For Ages
10 to 99

From the Newbery Award–winning author of Shiloh comes a middle-grade novel that combines adrenaline-fueled adventure with a poignant coming-of-age story.

Buck Anderson’s life seems to be changing completely. His best friend, David, has moved away; his anxious parents are hounding him more than ever; he has reluctantly agreed to fill in for his uncle and do odd jobs for a grumpy old veteran in town; and his twin sister has a new boyfriend and is never around anymore. To top it all off, Buck is bullied by a group of boys at school—mainly because he stutters.

There is one thing that frees Buck from his worries. It is the heart-pounding exhilaration he feels when exploring underground caves in and around his hometown. He used to go caving with David, but he’s determined to continue on his own now. He doesn’t know that more changes are headed his way—changes that just might make him rethink his view of the world and his place in it.
“A well-constructed and well-paced story that will be appreciated by anyone who has ever felt out of place or bullied.” —School Library Journal
“Buck’s strength is inspirational, and his family’s love and respect are heartwarming.” —Kirkus Reviews

“With characteristic sensitivity, Naylor delivers an engrossing account of a boy’s interior and exterior struggles.” —Publishers Weekly

An Excerpt fromGoing Where It's Dark


The Hole

Buck couldn’t raise his head any higher. Lying there on his stomach, helmet scraping the boulder above, his chin on the clammy surface beneath him, he wriggled his way around the turn. Then he eased the flashlight into position and directed the beam along the passage.

Rocks jutted out on every side, and the path, if there was one, was irregular, sloping downward. Beyond, the light dwindled off into blackness. Whether it would reveal a wall, a curve, or a drop-off, he didn’t know. His nostrils were filled with the scent of mud and mold and insect droppings.

But still he felt it, the draft of cold air that had first caught his attention. Maybe it led down a short ways, then up and out, and that was that, yet Buck didn’t think so. Something about the chill of the rock around him the farther he’d gone in, the dank smell of undisturbed roots and moss, encouraged him to feel--to hope--that there was more, a lot more.

It proved nothing, but he felt the urge to yell:


Then he filled his lungs and yelled again: “Hey!”

There was no echo, but the draft that brushed his face each time he lifted his head told Buck that this was no dead end. There was something else, far off. . . .

Wow! he said to himself, even as he began inching his way backward. Then Wow! again, and couldn’t help smiling. He’d known that once he’d made the turn, he wouldn’t go any farther. Buck had already disobeyed the first rule of caving: never--not ever--do it alone. But he wasn’t about to disobey the second--the one he and David had decided on for themselves: never lose sight of a cave entrance.

Not yet. Not until they were far more experienced than they were. And then, just as things were getting interesting for them, David had moved to Pittsburgh.

Buck Anderson was nervy, but he wasn’t nuts. His fascination with caves had begun when his family took a trip to Luray Caverns when he was seven. He and David Weinstein had been reading up on local caves--and trying to find those that were close--since spring of fifth grade, when the teacher had made them partners for an Earth Science project.

“Rock, sky, or water,” she had said to the class.

And David immediately piped up, “How about rock, paper, scissors?” and everyone laughed, even the teacher.

“Rock includes caves, sky includes space travel, water includes the ocean bottom,” she had said. “You can expand whatever category you choose.”

Buck had turned around to face the large boy seated behind him. Both he and his friend said together, “Caves?”

Their interest only grew stronger after the project had ended, and now--two years later--they’d both be starting eighth grade come fall. Two hundred miles apart.

They knew some of the things that could happen to you--to even the most professional cavers. You could get lost in a maze, sure you knew your way out, and realize you were passing the same marker you’d left two hours before. You could slip on a rock covered with wet clay and break a leg. You could run out of batteries, get hit by falling rock, find your boot stuck in a crevice and not be able to reach down and free your foot.

To his advantage, Buck was small for thirteen, and strong--lean, but not skinny. It had always been Buck who crawled into an opening first and gave the okay. David, thirty pounds heavier, once said he’d seen all of Buck’s backside he cared to see, but he never suggested trading places.

So far, of course, most of their “caves” had been more like overhangs under a cliff, with maybe a smaller cavity or two that didn’t go far, and cigarette butts or graffiti meant you were only the next in a long line of explorers who had been there. It was always the hole, the deep crevasse, or the gaping mouth of a hidden cave that they hoped to discover.

“You’ll just have to find another guy to go caving with, I guess,” David had said morosely the day the moving van arrived. But that probably wasn’t about to happen. And now--on one of the most exciting days of his life--Buck had found a hole. And he had no one to tell.

He continued his backward crawl, rocks bruising his knees, his forearms, until he reached the place he could turn around. A patch of sky shone through a tangle of weeds above, the opening no bigger than a car door window.

Buck crouched there, breathing heavily, his back against the cool wall of rock. He still couldn’t believe he’d found this--wouldn’t have, if he hadn’t felt that draft of cold air coming up through a web of brush and roots between the rocks. Virginia was riddled with limestone caverns, but they were usually discovered by farmers, quarrymen, hunters, or caving clubs, not guys like him, out tramping around solo on a Saturday afternoon.

Now he had to remember exactly where this was. The worst thing he could do was to ride off half crazy and then not be able to find it again.

He straightened to a standing position and looked for the roots he’d used as footholds coming down. Then, reaching up and clawing out handfuls of dirt to get a better grip, his feet scrabbling against the rock, he made the climb and reached the opening. He could feel the warmth of the May afternoon already. Could smell the clover. One hand grasped the low branch of a bush and then his head was up, his elbows were out, and finally he was sitting on the rocky ground that rimmed the opening of the hole, squinting out over a forsaken cow pasture.

The old Wilmer place was mostly that: old. The frame house had long given way to termites, the barn had collapsed on a rusty Buick, and the two hundred seventy acres were far from the interstate.

Okay. Working backward, Buck tried to reconfigure. He’d left his bike in the gulley beside the road and started across the property, following the tree line to keep in the shade. He’d tramped past outcroppings of rock that separated the field from the slow rise of forested mountain--just a sliver of mountain--a spur of the Blue Ridge.

At some point, however, the ground had dipped into a shallow bowl, suddenly propelling his legs forward. But then he had walked on, just past the sun-roasted carcass of a dog or a fox. And climbing over the second--or was it the third?--rocky pile, he had felt the draft of cold air.

There was no fence here, no sign that anyone had paid much attention to this corner of the property, which was overgrown with weeds and brush. Beside the woods, smaller trees encroached upon the pasture, like children straying from their parents. If the Wilmers had known the hole was here, though, wouldn’t they have plugged it up or boarded it off, afraid a sheep or even a cow might amble up the rocks and fall in? Break a leg? Next time he went down, he’d . . .

Next time. Buck already knew he was going again, even though his brain screamed Stop! One stubborn dude, Uncle Mel always said of him, and he was right.

Okay. He took a couple of deep breaths. He wouldn’t go down again until he had everything he needed--everything he could afford, anyway. He’d make a list. How many times had he and David scoured the countryside for caves? They usually didn’t find one deep enough to need a flashlight. And today . . .

Buck examined the hole again. The break in the weeds was barely visible, but he covered it with sticks and brush so that no one else would find it. And then, his heart still thumping wildly, he headed back to his bike.

His arms were streaked with dirt, his jeans caked with mud, but he always had an excuse ready just in case: he’d fallen in Cloister Creek, he was hiking through Miner’s Gulley when it started raining, he slipped going up Buzzard’s Roost. . . . He’d done all these things at one time or another, so it wasn’t exactly a lie.

“You’re not going in any caves, are you?” his mom had said once, wrinkling her nose at the mud-stained sweatshirt he’d left on top of the washer.

“No,” he’d answered, simply because he hadn’t found any to go in. Most of the caves seemed to be in the northern part of the state, and the ones in southwest Virginia had either been discovered by someone else or were doing a good job of staying hidden.

But now Buck was smiling again, feeling the late spring breeze on his face as he pedaled. What a caver dreamed about was being the first to ever explore a place.

“I mean, think about it!” David had said when they’d first begun searching for caves on their own. When David was excited about something, his wide face had a constant look of surprise. “There are thousands of caves in Virginia, and probably zillions that people don’t even know about. You could go down in one and find prehistoric bones or something.”

For Buck, it was the “going down in” that was the main attraction, never mind the bones. Sometimes, he’d read, holes had been detected because animals gathered around them on a hot summer day, wanting to cool themselves. He was glad there were no cows in the pasture now to give it away. A few feet to the right or left and Buck wouldn’t have felt the draft. And if he hadn’t chosen the shade along the tree line, he would have missed it.

“YES!” he yelled, unable to contain it any longer. Then, throwing back his head, “YES! Wheeeeeee!”

If Mom knew where he’d been, she’d say the same thing she’d said when Buck was little and had run outside after a cold spring rain to glop around barefoot in the newly plowed field: Get in here, Buck, or you’ll catch pneumonia. You want to die?

Of course he didn’t want to die. He’d just wanted to feel what it was like to have four inches of newly plowed earth squishing up between his toes.

If Dad knew, he’d grumble: Stubborn as the day is long. And he was right about that.

Gramps, however, would hit the nail on the head: He’s a risk taker, that boy, he’d say. But like the other comments, it was a complaint, not a compliment.

No, Buck’s family would never in this world allow him to do what he planned to do next.


It’s Real

When Buck got home about four, only Dad was there, his old Chevy parked at an angle in the clearing. The shower was running upstairs, and then Buck heard it cut off.

Mom had the day shift at Holly’s Homestyle, so she’d be back around five, and Joel and Gramps closed the sawmill at six on Saturdays. If Katie, Buck’s twin, was there, she’d be either at the large farm table with her sketchpad and magazines or watching TV. The kitchen was empty and the television was off. This meant that Buck had the downstairs to himself, long enough to eat some peanut butter crackers and get his muddy clothes in the washer before his dad came down.

He opened a Coke and had just started toward the table when the phone rang.

Buck stood holding the soda in one hand, crackers in the other. If he was alone, he had to answer. If he wasn’t, he let someone else pick up. The phone rang again. Then again.

Upstairs, the bathroom door opened.

“Buck?” yelled his dad. “You home?”

Another ring.

“Yeah . . . ,” Buck answered.

“Well, get the phone, darn it!”

Buck set his can on the counter and walked across the green-and-white-flecked linoleum to the wall phone. Mom’s cuckoo clock hung just above it, except that the bird didn’t come out on the hour as it was supposed to. Uncle Mel kept promising to fix it, but he hadn’t yet.

Buck watched his left hand reach forward and interrupt the phone in mid-ring. “’Lo,” he said.

“Joel?” came a young man’s voice.

“N . . . no. This is B . . . B . . . Buck,” Buck answered.

“Oh. Hi, Buck. It’s Larry,” said the voice. “What time do you think he’ll get home?”

Buck felt the familiar ache in his jaws as his muscles tightened, and there was perspiration between his fingers and the handset. “I s . . . s . . . suppose around . . . ssssix-th . . . th . . .”

“Great,” Larry said. “Have him call me, would you? See if he wants to watch some wrestling tonight.”

“Okay,” Buck said, and hung up.

“That for me?” his dad called from the top of the stairs.

“No. J . . . Joel.”

“All right.” And then his dad said, “You’ve got the rest of that carrot row to weed, you know. Don’t go putting it off.”

“Uh . . . I won’t,” said Buck, knowing his dad meant, like, right now, before dinner. When he’d set off that morning, he’d forgotten that he hadn’t finished his work, and now he was going to have to hustle before Mom got home. First the hoeing. Then his clothes in the washer.

“We’ve all got our jobs, and this one’s yours,” Dad had told him once. “Nothing prettier than a long straight row of beans or lettuce, not a weed in sight. You should get your work done in the mornings when it’s cooler, Buck. Then you’d have the afternoons this summer for yourself.”

Buck agreed with him about working when it was cool, but he could think of a lot of things prettier than a row of carrots. Their fine lacy tops were hard to distinguish from weeds, and occasionally Buck pulled up a whole plant by mistake. Sometimes he wished he worked at the sawmill instead, like Dad and Gramps and Joel. Still, working alone, he never had to take orders, or worse, answer the phone.

“I’m going to pick up a few things at the store,” Dad called down. “You want anything?”

Flashlight batteries! Buck thought, but then Dad would ask what for.



Buck went outside, picked up a hoe, and tramped to the back of the garden.

Today, not even weeding carrots could dampen his excitement. Not even a phone humiliation. He dropped clumps of weeds into a bucket without even thinking about the scrapes and blisters on his hands from all that rock crawling. Man, what he had to tell David! And only David.

Except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Andersons ate their meals in the kitchen. No one had an official seat at the large, rectangular table, except for Gramps at one end, Dad at the other. Mom and Joel, Buck and Katie sat in varied arrangements on either side, and Mel pulled up a stray chair wherever he could find a spot when he was home. Katie’s main job was to start dinner, following whatever instructions her mom had left for her that morning--put a casserole in the oven, boil some potatoes, make a salad. . . .

Under the Cover