The Proof That Ghosts Exist (2008), by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman

22 June 2013

Matas Nodelman-Ghosts1This is a delightful book that makes me want to run out and read other books Perry Nodelman has written… as I know him mainly as an academic.  (Carol Matas’s books I have read quite a few of…) Matas and Nodelman’s characters are believably drawn, and their plot fairly cohesive.  There are minor issues, such as the grandfather ghost, who should have died in 1978, not knowing “pastrami,” but using the term “salted beef.”  Even for a British character, that seemed strange… and his “hippy” hair and language as well… The resolution is a little too tidy and trite, as well… the suspense is not developed sufficiently and the answers the children need come too readily to hand.  This makes it seem like a book you might not want to read, but it really is far from that.  I looked forward anxiously to the launch of the second in the Ghosthunters series, as the larger mystery is only partially solved by the children’s discoveries in this book.  Matas and Nodelman have an engaging style, one example of which is having both children be narrators, often remarking upon the same incident or memory, or using a similar reference, but in diametrically opposed ways: as Adam and Molly are chalk-and-cheese siblings, this technique works marvellously.

Ghosthunters #2, The Curse of the Evening Eye, came out in 2009; Ghost hunters #3, The Hunt for the Haunted Elephant, in 2010.


Who Is Frances Rain? (1987), by Margaret Buffie

What is it about Lizzie? Why, out of all of the marvellous protagonists that YA literature contains, does Lizzie captivate me? Every time I read Who is Frances Rain?—and this is the fourth time—I want to know more of Lizzie’s story: I want to see how her final years of highschool progress; I want to know (despite statistics regarding the permanency of highschool romances) more about her relationship with Alex; I want to follow her on the rocky road that the next few years will be. For, once again, Margaret Buffie has created a novel in which there are no solid answers in the end, only hope and promise. Her characters are so real, in both their flaws and their strengths that we implicitly trust in the truth of the narrative, and I at least want to travel with the characters for quite a while longer.

The plot of the novel is fairly simple. Lizzie’s dad has left them, which is difficult for the whole family, but especially for her annoying older brother, Evan. Her mother has recently remarried, and Lizzie and Evan both actively reject Tim, the new husband, and his legitimate attempts to both fit in to and help the family. Here, Buffie’s ability at characterization shines, for Lizzie, Evan, and Tim are all presented in honest human terms: no sugar coating to Evan’s rudeness or Lizzie’s self-centred attempts to sabotage Tim’s positive contributions. Eventually, not surprisingly, Tim can take no more and leaves. This is not a spoiler; it is the guaranteed outcome of the narrative situation Buffie constructs so deftly. But while it is the basic premise of the plot, it is also not the central point. Lizzie’s relationships with Tim—and Evan, and her mother—are a vehicle for the novel’s message that family—and indeed community—does not function unless there is communication, understanding, and forgiveness amongst its members. This is a lesson that Lizzie must learn, and she does so not only through her experiences—both contemporary and paranormal—but also through the pointed jibes of those around her who have had quite enough of her selfishness. At one point, Alex, who has been her brother’s summer friend since childhood, tells her: “You’re running a close neck-and-neck race with Evan for pill of the year, I don’t know why I bother with you” (114). Sometimes we need to hear comments like this; they pull us out of our more self-indulgent emotional moments.

While all of the clues to help her develop a more balance perspective on her family and her own role within it are present in her contemporary world, what really feeds Lizzie’s budding empathy is her experience on Rain Island, where she meets the ghost of Frances Rain. Who is Frances Rain? is more than just an interesting approach to the time-slip novel; Lizzie’s experience of the past crosses the borders of believability in a way that most time-slip novels remain pure fantasy. What she learns through helping Frances Rain’s ghost teaches Lizzie a lot about personal strength and responsibility; by helping Frances Rain find peace, she helps herself understand the difference in degree between her own troubles and those of the adults around her.

Who is Frances Rain? has been challenged and banned a number of times, for its inclusion of both the paranormal and an unwed mother. The illegitimate child in Buffie’s book is born in the early years of the twentieth century, but more than suggesting that such happenings belong in the past and our society has improved since then (a trope that was common in the first six decades of the twentieth century), Buffie is providing a continuity between women of the past and young women such as Lizzie, who are learning to make their own way in our modern world. The physical and emotional fortitude Frances Rain presents is a strength that both Lizzie and the reader can draw on in their own lives: Frances Rain is a part of Lizzie’s past, and shows Lizzie a way to move forward into her future. Perhaps that is why I want Lizzie’s story to go on: I want to be part of her continuing to grow into the strong, self-sufficient woman who was Frances Rain

Angels Turn Their Backs (1998), by Margaret Buffie

The opening of Angels Turn Their Backs is starkly, effectively realist. Addy’s anxiety, her fears, her phobia, are portrayed with a raw emotion that suggests personal experience, or at least a strong familiarity and empathy with the subject. Reading the first two chapters, I thought to myself: where is Margaret Buffie’s signature recourse to the paranormal? How on earth is she going to integrate the paranormal into this powerfully realist exploration of anxiety? I should not have worried (been so anxious…).

Addy suffers from agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, of leaving the security of one’s home/house/enclosed space to enter into the wide world. She moves to Winnipeg with her mother, who is running from a messy separation, and finds herself in a run-down boarding house, with a “storage” room that makes strange sounds. The strange sounds turn out to be the natural, if exotic, sounds of a African Gray parrot, left by the previous owner of the house. The previous owner, however, provides the paranormal aspect I was waiting for. Lotta Engel had in her old age suffered from agoraphobia, but her tragic story had deeper roots, roots that did not let her soul rest after death. Through the heightened emotional attunement that her condition creates, Addy taps into Lotta’s soul’s distress, and by helping Lotta find peace, Addy ultimately helps herself.

This might seem a simplistic relation of cause and effect, but Buffie has once again created an intricate mosaic of personalities, souls, emotional planes for her characters to embody or inhabit. The ghostly Lotta begs Addy to finish her life’s-work; Page, another border, is caught in an abusive relationship; Harmon, the seemingly lower-class land-lord, is attracted to Addy’s mother, who returns his respect and affection; Harmon’s son Sean is attracted to Addy; Addy is wary of everyone except Page, trusting her intimate acquaintances as little as she trusts the outside world. This complex web of relationships plays out against the internal monologue that is Addy’s mental and emotional state as she struggles with her own affliction and the reality of a world that expects teenagers to attend school, go shopping for their mothers, and generally maintain a social presence in the world. The narrative effect is brilliant, and the reader comes away from the story with a fundamental understanding of how it must feel to suffer from the anxiety that agoraphobia creates, and how hard it is for the world to understand an anxiety that is primarily internal, an anxiety of inaction. Through her undeniable affection for both Page and her mother—and her involvement in Lotta’s history—Addy manages to find the strength to begin to overcome her fears. At the end of the novel, though, her healing has only begun. Buffie is honest in asserting that emotional traumas are not overcome through one monumental incident, but take years of hard work on the part of the sufferer. Through her involvement in the lives of those around her, Addy has taken the first steps on that road; as readers, we trust that the people she loves will support her as she moves towards a fuller healing. Would that all sufferers of agoraphobia and other anxieties had as strong a support system for their journeys.

The Dark Garden (1995), by Margaret Buffie

Once again Margaret Buffie has created a narrative situation that permits the revelation of the adolescent experience from a unique and effective perspective.  In The Dark Garden, Thea is suffering from temporary amnesia brought on by an accident on her bike.  We meet her as she begins to discover herself—without a history, but with a strong sense of self—just before she leaves the hospital. Her family is fairly normal: an over-achieving mother, a kind but somewhat ineffective father, a slightly younger sister who seems to resent her, a four-year-old sister who dotes on her, and a part-time housekeeper who resents the extra work Thea’s problem creates.  To add to Thea’s problems, she is hearing voices in her head, and seeing visions of her new home that are not quite right.  As she begins to relearn who she is, Thea struggles to solve the mysteries that surround her: the source of her secret knowledge of the house, who the voices are that speak to her, and why her family functions the way it does.
Thea’s amnesia is a well-crafted vehicle for revealing the adolescent struggle with a developing personality. Thea has to learn to cope not only with who she knows herself to be inside, but also with the person others remember and are expecting. The separation of these two aspects of self—internal and projected—allows young adult readers to glean a comprehension of how they might be perceived by others in their world. Margaret Buffie handles this difficult dynamic admirably: we truly believe in Thea’s amnesia, in her family’s responses to her, and in her own work at integrating the two Theas into one.  Our belief in the characters within the contemporary setting of the story facilitate a belief in the paranormal aspects of the narrative, the style for which Buffie is so well known in the Canadian Children’s Literature world. I don’t want to go deeply into the paranormal aspects of the plot, as I hate spoilers; suffice it to say that it is up to Buffie’s usual standards, remaining within the realms of possibility with only the slightest suspension of disbelief.