By Elizabeth Wroten
Kidlit Review: How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle
On 26, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle
Summary: Issac and his family live in Mississippi Choctaw territory on the edge of a swamp. When there is news of Treaty Talk his family decides it will be time to move. That time comes much sooner than they expected, though, when men ride through their town that night burning down all the Choctaw houses. Forced to flee into the swamp the Choctaw endure the harsh beginnings of winter. As the swamp freezes over white men again appear, this time bringing blankets which Issac’s family wisely refuses. The blankets carry smallpox and soon his family leaves the swamp to escape the sickness. They join up with the Choctaw walking the Trail of Tears to their new land. Here they befriend another family and Issac is drawn into rescuing their older daughter. Issac is fortunate, however. He can see into the future and see ghosts and they help keep him safe on the dangerous mission to rescue Naomi as does his new friend Joseph who can shift into a panther.
I have such mixed feelings about Tingle’s books. They always seem like they are written for young audiences, in the case of How I Became a Ghost I feel a fourth grader or fifth grader could pick it up, but he tackles some really heavy subjects with a rather heavy hand. That’s not to say he’s pedantic. There is just a lot of difficult history packed into a slim novel.
Lest I sound too negative, there was a lot to like about the story. It was exciting, especially once the rescue storyline picked up. It has ghosts and a shape shifter. Issac is a great hero and a nice kid. And he isn’t kidding when he tells the reader he will become a ghost. Issac does actually die in the book, but not in an especially tragic way. He becomes a ghost that helps inspire, motivate, and help his people know that they are stronger than the soldiers forcefully relocating them, they are stronger than the sorrow and pain that befalls them on this difficult journey.
Importantly How I Became a Ghost exposes readers to Choctaw history, culture, and thinking. It’s an excellent example of windows and mirrors. While you might call the book magical realism with its ghosts and shape shifting kid (that panther on the cover is actually one of the main characters in animal form), I think that’s giving it a non-native label. It taps into the Choctaw mythology and world view which makes the ghosts feel less like magic and more like a natural way of looking at this world and the next.
The book is the first in a trilogy and if they are as compelling as this one, I’ll be looking forward to them. As I said earlier the audience for the book might be a little tough. Kids who like suspense, ghosts, adventure and history will like the book, but it’s a pretty easy book to read (in terms of reading level). In that regard it would be good for fourth and fifth graders. But be aware it deals with a lot of death and cruelty which might be better suited to sixth and seventh graders. As a parent, teacher or librarian you’ll have to use your judgement about whether it’s right for any particular reader. There’s enough action and excitement to keep a reluctant or struggling older reader engaged and the cover doesn’t look too young which will help.