Can one mistake destroy the chance of a lifetime? A girl discovers there are many ways of being true in this magnificent ode to handwritten letters and the shining power of friendship from the author of Dovey Coe, set in the Appalachian mountains of 1920s North Carolina.
One true friend. Someone shining. That’s all twelve-year-old Arie Mae wants. But shining true friends are hard to come by deep in the mountains of western North Carolina, so she sets her sights on a cousin unseen, someone who lives all the way away in the big city of Raleigh, North Carolina. Three unanswered letters later, Arie Mae learns that a group of kids from Baltimore are coming to spend a summer on the mountain.
Arie Mae loves her smudge of a town—she knows there’s nothing finer than Pa’s fiddling and Mama’s apple cake, but she also knows Big City folk might feel differently. How else to explain the song catcher ladies who have descended upon the village in search of “traditional tunes” and their intention to help “save” the townspeople? But when the group from Baltimore arrives, it seems there just might be a gem among them, one shining boy who doesn’t seem to notice Arie Mae wears the same dress every day and prefers to go barefoot. So what if he has a bit of a limp and a rumored heart problem—he also is keen about everything Arie Mae is keen about, and has all the makings of a true friend.
And so what if the boy’s mother warns him not to exert himself? He and Arie Mae have adventures to go on! In between writing letters to her cousin, Arie Mae leads her one shining friend on ghost hunts and bear chases. But it turns out those warnings were for a reason…
“Arie Mae’s openheartedness and yearning for connection make for a deeply poignant story, one with a richly realized setting and cast. As Arie Mae begins to see her life in a new light, Dowell (The Second Life of Abigail Walker) examines the clash between city and country life and what true wealth really means” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
This morning I told Mama how I might have to run away and marry a bear if I don’t find someone to call my own true friend. These mountains are near to spilling over with children, and none of them is worth two cents. They are all too old or too young or just plain disappointing.
It’s the least fair thing in the world. James has got Will Maycomb down the road who is full of fun and mischief, and Lucille’s friend Ivadee is a year younger but seems just the same as Lucille, wanting to play House and School Teacher all the day long. Baby John is too young for friends, but when the time comes I am sure he will have a gracious plenty and I will still be sitting here on this porch by myself with so many things to say and not a one to say them to.
If you are a twelve-year-old girl looking for a friend in these parts, you are in a sad and sorry way.
The trouble about saying such things to Mama is that she’ll make you regret it. “You have a nice cousin in Raleigh your age you could be friends with,” Mama said. “It is a sin and a shame that you two don’t know one another.”
Daddy was sitting at the table working out a knot in Old Dan’s harness. He looked up at Mama and said, “The reason they don’t know each other, Idy, is because your sister don’t want nothing to do with us, and she don’t want her children to have nothing to do with our children. That’s the sad but true truth.”
Well, that set Mama to crying and moaning and groaning about how she was an orphan girl, her mama and daddy being dead and her only sister gone off the mountain to Raleigh to be a rich doctor’s wife.
I could see that I was not helping matters by standing there, so I went out to the porch, where I do my best thinking. I sat on the steps and wondered how was I supposed to make friends with someone who I never even laid eyes on. That seemed fairly unlikely to me, especially if that person’s mama was against the idea from the get-go.
Could that be true, Cousin Caroline? Does your mama really not want us to know one another? I’ve never heard of someone not wanting to know me. I surely want to know you.
I believe this is a matter that needs to be cleared up.
Here is how I come up with the idea to write my cousin Caroline a letter. I was out feeding the chickens a few mornings later, happy to be outside, since Mama was in the kitchen, her face still full of gloom. I knowed that until we got Mama cheered back up again, life would be miserable for all of us. She’d forget to put sugar in her pound cakes and make us take baths twice a day. Why, she’d probably serve us bowls of water for Sunday dinner instead of chicken stew.
I felt so strongly that if I could just meet my cousin, we would become the best of friends, and that would make Mama happy. Maybe the thing to do was steal away on Old Dan and ride to Raleigh. The problem with that plan was Old Dan was not a good riding horse. He had ideas of his own about where to go and how fast to get there. Another problem was that I weren’t quite clear on how to get to Raleigh, which would slow down my trip considerably.
Then I thought about how maybe I could hop the train that went down the mountain to Morganton, and then catch another train to Raleigh. Then, when I got to Raleigh, I could buy a map and find my way to Cousin Caroline’s house. But what if she weren’t home? And what if I got caught riding the rails like a tramp? Didn’t a person go to jail for that? Did they put twelve-year-old girls in jail? I reckoned they might, and then Mama would cry even more, and everybody would be more miserable than before.
And then it come to me. Why, making friends with my cousin was the easiest thing in the world! I stomped up the front steps to the house and found Mama in the kitchen.
“I am going to write Cousin Caroline a letter!” I told her. “Just give me a piece of paper and consider it done.”
That cheered Mama up tolerably well.
Pencil and paper in hand, I walked out to the porch, sat down on the top step, and commenced to writing. After my introductory remarks, I added some things I thought Cousin Caroline ought to know about me straightaways. I thought it best to mention that I have light-red hair that some call strawberry, but no freckles, and there are some that say I am cursed because of it. I don’t believe in such a thing as curses. Dreama Brown’s granny told us a tale of conjure ladies who live on the far eastern shores and wear gold hoops in their ears and put spells on folks. That sounds interesting to me, but I don’t believe in it.
After I wrote about curses, I wondered if that was the right way to fill up a letter. What did children down in Raleigh talk about and think about of a day? How did they fill the hours? Did they have chores that kept them busy all morning, the way that me and James and Lucille did? Might could be that if your daddy was a doctor, you didn’t have to do a thing in your life, just lean back on your fancy bed and eat candies that your butler handed you one by one.
What did I have to say of interest to a girl with a butler and probably a maid who buttoned the back of her dress every morning?
Well, I told myself, Lucille buttons my top back button for me, so that’s almost like having a maid. I laughed to think of what a sad and sorry maid Lucille would make, bossing everyone about and saying, “You’uns pick up your own mess, I’m off to play tea party with Ivadee!”
Lucille would not think twice about sending a letter to our cousin, no matter how many butlers and maids they might have down there in Raleigh. That thought give me courage, and suddenly I had so many things to say, I didn’t rightly know where to start.
My pencil raced down the paper as the words tumbled out. I wrote about the time Will Maycomb brought a live chicken in a flour sack for Sunday offering, and I wrote about the summer I was nine and went through a spell of sleep-walking, how I kept climbing out on the roof and Daddy ended up nailing my window shut, even though I never once fell off.
I wrote about how James got a fishhook caught in his hand this past May and made me pull it out because the sight of his own blood causes him to faint straight to the ground. I wrote about our old dog, Bob, who run away when I was four and who I have never once forgotten.
I had about a hundred stories at the tips of my fingers, and I decided to write down every last one and let Cousin Caroline pick out her favorites. I sat there on the steps until supper, telling one tale after another, sure that once she read my letter, my cousin would certainly want to be friends with a girl such as myself.
I hope you will write me back, Cousin Caroline, and tell me such things as the color of your hair and when your birthday is and whether or not you like to read as much as James does. I don’t care for reading myself, as I get squirrelly sitting all alone. But I like it when Mama reads to us of an evening from the books of Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott, which a missionary lady give to her when she was but a girl over on Cub Creek Mountain, and your mama was also a girl sitting by her side.
Arie Mae desperately wants a friend. Living in the North Carolina mountains in the 1920s, she’s in “a sad and sorry way” because she has so few other twelve-year-olds to choose from. Her pencil races down the paper as she writes letters to a cousin she’s never met, hoping that will bring friendship. And when Tom, a boy from Baltimore, arrives with a group to study traditional crafts, he shines with possibilities. They trade stories and share encounters with a black bear and an elusive ghost. Travel back in time to Arie Mae’s colorful life that’s poor in worldly goods but rich in family, neighbors, music, and unexpected friendships.
1. The opening letter tells a lot about Arie Mae and her personality. Discuss what the letter, its details, and its language reveal about her and her life. What does the letter foreshadow about the rest of the story?
2. Friendship is at the center of Anybody Shining. What efforts does Arie Mae take to make a new friend? Discuss what she and Tom do together. Why do they get along so well? Talk about the incident when Tom gets sick on the way to Aunt Jennie’s, and what it shows about him and Arie Mae. What other friendships are important in the story?
3. “Anybody shining, well, they are the one to be my friend,” says Arie Mae when she first meets Tom. Why does she describe him as shining? Why do you think this supplies the title for the book? The ghost of Oza is also shining. How does that connect to the title and to Arie Mae’s view of Tom?
4. Compare Arie Mae and Lucille, and discuss how they get along. How do they each react to Ruth? What does that show about their personalities? Discuss what the sisters have in common with Ruth and how their lives differ from hers.
5. Arie Mae’s family has given Harlan a home and treats him like one of their own. What does it show about her parents? Describe Harlan’s background and Lucille’s role in helping him. What is he like in appearance and personality, and how does he fit into the family?
6. Arie Mae writes of songcatchers and missionaries, “I wonder why there are so many folks who look at us and are unsatisfied by what they see?” What scenes and conversations show what Arie Mae’s family and neighbors think about outsiders coming to help them? Describe their feelings about it, both positive and negative.
7. Describe what you learn about Mama’s sister, Anna. Why did she cut ties with her family? Why did she keep the letters away from Caroline? What made her change her mind?
8. Miss Keller says that the songs on the radio “lack the nobility of our mountain ballads,” Arie Mae reports. Describe the conflict between Arie Mae’s father and the songcatchers. What does Miss Keller mean by the “nobility” of the traditional music? What is Daddy’s attitude toward the traditional and new music? Discuss how the barn dance in Chapter 19 helps resolve their differences.
9. Similarly, the settlement school teaches crafts like weaving cloth and baskets, many of which are rarely practiced in the mountains anymore. Arie Mae says of split-bottom chairs that she’d rather get her chairs from the Sears catalog. Why is the settlement school teaching the crafts? Why do the Baltimore people want to learn them? Explain why Arie Mae and her family might prefer store-bought furniture and clothes.
10. What is the significance of Mama’s apple stack cake? Explain why Arie Mae changes her mind about sharing it at the picnic and how Miss Pittman later reacts to the cake. In what way does that type of cake connect Arie Mae and Caroline?
11. Tom’s tutor says of writing, “It’s all about collecting the details.” Find details in Arie Mae’s letters to Caroline that paint vivid pictures. Choose a person that Arie Mae describes in her letters and identify details that bring them to life for the reader.
12. Near the end, Arie Mae writes to Caroline, “We knowed we was rich, Cousin Caroline, even if we was poor.” What does she mean by this? Discuss ways that her family is rich and ways that they are poor. Consider which outsiders would agree with Arie Mae’s view and why you think that.
13. The story takes place in the mountains of North Carolina in 1924. Elaborate on the setting in terms of time and place, and analyze how important the setting is to the story. What are some indications that life in Baltimore or Raleigh is different from life in Stone Gap?
14. Why did the author choose the device of telling some of the story through letters to Cousin Caroline? Discuss the impact of the letters on the reader, and how the story would be different if it were all a straightforward first person narrative. Talk about Arie Mae’s voice, including her use of colorful language and what it adds to the story.
Now and Then
Have students, working alone or in pairs, create a large Venn diagram to compare and contrast their lives with Arie Mae’s. They can consider topics like food, clothes, communication, and transportation as well as the role of family and friends. Once the diagram is complete, have students compare their results and discuss how much the book revealed about Arie Mae’s life.
Dear Arie Mae
When Arie Mae saw she had a letter from Cousin Caroline, she “feared it would be short and polite . . . but that weren’t the case at all.” Have students write the letter that Caroline might have sent, using clues from Arie Mae’s last letter. Have the students share their letters in small groups and note the similarities and differences.
Traditional Crafts or Sears Catalog?
Have students compile the different views expressed in the book about traditional crafts versus store-bought items. Assign each student one side of the issue and have them debate one another about which is best, combining thoughts from the book with their own ideas. After the debates, discuss the topic as a group and examine the validity of both sides.
Genuine Old-Time Music
Arie Mae’s mother sings “Barbry Allen” and her father plays “Cluck Old Hen.” As a class, listen to the versions below of these songs, which were recorded in the 1930s and 1960s. Have students compare the versions and compare the music, including the quality of recordings, to the music they listen to themselves for pleasure.
Arie Mae says that woolly worm stripes can predict winter weather, and Tom shares a weather belief about acorns. As a class, compile a list of weather prediction beliefs, starting with those in the book and ones that students have heard. Have students add to the list through print and digital research, and by asking people they know. They should also look for scientific proof, if any, and share it in a class discussion.
And Then What?
Have students pick a time in Arie Mae’s future and write a narrative about what happens to her. It could be in the near future, such as Cousin Caroline’s visit, or it could be when Arie Mae is an older teen or adult. Their ideas should be grounded in the novel and Arie Mae’s character. Have each student present their narrative to the class and answer questions from their classmates.
Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a former school librarian and Chair of the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She gives professional development workshops on books for young people and is the author of Great Books for Girls and Great Books about Things Kids Love.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Frances O’Roark Dowell is the bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Dovey Coe, which won the Edgar Award and the William Allen White Award; Where I’d Like to Be; The Secret Language of Girls and its sequels The Kind of Friends We Used to Be and The Sound of Your Voice, Only Really Far Away; Chicken Boy; Shooting the Moon, which was awarded the Christopher Award; the Phineas L. MacGuire series; Falling In; The Second Life of Abigail Walker, which received three starred reviews; Anybody Shining;Ten Miles Past Normal; Trouble the Water; the Sam the Man series; The Class; and most recently, How to Build a Story. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. Connect with Frances online at FrancesDowell.com.