The Ghost Road – Charis Cotter, Tundra Books, 2018
What is a curse? Who is your real family? Does the place you were born determine who you are? These are some of the questions brought to light in Charis Cotter’s The Ghost Road, a young adult novel for readers who don’t necessarily like ghost stories. Set in the Newfoundland of the 1970s, and rich with the particulars of that place, The Ghost Road follows the long and winding journey of cousins Ruth and Ruby as they try to unravel the real nature of the “curse” which plagues their family and their community. There are sets of twins with Shakespearean qualities, and historical elements which ground this tale and make it sophisticated and engaging on different levels. There are also two young girls who are mixed-up about who are the most important and trustworthy people in their lives. So whether you are just looking for a chilling tale of adventure or more interested in identifying with appealing and serious characters, The Ghost Road will not disappoint.
The novel impressively combines dramatic tension with philosophical exploration. Ruth and Ruby are intelligent and literate. They are aware of history, both of their own families and of Newfoundland, but they are motivated to learn more and to ultimately discover if the curse on their clans is a figment of everyone’s imagination and a self-fulfilling prophecy. I found myself anxious about the outcome of their quest, as if could somehow influence its conclusion. The author meets the challenge she has set herself in weaving this unusual story, which, without revealing any spoilers, doesn’t end as a shout-out to fans of the paranormal. Instead, young adult, and older adult, readers will find much common ground and room for empathy as Ruth and Ruby seek to stop history and turn it around going forward.
The book is beautifully designed, with a spectral figure on the cover, and white lettering against the background of Newfoundland foliage. There is a family tree, as well as ongoing attempts by the main characters to, literally, sketch their own as they attack the mystery in real time. Chapter titles are short and enigmatic: “The Shipwreck,” “The Candle,” The Root Cellar,” and the author doesn’t waste words or leave loose ends as her characters painstakingly untangle their personal mystery. Just when it seems that a character is predictably two-dimensional, more a symbol than a person, changes happen and surprises ensue.
“My heart nearly stopped…So maybe this is it, I thought. This is how the curse ends.” Not only is it unclear initially how the curse will end, but Charis leaves the reader with unanswered questions about what will come next for Ruth and Ruby. The Ghost Road is a human story where people live in both the present and the past, trying to change their future.