Ruth, the tween protagonist of Charis Cotter’s new novel, doesn’t know much about her family history. Her mother died suddenly when Ruth was only two years old, and her father doesn’t have a lot of information to share.
She also doesn’t know much about Newfoundland, where her mother’s family has lived for generations. When Ruth’s father tells her she’s going to be spending the summer with her Aunt Doll while he travels to Greece on a combined research trip and honeymoon (with Ruth’s new stepmother, Awful Gwen), Ruth goes out of her way to avoid learning anything about the province.
As a result, the young Torontonian finds herself confused and overwhelmed upon her arrival “at the end of the road, in the middle of nowhere,” a.k.a. Buckle, Newfoundland. “It was 1978!” she explodes upon realizing only half the house is wired for electricity (and not the half that includes her room). “What kind of a place was Newfoundland anyway?”
Newfoundland, it turns out, is a world of wonder. Ruth tries fresh eggs and Carnation milk for the first time, and she meets her cousin Ruby, who is also staying for the summer. She explores the hills and meadows, delighting in her new-found freedom. “I’d never been alone in such a big place,” she says. It’s full of wildflowers and fairy paths, not to mention spooky lore and ghost roads.
Beneath the wonder, though, is a hidden history of violence and death. What is Ruth to make of the mysterious figure who enters her room by night, carrying a candle? Or the secret room that she and Ruby discover? What is hidden in the library? And what does it mean that their mothers – who were sisters – died at exactly the same moment, thousands of miles apart, the latest in a generations-long line of twin sisters to meet early, unexplained ends? Is there a curse? Can Ruth and Ruby break it?
In The Ghost Road, Cotter – who lives in Newfoundland and works as a storyteller and performer as well as a writer – blends a fairly traditional approach to middle-grade mystery with a deep grounding in supernatural elements, genuine peril, and a keen sense of character and setting. The heart of the book is its characters and their relationships, not just in the present but in the past, generation after generation.
Ruth is a complex, often frustrating (and just as often frustrated) protagonist, subject to a realistic range of moods and reactions. Her struggles, not just with her family’s legacy of violence and the possibility of a curse but with more mundane matters like her father’s marriage and the resultant division of attention between herself and Awful Gwen, are rooted and lifelike. One can’t help but connect with her.
As Ruth and Ruby’s investigations reveal, connections are key to the secrets of The Ghost Road. The girls are part of a web of tragedy that stretches back to Ireland, in the hours before an ill-fated journey by sea – a death that begets a curse that has claimed more than a dozen lives.
Cotter should be lauded for using traditional story elements to create a novel that is utterly contemporary, focused on women’s experiences of domestic violence and the lingering legacy of pain and aggression. The result is a subtle and effective account of empowerment and strength. To her additional credit, the story never comes across as overly message-driven or reliant on metaphor or subtext: the novel feels utterly alive and genuinely mysterious. Ruth may not know much about her family at the outset, but her developing knowledge will change her life as surely as it will strongly affect the readers of The Ghost Road.