This book first entered my consciousness when Charlotte reviewed it back in September. It went on my TBR, and sat there until a recent discussion on the CCBC listserv I subscribe to. I wanted to be able to follow the discussion, so I sat down and read the book, finally.
Before I began reading, I didn’t know very much about the story or the history that underlies it. While this is obviously not something I’m proud of (at least as far as the history is concerned), not knowing what was going to happen next did keep the suspense going through the book. I suspect many mainstream readers would share that experience, and I wondered how much Tingle counted on that being the case.
But make no mistake–How I Became a Ghost is based on history, real and raw. Tingle deals with this without being unsubtle, and there’s a kind of directness about Isaac’s voice that lets the reader react to what’s happening without pointing to the moral. So yes, this is a powerful story with a wonderful narrator, one who’s smart and thoughtful and loyal to his family and his culture.
I also liked the subtle way the narrative pushes back against stereotypes. Isaac and his family live in a cabin, along with their relatives and neighbors. He has a dog, Jumper (one of my favorite characters in the story), and a family, a life that is cast as stable, even if it’s not rich or high-powered. All of that changes when his community is uprooted and forced onto the Trail, and it’s clear that for the Choctaw this is a deeply painful and devastating event that is done to them. I appreciated that even though Isaac doesn’t fully understand treaties, he is aware of them and their influence on his life.
And, even though there are some very sad and horrifying moments, there are also some very funny ones. The story ends with a sense of hope–that even though all of these things have been done to the Choctaw, everything and everyone they have lost, they still have a sense of pride in their culture and people.
I am not sure whether to say this is a fantasy book or not. Personally–and I’m not sure anyone else will get this–I don’t tend to think of books which simply take seriously the spiritual or religious beliefs of a culture as fantasy. (So, books where the Greek gods simply exist–ie, Mary Renault.) So I would tend to say that How I Became a Ghost isn’t fantasy. However, not everyone will share that definition, so I will say that by most people’s lights, this is a historical fantasy.
Isaac is ten, and I think ten and up is probably a good age to give this one to kids. Those who are already starting to grapple with the difficulties of the world and have begun to realize how cruel people can be to each other. That said, as with every book, it’s a delicate balance and depends on the child. (I read The Hiding Place when I was about ten and it made a deep impression, in a good way. This could easily be that book for another child.)
Book source: public library
Book information: 2013, Roadrunner Press; juvenile/middle grade