Stephanie S. Tolan

Surviving the Applewhites

HarperCollins, 2002

2003 Newbery Honor Book

Discussion Guide for Surviving the Applewhites...

Jake Semple is a scary kid. Word has it that he burned down his old school and then was kicked out of every other school in his home state. Only weeks into September, the middle school in Traybridge, North Carolina, has thrown him out, too.

Now there's only one place left that will take him -- a home school run by the most outrageous, forgetful, chaotic, quarrelsome family you'll ever meet. Each and every Applewhite is an artist through and through -- except E.D., the smart, scruffy girl with a deep longing for order and predictability. E.D. and Jake, so nearly the same age, are quickly paired in the family's first experiment in "cooperative education."

The two clash immediately, of course. The only thing they have in common is the determination to survive the family's eccentricities.

In Stephanie S. Tolan's hilarious tale, a local production of The Sound of Music directed, stagecrafted, choreographed, and costumed by Apple-whites -- brings the family together and shows E.D. and Jake the value of the special gifts they've had all along.

First chapters of Surviving the Applewhites...

Chapter One

            “My name is not Edie.  It’s E.D.  E period, D period.”

            “What kind of a name is that?” 

            The boy slouching against the porch railing had scarlet spiked hair, a silver ring through one dark brown eyebrow and too many ear rings to count.  He was dressed entirely in black -- black tee shirt, black jeans, black high top running shoes, and the look in his eyes was pure mean.

            “My kind,” E.D. Applewhite said.  She had no intention of telling this creep the story of her name.  She could tell by looking at him that he’d never heard of Edith Wharton, her mother’s favorite writer.   Being probably the only almost 13 year old girl in the whole country named Edith, she had no intention of giving him even that little bit of ammunition to use against her.   E.D., she thought, was at least dignified -- like a corporate executive, which one day she just might be.  “What kind of a name is Jake Semple?”

            Two can play at that game, the boy’s face said.  “Mine.”

            Not an original bone in his body, E.D. thoughtJust a plain ordinary delinquent. 

            According to her friend Melissa, though, Jake Semple was famous.  He had been kicked out of the public schools in the whole state of Rhode Island.  Melissa  wasn’t sure what all he’d done to achieve that particular distinction, but the word around Traybridge was that one thing he did was burn down his old school.   He’d come to North Carolina to live with his grandfather, Henry Dugan,  a neighbor of the Applewhites and go to Traybridge Middle School.

            The plan had not lasted long.  No one in living memory had been thrown out of Traybridge Middle School, but Jake Semple had managed to accomplish that feat in three weeks flat.  At least the building was still standing.  It was only the middle of September and he had run out of schools that were willing to risk taking him.

            Mr. Dugan was inside at that moment discussing with E.D.’s parents, her Aunt Lucille, Uncle Archie and Grandpa Zedediah the arrangement the two families and Jake’s social worker had worked out for continuing Jake’s education. 

            Jake Semple was the first person E.D. had ever met who had a social worker.  She thought that was probably only one step away from having a probation officer, which is what Jake’s parents would have when they got out of jail.  That was why Jake had a social worker – because his parents were in jail for growing marijuana in their basement and offering some to an off-duty Sheriff’s deputy.  E.D. didn’t know how long they were going to be in jail, but at least a year.  She figured criminal tendencies ran in families.  The kid had  burned down his school just after his parents were arrested.

            E.D.’s Aunt Lucille was a poet and had been conducting a workshop at Traybridge Middle School when Jake was kicked out.  This whole terrible idea had been hers.  She’d told Mr. Dugan about the Creative Academy, which was what E.D.’s father had named the Applewhite home school.   Only Aunt Lucille, whose view of life was almost pathologically sunny, would get the idea that after an entire state had admitted it couldn’t cope with the kid and after Traybridge Middle School had been defeated in less than a month, the Applewhites should take him in.  The Creative Academy didn’t even have any trained teachers, let alone guidance counselors and armed security guards.  There were a whole bunch of buildings the kid could burn down at Wit’s End – the main house, all eight cottages, the goat shed, a tool shed and the barn.

            But somehow Aunt Lucille had convinced everybody else.  E.D. had been the only family member to vote against letting Jake Semple join them.  She’d begged her grandfather, who usually had more sense than all the rest of the family combined, to put a stop to the idea.  “You know how Lucille can’t ever believe a bad thing about anybody!” she’d told him.  “Her attitude about people is downright dangerous.” 

            He’d only twiddled with his mustache and said that he rather envied Lucille’s rose-colored view of things.  “More often than not, I’ve noticed, it turns out to be true.”  Then he had declared taking Jake Semple in a noble and socially responsible thing to do.  Noble and socially responsible!  More like suicidal,  E.D. thought.  She had thought that even before she’d laid eyes on Jake Semple.  Now she was sure of it.

            Jake pulled a cigarette out of a pack in his tee shirt pocket.

            “Better not light that thing,” she said, thinking about lighters and matches and very large fires.  “Wit’s End is a smoke-free environment.”

            The boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellow plastic lighter.  “You can’t have a smoke free environment outdoors,” he said.

            “We can have it anywhere we want -- this is our property, all 16 acres of it.”

            Jake looked her square in the eye and lit the cigarette.  He took a long drag and blew the smoke directly into her face so that she had to close her eyes and hold her breath to keep from choking on it.  Then he said one of Paulie’s favorite phrases.  No one had managed to break Grandpa’s adopted parrot of swearing.  E.D. suspected that they wouldn’t have any better luck with Jake Semple.     

Chapter Two

            So far so good, Jake thought.  This girl was bugged by cursing and smoking.  He had news for her.  He intended to do a whole lot of both.  He took a long drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke at her again.  She turned away and moved down to the other end of the porch steps.  Doesn’t bother me, girl – you can bug off completely as far as I’m concerned.

            Jake hadn’t been any more than two years old when he found out how certain words affected people.  It had surprised him considerably, since his parents used those words at home all the time.  He’d learned them the same way he learned all the other words he knew.  People didn’t make a fuss when his parents used them, but once he’d seen how some adults reacted to those words when he said them, it had become a game.  He could still remember the old woman with the mean, pinched up face who told him to take his sticky fingers off the display case when his mother took him to the bakery to get a cake on his third birthday.  He had smiled his best little boy smile and said just two words.  The woman had gone all white and  slumped right down to the floor.  The image was as clear in his mind now as if it had happened yesterday -- the way she’d just disappeared all of a sudden from behind the counter.  All the fuss and furor afterwards had made a permanent impression on him.  Nobody could ever tell Jake Semple words didn’t have power.

            If the rest of the Applewhites were anything like this girl, he thought, he ought to be able to bug them quite a lot for however long he was going to be stuck with them.  He leaned back against the support post behind him and watched the smoke float out from his nostrils.  He hated adults making decisions for him and expecting him to just go along with whatever they said.  His parents had tried that and given up.  But because of that big mistake they’d made with the sheriff’s deputy, they’d been carted off to their separate minimum security prisons and he was stuck with a bunch of strangers who didn’t get it that he wasn’t going to do what he didn’t want to do.   He would just have to show them!  He intended his time here to be even shorter than his time at Traybridge Middle School. 

            The smoking part was going to be a problem, though.  This was his last pack of cigarettes.  It was miles to town and out here in the North Carolina boonies there was no such thing as a bus.  He squinted against the smoke that was blowing back at him now.  Maybe, since there were tobacco fields along just about every road,  he could tear off a few leaves and learn to roll his own.

            He was pretty sure this girl had been told to keep an eye on him while his grandfather was inside, to make sure he didn’t set fire to the porch or something.    She wasn’t much to look at.  Not much shape yet.  Still as much like a boy as a girl, and the chopped off hair didn’t help much.  She was sitting there now with her scabby elbows on her scabby knees, staring off down the driveway.  Jake couldn’t see the main road from here, the way the drive curved around a row of trees and bushes, but out there was a wooden sign with “Wit’s End” spelled out on it with bark-covered twigs.   Quaint and rustic and weird.  Jake had never known anyone who named their house before.  

            His grandfather said the place had had a name ever since he was a kid.  It had been a farm till it went bust and somebody bought it, built a bunch of scruffy little cabins up against the woods, and turned it into a motor lodge.  They’d named it The Bide-A-Wee and they’d lived in the big two story house with the office where the parlor used to be.   Then the Applewhites, all artsy types, his grandfather said, had moved down from New York and bought it.  The scruffy little cabins were still there, but now the house was part house and part school.

            There were four Applewhite kids, but Jake had only met this one so far -- this A.B. or C.D. or whatever her name was.  Being homeschooled, the Applewhites hadn’t been at Traybridge Middle School during what he liked to think of as the Jake Semple Reign of Terror.  He wondered what the others were like.

            Suddenly there was a scream from somewhere off to the right of the house.  A brown and white German shepherd-sized animal with huge lopsided horns came tearing around the end of the porch and down toward the road.  A long piece of white cloth with flowers on it streamed from its mouth and dragged on the ground, almost tangling in its legs as it ran.  Right behind it, shouting at the top of her lungs, came a tall barefoot girl in a black leotard.   Jake nearly choked on the smoke he had just inhaled.   This one was easy to recognize as a girl!   He thought she might be the most gorgeous girl he’d ever seen.  She was running at first, her long wavy auburn hair streaming out behind her, but she started hopping from one foot to the other when she reached the gravel drive.  From then on her shouting kept getting interrupted by little yelps of pain.

            The animal she was chasing was a goat.  A smelly one.  As fast as it had galloped by, it had left its odor very clearly on the air.  Goat and girl disappeared around the bend in the drive, but the shouting and yelping went on, getting fainter and fainter.

            “Cordelia,” the girl on the step said. “And Wolfie.” 

            “What’s all the fuss?”  Jake’s grandfather came out of the house, a fat dog -- a basset hound -- with ears so long it nearly walked on them with every step, waddling at his heels.  The Applewhites adults were right behind.

            The oldest of them, a wiry old man with white hair and a droopy white mustache, pushed his way through the others and headed straight for the wooden rocking chair in the corner of the porch.  On his way he snatched the cigarette out of Jake’s hand so fast Jake didn’t know what had happened till it was being ground out on the porch floor under the old man’s shoe.

            “Smoke free environment,” he said and sat down on the rocker. “Remember that.”

            Everybody on the porch, including the basset hound, was looking at Jake, and he felt his face starting to heat up.  He looked off the way the goat and the girl had gone, whistling under his breath to let them know that he didn’t care. Not at all.

            The breathtaking girl in the leotard was picking her way back along the drive, carrying what was left of the flowered material as if she had a dead baby in her arms.  It was smudged with red-brown dirt and dotted with burrs. 

            “I’m going to murder that goat, one of these days!” she said.

            Lucille Applewhite, the frizzy haired blond poet whose idea all this was, ran down the porch steps, one hand over her heart.  “You might have murdered him already, yelling and chasing him like that.  He’s probably lying in a heap under a bush somewhere, drawing his last breath.”

            “No he’s not, I chased him into the barn.”

            “Come off it, Lucille,” the man with the shaggy dark hair and goatee said. According to the descriptions Jake’s grandfather had given him, this had to be Randolph Applewhite, the father of the Applewhite children.  “That smelly demon is hostility personified.  It would take more than a little chasing to get him down.”

            “That isn’t hostility.  Wolfbane is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome!”  Lucille turned back to girl in the leotard.  “Whatever were you doing in the goat pen?”

            Cordelia stamped her foot and yelped again.  She had apparently forgotten she was standing in the gravel.  Jake thought she had a particularly musical yelp.  “I was not in the goat pen!  I was in the meadow.  That beastly, smelly, disgusting creature was running loose.  Again!  He tried to murder me.  It was lucky I had a piece of my costume with me to deflect him.”

            Lucille let out a squeal.  “Loose?  He was loose?  What about Hazel?  Where’s Hazel?”

            Cordelia stormed up the porch steps, pushed her way through the crowd of people and stepped over the dog that had flopped down directly in front of the door.  “She’s halfway to Traybridge for all I know.  Ask Destiny!”  The screen door banged shut behind her.

             “Destiny?”  The woman with reading glasses around her neck who’d been jotting notes on a little notepad, looked up now, as if she was just tuning in.  She was famous, Jake knew.  He’d even seen her on television once. She wrote best selling mysteries about a florist who was an amateur detective.  She was also the children’s mother, but her name wasn’t Applewhite, it was Jameson.  Sybil Jameson. 

            “What about Destiny?” she asked now.  “He’s taking a nap.  I sent him to his room half an hour ago, and he promised me he would take a nap.”  She stuck her notepad into the pocket of her oversized shirt and put her pencil behind her ear.  “If he’s out by himself somewhere, we’d better find him.  No telling what he’s getting into.”

            “He’d better not be in the Wood Shop again.  Last time he drilled holes in a foot stool I had nearly finished!”  The man who said this had a crew cut and was wearing a denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up to show tattoos on both arms.  This would be Archie Applewhite, Randolph’s brother and Lucille’s husband.  He and the old man both made wooden furniture.

            “Knowing your work, I can’t believe it made much difference,” Randolph said.  “What are a few drill holes more or less?”

            “You’re just jealous because I have a gallery show coming up and you’re out of work -- again.”

            “Stop arguing and help me find Hazel!”  Lucille said.  “If she gets out on the road she’ll be killed.”

            Jake hadn’t heard a single car go by the whole time he’d been here.  Whoever Hazel was, she didn’t seem likely to get run down the minute she set foot on the road.

            In a matter of moments, Jake found himself alone on the porch with his grandfather, the old man with the mustache, and the dog.  The others had gone off in different directions, Lucille and Archie  yelling for Hazel, the others yelling for Destiny.

            When the voices faded away, it was quiet on the porch, except for the snoring of the dog.  The old man stuck his hand out toward Jake. “Zedediah Applewhite, patriarch of the Applewhite clan,” he said.  “How do you do?”

            Jake looked at the wrinkled, spotted, knobbly old hand.  He was not about to shake the hand that had snatched one of his last precious cigarettes.

            But he didn’t have a choice.  The old man grabbed his hand and shook it in both of his, nearly crushing Jake’s fingers in an amazingly powerful grip.   “Welcome to Wit’s End -- Furniture Factory, Gallery, Studio, Goat Compound and Creative Academy,” Zedediah Applewhite said.

            When the old man let go, Jake shook his hand to make sure the blood could still get to the tips of his fingers.  Then he said a few of his favorite words, just loud enough to be sure they were heard. 

            Zedediah Applewhite didn’t so much as blink.  “You ought to spend a little time with Cordelia,” he said.  “She’s taught my parrot the French for that.  Spanish, Italian and German, too.”

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