Thursday, February 01, 2007

Sunshine and Shadow: Mary Downing Hahn and the Other Side

For the perfect combination of good and evil, living and dead, mortals and creatures from the other side, and the sheer joy of being immersed in a great story, one of my favorite children's authors is Mary Downing Hahn.

I just now finished whizzing through the last third of her newest book, Witch Catcher. Like most of her earlier books, the main character is a girl whose venturesome nature leads her to brush against a supernatural world just beyond the normal senses. When her father inherits a vaguely sinister castle, Jen impulsively explores a forbidden tower and brings back a beautiful stoppered glass globe to hide in her room. Meanwhile, her father falls under the spell of Moura, the beautiful proprietor of The Dark Side of the Moon, a local antiques store. With dissembling charm, Moura describes to Jen her search for a beautiful globe which she says is a witch catcher, an object imbued with a powerful spell to attract and imprison all magical beings.

Jen realizes that the witch catcher Moura seeks is indeed the globe from the tower she now posseses. Jen instinctively senses that Moura knows she has it and is willing to kill to possess its powers. Then in the woods behind the tower, Jen meets Kieryn, a fairy girl who begs for her help in freeing her relatives confined for ages inside other witch catchers under Moura's power. With her Jen enters a world of spells, shape-changing, and a struggle to the death with an evil force which kept me turning those pages until the end. More "Gothic" than most of Hahn's thrillers, this one develops slowly at first, with classic wizardly villains, but the conclusion is just as compelling.

More typical of the Hahn thriller is Wait Till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story. This one has it all: sulky twelve-year-old Molly, who resents her father's remarriage and their sudden relocation to a foreboding home in an old church beside a graveyard, a bratty, omnipresent little stepsister (Heather), and the slow realization that an evil child-ghost(Helen) is trying to draw Heather to her death. Despite her resentment of Heather, Molly is compelled to combat the evil force which has a deadly affinity with her stepsister. When Helen lures Heather into a pond to drown her, Molly is able to save Heather and uncover secrets which put an end to Helen's power. The frame of normal family life which Hahn sets up, with its jealousies, petty annoyances and sibling responsibility, makes a fitting foil for the believable ghost story which follows. Again, Hahn creates a story in which a darker shadow world breaks into the sunshine of ordinary life.

The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story tells the story of brother and sister Diana and Georgie, who have long lived near the old Willis house. When twelve-year-old Lissa, daughter of the new caretaker, moves in, Diana longs to be her friend, but Georgie mysteriously warns her that she must not "break the rules" in effect since "the terrible thing" happened. Who is the ghostly spirit which surrounds the old Willis place, old Miss Willis who died inside, or Diana and Georgie, who can't leave the grounds?

In Time for Andrew, Hahn shows that she can craft a mystery around a male protagonist, in fact two, as modern Drew changes time frames with his great uncle Andrew to save Andrew's life from diphtheria in pre-DPT vaccine times. More a time travel story than a true ghost story, this novel still builds great suspense as the two look-alike Andrews cope with life in different eras. The reason for the time switch is revealed in a neat turn of plot, in which Drew, back in his own time, meets the now very elderly Andrew and realizes that he would have died in childhood without Drew's help.

Other books of this genre by Mary Downing Hahn include The Doll in the Garden, Dead Man in Indian Creek, The Time of the Witch, and Deep, Dark, and Dangerous: a Ghost Story.



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