How I Became a Ghost, a Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle (The RoadRunner Press, June 2013, 160 pages, Middle Grade and up) is a stunner of a book that deserves to be widely read, not just by kids but by grown-ups. I'd heard of the Trail of Tears, and knew it was horrible, but now it has been made real to me. And it was a really good story, with lots of magical, exciting, adventure.
Isaac, the narrator of the story, is a ghost. But when his story begins, he is an ordinary kid, growing up in a close-knit Choctaw community.
"I'm ten years old and I'm not a ghost yet. My name is Isaac and I have a mother and a father and a big brother, Luke. I have a dog, too. His name is Jumper, and he is my best friend. We go everywhere together. We swim in the river together; we chase chickens together."
Only the date at the top of the chapter, 1830, tells the reader this is a long ago story.
Isaac's life is about to be destroyed. The Choctaw are about to be driven out on the long forced march from their ancestral homeland in Mississippi to Oklahoma--on foot, in winter. Many will die, and Isaac finds himself seeing visions foreshadowing who, and how. And he knows that he will be among those who do not make it, and that he will become a ghost.
But though what happens is almost unbearably harsh, Tim Tingle accomplishes something remarkable with the way in which Isaac tells his story. Without diminishing the import and impact of the suffering and death, he manages to make his characters more than just the sum of their horrible experiences, and their story more than just a litany of darkness. Part of this comes from Isaac's voice--he's very much a lovable, somewhat naive kid; a typical ten-year-old boy (who happens to be a ghost), telling his story in a matter-of-fact way with touches of humor. Another escape from darkness comes from the resilience of the Choctaw people, who face the horrible hand they've been dealt with heroism, determination, and the strength of their community, one that includes the ancestors and the recent dead as well as with the living. And because death does not sever the bonds of family, the fact that Isaac becomes a ghost is desperately sad, but not as emotionally devastating as it might be.
And the final thing that keeps the weight of the subject from crushing the reader is that Isaac's story is also a gripping adventure, one that finds him on a desperate mission to save a teenage girl from the soldiers forcing the march onward...with the help of an unexpected ally, a shape-shifting panther boy. This adventure is one with tremendous appeal for younger readers (shape-shifting panther boy! desperate escape involving schemes and subterfuge!), making the pages turn fast and furiously.
And an even more final, small, thing--Isaac's dog Jumper is a joy.
This is historical fiction doing what the best historical fiction does--making part of the past come alive, jolting the reader into new knowledge of the past and its atrocities while keeping them engrossed in a great story. And it's the best sort of historical fiction for kids--teaching without preaching, telling a story that's exciting and entertaining, while packing an emotional punch that leaves the reader stunned and changed. It's the first of a trilogy, and I am looking forward to the next book lots.
Note on age of reader: I'm going to go with 10 years old and up on this one, with the caveat that a grown-up should be nearby. Bad things happen to people in this book--blankets deliberately infected with smallpox, for instance, are given to the people of Isaac's town, and people die. So many ten-year-olds have a keen sense of Justice, and they will be outraged and angry, and might (thinking of my own child) want to throw the book violently down because they are so furious that people could do such things to other people. But I think the fact that the horror isn't underlined with a heavy hand, and Isaac's friendly voice, and his friendly dog, and the growing excitement of the story (if the young reader gets to the shape-shifting panther boy, they'll be hooked for good), will balance that out. There's a lot of gradual buildup to Isaac becoming a ghost, too, so it doesn't come as the sort of horrible shock, making it difficult to keep reading, that sometimes happens with deaths of characters one is fond of. In any event, I will try it on my boy, and will watch with interest to see if he says I am a terrible mother for making him read something so sad, and gives up, or if it sings for him....
I have no reservations at all about recommending it to grown-ups.
Tim Tingle is himself an Oklahoma Choctaw and storyteller, who has been recording the stories of the Choctaw elders for the past decade, and whose great-great-grandfather walked the Trail of Tears.
So. There is the book, and it is an excellent book, and it defies easy categorization. Is it realistic fiction, in that the elements of the book that might seem supernatural (shape shifting, ghosts, visions) are a real part of the world of its characters, or is it Speculative Fiction, in that things far beyond mundane "reality" are an integral part of the story (like the fact that it is being narrated by a ghost)? I would like very much to nominate this book for the Cybils come October 1, but where? I am thinking I will email Tim Tingle, and ask him where he thinks it would be most at home....