How I Became A Ghost by Tim Tingle
Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before.
Tingle’s opening line immediately lets you know that this is not a typical human meets ghost(s) and spooky antics ensue type story. Our narrator is ten years old and not yet a ghost.
The story tells of Isaac and his family are forced from their homes to begin their journey on the Trail of Tears, a journey that will cost Isaac his life. If you have any expectation that this will be excessively sad or dull or dry or scholarly or depressing, erase those thoughts from your mind. While it very clearly highlights just how tragic the Trail of Tears was, the focus of the story is not the atrocities visited upon the Choctaw. Instead it’s an adventure featuring a dramatic rescue, a strong sense of family, a talking dog, a shapeshifter who can become a panther and yes, many, many, ghosts.
The ghosts are one of the most interesting parts of the story. Tingle creates a juxtaposition of truly horrid nature of the deaths the Choctaw suffer with these benevolent ghosts. There is not one moment in this book where there ghosts are anything other than supportive, helpful, reassuring and full of love. The culture of death shown in this book is something that would benefit many children, especially those who have experienced loss. Who wouldn’t prefer the thought of being warmly comforted and protected by departed loved ones to the dominant culture portrayal of ghosts as terrifying.
Aside from the fact that this just a really good story, it’s actually just so very important that children read this book to learn about this period in American History. What is usually relegated to a few paragraphs in a dry history comes alive, humanizing the Choctaw, bringing them to life so that modern readers can truly understand the scale of the atrocities committed. These were people with families and lives and hope and dreams and their descendants live today with the knowledge and consequences of the actions that were taken at that time. Teachers, if you have the opportunity to use this in your classroom, you will not be disappointed and I am certain your students will not be either.
Age Recommendation: Grades 4-8. Because the violence in this book is both frequent and based on historical fact, some younger readers might be upset by the content. That said, I have taught many third graders who would have adored this and would have been find with the content given the way that Tingle presented it. You know your children best, so if you think your third grader would be okay with it, I do not believe the reading level would be too difficult for students with strong comprehension skills.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – None.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – We learn at the outset that our narrator will die during the course of the book. He also has the ability to see ghosts. Men use shotguns for hunting. Men deliberately scrape their skin on tree bark to cause themselves to bleed as a way to say goodbye to their land. The narrator sees how people die. Some are burned alive, others covered with sores, some drowned. Women cut their feet on sharp rocks in the water allowing the blood to rise up. Men are shot with rifles. A child’s feet freeze to the ground. The child’s skin peels away when the child walks, and the feet bleed into the snow. A child dies; when the ghost version of her is seen, her face is swollen and her eyes were tiny slits. A child is killed by a wolf. The child’s body is covered in blood. Parents carry the bodies of their children along the trail because they will not leave their bones behind. A Choctaw teen is bound by the wrists and the rope is tied to a tree pulling the teens arms overhead. Soldiers are concerned they might be hung by their leader. The job of the bonepickers is sacred but the descriptions may be upsetting to some. They wait for animals to clean the bones of their dead, then they bring the bones in and pick them completely clean and wash and scrub the bones for burial. The Choctaw who can become a panther is urged to bring a small bloodied animal to the bonepickers. A soldier threatens to kill someone. A soldier is hit by another soldier and falls to the ground bleeding. A woman is injured when icy branches are shot down by soldiers. A wagon is burned with people inside. A man is thrown from his horse, hits his head on a rock and bleeds. A wolf is killed by a panther, its body bloodied.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – None.
Frightening or Intense Things – House and other buildings are set on fire. The narrator speaks with ghosts and they offer him guidance. Parents survive the deaths of their children. Their grief is overwhelming. A girl is kidnapped. Another Choctaw is held captive, his feet and hands bound. Soldiers laugh over the deaths they caused. Blankets are burned, leaving Choctaws with no protection from the cold.