Ophie's Ghosts, by Justina Ireland

Ophie's Ghosts (May 2021 by Balzer + Bray) is Justina Ireland's first middle grade book, and it is a lovely immersive read, blending ghosts and a murder mystery with the daily life of a very real and relatable girl. 

Ophelia's life was upended in November, 1922, when her home in Georgia was burned by a white mob, and her father killed; he'd voted, which in the Jim Crow south was a dangerous thing for a black man to do.  But Ophie and her mother escaped unharmed, thanks to her father coming to her as a ghost to warn her.  She didn't know he was a ghost till later...and she didn't know that she'd start to see other ghosts.

Moving in with Aunt Rose and a family of cousins up north in Pittsburgh was the only think Ophie's mother could do, and now Ophie has to go to work instead of school.  Her job is to look after a demanding and unpleasant rich white woman in her grand home, Daffodil Manor.  It turns out the manor is full of ghosts, some self-absorbed, others with whom she can speak.  Once of them, Clara, even becomes a friend....But Aunt Rose can also see haints, and warns Ophie against ever trusting one.  

Ophie's desire to help her ghostly friend is so strong, though, that she sets out to uncover the mystery of her death.  She finds a story of passion, racial prejudice, and, she begins to suspect, murder...and unwittingly she gives Clara herself the power to take matters into her own ghostly hands.  But a ghost with power, as Aunt Rose warned, is a danger to everyone around it....and things get scary.

I sat down to start reading, and when I got up again I'd been sitting so long in one position it was hard to walk, a sign of a very good read!  With books like this I kind of forget I'm actually reading, because the words are going into to my head so fast and seamlessly that I am seeing the story not the typed letters.  Ophie is one of those fictional characters who seems truly real.  I warmed to her innate compassion, and my heart ached for her at many points in the story as she dealt with the racist realities of her life, her grief over her father and her lost hope for an education, and her worries for her mother.  The book is full of minor characters, dead and alive, who have their own vivid bits of story, adding considerable interest, tugging the heartstrings, and even providing a bit of light relief.

It's not a "horror story" (the real horror being not ghosts, but the human evil with which the story begins), and things only get  supernaturally scary at the climax towards the end.  But it is very spooky, and the horrible house full of ghosts is a ghastly place, so there's probably enough to satisfy young readers who love atmospheric creepiness.   Offer it to readers who enjoyed Victoria Schwab's City of Ghosts, or readers who like stories of plucky orphans in horrible jobs (of course, Ophie still has a mother who loves her, but one who's withdrawn from her somewhat because of grief and worry, so she felt orphan-adjacent to me, and the cover has this vibe too), and since it's top notch historical fiction as well as a ghost story, it's a great educational introduction to racism in the US in the 1920s (I learned more history from children's books than I did in the classroom, though mostly about Roman and medieval England....I'd love to be able to offer this one to 10 year old me, who also liked orphans and ghosts...and who knew nothing about racism in America in the early 20th century).

short answer--highly recommended, and I hope Justine Ireland writes more middle grade!

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