‘The Ghost Road’ a haunt­ing read

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - WEEKEND LIFE - Joan Sul­li­van Joan Sul­li­van is ed­i­tor of New­found­land Quar­terly mag­a­zine. She re­views both fic­tion and non-fic­tion for The Tele­gram.

It’s the sum­mer of 1978 and Ruth Wind­sor is headed to Buckle, New­found­land, to spend the sum­mer with her Aunt Doll. Born and raised in On­tario (or “Canada,” as Aunt Doll calls it), Ruth has never met her aunt or vis­ited there be­fore.

Her mother, Meg Dug­gan, died when Ruth was two, and her fa­ther, Bill Wind­sor, doesn’t talk much about her. Ruth as­sumes he doesn’t want to stir up up­set­ting me­mories — he’s not an emo­tional type of guy, but takes a prag­matic, de­tached ap­proach to life. They get along well, though. Bill stud­ies plants and the two of them have spent their sum­mers on ex­otic botan­i­cal ad­ven­tures.

And then, along came Gwen. Now Bill is re­mar­ried to this aw­ful per­son, and hon­ey­moon­ing in Greece, while Ruth is shipped off to New­found­land.

It’s a new place with new peo­ple. Ruth knows she will soon be joined by her cousin Ruby. In fact, on her first night, Ruth wakes as a “girl in a long white night­gown tip­toed into the room, car­ry­ing a can­dle that skit­tled in the draft and threw strange shad­ows across her face.” (There’s no elec­tric­ity in that space, be­cause Clarence, Doll’s fa­ther, didn’t be­lieve it was a safe or re­li­able util­ity, so Aunt Doll just had her half of the house wired.) The girl climbs into the bed­room’s other bed and Ruth, soothed by her pres­ence, goes back to sleep. In the morn­ing she looks for Ruby but Aunt Doll says she hasn’t ar­rived yet. Ruth’s “girl” of the night be­fore must have been a dream.

Buckle is that kind of place for that kind of dream. El­dred, whom Ruth meets af­ter break­fast her first morn­ing, is a fam­ily friend and jack-off-all-trades who’s also full of sto­ries. Some are about fam­ily, some about fairies, and some about the ghost road — an av­enue into the nearby, and emp­tied-by-tragedy com­mu­nity of Slip­pers Cove, which only some peo­ple can see. Ruth is one of them, though she refuses to be­lieve she has “the Sight.”

Even the fam­ily sto­ries can be un­set­tling. For ex­am­ple, Ruth had never been told that her mother had a twin sis­ter, Molly. Molly is Ruby’s mother, so that makes her even closer than the usual cousin. And when Ruth and Ruby meet, they’re both in for a shock — as Ruth sees, they look ex­actly alike.

“She was just my size, wear­ing a bright-green sweater and green pants. Her cheeks were flushed pink with her climb. But her face … her face was my face. Blue eyes, small nose, high cheek­bones, slightly crooked mouth, strong chin — it was like look­ing in a mirror. Even her hair was the same, ex­cept it was short and stuck out all over the place.”

The more Ruth and Ruby learn about their fam­ily roots, the more mys­ter­ies are un­earthed. Their ma­ter­nal line, the Finns, sailed from Water­ford, Ire­land, in 1832. Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion in­cluded a set of twin girls, blond and blue-eyed. And each set was shad­owed by whis­pers of a curse.

Some of this in­for­ma­tion can be ver­i­fied, by con­ver­sa­tions with Aunt Doll, or study­ing the grave­stones by the church. But some of it emerges from Ruth’s dreams, which quickly morph into day­time vi­sions, dis­ori­ent­ing and dis­turb­ing.

“There were peo­ple scream­ing all around me, or was it the wind? It sounded like the wind in the ceme­tery, a wind with a hu­man voice. Sud­denly I un­der­stood the words: ‘By wa­ter! By wa­ter! By wa­ter!’”

And some of their rel­a­tives, like Ruby’s Nan, Mil­dred Bar­rett, a.k.a. “the witch,” hold fast to se­crets of their own. She con­tends the Bar­retts have al­ways hated the Finns, but won’t ex­plain why, even as she still con­tin­ues to blame the long-lost Molly for lur­ing her son, Ge­orge, away from her.

Un­de­terred, Ruth and Ruby con­tinue to search for an­swers in their past, in Aunt Doll’s house, and along the ghost road.

This is Charis Cotter’s third young adult novel, all ghost sto­ries. In pitch­ing to her au­di­ence, among other ex­pe­ri­enced notes, she knows the im­por­tance of food.

Aunt Doll keeps Ruth and Ruby well sup­plied with macand-cheese and par­tridge­berry muffins. (Even the witch, de­spite her ap­par­ent cold­ness, is a deft hand with gin­ger­bread men and cin­na­mon buns.)

And the cover de­sign, worked in pur­ple, cream, and green pat­terns of the New­found­land wild­flow­ers Ruth col­lects, is lovely.

The drama pro­gresses nicely, with events in­creas­ingly haunted. Speak­ing of food, and spook­i­ness, early on, El­dred slips some bread into Ruth’s pocket. “You’re walk­ing on a fairy path, my love, and just be­cause you don’t be­lieve in them, doesn’t mean they won’t come af­ter you.”


“The Ghost Road” by Charis Cotter is pub­lished by Pen­guin Ran­dom House; $21.99, 320 pages.

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