Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Seven Crows For a Secret, Not To Be Told: One For Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn

At the door to my room, Elsie stopped and stared."This is all yours? Oh, Annie, you are so lucky."

Elsie tried out the rocking chair Father had made for me. She even opened the doors to the tall wardrobe and flipped through my skirts and dress and blouses. Finally she sat down on my bed and gave a little bounce. "You are my best friend. What good times we'll have playing here." I tried to smile. Elsie picked up Edward Bear and squeezed his tummy to make him growl. "What makes that noise?" She poked Edward's belly harder. "We should cut him open and find out. He's just a stuffed animal. Old and ugly and smelly."

"Give him to me," I cried. "I've had him since I was a baby. I'd never hurt him.""

It is 1918, and shy, only child Annie has just started sixth grade in a new school in a new town and longs to be accepted by the circle of girls led by the bold, red-haired Rosie, but before their first recess, Elsie grabs her hand and telling her how mean the other girls are, forces her to play only with her. And after school, uninvited she follows Annie home. Annie's mother kindly invites her to stay for dinner, but Annie finds it impossible to like Elsie, overweight, with horribly crooked teeth, and seeming to hate everyone--the teacher, the other students, even her stepmother and father whom she claims beat her and lock her in her room. Annie tries to be polite, but there is something frightening about Elsie that makes her wish she would stay away.

Then Elsie is absent from school for several days, and Annie is accepted by Rosie and the others into their group. Rosie is daring and mischievous and invents wonderful ideas for after-school adventures. And when the Spanish flu strikes their town, and black wreaths appear on the doors of many houses, Rosie has the most audacious idea ever--that the girls join the mourners and follow them to help themselves to the refreshments for the wake. Annie is unwilling, but follows Rosie for fear of losing her friends, and Rosie thinks nothing of studying the obituaries in the newspaper to prepare to make conversation at the wakes.

Then, on one cold dark afternoon, the girls come upon Elsie, wearing a flue mask, all alone on a swing, and Rosie leads the girls in teasing her. They circle around her, singing,

I had a little bird,
And its name was Enza.
I opened up the window,
And in flew Enza.

Annie feels ashamed as Elsie cries and tries to escape from the circle, but led by Rosie, the girls chase her partway home.

Then several days later, crashing another wake, the girls get a shock.

"Come in and say goodbye to her," the woman at the door said.

All five of us arrived at the coffin at the same moment. We all gasped, even Rosie, and backed away. It was Elsie. Rosie's face was so pale every freckle stood out. "We just saw her a few days ago," she whispered.

Sobered by the thought that they somehow might have contributed to Elsie's death, the girls attend no more wakes. Annie has constant nightmares about Elsie, but with the end of the war, everyone's spirits begin to rise, and with school still canceled, the girls spend their days outside in snowball fights and sledding. Then, near twilight one night, Rosie dares them all to take their sleds to the big hill inside the cemetery. The paths are crooked and icy, and Annie crashes into a monument adorned with an angel. When she comes back to consciousness, she sees that it is Elsie's tombstone, and inside her aching head she hears Elsie's voice. And then Elsie appears as well.

Elsie floated above the snow. She wore the same pale blue silk dress she'd worn when I last saw her lying in her coffin.

"Why don't you say hello? Now that I'm dead, I mean to have the friend I wanted--you, Annie," she whispers.

Elsie haunts Annie's sleeping and waking moments and begins to possess her mind, making her say and do things she doesn't want to do until her "precarious state of mind" forces her parents to place Annie in a convalescent home, in Mary Downing Hahn's moving story, One for Sorrow: A Ghost Story (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). Inspired by her own mother's memories of the influenza song and many children's funeral wakes from her childhood days, Hahn places this story in the days of the Spanish flu epidemic, long-past time which sets the scene for a memorable ghost tale. But this one is no horror story, meant only to spark shivers and keep pages turning. Hahn's ability to blend evil and good in her stories is inimitable, here pitting the angry but pitiable spirit of Elsie against the essential goodness of Mrs. Jameson, a frail elderly patient at the home who, as she lies dying, promises to free Annie by leading Elsie's restless ghost to reunite with the spirit of her lost mother.

Buffered by the author's empathy for all her characters and her well-drawn apparitions, Hahn's novels leave her readers with a deepened understanding of human nature in which ghosts finally find peace, leaving the reader with an affirmation of life.

Hahn's other noted ghost tales include Wait Till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story, , a classic which was made into a feature-length movie, Time for Andrew: A Ghost Story,  The Old Willis Place, and Stepping on the Cracks, all great for middle readers on those long summer afternoons and dark and stormy summer nights.

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