Today we look at ghost stories in the Young Adult cannon – secrets, hauntings, and love from beyond the grave…
Ruined: A Ghost Story by Paula Morris
Publisher: Point (Scholastic)
Publication Date: August 2009
Hardcover: 304 pages
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
Rebecca couldn’t feel more out of place in New Orleans, where she comes to spend the year while her dad is traveling. She’s staying in a creepy old house with her aunt. And at the snooty prep school, the filthy-rich girls treat Rebecca like she’s invisible. Only gorgeous, unavailable Anton Grey seems to give Rebecca the time of day, but she wonders if he’s got a hidden agenda. Then one night, in Lafayette Cemetery, Rebecca makes a friend. Sweet, mysterious Lisette is eager to talk to Rebecca, and to show her the nooks and crannies of the city. There’s just one catch: Lisette is a ghost.
A ghost with a deep, dark secret, and a serious score to settle.
As Rebecca learns more from her ghost friend — and as she slowly learns to trust Anton Grey — she also uncovers startling truths about her own history. Will Rebecca be able to right the wrongs of the past, or has everything been ruined beyond repair?
When Rebecca Brown lands in New Orleans, she realizes that she is a long, long way from her Central Park West apartment in New York City. Rebecca and her father are inseparable – after the death of her mother when she was a child, she and her father are the only family each other has in the wide world. When her dad gets a job contract in China for six months, he has no choice but to send Rebecca off to Louisiana to stay with his good friend Claudia and her daughter Aurelia, as they are the closest thing to family the Browns have. Sixteen-year old Rebecca is not thrilled with being uprooted from her comfortable New York life, having to leave her home, friends and school in the middle of the school year, but when she meets her Aunt Claudia and cousin Aurelia for the first time in years, she’s even less enthusiastic about her new home. Claudia works as a tarot card reader/fortune teller in the French Quarter, Aurelia is only twelve (though she is a sweet, excited girl)…and then she sees their house – an overgrown, leaning ancient looking “shotgun” house, complete with voodoo decorations.
When Rebecca starts school at the prestigious, elitist, all-girls Temple Mead Academy, she knows her life has completely gone down the tubes. Full of rich, snotty debutantes, Rebecca wants nothing to do with the school’s ridiculous social hierarchy. The one interesting thing about her new home, however, is that it is across from the historic Lafayette Cemetery that Aunt Claudia has forbidden Rebecca from even entering. When Rebecca sees some of the Temple Mead teen royalty enter the graveyard one night, she decides to follow. And then she meets a girl in a torn dress named Lisette – who happens to be a ghost. As Lisette’s sad story unfolds, Rebecca learns that the old aristocratic families of New Orleans are all implicated in an old curse – and now Rebecca is involved.
Ruined is the first book I’ve read by Ms. Morris, and it is a beautifully executed ghost story with Creole flair. This is a novel whose strongest point is its setting and Ms. Morris’s eye for detail and atmosphere. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, the city seen through Rebecca’s eyes is a gumbo of thick humidity and crumbling historic buildings, the splendor of bright parades and debutante balls set against an era of rebuilding. New Orleans, especially the Garden District where Claudia, Aurelia and Rebecca live comes to life in Ruined, evoking images of manicured mansions juxtaposed next to overgrown cemeteries and more run-down buildings. Ms. Morris’s skill for descriptions is strong in Ruined, and reading this book I felt immersed in New Orleans – from the dusty, oddball clutter of Claudia’s ramshackle house to the vibrant sounds and smells of the French Quarter.
The world Rebecca enters is a far cry from her sophisticated city girl life – Temple Mead Academy is as rooted in blue-blood as elitist schools come, where the world revolves around whose father is in which exclusive krewe and whose debutante debut luncheon is set for the next weekend. One of my favorite conversations comes between Rebecca and her younger cousin Aurelia, as the younger girl explains the hierarchy of the school:
“She’s just a Pleb.”
“A Pleb. Short for pleb-ee-an. We learned about them in Latin […] We say Pleb because it rhymes with Deb, and everyone is pretty much either a Pleb or a Deb.”
“What are you talking about?” Rebecca was confused.
Temple Mead is split into a hierarchy of Plebs (commoners, wannabes), Debs (wannabe Patricians, higher than Plebs), and Patricians (Temple Mead elite). It’s like the classic social hierarchy of high school, taken to the extreme based on a family’s historical standing and considerable wealth.
But beyond the excellent setting of the novel, Ruined is an old fashioned ghost story at its heart. Lisette, a beautiful sixteen-year old girl in life becomes a friend to Rebecca, and gradually shares her own tragic story with the human girl. Rebecca, in turn, becomes a good friend to Lisette, choosing to spend time with the ghost that no one else can see. I think it is in the relationship between these two characters, separated by the thin veil of reality and from two different worlds that is the most appealing part of Ruined. The other characters are sufficiently well-drawn, but my heart was with Lisette and Rebecca instead of the somewhat lackluster requisite love story with the attraction between Rebecca and blue-blood Anton. Another thing this novel does well is create an atmosphere of menace with the “villain” characters – maybe it’s not the most original story with old families protecting each others’ dirty secrets, but it’s an effective one.
The plotting of the book drags a bit in the early chapters, but works up to a frenzied finale – complete with Mardi Gras beads, costumes, and murder. I highly enjoyed Ruined and certainly recommend it. I’ll definitely be checking back for more from this talented author.
Rating: 7 Very Good
A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
Publication Date: September 2005
Paperback: 288 pages
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
In the class of the high school English teacher she has been haunting, Helen feels them: for the first time in 130 years, human eyes are looking at her. They belong to a boy, a boy who has not seemed remarkable until now. And Helen—terrified, but intrigued—is drawn to him. The fact that he is in a body and she is not presents this unlikely couple with their first challenge. But as the lovers struggle to find a way to be together, they begin to discover the secrets of their former lives and of the young people they come to possess.
A Certain Slant of Light is a book I’ve had on my TBR for a very long time. It’s a book that I’ve seen sitting there and dusted off to read only to put it back on the shelf. Later, I’d tell myself. The time’s not right. What can I say? I’m superstitious about these sorts of things. But, when I realized that both Ana and I had a few ghost-themed titles to read, it was finally time to really give this book a read.
This is a different type of ghost story, as the protagonist is herself a ghost and the one doing the haunting. Helen, as she was known in life, is Light. She can only remain free of her cold, watery personal hell by cleaving herself to a host, and over the near 200 years since her death, she’s clung to her different saviors, passing from one literature lover to the next (the title of the novel, you may recognize, comes from one of her hosts). Her current host, Mr. Brown, is a young high school english teacher with a passion for books and for writing, and Helen is content with being next to him and sharing in his life. That is, until one day when she’s in class with him and one of his students looks at her. He sees her. Helen cannot believe it, for as long as she has been in her ghostly state she has never been seen by a human, nor has she ever seen one of her own kind. The seventeen-year old boy, Benny, has been in the class for the whole year and has never been able to see her until that fateful day – and he seeks out Helen, to talk to her to tell his story. Helen learns that the boy she sees, is not Benny at all, but a kindred spirit named James. James tells Helen that Benny recently had overdosed on drugs in the nearby park that James used to haunt. When Benny’s soul left, James watched in horror as something dark and evil threatened to take over the empty body, and he acted quickly by throwing himself into Benny’s unconscious flesh. And since then, James has seen other ghosts but no one that has known they were dead – that is, no one like Helen.
The two are drawn together, as the only two of their kind. They fall in love, they connect as two souls, and when Helen has the chance to occupy an empty body of her own, she seizes it. But gradually they realize that their stolen flesh cannot last forever, and they question their purpose and their future as they learn more about the bodies they have possessed.
A Certain Slant of Light had me from the opening sentence. Written in flawless prose telling Mary’s story in the third person, Ms. Whitcomb creates a haunting, heart-wrenching tale about life after death, about love, fear, and redemption. Unlike other Young Adult novels that are so much into obsessive teen love, the instant attraction and the desperate way that James and Helen cling to each other in A Certain Slant of Light actually resonates true and works. Both characters are lost souls who have been achingly alone after their own tragic deaths for many, many years – so when they find each other it truly is like the proverbial life preserver in a churning ocean, or the oasis in the shimmering heat of a desert. James and Helen find each other in the realm beyond their mortal lives and are given a second chance, fleeting as it may be, in borrowed bodies that only appear young. The way that they struggle with their own deeply buried personal devils and find salvation through each other is what makes their love story so poignant. Both characters are distinct, and Ms. Whitcomb does a flawless job in making Helen and James believably old (Helen from a time before the car was invented, and James from just before the end of WWI), as they were in their twenties when they died and do naturally not think or speak like current teens, but she also gives them an innocence when they are returned to the bodies of teenagers, struggling to fit into their stolen lives.
And therein lies the rub – because though the souls have fled the two teenage bodies both Helen and James possess, there is no denying that these two creatures of Light have stolen their lives. This is a topic that both Helen and James must confront – the first of many thought-provoking questions that Ms. Whitcomb raises in this book.
A Certain Slant of Light is a spiritual book. And by that I don’t mean it’s “religious” – because it’s not really. I admit that I tune out when books start talking about God (capital G), His will, etc in the Christian biblical sense – usually this is because I get the feeling of being preached to, and that does not sit well with me. But A Certain Slant of Light manages to walk the line between being spiritual and being religious, never preachy or moralizing. The message of the novel isn’t one of biblical salvation – in fact, the body that Helen possesses is the child of two overly-strict, zealous religious parents who have driven their daughter’s soul from her body by their inability to accept any differences. Rather, this novel manages to convey a bittersweet story of redemption and love, and being able to forgive oneself. And that, dear readers, is a hell of an accomplishment.
Another notable read for 2009, and Ms. Whitcomb has now become an auto-buy for me. Absolutely recommended.
Rating: 8 Excellent
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