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Gaaaaahhhh! It's March and the temperature's in the single digits! What is there to do but read a good book?
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By Tim Tingle
The RoadRunner Press, 2013
“Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before,” our young Choctaw narrator begins. “I am a ghost. I am not a ghost when this book begins, so you have to pay very close attention.”
How could this book not be a page-turner?
Our narrator, ten-year-old Isaac, meets his destiny on the Trail of Tears, the horrifying path walked by southeastern Native American nations after passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The descendent of a trail-walker, Tim Tingle drew on family history and conversations with tribal elders to write this and other books about the event.
But HOW I BECAME A GHOST does not read like history—the story is immediate and real, thanks to a flat-toned yet evocative young narrator, journeying from innocence through cataclysm to an all-too-temporary justice.
When the book begins, Isaac’s chief concern is keeping his beloved dog, Jumper, from eating the chickens. (Jumper talks, our first clue that this is not just any old story.) Isaac lives with his parents and twelve-year-old brother in a Choctaw town a few miles from the nearest Nahullos, white people. One day, the family gets wind of Treaty Talk—never good news—and before long they and their neighbors are informed that they’re going to be moved far away.
In preparation for the disruption, Isaac’s mother takes him on a round of ceremonial visits to the elders. Isaac discovers that he can “see things before they happen”—in this case, elders burning or erupting in pustules. He keeps his horrible visions to himself, but they come to fruition when a band of Nahullos attacks the Choctaws, burning down their houses and driving them to an island in a nearby swamp. Later, in a show of friendliness, they deliver the now-infamous blankets imbued with smallpox.
Isaac’s family survives to join the death march to Oklahoma. By this time Isaac has made two more discoveries: He can see and talk to Choctaw ghosts, and he will soon become one himself. Terrifying, yes—but ultimately a comfort, as he learns that the great host of Choctaw dead stay near their people and step in to help when they can.
The book takes a suspenseful turn after Isaac’s death, when he and other ghosts help rescue a young girl enslaved by soldiers accompanying the march. The living rescuers include a shape-shifter boy who turns into a panther and the bonepickers, old women who tend the bodies of the dead as part of Choctaw funeral rites. It’s all very cool, yet we never forget the inexorable tragedy taking place around us.
This is the first book in a trilogy, and ends rather abruptly. I would have preferred more of a ringing conclusion that allowed the book to stand on its own, but I have to say this one accomplished its purpose: I’m ready and waiting for the next episode.
Dear FCC: I downloaded this book at my own expense after reading about it on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center listserve. And yes, I am tempted to wonder why cooperative children need their own book center. (I’m sure CCBC’s never heard that one before.)