Stepping through Walk Two Moons

Book Links April/May 2002 (v.11, no.5)

by Marta S. Segal

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech is a story within a story, a story about stories, a travelogue, and a fable all rolled into one. It is about kisses, families, cultural identity, redemption, education, travel, death, and love. Sharon Creech's Newbery Medal-winning book is the rare novel that students will choose on their own, but is also appropriate for classroom discussion.

A year before the start of the story, 13-year-old Salamanca (Sal) Tree Hiddle and her father moved from their Kentucky farm to a small Ohio town. Prior to the move Sal's mother went on a bus trip to Idaho and never returned. Sal now retraces her mother's roots in a car trip with her eccentric paternal grandparents. She is convinced that if she makes it to Idaho by her mother's birthday, her mother might return. Sal is so convinced, and so convincing a narrator, that even an adult reader may be forgiven for making it pretty far through the book before realizing that Sal's mother is actually dead.

To help pass time on the trip Sal tells her grandparents about her new life in Ohio. The majority of her story is taken up by Sal's friend, Phoebe Winterbottom. Phoebe comes from a solidly middle-class and decidedly proper family. So it is a surprise when her mother disappears, leaving several weeks' worth of frozen entrées in the freezer. Phoebe is convinced that a maniac has kidnapped her, and she involves Sal in her plans to find both the maniac and her missing mother. When Phoebe's mother does return, it is with a new haircut and a long-lost son, the man previously suspected of maniacal tendencies.

Next door to Phoebe live Sal's father's new friend, Mrs. Cadaver, and her blind mother, Mrs. Partridge. Mrs. Partridge begins leaving written maxims at Phoebe's front door, such as "We never know the worth of the water until the well is dry." These notes add to Phoebe's paranoia and help Sal organize her thoughts about her own mother and her life. Mrs. Cadaver's brother, Mr. Birkway, is the girls' overeager English teacher. With his unthinking reading aloud of students' journals and dramatic interpretations of e. e. cummings' poetry, he is well-meaning but clueless, a type that will be familiar to students and teachers alike. Also in the class are Mary Lou Finney and her cousin Ben, Sal's romantic interest. Loud and rambunctious, Mary Lou and Ben come from a decidedly different kind of family from Phoebe's.

As Sal and her grandparents get closer to their destination, Sal's grandmother becomes ill, eventually dying. This loss is what helps Sal finally to come to terms with her mother's death. Sal makes her way to the site where her mother died, and we discover what actually happened. Sal's mother was killed in a bus crash, and Mrs. Cadaver was sitting next to her and was the only survivor of the crash. Sal and her grandfather return to Ohio, and after finally reaching some closure, Sal, her father, and her grandfather return to Kentucky.

Because of its multiple plot lines and subject matter, Walk Two Moons can add value to a variety of classroom activities. Below are discussion questions and suggestions for activities that help the novel become a cross-curricular book.

Discussion Questions In order to have a successful conversation about the book, it is of course necessary to make sure students are reading the assigned chapters. Students often become bored with simple recall questions. Below are questions designed to simultaneously test recall and spur discussion or writing.

Chapters 1-4


  • Sal says her story is hidden beneath Phoebe's. What do you think she means by this?
  • Why is Phoebe's father so upset when the man at the state fair misguesses his age? Why is Phoebe so defensive about her father's age? In what ways does Phoebe's father act like he is 52?
  • What does Sal mean when she says that it was an "act of defiance" for Grandmother Pickford to name Sal's mother "Chanahassen"?
  • What do you think has happened to Sal's mother?

Chapters 5-8


  • What makes Sal think Mrs. Winterbottom is unhappy?
  • Contrast the way Gram and Gramps speak with the way the Winterbottoms speak. Do the same with Phoebe and Mary Lou. What do we learn about the characters from their speech?
  • Sal says she feels "betrayed" by her mother. What does she mean by this?
  • Why does Sal's mother react the way she does to Sal's father's giving them flowers?
  • In what ways is Sal conflicted about her mother's leaving?
  • Why does Gram's smell make Sal sad?

Chapters 9-12


  • In what ways is Mary Lou's house different from Phoebe's? In what ways is it different from Sal's home in Bybanks? Whose family would you most like to live with?
  • Phoebe gets a message that says, "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins." What does this mean?
  • Why do Sal and her mother prefer the term Indian to Native American?
  • What does "Everyone has his own agenda" mean? Who do you think is leaving the messages?
  • Why did Gramps hit his best friend in the jaw?

Chapters 13-16


  • Does Phoebe's mom really like to put the groceries away by herself? Why does Sal think Phoebe's mom is upset? Why does Phoebe think she's fine? What does Phoebe's mom mean by "tiny life"?
  • Why does the boy go with the Hiddles to the hospital?
  • By the end of chapter 16, what are the whispers saying to Sal? Why?

Chapters 17-20

  • Why does Sal feel bad about yelling at her mother?
  • Why does Sal's father's being good make Sal's mother unhappy?
  • Why did Sal's mother leave?
  • Why did Sal's mother get upset at being called Sugar?
  • In what way does Mr. Birkway remind Sal of her mother?
  • How does Sal feel about "The Little Horse is NewLY," the poem that Mr. Birkway reads?
  • When Phoebe tells her mother about the lunatic, why doesn't her mother call the police?
  • How does Phoebe's family react to her mother's leaving? How does Sal react? In what ways are their reactions different from each other? How are they the same?

Chapters 21-24


  • Why does Sal think the drawing of a tear is Phoebe's?
  • Why does Phoebe feel sick?
  • Why did Phoebe's mother leave the freezer full of meals?
  • Why did Sal's mother want to see her cousin?
  • After crossing the Badlands, what does Sal dream about?

Chapters 25-28

  • Why does Phoebe make such a big deal about what she eats at the Finneys?
  • When Phoebe spends the night, why do she and Sal fight?
  • What does Sal dream about?
  • Why are Sal's grandparents so happy that she knows Phoebe's mother's leaving wasn't Phoebe's fault?
  • Why do you think Sal is afraid of cars?
  • Why don't Sal and her grandparents like Mount Rushmore? Why does Sal think the Sioux might be upset about the monument?

Chapters 29-32

  • Why does Sal find the poem "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls" by Longfellow so upsetting? How does Ben feel about it?
  • In what way does Sal think she and Phoebe are alike?
  • "We never know the worth of water until the well runs dry." In what ways so far has the story illustrated this?
  • Why is the class so upset when Mr. Birkway reads their journals out loud?
  • Mrs. Cadaver and Mr. Birkway are twins--in what ways are they alike?
  • What does the picture of the vase that Mr. Birkway shows the class have to do with poetry?

Chapters 33-36

  • Why does Mr. Birkway apologize to Phoebe?
  • How does Sal feel when she walks in Mrs. Cadaver's moccasins?
  • Why does Gram tell Gramps about the egg man's letter?

Chapters 37-40

  • Why does Sal run after seeing Phoebe's mother?
  • What makes Sal feel like a newly born colt?
  • In what way is Ben's situation like Phoebe's or Sal's?
  • Why doesn't Phoebe tell her family about seeing her mother?
  • Why does Sal agree to go to Phoebe's house?
  • Why didn't Mrs. Winterbottom tell her husband about her son?
  • How does Mr. Winterbottom feel about Mike? How does he feel about Mrs. Winterbottom?
  • Why do Phoebe and Sal spit?

Chapters 41-44

  • In what way is Sal's mother's leaving like Moody Blue and the puppies?
  • Why does Gramps give Sal the keys to the car?
  • Why does Sal want to go onto the bus?
  • Why do the police take Sal to her mother's grave?
  • Why doesn't Sal look for the singing bird?
  • How do Sal's father and Mrs. Cadaver know each other? Why are they friends?
  • What does Sal mean when she says that Phoebe needs the lunatic?

Activities

  • Before beginning the book, obtain a map of the United States, as well as individual maps of the different states Sal and her grandparents drive through. (The states are Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.) As Sal and her grandparents progress through their trip, students can trace the route with a highlighter and use pins to mark the places they've visited. Have students calculate the mileage and approximate driving times of different portions of the trip.
  • As an alternate activity, have students draw what they imagine a map of the states might look like as they read the book. When they are finished with the book, compare their imaginary maps to a U.S. map. This activity is appropriate for students who are capable of discussing rather abstract concepts of space.
  • Along the way the Hiddles visit several national parks and monuments. Using the National Park Service Web site listed in the "Web Connections" sidebar on p.36, have students take a virtual road trip to these places, and assign small groups to prepare reports on each site the Hiddles visit.
  • The Hiddles pass through Yellowstone and Badlands National Parks. Divide the class into two groups. Invite one group to study and explain to the class how geysers such as Old Faithful are formed. The other group should study and explain how the rock formations of the Badlands came about. Both of these natural wonders are visually stunning, and photographs should be part of the presentation.
  • Mr. Birkway gives his students 15 seconds to draw "their souls." Have your students do the same and then discuss whether they find the pictures to be accurate representations. Would the pictures be better if there was more time involved?
  • Throughout the book Sal discusses the different terms used to describe Native Americans: Indians, Injuns, Native Indians, and American Indians. Have students discuss the origin of the name Indians and why some Native Americans dislike the term.
  • Have each student choose a character from the book and make up a list of words that character would use in dialogue. Students can then trade their lists and try to guess the characters using the lists.
  • Several Greek and Native American myths are told in the book. Use these as a springboard and invite students to prepare a report on or write a retelling of a Greek or Native American myth.
  • Proverbs and aphorisms feature largely in Walk Two Moons. Have students discuss whether they agree with the ones Mrs. Partridge leaves at Phoebe's front door. Invite students to write their own proverbs for different situations in the book.
  • Mr. Birkway reads two poems--"The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls" by Longfellow and "The Little Horse is newLY" by cummings--that affect Sal strongly. Read the poems aloud and discuss students' reactions to them. Have students read other poems by the same authors and discuss not only their reactions but also what they imagine Sal and her classmates might think of the poems.
  • Walk Two Moons is an excellent way to introduce several literary techniques, including foreshadowing. Discuss with students the ways in which Gram's death is foreshadowed. Then discuss the ways in which Sal's mother's story is revealed.

Bibliography

Creech, Sharon. Absolutely Normal Chaos. 1995. 240p. HarperCollins, $16.95 (0-06-026989-8); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.95 (0-06-440632-6).
This companion novel to Walk Two Moons is Mary Lou Finney's summer journal. Students will finally discover why Alex gets so angry with Mary Lou for describing him as "pink."

Creech, Sharon. Love That Dog: A Novel. 2001. 112p. HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler, $14.95 (0-06-029287-3).
For students intrigued by the poetry Sal encounters, this slender novel will be a treat. Written as a series of free-verse poems from a boy's point of view, it is a strangely emotional story about poetry and love.

Creech, Sharon. The Wanderer. 2001. 320p. HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler, $15.95 (0-06-027730-0); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-06-441032-3).
Although they have very different ettings, this title and Creech's latest book, Ruby Holler (HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler, 2002), both involve travel and multigeneration family stories. Also involving the same themes are Creech's Chasing Redbird (HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler, 1997) and Bloomability (HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler, 1998).

Doherty, Craig A., and Katherine M. Doherty. Mount Rushmore. 1995. 48p. Blackbirch, $17.95 (1-56711-108-4); paper, $11.95 (1-56711-546-2).
This Building America series book discusses the planning, funding, sculpting, and maintenance of the enormous carvings of four presidents, as well as the continuing controversy concerning the taking of the Black Hills from the Sioux and the use of Mount Rushmore for the monument.

E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962. Edited by George J. Firmage. 1994. 1100p. Liveright, $50 (0-87140-152-5).
This collection of cummings' poetry contains "The Little Horse is newLY." Note that not all poems in the volume are appropriate for younger readers.

Freedman, Russell. The Life and Death of Crazy Horse. 1996. 144p. Holiday, $21.95 (0-8234-1219-9).
Freedman tells the bloody war story of the great Oglala Sioux warrior without sensationalism. Crazy Horse's role in the Sioux's independence struggle against the move to reservations is the focus.

Gallant, Roy A. Geysers: When Earth Roars. 1997. 64p. Watts, $23 (0-531-20288-7).
Gallant takes readers around the world to visit geyser fields in Russia, Iceland, New Zealand, and the U.S. Full-color photographs and diagrams bring the topic into clear focus.

Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings. Edited by J. D. McClatchy. 2000. 875p. Library of America, $35 (1-883011-85-X).
This collection features Longfellow's "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls," as well as many of his other poems.

McCaughrean, Geraldine. Greek Myths. Illus. by Emma Chichester Clark. 1993. 96p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, $20 (0-689-50583-3).
Sixteen epic stories of heroes and monsters, gods and warriors, are retold here in a style that's as great for reading aloud and storytelling as it is for introducing middle-grade readers to Greek myths.

Philip, Neil. T he Great Mystery: Myths of Native America. 2001. 160p. Clarion, $25 (0-395- 98405-X).
This book of Native American mythology is divided into eight chapters, each exploring the common themes and stories told by tribes in a single region. The rather complex lacework of stories and their variants makes this best suited for sophisticated readers.

Titelman, Gregory. Random House Dictionary of America's Popular Proverbs and Sayings. 1996; reissued 2000. 512p. Random, paper, $16.95 (0-375-70584-4).
This volume lists more than 1,600 proverbs and sayings, tracing their roots and listing their usage in the media and elsewhere.

Web Connections

  • A few minutes away from Mount Rushmore is the Crazy Horse monument. The Crazy Horse Memorial Web site at http://www.crazyhorse.org will give students an overview of the construction of the monument.
  • The National Park Service Web site at http://www.nps.gov/index.htm features a printable travel guide for many U.S. national parks.
  • At the University of Western Kentucky's Hoffman Institute of Environmental Research at http://hoffman.wku.edu/geysers/, users will find an explanation of how geysers work in easy-to-understand language.
  • At the Yellowstone National Park Web site at http://www.nps.gov/yell/oldfaithfulcam.htm, users can watch Old Faithful as it erupts.

Audio Connection

  • Walk Two Moons. Read by Kate Harper. Listening Library. 4 cassettes. (6hrs.), $32 (0-8072-7871-8). To order, telephone 800-541-5525.

A former teacher, Marta S. Segal was the editorial director for That's a Fact, Jack: Read!, a reading-motivation CD-ROM game. She currently works for the Great Books Foundation.