A Masterful Tween Ghost Story for Halloween

I haven’t read many ghost stories, as they typically linger in my mind for quite some time after I’ve read the last page.  But now that I have a six-month-old puppy by my side at home, I felt rather more courageous recently and read Avi’s excellent and just-spooky-enough The Seer of Shadows.  

It is 1872 in New York City, October of course, and fourteen-year-old Horace has started an apprenticeship with photographer Enoch Middleditch.  Avi writes that at that time, “photographic images were considered remarkably truthful, reality itself,” a notion important to remember as we consider characters’ reactions to certain future events.  The knowledgeable Middleditch teaches Horace a fair amount about his craft, and Horace’s description of nineteenth century photographic processes is fascinating from a historical perspective. Yet Middleditch is also selfish and deceitful with his customers.

Pegg, who is also fourteen years old, stops by Middleditch’s studio one day and makes an appointment for her employer, Mrs. Von Macht.  This wealthy woman desires a photograph of herself to place in her recently deceased daughter Eleanora’s tomb.  Middleditch decides to take advantage of this situation and create a “spirit photograph” by superimposing a photograph of Eleanora into the composition.  Horace, scrupulously honest, is tormented by the idea of involvement in such a scheme, but decides that he must do what his employer asks in order to keep his job and thus not burden his parents.  However, once the sessions at the Von Macht home commence, Horace begins to feel that he actually has captured the ghost of Eleanora in his own photographs…and perhaps even unleashed her vengeful spirit.

I found The Seer of Shadows to be a true page-turner.  The suspense builds quietly, but suddenly you are right there with Horace, quickly closing a door behind you to escape something frightful.  Yet the ghostly scares are brief and manageable even for a ghost-story-avoider like me, especially as the close friendship that Horace develops with the trustworthy Pegg lets us know that our hero is never really alone.  I would recommend this novel for middle school readers, as well as those fourth and fifth graders who can handle scary tales.  As the story is both paranormal and an educationally valuable work of historical fiction, it would make a great read-aloud for tween classrooms at this time of year. 

A few years ago I read another of Avi’s novels, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.  It’s not a ghost story, but like The Seer of Shadows, is very well-written, suspenseful and narrated in the first person by a nineteenth century young person finding their way amidst unfamiliar challenges.  I’m beginning to understand why Avi is considered to be a master of storytelling by so many, and plan to read much more of his writing.   

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