CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 4. . . .September 25, 2009
Many great works of fiction have central characters with the ability to see ghosts. Hamlet and A Christmas Carol spring to mind. My favourite TV series, Medium, is based on the real life psychic, Alison Dubois, who assists the police in solving crimes.
In Haunted, ghosts are not the only thing casting a shadow upon 15-year-old Dee. The stigma of being fatherless in a traditional rural community in the early 1920s is a heavy burden. Dee cannot remember her mother who supposedly ran away with a travelling show. What is the real story? Her grandmother will not say, but she studies Dee's face and then, at gatherings, scrutinizes the faces of the men in the community.
Dee, who loves nature and the outdoors, thinks of the soil of France and "could only imagine what horror the land held there." Then the 1918-1919 flu brought death to almost every Canadian family. Author Barbara Haworth-Attard has chosen an era that is truly haunted.
As the novel opens, Dee is feeding the chickens before school. She looks up at the mountain (part of the escarpment extending from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay) and a sense of foreboding comes over her. Later, she learns that skeletal remains have been found on the mountain. When the police chief, constable, doctor and minister appear on the road carrying a sheet-covered body on a stretcher, Dee sees alongside them an opaque black pillar, "tall as the trees, churning on the path.” It gives off an acrid stench and close up she can see faces screaming within in. Gran later suggests that this pillar is "evil in its purest form."
The ghosts that have appeared to Dee since age four are not like the pillar but are people who appear silvery grey and shimmering. When a woman came to consult with Gran about her husband's shortness of breath, Dee saw behind her the "shimmering outline of a man" and blurted out her sorrow that he had died. As it turned out, when the woman returned home, she found that her husband had died during her absence. The neighbours have no idea how often Dee has seen apparitions, but incidents like the above, plus Gran's uncanny ability to predict trouble, bring the local authorities to their door.
The police chief, constable and doctor want Dee to identify a ring found on the skeleton's finger. Dee recognizes it as belonging to Mary Ann, the storekeepers' daughter, a friend four years her senior with whom she used to hike on the mountain. Mary Ann confided that she was secretly engaged, and so, when she disappeared, Dee thought she had eloped. In fact, she was killed by a blow to the head and buried in a shallow grave on the mountain. People begin to remember three other girls in the area who disappeared and were assumed to have run away. Because women come to Gran for help, and because she has extra-sensory abilities (though not as strong as Dee's), the police suspect her of knowing more than she is telling.
Others in the community also fall under suspicion. A developmentally delayed, quiet friendly man is a suspect because one of his woodcarvings, a little bird, is found in the mountain glade where Mary Ann's body was discovered. A poor family with a daughter Dee's age move into a vacant house near Dee and her grandmother. The daughter, Vivien, "kicks up emotion, sending it scattering with the wind to be carried to who knew where to do unknown harm." Alone, walking home, Dee meets Vivien's brother, Clarence, a young returned veteran who has been searching for his family. Speaking of the war, he says that most soldiers hated killing but that a few were frightening because they relished it. Is there a psychopathic returned veteran running amok in the community?
The ominous atmosphere is enhanced through the characters. Gran is dour and uncommunicative until midway through the novel when she emerges as a fully rounded and admirable character. The emaciated doctor's wife with a perpetually terrified attitude; the constable's wife who thrives on malicious stories about her neighbours; the sweet woman with a brood of kids, a life-threatening pregnancy and an abusive husband - all are well-drawn, and all are troubling. Generally, Haworth-Attard depicts the community as insular and xenophobic. She is so skillful in inserting her clues as to the killer's identity that I did not guess it until three quarters of the way through. When the perpetrator threatens Dee, a friend from the spirit world helps to save her. In the end, her identity puzzle is solved, and she feels ready to go forward.
Attard uses the woodland setting to further the atmosphere and tension. There are dramatic thunderstorms, lonely walks on wooded roads, and "things that roamed the mountain - slipping from shadow to shadow so quickly you weren't sure if they were real or a play of light."
I wish my mother were alive to read this novel and take a trip back in time to her youth. Reading along, I kept encountering details of everyday life that she used to mention and expressions she sometimes used. Attard renders the place and time authentically and conveys much about women's lives in the so-called "good old days" and the impact of World War I upon ordinary Canadians. In Haunted, she scares us while quietly educating us.
Ruth Latta's work-in-progress is a novel, Spelling Bee. Her interest in women's issues and history is shown in her nonfiction work, The Memory of All That, Canadian Women Remember World War II (Renfrew, General Store, 1993).
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