The Snake-Stone is the story of an adopted boy, James, a junior diving champion with great hopes of competing in the Olympics. He longs to learn about his past, so unexpectedly leaves his training aside and sets off alone on an adventurous quest to discover his roots. His only clues are a torn address and a twisted stone. It’s also the story of his mother, Elizabeth, who was only 15 when he was born. Carnegie nominated. 10+
Available from Amazon.
Published by Hamish Hamilton, 1997, ISBN 0 00 674022 7. It was also available in a schools’ edition: Longman Literature, ISBN 0582317649 and a Chivers Audiobook read by Dermot Crowley: ISBN 0745125204.
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All the time I was walking I was trying to imagine what it must have been like for my real mother coming up from the other side in the cold and the dark. I wondered whether she’d been scared. I wondered why she’d had to do it. (James)
I couldn’t do it. It was too hard and too high. Dark and cold on the mountainside. (Elizabeth)
The Snake-Stone was also published in France, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, the USA and Wales.
The Snake-Stone was shortlisted for the the Guardian fiction award, the Prix Tam-Tam (France) 1999 and nominated for the Carnegie medal.
What inspired me to write ‘The Snake-Stone’
A young man who was acting in one of my plays told me that he was adopted, and that he once spent a week trying to find his natural parents. I was fascinated by this – it was like a detective story.
When I was a teenager I used to think I was adopted, and I’ve since found out that many teenagers have this feeling. Perhaps it’s because at that age we’re changing so much, but our parents aren’t. They don’t seem to be able to understand us any more, and surely if they were our real parents they would! We can’t understand them, and we can’t imagine how we can possibly have come from them. Surely our real parents must have been much more exciting! Something like that. But I’m not adopted, and nor or are my children.
This is the way ideas come to writers. You don’t go round looking for them, they’re just there, and if you can’t stop thinking about them, you write a story about them. That’s how it was with The Snake-Stone.
This story could not be bettered and can only be put down with a struggle before its unforgettable climax.
How I made up the characters
James, who later discovers that his birth-name was Sammy, is a very independent 15 year old, a city boy. Although his adoptive father encourages him and helps to train him, and comes to all his ’meets’ and championships, it’s James who has to do all the hard work and put in hours and hours of training, before and after school, every single day. He has courage and stamina, or he would never have got to this stage in his diving career. I needed my central character to have this kind of determination in order to make sense of the fact that he just takes off one day, without telling anyone, to see if he can find his natural parents.
The other central character in The Snake-Stone is Elizabeth, his birth mother. I wanted her to have a very different background, country rather than city, and without the supportive parents that James has. Elizabeth and James have something important in common though. They both show a lot of courage, and they are both determined.
By the end of the story both James and Elizabeth have made two journeys, a physical one and an emotional one. They have both come to terms with their situation. More then that, they are happy with their lives.
Why I called the book ‘The Snake-Stone’
The snake-stone is the name that geologists used to give to ammonites, a fossil that looks like a curled up snake. They sometimes used to carve snake’s heads on to them! They are millions of years old, and you can find them embedded in stones and cliff faces.
These are my snake-stones. I chose to call the book the The Snake-Stone because when James finds the ammonite Elizabeth had left with him when he was a baby, he thinks of it as a token of her love for him. It is curled up like a foetus in the womb. It is the shape of the somersault that a high-diver makes. The one James has is small enough to hold in his palm, a precious talisman. And there’s something about that spiral, curling in and in to the central point, that makes it feel to me like coming home from a journey, as James does. In every way the ammonite is central to The Snake-Stone.
Structurally inventive, full of echo and metaphor, this beautifully paced story has the feel of a thriller as the narrative threads entwine.
What was I trying to say in ‘The Snake-Stone?’
I knew what I wanted to say, and I had to find a dramatic and interesting way to say it. In some ways it was very hard. My first job was as an Adoptions Officer in the Social Services, and I know how sensitive and emotive the process of releasing a baby for adoption, being an adopted child, and wanting to adopt a child, can be for everyone. I understand James’ situation, in that even though he loves his adoptive parents and they love him, he needs to know who his natural parents were, and I understand Elizabeth’s situation. She was little more than a child herself, her mother was dead, her father was brutal and uncaring. She wanted her baby to have a better chance.
What I hope to do in The Snake-Stone is to help my readers to understand both situations, too.
The ‘secret valley’ that James explores to find his mother is actually Edale, in the Peak District, and the village where Claire lives is actually a mixture of Hayfield and Little Hayfield. When I write my stories I always like to know the place where they are set. I know every step that James takes in The Snake-Stone, and I hope that helps the reader to imagine it too.
A touching exploration of a difficult subject. Ages 11 up.
A teacher has made some very interesting questions for Yr 7 study and comprehension of the dramatised edition of The Snake-Stone available on his website.
In its presentation of a fascinating journey of discovery the book represents another fine achievement for its author.
Robert Dunbar, Books4Keeps
Like several of my other books, The Snake-Stone has two narrators. Try writing a story in two voices, where each character has a strong story to tell, and eventually they come together. Keep your two characters’ voices quite distinct.