Harold "Little" Klein can’t seem to measure up. Surrounded by the "Bigs," his boisterous gang of older brothers, and the bustling, bighearted Mother Klein, Harold often feels little and left out — until the day a stray dog named LeRoy becomes his inseparable companion. Join a cast of colorful characters in a rural river town circa 1949, where boys wrestle and fish, swipe pies, ride perilous waters on homemade rafts, and sometimes quietly become heroes.
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The Klein Boys balanced their craft on the back of Mark’s bike and pushed it out of town. LeRoy followed them to the river, where Little Klein launched his brothers into the porcelain water with a shove that left him on shore.
"Wait for me!" he cried as a swirling current caught the raft on its conveyor belt. The Big Kleins were spinning; they were sailing fast.
"No fair!" Little Klein stomped as the raft rounded the bend.
"Wrong way!" he yelled when it turned at the river’s fork. LeRoy nudged Little Klein. He barked and ran up the bank. He turned and barked again.
"Shoot, LeRoy. We get left behind again." Little Klein scrambled through the raspberry bushes after LeRoy. He heard yelling. Little Klein ran faster, trying to follow LeRoy’s barks. Mother was going to be so mad they’d taken Wilson’s Fork. They may have taken off without him, but at least he wouldn’t get in trouble. At the top of the bank he could see the raft again, and his smug heart went limp. The raft was stuck on a rock in the middle of the river, but there were no Kleins on board. LeRoy was already in the water, swimming now as in his dream to the three heads that popped up, a constellation in the river’s thundering sky.
"Help!" screamed Mark.
"Shoot!" called Luke.
"The falls!" cried Matthew as he latched onto the dog.
Little Klein ran for the road. He ran and yelled, stumbled and yelled.
"Help! Help! Help!"
By the time he reached the road his voice was no thicker than kite string and the passing car was moving too fast to notice a small boy in the brush. A thicket of brambles caught Little Klein. He yanked one leg then the other, wrestling himself free before stepping onto the tar shoulder. He could see a silhouette across the two-lane, but was it human or animal?
"Help!" he gasped, but the shape did not move. He pursed his lips, but he was out of whistle, too. He shivered like January, teeth rattling, kneecaps quaking. Little Klein put his two index fingers in his mouth, Rich Wedge’s method, and he blew. Nothing. He spat. He stomped. He licked his lips, puckered, and tried again. This time — Oh, Glory Halleluia — his instrument trilled; it trumpeted. The shadow quivered and rose.
Holy Moses, it was Mean Emma Brown. He sucked in his breath. One strip of tar separated him from the boy-squasher. If it weren’t that Little Klein needed the Big Kleins to protect him from Emma Brown in all the futures he hoped to have, he would have backed away. But now she had seen him.
She tramped her big brown boots across both lanes without looking for cars. She laced her big brown fingers together and cracked her bony knuckles. When the bellow of Emma’s "What?" hit Little Klein, his bladder released.
"The falls!" he whimpered.
"I can see that," Emma snorted. "You call me over here for a square of toilet paper?"
Now Little Klein’s eyes released, too. "My brothers!"
Emma looked hard at Little Klein. "Your brothers aren’t . . . they didn’t . . . Wilson’s Fork?"
Little Klein nodded.
"Aw, crap!" said Emma. 'I’d just about caught a dragonfly over there. Crap. Well, step on out."
Little Klein looked at her wide.
"You stand in that lane; I’ll stand in this one," she continued. "Try to look tall."
Little Klein stood on the yellow line, his legs wet and sticky, snot running over the bridge of his quivering lip. He drew a hot raspy breath and raised his shoulders as far as he could.
Little Klein thought about his futures. There was his air hero future. He was a member of Captain Midnight’s Secret Squadron and had in his damp pocket at this moment his Photomatic Code-O-Graph. When Captain Midnight’s eyesight got bad, as it was sure to searching for Ivan Shark in the dark, Little Klein would be ready to take over.
There was his farmer future, where he rode a horse that made him taller than all the other Kleins and where he had a pack of wolves that bared their teeth should Mean Emma Brown even think about stealing corn from his field.
Little Klein slid one eye in Emma’s direction. Soon his brothers would be here to raise their fists at her. His brothers must have climbed out of the river by now. They were probably sneaking up behind Emma, laughing as they plotted their surprise attack.
Then there was his golden future. The future that featured Little Klein as a star boxer, raising his dukes to the likes of Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. He’d have red silk shorts and brown leather gloves the size of balloons. From town to town he’d ride in his very own pickup truck, with all the banana sandwiches he could eat in a cooler on the seat next to him. There would be photos of Little Klein in the drugstores. Little scrappers would ask for his autograph.
In each of Little Klein’s futures there were Big Kleins. Big Kleins filling the tank of his fighter plane. Big Kleins driving plows through his fields. Big Kleins collecting bets before fights and clearing his path through the cheering crowds. Soon Big Kleins would be grabbing him off this hot pavement and leaving him stranded in a high tree or dangling him over the rushing river from a hanging branch.
The rushing river.
The road was deserted.
After a thousand years a pickup sputtered around the bend, tooted its horn, and coasted onto the shoulder next to Emma. An ancient woman leaned out the window.
"What’s a matter, girl?"
Emma pointed at Little Klein.
"The Klein Boys caught a current."
"Fool boys, in the river after those rains," Nora Nettle scoffed. "Hop in the back."
LITTLE KLEIN by Anne Ylvisaker. Copyright (c) 2007 by Anne Ylvisaker. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.