It can be hard, nowadays, to find a book title that actually tells you something. Often, I imagine authors (or much more likely, publishers) simply playing the Dictionary game, flipping the pages at random and pointing out words to string together into something that sounds moderately interesting. This is definitely not the case with Tim Tingle’s book How I Became a Ghost. It’s hard to argue with that.
The narrator of How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story is ten-year-old Isaac, who is not, we are informed, a ghost yet. But, we are assured, he will be by the book’s ending. Isaac lives with his parents, his older brother Luke and his dog Jumper. His family lives on Choctaw land. One night, after scuttle has been heard of “treaty talk”, men come to burn down the houses in the town. Some people became ghosts that night. Later, men come bearing blankets for the cold and the homeless. The blankets were infected with small pox. Many more people became ghosts. From here, Isaac’s family begins their forced march off of their lands to be relocated by the U.S. Government. Along the way, Isaac finds a new friend, learns of someone in trouble and wants to help and yes, becomes a ghost.
The story of the removal of native peoples from their homes by the government is still one classrooms teach with kid gloves, if it is taught at all. Tingle’s book, while written at an elementary level, features mature subject matter, handled in a sophisticated way. Horrible details, such as the deaths of people around Isaac, and even his own death, are not easy to read, or glossed over. In the midst of Tingle’s magical realism (Isaac, before becoming a ghost, can see, speak to and hear other ghosts and has premonitions of how people will die and another character is a shapeshifter, changing into a panther) is a hard reality. At the same time, the violence or death is not at all gratuitous. I think the book is deceptively simple. Sentence syntax and vocabulary are perhaps deliberately artless in order to make way for the more complex ideas the readers must face. Tingle definitely has a lot of faith in his reading audience that they can process and absorb the material.
How I Became a Ghost does not contain a glossary of terms, but all Choctaw language used throughout is well defined, and well placed. Readers quickly become accustomed to substituting “hoke” or “okay”. Isaac’s first person narration reveals much about what the character sees, thinks and feels about native customs. After seeing men and women harming themselves and asking why, Isaac’s mother tells him they are saying goodbye to their home. Isaac replies, “Their homes are in town.” Isaac’s mother responds with a sobering idea: “No…[t]heir houses are in town. This river, this dirt, this is their home. This is our home…It is time to say good-bye to our home.”
How I Became a Ghost received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, emphasizing Tingle’s skill as a storyteller. “Tingle's tale unfolds in Isaac's conversational voice; readers "hear" his story with comforting clarity and are plunged into the Choctaw belief system, so they can begin to understand it from the inside out.” Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices calls out Isaac’s “remarkable, compelling voice” and lauds the way Tingle “reveals that horror in a way that won't overwhelm readers the same age as his protagonist.” How I Became a Ghost was also the American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Award (AIYLA) for middle school literature for 2014.
For readers interested in finding more from Tim Tingle, thankfully How I Became a Ghost promises to be the first in a series, with more books to follows. He has also written several other books, including Danny Blackgoat, Navajo Prisoner, for young adult readers, Walking the Choctaw Road: Stories from Red People Memory for middle graders and Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness Into Light for picture book readers and listeners. Readers wanting to know more about the Choctaw Trail of Tears or of Native American Removal in general could read Night of the Cruel Moon: Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears by Stanley Hoig, Longwalker’s Journey by Beatrice O. Harrell or The Long Walk by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick.
Tingle, Tim. How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story. Oklahoma City: The Roadrunner Press, 2013. ISBN: 9781937054533