Tuesday, July 5, 2022

A Festival of Ghosts

A Festival of Ghosts
by William Alexander
Recommended Ages: 11+

On the second page of this book, hero girl Rosa looks down from a great height (and she hates heights), and the author tells us, "Her heart grabbed both lungs to steady itself." It was just about the fastest a book has gotten a belly laugh out of me, and I think it's also a good example of the type of writing William Alexander does – always keen to find an original and colorful way to say something when the average author would probably settle for the same-old, same-old. I noticed it in a previous book in which Rosa was repeatedly described as saying nothing, loudly. Part of it goes toward vividly depicting his main character with her offbeat charisma. Rosa is a disruptive character, in a sense that some people (like her friend Jasper) recognize her as having a positive influence on her community, but others (like the hostile Talcott family) blame her for everything that has gone wrong since Rosa and her mother moved to the town of Ingot.

Before the Diazes arrived, Ingot was widely known as the least haunted place in the country. Athena Diaz is a librarian, which is to say, an appeasement specialist, dedicated to quieting the unquiet dead and the restless memories that cling to places, books, people and things. But there's another school of thought about how to deal with ghosts, called banishment – only, it doesn't work long-term, and when it backfires, the fallout can be deadly. This is what almost happened to Ingot soon after the Diazes arrived, and although Rosa and Jasper managed to save everyone's lives, things haven't settled down since then, and now both the living and the dead are restless.

One of the issues at stake is the fate of the town's Renaissance festival, which gave a purpose and a made-up sort of history to the town when it didn't seem to have one of its own. But the festival grounds have become a battleground now, with memories of the reenactors taking ghostly form (even when the people in question are still alive) on one side, and the long-banished spirits of the town's copper miners taking the other. Meanwhile, at the town school, spiritual disturbances somehow connected to Ingot's tragic, early history are stealing the voices from students and teachers alike. These problems add a weight of responsibility to Jasper and Rosa that no kid their age should have to bear, but it's specially theirs because, in the first place, Jasper has quickly grown to become the town's first-ever ghost horse whisperer and, in the second place, the root of much of the evil going on in town has a personal connection to Rosa.

It isn't all spookiness and horror, though. I mean, there's plenty of that, despite the fact that Rosa and Athena's worldview makes ghostly hauntings a lot less scary than you'd expect. Except when they aren't, which is what makes it a story. Some of these ghosts are understandably pissed, and at least one of them is sickeningly mean, but dealing with them isn't about slaying them or banishing them; it's more about negotiating with them and giving them something they want. And when you dig down to the root of Ingot's problem's, naturally, there's somebody very much alive behind it all, and what they're doing is the most chilling thing in the whole book. But again, let me stress that there's also whimsical magic, lighthearted fun and wamrth in this book, with characters who grow, surprises and thought-provoking solutions to mind-blowing problems.

This is a sequel to A Properly Unhaunted Place. William Alexander either teaches in the Twin Cities or at the University of Vermont. I've been given conflicting information about this, although I've sensed a certain influence of the Twin Cities on his writing (such as the weather term "snizzle," which was coined by a local TV meteorologist there). Anyway, he is also the author of Goblin Secrets, Ghoulish Song, Ambassador and Nomad.

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