Finding Hope and Strength in a Time of Trial:
How I Became a Ghost written by Tim Tingle, reviewed by Hilary Taber.
“…that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again, and again, and again.”
– Tom Hanks as Walt Disney from the movie Saving Mr. Banks
Without compromising historical accuracy, author Tim Tingle draws upon his considerable imagination and talent to tell the story of a young Choctaw boy named Isaac. The book How I Became a Ghost (The RoadRunner Press, $18.95, ages 8-12) relates the story of Isaac’s journey along the Choctaw Nation’s Trail of Tears in the year 1830. This is a truth telling tale that reveals the extreme hardships endured by that nation, but it also remains a hopeful story, full of heroism and adventure.
The first lines pulled me into Isaac’s story, “Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before. I am a ghost. I am not a ghost when this book begins, so you have to pay very close attention…” With these magical lines the reader is transported into Isaac’s world. Isaac has two wonderful parents, an older brother named Luke, and a lively dog called Jumper. As the story unfolds, we find that Treaty Talk has resulted in the forced relocation of the Choctaw tribe from their land in Mississippi. As Isaac watches different members of his tribe say goodbye to the land, he suddenly finds that he has the ability to foresee how they will die. Later, he also is able to communicate with members of the tribe who died along the way, and who have become friendly ghosts. These ghosts gently help him to come to the realization that he will soon be a ghost as well. Isaac makes sure that his family knows that this will happen to him. When he does become a ghost it turns out that it isn’t a departure from his family at all. Isaac finds that his family can still see him and he can still speak with them.
The reader learns that even though Isaac has become a ghost he can still help his people. In his new form Isaac joins forces with a boy named Jacob who can shape shift into a panther when he fights. Together they are able to save a young girl from danger and by doing so earn the pride of their ancestors. Historical fiction fans will find a lot to learn from Isaac about what life would have been like walking the Choctaw Trail of Tears, and educators will find this book an invaluable resource when teaching on this often overlooked part of our nation’s history. How I Became a Ghost has earned a starred review from Kirkus, and was included in Kirkus Reviews: The Best Books of 2013. Fans of the book should know that this book is the first book in a trilogy!
The storytelling ability of the author, Tim Tingle (who is a member of the Choctaw nation) is the strength of this book. I think that his talent as an oral storyteller must have seeped into his writing! When I read Isaac’s story I could almost believe that he must be a real child. He is as real as the boy that lives perhaps a few doors down the street from you, or maybe sits next to you in class. Just as Anne Frank presented a very personal journey in her diary that young readers all over the world can relate to, it seems that Isaac is a character that is destined to do the same. Of course, we all know that Anne Frank was a real person, and Isaac is a fictional character. However, Isaac represents the many children who were forced to walk the Choctaw Trail of Tears.
Isaac’s story is winningly told in the first person. He is a little boy who loves his dog, his family, and enjoys a good joke. Tingle’s ability to draw the reader into this close and loving family is amazing. After a while I felt that I was part of their family, journeying along with them, hoping against hope. I laughed at the family pranks, and I loved their dog, Jumper! At times I mourned with them. All along the journey I was amazed by their strength and kindness. Isaac’s truthfulness as a narrator is key to the story being told as faithfully as possible to the history behind it. However, it is his ability to foresee the future and his own kind nature that enables this story to be told as gently as it possibly can be. It is a rare author who can so completely tell a story of both extreme hardship and light, boyish moments. It is an even rarer author who knows how to blend both together in a way that is realistic and convincing. I would recommend that the reader have a good understanding of what the Trail of Tears is before reading this book. However, even if the reader has not had that instruction, Tingle provides enough information to inspire further research on the part of the reader. The book also includes a map to help readers follow Isaac and his family’s journey. I am so glad that I met Isaac, and his family. If I had skipped this book because the subject matter was difficult to read I would have really missed out on some wonderful characters, and the chance to journey with them! Thank you, Tim, for a truly wonderful book!