brain activity. Flurries of violence erupt as Franklin's fellow lacrosse players vent their rage on the Cambodian community, and Henry begins to question whether Franklin was such a good role model after all, given as he was to racially motivated bullying even before the accident. Henry decides that he needs to follow through on a plan that Franklin used to taunt him with, climbing a dangerous mountain as a rite of passage into Franklin's kind of macho manhood. Henry's version of the plan, though, leads to forgiveness as he hitches a ride with Chay of all people, and he learns secrets about his brother, his sister, and Chay that lead him to quesion the kind of person he wants to be. Schmidt creates a rich and credible world peopled with fully developed characters who have a lot of complex reasoning to do, reckoning that involves confronting issues of white privilege and responsibility for racial reconciliation and acceptance. In the midst of the drama, a hurricane uncovers a burned-out slave ship that belonged to Henry's ancestor; its presence, along with an encounter with some Vietnam vets, ups the ante on the white guilt message just in case you weren't paying attention, and thus seems a bit gratuitous. Schmidt's prose, however, is flawless, and Henry's odyssey of growth and understanding is pitch-perfect and deeply satisfying."Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
" 'If you build your house far enough from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.' Such is the credo of the fortunate Smith family of Blythbury-by-the-Sea, a (fictional) WASP-y outpost of Boston. But when Trouble arrives, it just keeps on coming. First, oldest son Franklin lies in a coma after being hit by a car; a young Cambodian immigrant is identified as the driver. Daughter Louisa, hugely distraught, retreats to her bedroom, and fourteen-year-old Henry is left on his own. With the newly adopted Black Dog, whom he's rescued from the sea, Henry sets off to climb Maine's Mt. Katahdin (as he and Franklin had planned to do together) and is joined by unexpected companions. Schmidt embarks on a road trip that limns the growing friendship of three unforgettable boys-Henry; his honest, aggravating best friend Sanborn; and the accused Cambodian boy, Chay Chuan. A host of coincidences strains credulity at times, but also allows for an extraordinary breadth, widening themes and resolving plot lines. Like Chaucer's pilgrims, Henry, Chay, and Louisa all have to find their way to grace. The accident that brings trouble to Henry and his family also brings self-realization and the uncomfortable knowledge that both Henry's idolized brother and the vaunted history of the Smith family are not what they seem. Along with the pivotal role played by the enthusiastic Black Dog, rich secondary characters enhance a 1970s-set story that adds much to the discussion of how tragedy and racism affect individuals, families, and whole communities."The Horn Book
"Tautly constructed, metaphorically rich, emotionally gripping and seductively told,Schmidt's (The Wednesday Wars) novel opens in the 300-year-old ancestral home of Henry Smith, whose father has raised him to believe that 'if you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.' With such an opening, it is inevitable that Trouble does find the aristocratic Smiths: Henry's older brother, Franklin, is critically injured by a truck. A Cambodian refugee named Chay, who attends the same school as Franklin, acknowledges responsibility, but over the course of Chay's trial it occurs, to Henry at least, that it was Franklin who sought Trouble: the racism he directed toward Chay specifically and Cambodian immigrants generally has been so widely shared in the community that no one challenged it. Twin sequences of events plunge the Smiths and Chay into further tragedy, also revealing the ravages of Chay's childhood under the Khmer Rouge. At the same time, a storm exposes a charred slave ship long buried on the Smiths' private beach: it emerges that their house has been close to Trouble all along. For all the fine crafting, the novel takes a disturbingly broad-brush approach to racism. Characters are either thuggish or willfully blind or saintly, easily pegged on a moral scale-and therefore untrue to life."Publishers Weekly
"One of children's literature's prose masters presents a typically deliberate tale of moral awakening. Henry Smith, younger son of a well-to-do Massachusetts family, finds his secure world rocked to its foundations when his jogging brother is critically injured by a pickup truck driven by a young Cambodian immigrant. His family falls apart. Three things keep Henry, too, from crumbling completely: his hatred for the boy who drove the truck, his love for the stray Black Dog he brings home and his determination to climb Maine's Mt. Katahdin, the mountain his brother teased him he'd never summit. The leisurely development of plot and characters allows the latter full emotional complexity and nuances the former with the layers of relationships that, willy-nilly, bind humanity together. One subplot too many-the wreck of a slaver appears on the Smiths' beach-results in a little too much Significant Musing and a wild coincidence that threatens the credibility of the whole. It's a measure of Schmidt's control in other realms that this still stands as a deeply moving and pleasurable read."Kirkus Reviews