not the poem by Emily Dickinson
This is the best ghost story I have ever read. I stumbled onto this book by first-time novelist, Laura Whitcomb, and couldn't put it down. I loaned it to a mature 8th grader, and she finished it and loaned it to her next door neighbor, all in the course of a weekend. From there it went to a fellow teacher. Within a week, four readers had devoured this story.
It's a ghost story, but it's also a love story: the story of two ghosts who meet and fall in love and how they free not only themselves, but two living teenagers from their own individual versions of hell.
Helen, who has been a ghost for 130 years has only been able to keep herself from being dragged into a watery hell by attaching herself to various living hosts through the years. She is lonely, but resigned to her circumstances, until she is startled by a teenage boy, a student in the English class of her current host, looking directly at her.
This is how she meets James, a spirit who has been wandering around near his former home since his death in World War I. He shows her how to take over the body of classmate, whose spirit has departed, leaving a living shell behind. They are able to be together for a while, but struggle to deal with the issues left behind and the demands of the very different families of the young people whose bodies they now inhabit. Ms. Whitcomb writes beautifully and compellingly of their love and attraction to each other and of the issues that must be settled for them to be together.
I rose and began to flow slowly away. I could feel the flutter as I passed through James––he had put out his arm, pretending to stretch, as I was leaving. We were as close to touching as one spirit and mortal could for a moment. I started to imagine putting my arms around him but was stopped suddenly by a wall of cold blocking me. Blinded, I reached up and felt wet mud, the slime of a leaking dirt cellar or the bottom of a grave. I had let Mr. Brown leave me behind. I pushed against the coldness, and it gave way in messy pieces, the chill now running down over me like rain on my face. I had no voice with which to call out. I dug through the mud, hearing students laugh, buses, trash can lids rattling. I felt cement under my feet and then the darkness was pierced with white. I was sitting in the back seat of Mr. Brown's car, the sun blinding me in the rearview window.
One reason I liked this story and why I'm writing about it here is how well and genuinely the author addressed the issue of why Helen and James had been trapped as ghosts. This remains a mystery until the last few pages of the novel, but in the end, you understand that any of us could have been similarly ensnared. This novel has a lot to say about the issues of free will, self-determination, the nature of hell and the possibility of redemption. I won't tell you how the story ends, but I can tell you that you'd better have a full box tissue handy!