When I was growing up there were certain books I would read constantly, and this was one of them. I found it when I was visiting my parents and decided to reread it, since I probably hadn’t done so for at least ten years.
It might be because I remembered the plot twists, but the first 80% of the book is super slow and boring. The protagonist is Molly, a supposed preteen who acts like an oversensitive 5-year-old. Sample narration: “I was anxious to run away from the bones in the graveyard, but I couldn’t run away from the bones in my own skin!” Molly likes nothing more than to write poems about rainbows and sunlight, collect unicorns, and listen to Emily Dickinson poems on tape to distract herself from her fear of death (I’m wondering if Mary Downing Hahn has read any of Emily Dickinson’s poems).
Molly’s brother Michael is the only semi likable character in the book. He likes science and nature and his main role is to make fun of Molly for believing in ghosts--although amusingly, he thinks ESP and poltergeists are real. At one point he tells Molly she’s stupid not for saying a poltergeist trashed their house, but for saying it looked like a person. Real poltergeists are invisible.
Their spacey mom, Jean, is a painter who recently married Dave, a potter. The whole family moves to the middle of nowhere for the summer so the selfish parents can work on their art. They tell Molly and Michael that it’s their responsibility to take care of Dave’s traumatized 7-year-old daughter, Heather.
Unfortunately, Heather is an awful girl who hates Jean and likes to set up Michael and Molly so they look like they’re bullying her. Soon she becomes friends with a little ghost named Helen who is trying to convince her to kill herself so they can “live together with unicorns eating roses in a crystal palace.” Even though unicorns eating roses sounds disgusting, Heather is enthralled and totally wants to do it.
The majority of the book is the same incident over and over: Molly sees Heather talking to Helen/wearing the necklace Helen died in/generally being creepy, Molly tries to go to an authority figure, Heather denies the story and accuses Molly of bullying her, and all the other family members either get mad at Molly, or mercilessly tease her for being afraid of death and ghosts. In several scenes, the entire family laughs at Molly for being a wuss. Even though Molly is hysterically crying 90% of the time, Dave believes that she is a sadistic kid who’s making up ghost stories to scare his daughter. He also refuses to consider that Heather might have problems even though she saw her mother die and is constantly clinging to him, crying, screaming, and having night terrors.
This was extremely frustrating, and I guess I must have found it rewarding to read about when I was a kid because it tapped into a universal sensitive-poetry-girl feeling of being teased and having no one understand you. This time around, though, I was just bored. I also thought that Dave and Jean were horrible people! Maybe this is something Downing Hahn deserves to be commended for because she doesn’t put the parents on a pedestal, but by the end of the book I couldn’t even accept them as decent. They just seemed mean and lazy.
Of course, Molly does herself no favors by talking about ghosts instead of just telling people that Heather is spending all her time in gross, dangerous places where multiple people have died. I didn’t remember how dumb she was.
After slogging through the majority of the book, I finally got to the end where Helen actually does some scary stuff and it’s up to Molly to save Heather, showing her love for her so they can finally become real sisters. This part is fine, and although it isn’t scary to me now, it’s probably a good level of scary for an 8- or 10-year-old. Maybe the length was intended to develop Heather’s character, but I can’t help feeling that the book would be so much better if there were half as many incidents of Michael, Heather, Dave, and Jean ganging up on Molly.