Today we review two books that offer intriguing, even haunting, stories from unfamiliar cultures. Both are inspired by the family histories and folktales the authors were told by family members, one Native American, one Vietnamese.
We begin with House of Purple Cedar, an historical novel that reveals both the daily and spiritual life of one Choctaw family in 1896 Oklahoma. Author Tim Tingle is Choctaw and grew up in a family that told stories of their experiences. For more information on Tingle and the background to this novel, I highly recommend an excellent interview published by Kirkus earlier this year. Tingle’s middle grade novel, How I Became a Ghost won the 2014 American Indian Youth Literature Award (given by the American Indian Library Association).
The Frangipani Hotel is a collection of short stories based on the Vietnamese folktales the author heard from her Grandmother. Violet Kupersmith has turned them into stories full of spirits and hauntings, set in modern Vietnam or in U.S. Vietnamese communities. Kupersmith is still in her early 20s, and started this collection while still in college. Teen readers will find it fascinating.
TINGLE, Tim. House of Purple Cedar. 326p. Cinco Puntos. 2014. Tr. $21.95. ISBN 9781935955696; pap. $16.95. ISBN 9781935955245. LC 2013010570.
Like a slow river winding through a hot country, Tingle takes us to the Oklahoma Territory of the late 1800s. While on an outing with her family, 11-year-old Rose watches as her grandfather Amafo is beaten by Marshall Hardwicke for no apparent reason. Instead of retaliating, Amafo goes home, only to return to town the next day to meet Marshall eye-to-eye. His nonviolent approach ultimately has consequences, as it is disconcerting for the Marshall, who cannot let it lie and is determined to avenge his anger at what he considers to be an affront. Readers learn about the Choctaw way of life as we follow Rose, her grandmother Pokoni, her best friends, and the citizens of Skullyville as they try to make sense of the Marshall’s violence. Tall tales and fabulous characters intersperse with a story that unfolds, highlighting the racial tension and violent anger that festers in the Marshall. Told in retrospect by Rose, this tale will transport readers back to the dusty plains where life is hard, and where racism allows violent acts that can scar a town, even as it bring it closer together. Give this to teens who think deeply and who can handle a novel that jumps from one character and narrative to another in this suspenseful winding tale.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
KUPERSMITH, Violet. The Frangipani Hotel: Stories. 240p. Spiegel & Grau. Apr. 2014. Tr $25. ISBN 9780812993318. LC 2013013169.
Kupersmith’s eerie Vietnamese ghost stories are sure to mesmerize. Each tale is chilling, whether it be an old man moonlighting as a python; a crimson scarf that infects the wearer with its psychic residue; a mysterious, mangy cat with an animalistic connection to an American teacher; or many more lingering tales that paint the culture of Vietnamese mysticism. The debut collection is named for the creepiest of the nine stories, about a bilingual boy who wrestles with his identity as a descendant of generations of Frangipani Hotel workers and his potential to climb the economic ladder when a beautifully melancholy ghost appears full of tempting promises and grim consequences that shatter his identity altogether. In American popular culture, ghosts usually have a purpose and are laid to rest once their mission is fulfilled. This group of ghouls, however, lacks clear motives for their haunting, leaving readers with whirling questions and disturbing realizations about the meaning of unfinished business. Even the haunting are haunted in these stories, as the specters have a direct link to the living and seem to want to cause anguish, leaving a trail of disconnect in their wake. These alluring vignettes are just long enough to captivate and develop characters, plot, and message with without being too overburdening. Comparable in content and literary quality to Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood (Roaring Brook, 2013) and Sonya Hartnett’s The Ghost’s Child (Candlewick, 2008).—Jamie-Lee Schombs, Loyola School, New York City