Nothing but Ghosts by Beth Kephart
After her mother’s death, Katie lives alone in their big old house with her father who is a bit of a mad genius. Her summer job is to work in the gardens at the estate of Miss Martine, a recluse who hasn’t been seen by the public in decades. As the gardeners are told to dig for a new gazebo, Katie realizes that something else may be going on. They just may be digging for something in particular. She begins to do research at the local library, hoping to solve the mystery of why Miss Martine disappeared. Just like her own mother disappeared after her death. Will solving this mystery help Katie cope with the sorrow and loss of her mother?
There are many ghosts in this book, hovering at the edges of the story, never fully viewed, but felt in every line. Kephart’s background as a poet shows through her exquisitely written prose. She manages to create nuance, pain, grief and wonder through her writing, capturing emotions at their most poignant. Here is one of my favorite lines of the novel, describing the estate they are working at:
Miss Martine’s is quiet as the stones down in the stream, quiet as the robin’s nest that Danny found the other day, which had been lived in, then abandoned.
What imagery, evoking a world unmoving in the river of life, empty, still and immovable. Yet paired with the fragility and hope of a bird’s nest. Just this one line offers multiple readings. The entire novel is like this.
Kephart has also created a mystery that is not a mystery. The mystery of Miss Maritine is not what this book is about. It is instead about Katie herself, her personal loss, her mother, her father and how she will find a way to continue beyond her paralysis of grief. So the mystery is secondary, another ghost in the story, that is useful to chase after but not the real reason we are here.
Katie is a great heroine. A girl who works as hard as the men, unafraid of dirt, who flies down dark roads on her bike without incident, and who is as brave as anyone could be when surrounded by the past. She breaks into unique territory as a heroine, a girl who is strong but not masculine, grief-stricken but not tragic. As a character, she is a testament to the delicacy of Kephart’s writing.
Highly recommended, this book is exceptional. It is one of the most well-written books of the year, worthy of National Book Award and Printz attention. Appropriate for 15-18 year olds.
Also reviewed on Charlotte’s Library and The Compulsive Reader.