Like her mother and grandmother, Shelly sees ghosts everywhere. It’s a gift shared by all the women in her family, and with it comes the responsibility for helping lost souls pass into the afterlife. Shelly’s grandmother is Cree, and Shelly has learned from her how to carry ghosts in her hair – away from what tethers them to this world, so that they can fade peacefully into the next.
Shelly’s mom would prefer Grandma leave Shelly out of her ghost-hunting business. But growing up in the city, Shelly “only gets bits and pieces of what it means to be Cree,” and ghost hunting is the thing that she feels connects her to her ancestral culture. Plus, it’s fun.
Allison Mills’s debut novel – which draws on stories about her own great-grandmother, who was Cree – is primarily about family, otherness, and grief. Sitting firmly in middle-grade territory, it dwells neither on Indigenous disenfranchisement nor the grittier aspects of death. Despite her familiarity with the spirit world, Shelly’s outlook is otherwise innocent: she delights most in animal ghosts because she wants a pet.
The narrative is divided into two sections. “Before” dramatizes Shelly’s encounters with ghosts she meets through her grandmother (including a teenager who introduces her to The Cure and an irascible geriatric who’s waiting to see the fancy headstone she ordered before dying). “After” focuses on the shift in Shelly’s feelings about mortality following her mother’s death in a car accident. When her mother’s ghost fails to appear in any of the expected places, Shelly tries to fill the void by adopting other lost spirits only to discover that hoarding ghosts in her bedroom just creates new problems.
The scene in which Shelly receives the news of her mother’s death is wisely underplayed and impressively moving. Elsewhere, Mills’s writing is generally more efficient than electrifying and is overly expository in the concluding chapters. The third-person present-tense narrative voice might have been better suited to a ghost’s perspective; the static tone creates a distancing effect best used in moderation (or in a short story, as “The Ghost Collector” was originally conceived). Nevertheless, the novel offers a gently quirky and accessible introduction to such thorny topics as identity and grief and will be a welcome addition to this year’s growing crop of #ownvoices books for young readers.