Wednesday, September 24, 2014

#Diversiverse Review: How I Became a Ghost, a Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle

Isaac, 10, and his family are part of the Choctaw Nation living in Mississippi in 1830.  One morning, Isaac's father tells his family that they will have to move from their homeland.  The Choctaws had been Treaty Talking with the Nahullos (White people), who, Isaac declares, must want something.

Around the same time, Isaac begins to have premonitions of how people will die.  And after the Nahullos burn down their village one night, he begins to see the ghosts of deceased Choctaws.  Now homeless, the people of the village are offered blankets to keep warm in, but Isaac's mother refuses to take any.  The blankets were full of smallpox, so many people got sick and dies.

Isaac, his father Zeke, mother Ochi, older brother Luke and talking dog Jumper take off through the woods and soon meet up with many walking Choctaws and soldiers on horses.  All the Choctaws are wrapped in the blankets that the soldiers had given them against the biting winter cold.  Wary, and hiding in the woods, they watched this procession a few days and when nothing happened, Isaac's father stepped out to ask if the blankets were safe.

Isaac's family joins another family, Gabe, Ruth and daughter Nita, 6, on their forced march west, sharing food and shelter.  Isaac continues to see the ghosts of the people from his village, who are now guiding him to keep things safe, but he also realizes that he, too, will become a ghost soon.

Then, Isaac meet Joseph, the grandson of two deceased elders from his village.  Joseph is a shape-shifter who can change into a panther as will.  Together, they make a plan to rescue Naomi, the daughter of Gabe and Ruth, abducted by soldiers to cook and take care of them.  

It is a dangerous rescue with very unexpected results.

How I Became a Ghost is a short, very straightforward story with elements of what we might think of as magical realism, but which are actually parts of Choctaw beliefs.  Tim Tingle takes the reader into their  belief system and lets them experience it without explanation.

The readers comes to understand that family and community are very importance aspects of the Choctaw Nation..  In How I Became a Ghost, you can see in the way they interact with each other that Isaac's family is close, loving and playful.  And community is really just an extension of family, all Choctaw being kin, obvious when Gabe and Ruth welcome Isaac's family to join them on the Trail of Tears.

And ghosts, well, they are present in the daily life, guiding and helping the living.  Choctaw's believe that everyone has an inner spirit or shilup and an outer shadow or shilombish.  The shilup, meaning ghost, is supposed to go to a good afterworld but this couldn't happen without proper burial rituals, which couldn't happen on the Trail of Tears.

Most disturbing to read is the treatment of the Choctaw by the American soldiers.  Abducting children to use as slaves, disregarding all Choctaw traditions, forcing people to walk in the bitter cold and snow with little food or withholding it as punishment, all this is described by Isaac.

But, How I Became a Ghost is written by such a gifted writer that it is not a book that should be passed over.  Tingle is a member of the Choctaw Nation whose great great grandfather walked the Trail of Tears in 1835.  He based this novel on family stories and those of other families, giving it it's feeling of authenticity.

There really are many good books about Native Americans, but Tingle's stories go far in giving the reader a feeling of what life was life.  How I Became a Ghost is the first in a trilogy and I can't wait to read the next book.

The more I think about this novel, the more amazed I am at how much Tingle has managed to put into a novel only 141 pages long and never lose the integrity of the story he is telling. Surely that is the mark of a great storyteller.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

How I Became a Ghost won the 2014 American Indian Youth Literature Award for middle grade category.  Interestingly, Danny Blackgoat, Navaho Prisoner, also by Tim Timgle was the middle grade honor book and was the book that led me to read How I Became a Ghost.

I chose Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, The Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions for my first book in the A More Diverse Universe Reading Challenge because so often children's books written by people of color are overlooked and there are so many more that there used to be and so many are so wonderful.  This is a middle grade novel which I chose for the same reasons.


  1. Hello Alex, you gave this such a warm review it’s obvious how much you enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing it. Barbara

    1. Hi Barbara, yes, I did like it very much. It was a very interesting look at what happened to the Choctaw in 1830 from their perspective.

  2. Wow, this sounds fantastic! I like how you point out that it may seem like magical realism but to a Choctaw, it is not. I'll definitely be looking into this trilogy!

    Thanks so much for participating in #Diversiverse!


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