The story of of the orphan boy Moon, begun in Watt Key's award-winning Alabama Moon, continues with Dirt Road Home
After his recapture, gutsy 14-year-old Hal Mitchell is sentenced to live at Hellenweiler, an institution that is more like a jail than the boys' home it's supposed to be. Hal could walk out in just a few months if he keeps out of trouble. But in a place like Hellenweiler, the more he tries to avoid the gangs and their violence, the stronger Hal's fellow inmates try to make him fail. This title has Common Core connections.
"Key does a fabulous job of keeping his readers involved in the story and vested in the characters. Even reluctant readers will most likely find this one hard to put down." VOYA
About the Author
Albert Watkins Key, Jr., publishing under the name Watt Key, is an award-winning southern fiction author. He grew up and currently lives in southern Alabama with his wife and family. Watt spent much of his childhood hunting and fishing the forests of Alabama, which inspired his debut novel, Alabama Moon, published to national acclaim in 2006. Alabama Moon won the 2007 E. B. White Read-Aloud Award and has been translated in seven languages. Key's second novel, Dirt Road Home, was published in 2010.
Read an Excerpt
Dirt Road Home
By Watt Key
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2010 Albert Watkins Key, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Late Sunday morning Officer Pete delivered me in chains to the Hellenweiler Boys' Home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was officially "property of the state" and sentenced to live there until I was eighteen. This place would be hard time, especially since I was considered a problem case and an escape risk. But I figured I could handle it. I'd already done two years in the Pinson Boys' Home. Besides, I didn't plan on sticking around long.
There were two places a ward of the state could go after Pinson: Live Oak and Hellenweiler. Everybody talked about Live Oak like it was a vacation. Nobody talked about Hellenweiler. It was for the repeat offenders and trouble kids. I was both and I'd known for a long time that Live Oak wasn't in my future. The only reason I was three months late was because it took them that long to catch me after my escape. And the only reason they caught me was because I turned myself in to help out a friend. Now he was gone and I had to face a whole new set of friends and enemies. Except this time I was no longer the biggest, oldest boy at the home. I was a new fish.
I shuffled toward the guardhouse ahead of Officer Pete, the leg shackles restricting my steps and bruising my ankles. In the distance I heard a church bell. Sundays were supposed to be the beginning of the week, but they'd always felt like the end of it to me. All I could think about were the days ahead as dread puddled in the pit of my stomach. This time the dread was so strong it made me dizzy. I blinked my eyes and swallowed against the awful feeling. Then I took a deep breath and savored the smell of the pines and honeysuckle in the spring air. I listened to the robins calling and rustling in the hedge beside me. It would be a while before I'd sense any of these things again.
When we got to the front gate I heard a buzz and then a click as the electronic lock released and the gate slid open. Hellenweiler sat in the middle of a five-acre yard of mostly bare dirt and a few small oak trees. Beyond the ten-foot wire fence was a field where nothing was planted. I guessed it was plowed to bare dirt to give the guards a clear view of anyone trying to escape. There was almost two hundred yards of open ground before you got to the trees.
You would never hear an adult call Hellenweiler a prison. It was always referred to as a "boys' home." But to look at the one-story cinder-block compound from the outside, there was no question what the place was modeled after. I had an idea what I'd find on the inside as well, and it wouldn't be pretty. I already had the feeling that Pinson had been a preschool compared to this place. This was a high-security jailhouse to lock down eighty bad boys.
I won't tell you that I wasn't nervous. I was, but not because I was scared of how they would treat me. I'd been through bad and I could go through worse. I was worried about my attitude. I knew I had it in me to be a problem. I knew I was hardheaded, with a temper set on a hair trigger. If I wanted to get out of there before I was eighteen, I had to play it cool. Real cool.
We passed through two more electronic gates before arriving in the receiving area. The sickening smell of disinfectant and bleach hit me like it did the first day I walked into Pinson. But I would get used to it again. I would get used to the hospital-blue walls and the rotten food and the buzzers and the snapping of wall clocks marking time in the silence. There was nothing natural about the place.
Officer Pete guided me to the counter.
"This the Mitchell kid?" the receiving guard asked.
"Yeah," Officer Pete replied. "Henry Mitchell, Jr."
The guard put some forms on the counter and Officer Pete completed them and slid them back. Then he turned to me and began removing my restraints. When he was done he tucked the chains under his arm and studied me. He was stern, but I knew there was a lot of good in him that he didn't like to show. "Keep your chin up," he finally said.
He stared at me a few seconds more like he wanted to say something else, but he didn't. There wasn't anything left to say. Finally he turned to the guard. "All yours," he said.
I watched Officer Pete leave until the door shut behind him. As soon as the lock clicked my new life began.
"Face forward!" the guard shouted.
I jumped to attention.
"You in my face, boy?"
I shook my head.
"You better stand back behind that red line!"
I looked at the floor and saw the red tape. I backed up until I was behind it.
"And you better get rid of that attitude before Mr. Fraley gets rid of it for you," the guard said.
"I don't have an attitude."
"I'll bet you don't," he said. "I've read your file. Mister tough guy. We'll see about that."
I didn't respond. I knew it wouldn't get me anywhere. I took a deep breath and stared at a spot on the wall just over his head.
I quickly took off everything except my briefs and socks and faced him again.
"I said strip down!"
I pulled down my briefs and peeled off my socks and straightened up.
He pointed to a trash barrel against the wall. "Throw it all in there."
I scooped them off the floor and tossed the wad of them into the trash barrel.
"Put your forehead on the wall, turn around, and spread your cheeks."
I did as he said while he inspected me for contraband and scratched information on my receiving forms.
After what seemed like forever he said, "Follow the yellow line through that door to your left."
I entered cleanup, where another guard was pouring some liquid from a jug into a chemical sprayer that he set down in the center of the room. Four showerheads stuck out of the wall to my right. Against the opposite wall were four stools and the same number of electric razors hanging overhead. Another door exited the rear of the room.
"Tommy, get the fleas off this boy," the reception guard said over my shoulder as he guided me onto one of the stools. He left and I heard the door lock behind him.
It took less than a minute for the second guard to give me what the boys called an onion head. Then he made me stand up and wait while he fiddled with the sprayer in silence. He screwed the top on and began pumping it full of pressure.
"Into the shower," the guard finally said. "Do not turn it on until I tell you to. Face me, close your eyes, and cover them with your hands."
I walked under the first showerhead and covered my eyes. After a few seconds I heard the hiss of the sprayer and felt the cold insecticide mist over me. Then he told me to turn around and I felt the same sensation on my back. After the chemical had time to work, he told me to turn on the shower and scrub myself. I opened my eyes just in time to see a bar of state soap tossed at my feet.
When I was done showering the guard gave me a small towel to dry off. Then he gave me a T-shirt, boxer shorts, and shower slides. I was issued an orange jumpsuit with H.J.H. stenciled on the back and #135 on the front. The instant I was zipped up he ordered me to stand on the yellow line again.
"Walk the yellow brick road into the hall," he said. "When it stops you'll be at a set of double doors. Go through those doors and you'll be home. Keep on and you'll come to the mess room. Lunch is almost over but you might be able to pick up a bite before they run you out. After lunch a guard will take you through orientation and tell you what you need to know. Understand?"
I nodded. I was stunned and couldn't reply even if I'd wanted to. Everything was happening so fast. But I guess that's what they wanted. They didn't want you to have time to think about anything but what they told you.
I followed the yellow line out into the hall. I soon came to the large set of double steel doors. When I pushed through them fifty more feet of hall lay between me and a second set of doors. I could suddenly hear the noise of the mess room. I took a deep breath and kept moving, pushing through the second set of doors.
When I stepped into the mess room, I expected everyone to stop what they were doing and stare at the new fish. That's what they'd do at Pinson. But I noticed only a few boys glance my way over all the commotion. I walked against the wall, around to where the food trays were. When I slid my tray in front of the server, she handed my plate over the counter and watched me.
"Better be quick about it," she said.
I took the tray, set a paper cup of red juice on it, and went to look for an open seat. There were five long columns of tables. The tables on the outside of each column, the ones against the walls, were mostly full. Then the next column of tables was completely empty and only two boys sat at the middle table. One of them was a giant white kid with crew-cut hair and a cookie-dough face. He was hunched over his tray, eating slowly and keeping his eyes down. The other was a black kid with wide eyes and kinky hair. Something in the way he looked at me told me I was welcome to join them.
As I started for the middle table I saw Preston sitting with some older boys against the wall to my left. He'd come from Pinson eight months before. We'd never had much to say to each other. He was a sneaky little arson and I'd never had any respect for him and he knew it. Back then he would have been scared of me. Back then I would have called him a wuss to his face.
"Find a seat, new boy!" somebody yelled.
I didn't look to see who it was. I can do this, I thought. I can do this. But the words didn't make me feel any better.CHAPTER 2
I approached the big white boy sitting closest to me at the middle table. "Mind if I sit down?" I asked.
He kept eating and didn't answer me.
"You can sit with me," the black kid said. He was bigger than me. Most of them were. By now it was instinctive for me to size people up.
I kept walking and sat across from him.
"How much time I got?" I asked him.
"About two minutes."
I looked at my plate. State meat patty, some kind of boiled greens, and macaroni and cheese. I knew from Pinson that none of it would have any taste. It was food designed to keep you alive and nothing more. I started stuffing it down.
"You're new here," he said.
I kept chewing and nodded.
"You thought about who you're gonna join up with?"
I looked at him, swallowed, and chased it with red juice. "What are you talkin' about?"
"Death Row Ministers or the Hell Hounds. They say you gotta claim."
"Some boy told me."
I shook my head. "I ain't into that." I picked up the meat patty with my hand and took a bite.
"I've only been here three days," he said. "Both of 'em been talkin' to me."
I didn't answer him.
"They say you don't wanna be alone around here."
"I'm just stayin' out of trouble. They can do what they want."
He was finished eating. I scooped up some macaroni and cheese and shoved it in my mouth.
"I'm Leroy," he said. "From Gadsden."
I kept chewing and looking at my plate.
"I haven't made up my mind yet," he continued. "You're gonna make enemies whether you choose sides or not."
"That's up to them."
Suddenly a buzzer went off. It was so loud you could feel it in your teeth.
"Time to go outside," he said. "I'll see you later."
I shoveled some greens into my mouth. Leroy got up and headed toward the tray return. I clamped the rest of my meat patty in my teeth, got my tray, and followed him.
A guard was waiting outside the mess room to lead me through orientation while the rest of the kids went out into the yard. He introduced himself as Mr. Pratt, head of security. He looked ex-military and wore his clothes tight and his hair crew cut. He was all business and no smile.
Mr. Pratt led me a few feet down the hall and shoved open a door to our right. "Washroom, commodes," he said. I attempted to peer inside, but the door swung shut and he was already moving ahead. A little farther and we crossed the hall and went into the bunk room. It was nearly two hundred feet long with bunks on two walls and an aisle between. All of the boys stayed in the same room, he said. Leaning against one of the beds was another guard. He was pig-faced and heavyset and sleepy-looking.
"Sergeant Guval, the floorwalker," Mr. Pratt said. The floorwalker cocked his eyes at me and took inventory.
I followed down the aisle until Mr. Pratt stopped about halfway. "Rack thirty-eight, top," he said. "You'll have your schoolbooks, clothes, and supplies put in the locker next to it. Top rack, top locker. Questions?"
I looked to my left and saw bunk #38. I shook my head. He kept walking.
"Each week you will be issued a new bar of soap and a roll of toilet paper. Lose it or use it before the week is up, that's your problem. Understand?"
We came to the end of the bunk room. He pointed into another large room that had no doors. "Shower room, commodes," he said. Then we exited another door into the hall again. The building was quiet now with the boys gone. I heard the faint sound of them playing and yelling outside.
We crossed and entered the rec room. It was even bigger than the bunk room. It had pool tables and television and Ping-Pong and smelled like carpet shampoo and new paint. Once we were inside, Mr. Pratt turned to me. "You know what this is?"
He led me into the hall again. Not far ahead was a door that led outside. Before we came to the door we passed another hall to the right. At the end of this hall were black steel double doors, riveted with hex nuts like an old vault. But the guard kept walking and didn't explain them.
We went outside and I heard the noise of the boys to my left. I turned and saw them playing basketball in a dirt yard. "Play yard," he said. "When it's time to be outside, nobody goes inside. When it's time to be inside, nobody goes outside. Except on weekends. You can roam on weekends. Questions?"
Directly in front of us was another building a short distance across a cement walk. Mr. Pratt pointed to it. "Classrooms," he said. "Monday through Friday, seven-thirty sharp." Then he turned to me. "Questions?"
I shook my head.
"Let's go. The superintendent wants to see you."
Mr. Fraley was a short, overweight man, bald except for a strip of hair just over his ears. He had a drooping face that pulled away all expression. The rest of his body sagged like not much got him out of his chair. One entire wall of his office was covered with bookshelves. He was standing before these bookshelves with his back to me when the guard ushered me into his office.
"Behind the line," the guard said.
I toed the red tape in the middle of the room and heard the guard shut the door behind me. I waited while Mr. Fraley pulled his finger down the spines of the books. There were no chairs in the room except the one behind his desk. The rest of the office was neat and clean, with little sunlight coming through gaps in the mostly closed blinds.
Finally he seemed to find the book he was looking for and pulled it out and walked to his desk with it. He sat and studied the cover. I saw my jacket from Pinson on his desk, the folder containing everything about me since I'd been in juve.
"Have you ever heard of William Golding?" he asked.
He set the book on the desk, sat back in his chair, and looked at me for the first time. "Well, you should have. He wrote Lord of the Flies. It's required reading in most schools."
I didn't answer him.
"That's the core of the problem you've gotten yourself into, young man. You see, they tell me to educate the boys. To reform them. But this is just political talk to our fine citizens. Feel-good talk, if you will. In reality this place is a sort of human landfill that you hide on the outskirts of town. It's nothing more than a kennel for dogs that have no hope of being claimed. This may sound harsh, but it is simply a reality that you must learn to face. The sooner, the better."
He studied me like I would have something to say. But I didn't. For years I'd heard about this place from the boys at Pinson. I was prepared and I stood there ready to soak it up and deal with it.
"That is not to say you cannot adjust," he continued. "We have all kinds of dogs here. We have mutts and bulldogs and golden retrievers. But the reformation, the education — simply feel-good talk. What do you teach to a classroom of mutts and golden retrievers?"
"I don't know."
"If you try to teach them how to fetch and return a stick, the mutt will learn nothing. If you simply teach them how to come when called, the retriever will learn nothing he does not already know. And there are few teachers and only so much time. So you know what they learn?"
Excerpted from Dirt Road Home by Watt Key. Copyright © 2010 Albert Watkins Key, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
1. Do you think Hal deserves to be at the Hellenweiler Boys' Home? Why?
2. Do you agree with Hal's choice to stay unassociated with the Ministers and the Hounds? Is this a good decision? Why? If you were Hal, would you make the same decision?
3. Who do you think is a better leader, Paco or Jack? Who do you think is stronger? Why?
4. Why do both gangs leave Caboose alone? Why does Caboose never say anything?
5. How did Hal's experiences with Moon Blake change Hal's personality?
6. Why do the boys at Hellenweiler lie about how they got there?
7. Why did Paco take a beating from Jack? What was he trying to achieve?
8. How was Paco different before he came to Hellenweiler? Why did he change?
9. Have you ever gotten in trouble with the law? Did the experience change you?
10. Did you like the ending of the book? Do you think that Caboose will still
seek revenge from the guards?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hal Mitchell finds himself back in a boys' home after having escaped the Pinson Home with two other boys. They headed for the woods and almost eluded the authorities in ALABAMA MOON. Now, Hal's lawyer tells him he'll only have to stay at Hellenweiler Boys' Home until a few things get straightened out - and until his dad proves he has given up alcohol and is capable of providing a decent home for Hal. It turns out that Hellenweiler is much worse than Pinson. There are two gangs, the Hounds and the Ministers. Leaders from both groups insist that Hal needs to pledge allegiance to one or the other, but he is determined to remain neutral. His only goal is to stay clean, serve his time, and get out as soon as his lawyer gets everything straightened out for his release. As the days pass, Hal discovers that it's not just the inmates that can make trouble for him. Those in charge of the boys' home are out to make life miserable for him, as well. He learns about faked paperwork, guards who look the other way when gang leaders want to use physical violence, and he personally experiences the pain of solitary confinement. It quickly becomes obvious that Hal will have to use cleverness and trickery to uncover the illegal activities going on behind closed doors. Author Watt Key follows up his survival adventure, ALABAMA MOON, with this story about Hal Mitchell's determined efforts to return to life with his father. Key takes readers into the mind of a young man desperate to maintain control of his temper and emotions so he can satisfy the legal requirements that will allow him to rebuild his life.
epic action packed awesome
Hal struggles to stay straight while living inside Hellenweiler Boys' Home. If he can avoid gang fighting and repeated stays in solitary, he just might make it. Hal impresses a few others while on the inside. They are tough guys, like him, who are victims of circumstance but who are also courageous and able to maintain their dignity. Watt Key has created a gripping young adult novel that is unlike any other. It is set almost entirely inside a juvenile detention center. The book is action-packed, and the tension mounts as Hal tries to expose guard corruption. The ending is extremely satisfying. Young readers will enjoy this edge-of-your-seat novel. Watt Key understands what troubled teens must endure and in Dirt Road Home, he gives them hope.
Having been in on the escape from Pinson with Moon Blake, Hal Mitchell has a short term to serve so that he can get back home to his dad, his truck, his girl, and his interests. But he has to keep his cool and stay out of trouble. That's not easy to do in a facility where the mists of doom poison the air and the adults in charge consider the kids dogs fighting for their place, boys who are just part of a human landfill and future fodder for the penitentiaries. To survive here, the inmates must be part of a gang: the Death Row Ministers, whose leader is an insane, bullying repeat offender named Jack; or the Hell Hounds, whose leader is an big, oddly unusual Mexican named Paco. Hal finds himself drawn to the huge, silent unencumbered boy called Caboose who manages to live in no-man's land. How does Caboose survive alone, and can he? After studying his options and being beaten, Hal uses two "friends" to help him come up with a plan to destroy the facility instead of letting it destroy him when he realizes the superintendent's plan is to keep all the boys in Hellenweiler until they are eithteen by padding conduct reports and losing information he does not choose to include. This is a poignant story of one boy's courage and determination in the face of corruption.
The way he tries to survive in the book is fascinating he went through alot of things in the prison and he stood strong.
Is at result thirty now.