The Other Side of Dark, by Sarah Smith

In one of the odd congruities that happens from time to time, life and fiction intersected for me today. At work a visiting archaeologist talked about how she worked alongside the descendants of the men and women on board the last slaver to reach Alabama (in 1860!), excavating the past of the place where they had made new lives for themselves (you can read more about that project here). I didn't know that the slave trade had continued to so late a date.

On the way home my mind was full of horror of the slave trade, the memories that accrue to places, and the importance of telling the stories of these memories. And I couldn't have chosen a better book from my pile to continue this line of thought--The Other Side of Dark, by Sarah Smith (2010, Atheneum, YA, 309 pages)-- though I couldn't remember when I reached for it why I'd gotten it from the library, or what it was about.

Katie has been seeing ghosts since her mother's death the year before, obsessively drawing the darkness of what she sees, almost without her own volition. One day in the park she meets a boy named George, a friendly kid with down's syndrome, living with his grandfather in the old house that belongs to the park. But to her horror she relizes he is dead, his grandfather gone for over a hundred years, and the old house is a condemned wreck.

Law is interested in the house too--he loves old buildings, and how they hold the lives of the people who once lived in them. His mother is leading a crusade to save this particular old house--Pinebank, once the family estate of one of Boston's great merchant families, great public benefactors (and a real place, recently demolished; shown at right). But old Mr. Perkins, George's grandfather, was guilty of unspeakable evil (literally unspeakable--it was excised from history). Because of that, Law's father, professor of Harvard, descendant of slaves, and angry spokesman for reparations, wants to see Pinebank raized to the ground, and so he brings into the light of day the dark secret of the Perkins family....

Down in the cellar of the condemned house is a chest that George promised his grandfather he would protect; a promise that cost him his life. Katie and Law think it might hold treasure that would save the house from demolition, but instead, their search for the chest takes them into a nightmare of unquiet ghosts, and into a story of a crime against humanity whose repercussions have spanned the centuries. And the ghosts know that Katie can hear them...and insist that she listen, spilling out into her drawings and threatening her sanity.

And in the meantime Katie (white) and Law (biracial) are falling hard for each other, trying, with all the angst of teenagers in tricky circumstances, to make sense of their identities and feelings.

It's an immensely powerful, eye-opening story that packs both emotional and educational punches; for that I recommend it.

But I do have a slight feeling of reservation about the story telling. One the one hand, there is the very heavy, extraordinarily heavy even, and utterly disturbing weight of the past and the reverberations of slavery in present day America. On the other, there's the story of two kids getting to know each other, figuring out a mystery, interacting with ghosts....narrated by each one in turn. It's a tricky balancing act, and I was so invested in the story after the first hundred or so pages that I became sad when the balance went off kilter for me.

It began to seem like this second story of Law (pressured by unbearable parental expectations and struggling to find his own identity) and Katie (still profoundly grieving for her mother, and now wondering if she is going insane) was being flattened by the weight of the author's intent focus on the telling of the Big Story. Law, in particular, progressively became a less believable person. He is wracked with introspection, to the point that it felt almost as though things were occurring to him for the very first time so that they could be included in the story (although that being said, being a teenager is the time when you do start really questioning and wondering, so it might be that I just wasn't feeling charitable toward him). I wondered what this rich kid was doing at a public school, and (this is very, very minor, but it bugged me) it jarred that his parents, who'd already given him his own car, gave him a wii for Christmas. I didn't quite see the point of Katie's backstory either, and no-one from the supporting teenage cast ever became three-dimensional.

So the end of the book saw me caring considerably about the very-well researched historical elements of the book (and doing lots of googling, and being appalled, but not surprised, by gaps in what's available on line), and it saw me more educated (always good), but by the end I wasn't quite as invested in Law and Katie as people as I would have liked to be.

That being said, The Paperback Princess wrote -- "Katy and Law are just wonderful characters, 3 dimensional, flawed, scared, real." So maybe it was me.

Other reviews can be found at Eusinian Mysteries, Mark Bernstein, and The Reculsive Bibliophile.


  1. Aw man, I wanted to read this because of the ghosts but this sounds like it might be too horrific slave wise. I will need to mentally prepare myself, oh jeez. I like (well like isn't the best word) that one of the characters has Down's syndrome, but not so awesome that he's not fully developed.

    I think I'll try and get the book from the library though since I'm doing a speculative fiction challenge

  2. I think the character of George is drawn fairly well, with considerable sympathy and some depth. He's seen at a distance -- he *is*, after all, both a Downs person and a ghost.

    I wouldn't hesitate to read the book for fear that the slave account is either too unpleasant or too preachy. It's hard to see how it could have been done better, given our current constraints on what is unspeakable and what must be said.

  3. I second both points--George was a very sympathetic character, and the horrors of past, and their reverberations into the present, although certainly not easy reading, are written in such a way as to make the book very worthwhile.

  4. No, I agree with you about struggling to connect with Law and Katie. I liked the story more than I liked the storytelling.

  5. ^ referring to your second-to-last and and third-to-last paragraphs here

  6. To read more about the old mansion, see www.pinebank.org


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