In the tradition of Rooftoppers and Three Times Lucky, critically acclaimed author Jessica Lawson returns with her fourth whimsical, lyrical, and heartfelt middle grade novel about a girl who’s desperately trying to keep her life together, when everything seems to be falling apart.
In the weeks leading up to Gilbreth, New York’s annual AutumnFest, twelve-year-old woodcraft legacy Minna Treat is struggling with looming deadlines, an uncle trying to hide Very Bad News, and a secret personal quest. When she discovers mysterious bottle messages under one of the village’s 300-year-old bridges, she can’t help but wonder who’s leaving them, what they mean, and, most importantly…could the messages be for her?
Along with best friend Crash and a mystery-loving newcomer full of suspicious theories, Minna is determined to discover whether the bottles are miraculously leading her toward long-lost answers she’s been looking for, or drawing her into a disaster of historic proportions.
Under the Bottle Bridge The Weaver’s Prediction In 1691, William Treat, a London-based maker of fine woodcraft, came down with a stomach ailment that took his life. Before he passed away, he bade his four sons to take heart, to be kind when tested but less kind when life called for it, to befriend danger and embrace discovery, and to avoid meat that smelled like feet. Lastly, he told them to whistle along with the hymns at his funeral because they all had singing voices that sounded like feral cats flung into frigid bathwater.
The apothecary shop was a dusky sort of dark, with drawn curtains and narrow wooden shelves stocked with remedies and tinctures and dried herbs. Freestanding candles and oil lamps fastened to the walls sent shadows dancing, reminding me of how unearthly I’d found the place as a child. It was like an enchanted mole hole, a hollow hoard of strange smells and spells displayed among lights flickering in a permanent midnight. I stood waiting, the owner’s back to me as he hummed and searched the oils for my uncle’s request.
Mrs. Poppy sat in a corner next to a small, ancient-looking cabinet covered in leaf carvings, working small miracles on her handheld loom. She and her sister had a weaving shop down the street, but it was closed on most Sundays. She caught me looking and smiled, holding up her work. “Pumpkin blankets for pets, dear, suitable for anything from dogs to hamsters. The tourists just love them.”
I grazed the pumpkin’s stem with my fingertips. “It’s soft.”
Her head bobbed toward her husband. “I was just telling Mr. Poppy that I’m thinking of doing readings this year too. Weavers in my family have been known to have the second sight, you know.”
Mr. Poppy snickered, coughed hard, covered his mouth, then wiped both hands on his jacket. He wore his usual working clothes, a Revolutionary War uniform passed down by relatives through the years.
“I heard that, Zeke. Let me practice on you, Minna.” Mrs. Poppy grabbed my offered hand and squinted at it, muttering silent words and then licking her lips. She looked up at me in surprise. “You are about to embark on a journey of great discovery.”
That was news to me. “I am?”
She frowned and bent her head again. “Or is that great danger?” Dropping my hand, she placed one of her palms over my forehead and shut her eyes. “There will be a great trouble of some kind . . . an accident . . . a flash of light . . . no, a fire!” She opened her eyes and blinked. “A fire?” Swiftly twisting my hand, she examined its side. “And you’ll have sixteen children? Oh, that can’t be right.”
My hand was getting tingly. I jerked it back.
“Hope not,” both Mr. Poppy and I said.
She sighed and pointed to a twig frame on the wall. In the middle was a photograph of the Poppys on their wedding day. “Your frame is still up. Do you think you might make a frame for your project, dear?” She asked the question with an easy nonchalance while her fingers busied themselves like spider legs weaving a web. I could tell she was digging for information.
I studied the frame and blushed. “I made that when I was five. It’s terrible. And no, I’ll definitely make something better than a frame.”
She clucked like a mother hen. “I happen to like that frame. Not going to tell me about your project, though? Typical woodworker.”
“Typical weaver, more like,” barked Mr. Poppy.
Every type of traditional art practiced in the village came with its own labels that rivaled astrological charts.
Gilbreth potters were moody. The evidence could be traced back to a 1714 incident involving an unlucky potter who caught rabies from his cat, which had gotten it in a narrow escape from an infected wolf. The potter survived and went on to have a big family, but remained twitchy and morose and unpredictable his entire life.
Gilbreth stonemasons had vicious tempers, first recorded in a journal entry by a weaver who’d made the mistake of insulting a stonemason’s technique. In return, the weaver received a stone dropped on his foot, breaking it.
Herbalists were peacemakers, blacksmiths were untrustworthy, weavers were gossips, silversmiths thought they were royalty, candlemakers were nostalgic, glassblowers were impulsive.
And woodworkers . . . well, I hated to admit it, but the label was true: Woodworkers were secretive.
“I like what’s in the middle of the frame best,” Mr. Poppy called.
“I did look nice, didn’t I?” Mrs. Poppy patted her cotton-ball hair and blew a sentimental kiss to the old photograph inside the frame. “I can’t wait to see what you’ll be presenting at Bonfire Night, dear. You’ve got talent in your blood, you know.” She put down her weaving. “Where’s Christopher Hardly? You and that freckly boy are usually glued at the hip.”
She raised a drawn-on eyebrow and looked me up and down. “Don’t be in a hurry to grow up. You’re not ready for a boyfriend. I was in a hurry to grow up, and what did I get for it? Triplets, that’s what, who then moved to Sedona to hawk their father’s recipes to reborn hippies.”
I stifled a snort. “We’re best friends, Mrs. Poppy, that’s all. We’re a very solid friendship crew of two.”
She let out a soft, breathy laugh. “Well, I wouldn’t worry about him being competition at the contest this year. I heard that he broke another vase the other day. Just a small one, but still.” She patted her hair again. “You would never know he’s a Hardly.”
This village bred all sorts of talent, but in school we were taught that Gilbreth, New York, had survived and thrived because of two skills in particular: woodworking and glassworking. Fine woodcraft made by my descendants long ago with our heavily guarded techniques, and more recently, glassware made famous by my best friend’s descendants when Crash’s great-grandfather had a dream and spontaneously whisked his whole family across the country to New York.
My best friend had gotten his nickname back when he started his early training with glassblowing—just observation stuff, but that was still close enough to do some serious damage.
On the day before first grade started, he broke a vase his father was going to sell for $5,750 to a collector in Baltimore.
Then he broke a sculpture that his mother was working on for a special exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He hid in our old tree house for two full days when that one happened. The whole town was looking for him, and I was the one who found him, curled up in a corner with a spoon and a jar of peanut butter.
When he started accidentally breaking projects of his much older brothers and sisters, they started calling him Crash, and it stuck.
He didn’t mean to break things. Some people are just klutzes, and it’s not like young kids and glass are a real great mix. Accidents happen in every artisan group. That’s why Uncle Theo doesn’t have a left-hand pinkie finger (circular saw incident) and why Grandma Treat had a major scar on her left forearm (hot tea and nail gun incident). Grandpa Treat had a glass eyeball from when he and his twin brother played too rough with the claw ends of hammers when they were kids.
Still, we lived in a village where children of serious tradesmen were fully expected to carry on tradition or risk being labeled a traitor. Sure, we could go to college, but anyone who didn’t either come back to Gilbreth or continue their family’s traditional art elsewhere was “lost.” Even families like the Hardlys and the Bhagawatis and the Lees, who’d been in Gilbreth for only three generations, had a fairly stringent, unspoken rule of loyalty and legacy.
“Crash will do fine, Mrs. Poppy.”
“He better. It’s in his blood. If he doesn’t improve soon, he’ll end up like his lost sister, Lorelei. She got a new job, I heard. Raising money for some college. She might as well be our new mayor—did you hear he wants to plow half of Torrey Wood for subdivisions? Subdivisions!” Mrs. Poppy spit the word out like it was a rotten, slimy grape.
“Here we go, then. . . .” Mr. Poppy arranged his selections on his blending counter and poured a long dose of oil from a wooden flask marked SUNFLOWER. Slowly, carefully, he began adding essential oils by the drop. “I’m glad he sent you to me. Do you know that Treats and Poppys have been friends for centuries?”
I shook my head.
“Oh, yes. It was your ancestor who stood up for my ancestor’s daughters when they were accused of witchery after the Maybeck hanging—just for the herbal knowledge in their heads, can you believe that? Elias Treat saved their lives and reputations, cross my heart. In fact, no charge today.” With two fingers he tapped the lid. “It’s lavender and rosemary, with a hint of sweet orange.” He scrubbed at a spot on the counter. “Plus a little hawthorn and passionflower. Helps with sorrow, and also stress in case he’s been worried about—”
“Now just zip it, Zeke,” Mrs. Poppy said, flashing him a warning glance. “Don’t go repeating everything you hear.”
“Ha! That’s a peach, you telling me to zip it.” Mr. Poppy tapped the small jar against the back wall three times, right in the middle of a hanging necklace. Its braided leather cord was strung up and held open with four nails. A tiny, carved wooden horse dangled from the bottom.
“Why did you tap the jar like that?”
“Hmm?” He turned back to me and dropped the small jar into my open hand, his wrinkled hand sinking down to cover the lid. His other hand cupped mine on the bottom as he leaned over, half-moon glasses slipping down his substantial nose. He smelled like cherry candy and tobacco and clean sheets.
“Why did you tap it in the middle of the horse necklace?”
“Brings good health to the patient. That’s what my father used to say. He tapped his remedies like that, and his father did the same. That thing has hung there for years, and not one of my relatives remembered who exactly it first belonged to.”
I leaned over the counter for a closer look. “It’s a good carving.”
“It is. Now, this is premixed, but tell your uncle to give it a little shake before he uses it. Drops at the temple, behind the ears, and smoothed over the top of his forehead. Like this.” He demonstrated, then waved a hand. “Should take care of his headache within fifteen minutes. It’s all on the label. Happy Season, dear. You’re a good girl.”
“Some days more than others,” I said lightly, trying not to stare at his thick crop of nose hair. I nestled the jar into my tool-belt pocket, eager to get back into the light of the Town Square sidewalks. “Thanks, Mr. Poppy. Happy Season.”
I had no idea where the Gilbreth saying came from, celebrating the bittersweet time when leaves turned from green to autumn shades on their way toward annual deaths, but as soon as the first trees changed, the phrase mystically appeared. I’d never heard Uncle Theo say it.
A bird flew across my path as I pushed the door open, brushing my face with its wings and disappearing before I could trace its flight. The Hardlys’ shop was closed, and I remembered Crash saying something about a family Sunday supply run. I hadn’t seen him all weekend. I hurried home, crossing the Village Green.
The sun was already grazing the tops of the trees. Uncle Theo would be waiting, and the fastest way home was through the forest. Selecting a small stone from the ground, I slipped into the sea of trees.
Just before I entered the woods, I could have sworn I saw a flash of black out of the corner of my right eye, moving evenly with me somewhere among the oaks and maples and elms, the ash, birch, and beech. But when I glanced over, it had disappeared.
Jessica Lawson is the author of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, a book that Publishers Weekly called “a delightfully clever debut” in a starred review, and Nooks & Crannies, a Junior Library Guild Selection and recipient of three starred reviews. She is also the author of Waiting for Augusta and Under the Bottle Bridge. You can visit her at JessicaLawsonBooks.com.