Thursday, October 30, 2014

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle

This action-packed mixture of a ghost story with historical fiction is a must for libraries that want diversity and are looking for themes regarding tolerance. Tim Tingle, descendant of the Choctaw Indians, writes with authenticity that counters stereotypes of Native Americans in this tale of a boy that knows he will die but has the courage to do what is right in the face of it. Don't worry I'm not spoiling anything... he tells the reader in the first line of the story that he'll become a ghost. The story is about the Trail of Tears where thousands of Native Americans die when forced to relocate from their lands. The unique rhythm and repetition of words reflects the author's background as a storyteller and person invested in his topic. Tingle's great-great grandfather survived the Trail of Tears and he is able to convey the Choctaw culture to readers with a unique insider's understanding of customs and lifestyles. While the plot has some holes, the writing is full of suspense and hope with many in-depth messages ripe for discussions.

Ten-year-old Isaac is a Choctaw Indian acting like any normal kid when he starts to see ghosts and wonders if he is going crazy. The tension mounts when he hears about a Treaty with white men. His people know that nothing good comes from treaties. When his village is set on fire by white men, his fears come true. He flees with other survivors of the village but they are eventually caught along with his family and forced to march with other Native Americans along the Trail of Tears. When people he loves start to die he finds hope in forgiveness and making his ancestors proud by rising above the oppressors and letting go of his anger.

Tingle presents this plot in a unique way. There are few historical explanations and much has to be inferred by the reader. I can see some readers being confused by the soldiers and what they did to the villagers. I think this is Tingle's way of sweeping the reader into the story and slowly giving out information on a dark historical episode in American history. If he jumped out with the injustices then it might turn readers off; however, the lack of information might require clarification for readers unfamiliar with Native American history. I know that I would have to explain parts to my Asian audience. That said, it would make as a great read aloud.

Isaac is a kind-hearted, nice kid and his innocence contrasts with the horrors of a forced relocation. He is not judgmental nor is he stereotyped as a primitive Native American. His village has a lifestyle that includes religion, a government or council, an economy with livestock and farming, and generations of families caring for each other. The magical elements of shape-shifting and seeing ghosts is a part of the rich customs and practices found in Native American culture. At 160 pages, Tingle doesn't explain this much and it keeps the pacing galloping through the storyline.

The cruel soldiers are not introduced until later and Tingle balances them with kind soldiers. By looking at the past in a fair way, his message seems such that he hopes that people today will not make the same mistakes and oppress other cultures.The female teenager that is rescued is brave and courageous. She risks her life; yet, is not so afraid that she doesn't insist on hugging her parents. The three heroes value forgiveness and when the ghosts of the Nation honor them it shows how this trait is healthy for the soul to have peace and move on. Death is also treated with hope and while many characters die their ghosts are able to interact with the humans and grief is eased in survivors. This seems to be a part of the Choctaw belief system. I would have liked some notes at the end explaining facts from fiction.

History of cultures displaced and oppressed by others is like a Black Hole when you start thinking about it. America oppressed the Native Americans and African Americans. The Japanese oppressed the Taiwanese, Koreans, and others. The Spanish leader, Franco, oppressed the Catalans. The German leader, Hitler, oppressed the Jews, dissidents, and more. I was talking about this book with my colleague, the Chinese librarian born and raised in Taiwan. She said with a rue smile, "You should look at China's history... it runs deep [with Conquerors]." Tingle's story is so important because it teaches tolerance and respect for other cultures. There is always hope that new generations will not make the recurrent mistakes found in the histories of the world.

4 Smileys

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