Friday, June 17, 2022

A Properly Unhaunted Place

A Properly Unhaunted Place
by William Alexander
Recommended Ages: 11+

Rosa and her mother are appeasement specialists – a type of librarian skilled at calming ghosts down. Everywhere in their world is haunted, but libraries are especially so. Everywhere, that is, except a town called Ingot, accessible only by a highway that passes through a tunnel at each end of a small mountain valley. For some unknown reason, it's the only known ghost-free town. Yet curiously, that's where Athena, Rosa's mother, moves them after the mishap that turns Rosa's dad into a ghost. Athena seems to want a break from settling poltergeists, but Rosa misses the spirit presences. Something about the town doesn't feel right to her.

Jasper, who's the first kid Rosa meets in Ingot, has kind of the opposite problem. With no real history animating the valley, the townsfolk have created a fake one, building an entire economy around an elaborate Renaissance festival. Jasper's parents are into it, with his mother acting the part of the queen and his father strutting around in armor, giving rousing speeches in a fake British accent. The kid is embarrassed by it, but he plays along anyway. The two kids size each other up, Jasper trying to imagine what it's like to see ghosts and Rosa wondering how anyone can live without seeing them. But before they have much time to get to know each other, paranormal craziness breaks out at the fair and Rosa is on the case.

Athena could be a lot of help, if she were up to it. But in her first dust-up with a giant, angry spirit, her voice is stolen from her. That leaves it up to Rosa and her new friend to find out why Ingot seems so very unhaunted when it clearly isn't. The answer proves surprisingly chilling, given the story's starting state in which ghostly hauntings are no big deal. Apparently there is more than one way to deal with ghosts – appeasement and banishment – and the one that has kept Ingot ghost-free for so many years is really the more dangerous of the two. Unless the kids can relieve the pressure holding back the haints from the town's borders and appease the town's angry ghosts, every living thing in the valley will soon join them.

This book introduces a novel attitude toward ghosts, or rather a number of interesting attitudes that play off each other in ways that create dramatic conflict. The forces acting against Rosa and Jasper reveal frailties of human nature that readers may recognize in themselves. Grief, depression, prejudice, vigilantism, guilt and even historical revisionism are woven into the texture, with two young heroes modeling the combination of courage and compassion that can heal where fear-driven force only divides. It's a spooky, suspenseful, weird and touching story that gives you quite a bit to think about.

There are multiple authors named William Alexander. The one who wrote this one is also the author of the National Book Award winning Goblin Secrets, its companion Ghoulish Song and the young adult novels Ambassador and Nomad. This book also has a sequel, A Festival of Ghosts. Meanwhile, just for kicks, there's also a children's author named William Alexander who wrote four "Clues Kids" books, such as The Case of the Gumball Bandits, and a humorist named William Alexander whose books include Flirting with French and Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World. The W.A. who wrote this book is a professor of liberal arts at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier and is the son of a Latino immigrant to the U.S.

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