"It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home."
-Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land

Friday, October 30, 2015

Walk the Trail of Tears in How I Became a Ghost

Tingle, Tim. 2013. How I Became a Ghost. Oklahoma City: The Roadrunner Press. ISBN 978-1-937054-53-3

The year is 1830.  Isaac, a ten year old boy, lives in Choctaw Nation, Mississippi with his parents and older brother.  They have a comfortable life there, with many friends.  But all that changes once the Treaty Talk begins.  The Nahullos (White people) come in the middle of the night and set fire to all of the homes in their town.  Most of the Choctaw people barely make it out alive, while some perish in the flames.  They flee to a swamp, thinking it unlikely that the Nahullos would look for them there, but eventually they do arrive with a nasty surprise. 

Thus begins a long and difficult journey for the people of Choctaw Nation.  As per the agreement of the treaty, the Nahullo soldiers march the Choctaws through the sleet and snow towards the new land where they are being relocated to.  Through all of this, Isaac begins to see ghosts and learns that he will soon become one of them.  On this journey, new friendships are formed, and the Choctaws remain brave and strong in the face of so much misery.  Along with a shapeshifting panther boy and a charming five year old ghost, Isaac embarks on a mission to save a young girl's life.  Will he remain alive long enough to see this mission through?  Or will the cruel Nahullos bring more terror and death to the Choctaws along the Trail of Tears?   

How I Became a Ghost is a truly compelling story.  It is part historical fiction, part supernatural, and part mystery all wrapped up in one important middle grade novel.  The story is told from Isaac's perspective.  From his opening line, "Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before," Tingle quickly pulls the reader into Isaac's world and immerses him/her in this tragic piece of history. Isaac's tale keeps the reader on his/her toes, anticipating the moment when he finally becomes a ghost.  But despite this, Isaac comes across as an ordinary ten year old, who children will easily relate to.  And while the topic of death is certainly a sad one, the tone of the novel is not.  The Choctaws do not really leave when they die.  They remain with their family members and can appear before them, offering them some measure of comfort.  Children with no prior knowledge of the Trail of Tears may pick up this book because of its supernatural elements, but will leave the book emotionally connected to the Choctaws and their devastating plight.

For all of the novel's positive qualities, Tingle does the leave the reader with some unanswered questions.  It is never explained how Isaac's mother knew to keep her family from taking the blankets or who cast the spell to make the rattlesnake appear on Nita's body.  How I Became a Ghost is marketed as the beginning of a trilogy, so hopefully these questions will be answered in the next book.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any information on if and when the second book will be out.

Tingle is Choctaw, himself, and this novel was inspired by his own memories of retracing the trail and speaking with tribal elders.  The Choctaw beliefs, traditions, and language add to the authenticity of the story.  This is an important novel for all middle grade students to read, offering a glimpse into a culture they may not be familiar with while bringing to life an important event in our country's history.

2014 American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner

2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - ""The beginning of a trilogy, this tale is valuable for both its recounting of a historical tragedy and its immersive Choctaw perspective."

From THE HORN BOOK - "Tingle, a Choctaw storyteller, relates his tale in the engaging repetitions and rhythms of an oft-told story...Spare and authentic."

From THE BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS - "Tingle's prose is terse, urgently propelling the story along and providing a minimalist aesthetic that evokes storytelling techniques and renders accessible a tragic piece of history."

Tingle has written several Choctaw novels.  If your students would like to read more about this Native American culture, suggest the following titles.
  • Tingle, Tim. House of Purple Cedar. ISBN 978-1935955245
  • Tingle, Tim. Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey From Darkness into Light. ISBN 978-1933693675
  • Tingle, Tim. Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom. ISBN 978-1933693200

The Choctaws do not say good-bye.  Instead, they say chi pisa lattice, which means "I will see you again, in the future."  Why do they say that, and how is that different than just saying goodbye?  Have a discussion about this with your students.

This novel has many characters who display bravery.  Ask your students to write about who they think the bravest character in the story is and why.

Use this book as a jumping off point to have your students research the The Trail of Tears.

Tim Tingle is also a renowned storyteller.  Share this video with your students of Tingle telling a Choctaw story about how rabbit got his short tail.

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