Monday, March 24, 2008

Ghosts I Have Been

Richard Peck's "Ghosts I Have Been" left a formidable impression on me when I read it as a youngster. I picked it up again last week with much excitement, read it in a night, and can happily declare it thoroughly un-disappointing (except for the new cover illustration, which sucks, compared to the original, by Rowena). What still delights me as a jaded adult is the protagonist's voice, the pithy, wise-crackin' turn-of-the-century heroine, Blossom Culp.

"Many's the ignorant person who claims that spirits and haunts have forsaken the modern age in this new twentieth century," she opines in the book's prologue, "But what they do not know would fill a book. And this is the book." This book is set in the early part of the teens, a preferred era of mine (for some reason), and features details (some wonderfully random and vivid, like the Pope-Detroit Electric brougham) and dialogue that feel authentic in ways that seem more lived than researched, as if the author had spent some quality time with his grandpa rather than getting things out of books. Or, rather, maybe he spent some quality time with a sassy grandma or maiden aunt, because the best-drawn characters in this book are all female, and many of them are that finest of female specimens, the spinster.

Blossom herself is firmly outside the mainstream, living with her half-gypsy mother down in a shack on the wrong side of the tracks. "There are girls in this town who pass their time up on their porches doing fancywork on embroidery hoops," she says by way of introducing herself. "They're all as alike as gingerbread figures in skirts. I was never one of them. My name is Blossom Culp, and I've always lived by my wits."

Blossom finds herself in stuck-up Letty Shamabaugh's house one day after school (how she gets to be there is another story) and has a sudden visitation from the Second Sight -- inherited from her mother's gypsy blood -- while in the middle of a fake seance designed to amuse (herself) and frighten the gingerbread girls. In the midst of pretending to see a vision, there it is: a very real flash of something beyond knowing. "Newton Shambaugh has just been run over by Miss Gertrude Dabney's Pope-Detroit Electric auto," she announces in her haze, sending Letty and Mrs. Shambaugh out the door screaming, looking for poor dear Newton (Letty's little brother).

This bizarre happening sets off a chain of events that will lead her to great fame and a reputation as the country's leading psychic, take her aboard the ghost-ship of the Titantic, and eventually, into the drawing room of the Queen of England, along with her new companion, Miss Gertrude Dabney, an Angolphile who who wishes America had never won the Revolutionary War.

Miss Dabney, who "had a reputation as the town character and lived up to it," takes Blossom under her wing after the electric auto incident. She has her over to her house one day for tea, cakes, a little chat, and a brief exorcism. During tea, she asks the psychic children to help her with a ghost in her kitchen. It turns out to be the ghost of Minerva, a plain, raw-boned hired girl who killed herself out of unrequited love for Miss Dabney's father. Once Blossom assures Minerva that all is forgiven, the ghost becomes a helpful servant girl and bakes spectral scones for the grateful spinster.

Some weeks later, Miss Dabney gets it into her head to expose a traveling roadshow charlatan as a fake, with Blossom's help. They attend a seance where, despite her noble intentions, Dabeny is promptly flummoxed out of her watch by the trickster, who pretends to be the ghost of her dead father. Blossom sneaks back into the Odd Fellow's Hall at night to recover it. In a delicious scene, she discovers the professor's hollowed-out cabinet, complete with secret cupboards and compartments, and a young English waif who plays the ghosts while the public's in the house. Here, Blossom and the waif, Sybil (of the Berdmondsey Road), have the following exchange:
''We travel at night. I ain't seen daylight in two years.'
'You look it,' I remarked.
'You're no American Beauty Rose yourself.'
There's nothing like swapping insults to clear the air."

Blossom convinces Sybil to hightail it out of there and decides to perform the ceremony herself the next day. She also convinces Miss Dabney to show her face in public again, despite her embarrassment at her conduct the day before, in this particularly touching scene in which Miss Dabney says,"'I am nothing but a feather-headed old maid.' Tears zigzagged down her face. 'Don't call yourself names,' I said in a small voice. 'We are a couple of ... unmarried ladies. And we have to stick together.'"

Blossom's triumphant performances as Sybil is somewhat dampened when her teacher, Miss Spaulding, catches her in the act. Miss Spaulding is another marvelous character -- a spinster schoolteacher -- who is wonderfully described as "slender as a wand and ladylike, [with] an arm on her like a bartender." Miss Spaulding takes Blossom back to her office not, as one would imagine, for a good thrashing, but rather for an audience with local newspaperman Lowell Seaforth. (She figures she'll get Blossom's need for attention out of her system.) Lowell Seaforth asks her to go into a trance on command, and, boy does she deliver. She travels astrally on board the Titantic where she witnesses the tragic tale of Lady Beatrix and her son Julian Poindexter. Chillingly, the blanket from the ship appears in her hands as she awakens from her trance drenched in seawater, and determined to intervene in Julian's fate.

Ghosts I Have Been is remarkable not only for Blossom's wit and voice, or for its sense of time and place, but also for its delightfully eccentric and self-sufficient female characters, from our heroine and her ma to Sybil to Misses Dabney and Spaulding. I'm glad to say that, nearly twenty years after reading it for the first time, Ghosts I Have Been remains on my list of favorite YA novels (along with A Swiftly Tilting Plant, The Westing Game, and The Long Secret). It's definitely the kind of book I'd be happy to re-read periodically, because, as dear old potty Miss Dabney says, "It is ritual that gives shape to life." And as Blossom also says, "There are many kinds of wisdom in this world and Miss Dabney is very wise in her way. "

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