When I was a young teenager back in the sixties, I was always frustrated to find that any ghost I might encounter in a book would eventually be explained away as part of a dream or perhaps just a transparent curtain billowing in the wind on a gloomy night.
Young readers today need no longer face that disappointment. Since Margaret Buffie's first novel came out in 1987, her many fans have been able to rely on her for complex, interesting stories in which the ghosts are psychologically satisfying and entirely plausible in context. With the publication of Angels Turn Their Backs this fall, Buffie now has five young adult books in print, all published by Kids Can and all edited with great sensitivity by Charis Wahl.
Each of these award-winning novels is written in the first person voice of a girl in her mid-teens. Her family is undergoing some emotional turmoil, and one or both of her parents have essentially removed their energies from the family. In the midst of this chaos, the girl discovers that she can see and hear things that others can't. There is always a young male love interest, or friend, who helps her solve the ghostly puzzle and adapt to the changes taking place within her family.
In her first book, Who is Frances Rain? (1987), Buffie uses the device of an old pair of spectacles through which young Lizzie is able to see people and incidents from her family's past when she visits Rain Island near her grandmother's cottage. My Mother's Ghost (1992) is sixteen-year-old Jess's story of her family's move to a dude ranch after her brother's death. Her mother is too distraught to venture far from her bedroom, while Jess is becoming increasingly aware of the troubled, lingering spirits of the mother and her sickly son who used to live at the ranch. With The Warnings (1994, previously The Guardian Circle), the author undertakes a more ambitious exploration of supernatural forces. Rachel has always had premonitions and heard unexplained voices. When she comes to stay in a big, old house with her great-aunt and a very peculiar assortment of the old woman's friends, she learns that a battle is about to be fought with evil ancestral spirits, making use, not only of Rachel's psychic abilities, but also of her anger. In The Dark Garden (1995), Thea develops traumatic amnesia after an accident. When her family brings her home from the hospital, her only memories are tangled up with those of a girl who had lived in their house long ago, and was betrayed by a lover who seems still to be searching for her in their ghostly garden.
This year, Angels Turn Their Backs gives us a heroine who suffers from agoraphobia, the debilitating fear of open spaces that often keeps its sufferers at home. According to her publisher's media release, Margaret Buffie has had first-hand experience with the illness. This probably explains why her evocation, first of Addy's fear that she's going crazy, then of her attempts to describe what's happening to her, is so vivid and powerful that it overshadows the story of the ghost Addy discovers in the mysterious locked room. Perhaps it is the author's own spirit that is speaking out in this book.
It's a gripping, intelligent novel and Buffie's readers will likely be willing to follow her in this new direction for the sheer enjoyment of reading her excellent prose and getting to know her original, thoroughly modern characters.
Mary Roycroft Ranni is a freelance proofreader/copy editor who writes a children's book review column for The Outreach Connection in Toronto.