Surviving the Applewhites Summary

Stephanie S. Tolan

Surviving the Applewhites

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Surviving the Applewhites Summary

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Surviving the Applewhites is the 2002 children’s novel written by American author Stephanie S. Tolan. Set in rural North Carolina, the story tells of 13-year-old Jake Sempler, a wayward juvenile delinquent who is sent away after inadvertently burning down his school. When he’s forced to live with an eccentric family of artists called the Applewhites, Jake struggles to fit in at first. However, through an unlikely bond he forms with E.D., the Applewhite’s underappreciated 12-year-old daughter, Jake is able to shed his past transgressions and become a new person. Thematically, the book touches on adolescence, personal growth, flowering, metamorphosis, evolution, identity, and finding one’s place in the world. Surviving the Applewhites was listed as a Newbery Honor Book in 2003.

Told through two narrators, the story fluctuates between the perspectives of Jake and E.D. As the novel opens, we learn that Jake Sempler is a 13-year-old troublemaker with spiky red hair, a bad attitude and an eyebrow ring. After his parents have been sent to jail for growing marijuana in their basement, Jake is forced to relocate from Rhode Island to rustic North Carolina and live with his grandfather Henry Dugan. Jake chain-smokes, uses profane language, and has been expelled from every school in Rhode Island. Rumor is he even burned down his last school, which prompts Henry to enroll Jake in The Creative Academy, an alternative home-school located nearby. The academy is run by a zany, eccentric family of artists, The Applewhites, led by father Zebediah and mother Debbie.

When Jake arrives at Wit’s End, the sprawling 16-acre estate on which The Creative Academy sits, he immediately feels out of place. Already sensitive to his misunderstood appearance, Jake is intent on keeping his stay at the academy brief. When he meets the Applewhite family, he instantly realizes how weirdly offbeat, hilarious and unconventional their group dynamic is.

Every family member has a special artistic talent: father Zebediah makes furniture; mother Debbie writes detective fiction; son Archie sculpts wood, his wife Lucille pens poetry; son Randolph directs theater, his wife Sybil writes successful mystery novels, etc. Even Randolph and Sybil’s children have artistic abilities. Cordelia is a ballet dancer, and four-year-old Destiny is a singer. E.D. (Edith Wharton), the 12-year-old daughter, has no artistic inclinations whatsoever. Still, E.D. has great organizational skills she feels are undervalued. The Applewhite clan also includes a horde of pets: adopted goats Hazel and Wolfie, Petey the parrot, and Winston the basset hound.

As the novel jumps back and forth between perspectives (third-person and limited omniscient), we sense an unspoken kinship between Jake and E.D. While Jake constantly feels misunderstood and out of place, E.D. feels left out by her artistic family, and underappreciated in her ability to neatly organize. Yet, despite their shared sense of alienation and isolation, E.D. is the only family member who does not welcome Jake with open arms at first. E.D. isn’t thrilled about the idea of sharing coursework with a criminal.

Meanwhile, Jake is deeply unhappy during the first few weeks of his stay. His cursing has been outlawed, his smoking curbed, and the vegetarian diet imposed on him is growing tiresome. He loathes daily meditation, detests having to review his own homework, and above all else, Jake can’t stand the odd artistic family he’s been forced to cohabitate with.

Then everything changes when Randolph is commissioned to direct a version of “The Sound of Music” at the community theater. When preproduction goes disastrously wrong, Randolph is left without a proper filmmaking crew. He has no soundmen, no makeup or costume department, no assistant director, nothing. In a grand act of familial love, support and unity, the Applewhites come together and use their individual talents to keep the play on schedule. Even Jake, who felt aloof when he first arrived, feels included when he’s cast to play the part of Rolf, the young Nazi solider in the production. The previews of the play draw so much national attention to Randolph’s directorial style that a film crew is hired to make a documentary film about the Applewhites.

Days before the play is set to open, a conflict arises. Mrs. Montrose, the president of the community theater, asks Randolph to cast her four-year-old daughter as Gretle, the youngest von Trapp singer. Randolph refuses, and casts his son Destiny instead. Irate, Mrs. Montrose cancels the play. Now left to their own innovative devices, the Applewhites decide to clean up their family barn, transform it into a proscenium, and present the production at Wit’s End rather than the theater. As they work together, the Applewhites become closer than ever before, and Jake begins to fit in.

Yet, the key to the play’s success isn’t the artistic talents of any one individual, but rather the crucial organizational skills of E.D., who coordinates the entire collaboration. When the play becomes a national hit among critics, E.D. is hired as Zebediah’s assistant manager, thereby validating her worth in the family. As for Jake, he has found an enthrallment in performing he has never felt before; a calling perhaps. Through his relationship with the Applewhites, Jake has bloomed into a new person. He even quits smoking.

The motif of flowers plays into the core theme of the novel. Throughout the story, Jake notes, passes and comes in contact with flowers of all varieties and states of health. Similarly, a science project the children conduct at the academy, The Butterfly Project, also proves to be a grand metaphor of metamorphosis. Just as the caterpillars undergo a process of changing from ugliness to beauty, Jake also charts his own evolution during his time with the Applewhites, ultimately finding his own wings in the process.

Surviving the Applewhites is the recipient of a number of additional honors, including ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults, School Library Best Book, ALA Booklist Editors’ Choice, and many more.