30 July, 2014

'Ghosts of Tupelo Landing' by Sheila Turnage

Starting the sequel to a book I loved is always a bit of a risk. But it was one that paid off with Sheila Turnage's Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, the sequel to last year's sidesplitting Three Times Lucky. Despite the volume of books I read, there are few that can make me laugh out loud without a care for how many funny looks I'm getting from commuters or coworkers around me. But like its predecessor, Ghosts of Tupelo Landing had me chortling on the regular. Mo's voice is so strong, and the humor comes in many flavors, from the bait-and-switch ("Connoisseur", I whispered. "French for 'know-it-all.'") to rueful self-deprecation (The problem with having a temper is you find out what you're going to say at the same time everyone else does.). I can't help but recognize a bit of the fiery troublemaking kid I was in Mo, but even if I didn't have that soft spot, I'd still be laughing my ass off.

I trusted Turnage not to try to "one-up" the plot of the first book (one of my biggest peeves about mystery series) and she didn't disappoint. This time instead of a murderer on the loose, the real threat is to the livelihood of Mo's nearest and dearest, and in a way she can't fix just by figuring out whodunit. This is only tangentially a ghost story, with the title referring more to the shades of the town's past than to the actual ghost Mo and Dale are chasing. The overall feel of the book is of things coming full circle-- an out of town boy coming back to live with his grandfather, schoolchildren learning about their town's history by interviewing their elders, a historic building given new life through the town's collective effort. It's a deft way to frame the characters' development as they take on bigger challenges, both practical and personal.

Change is a common theme in middle-grade fiction, as most of its readers are already hurtling into adolescence at breakneck speed. Mo is growing and changing-- it's no coincidence that for the first time we see her in school-- and the scope of her world is growing too, as she turns her outward "Upstream Mother" focus inward to the people around her, and her place among them. The mystery was harder to solve, too, as it involved navigating the often confusing world of adult emotions and motivations. But Mo's facility for people (and for bullshitting her way out of sticky situations) helps her hold her own against bitter bootleggers and grouchy grannies alike, keeping the story moving constantly forward.

But the biggest strength of this book is in its unquestioning acceptance of Mo's experiences, and how it refuses to compromise her agency as the storyteller. Whether or not the ghost of Nellie Blake is "real" is never even brought up-- Mo experiences her as real, and therefore so do we, the readers. It's part of what makes Mo such a great narrator and such a strong character-- her world is the world we live in while we're with her, and it's a colorful explosion that doesn't step outside itself for a moment. Turnage has said that when she first sat down to write Three Times Lucky, Mo emerged almost fully formed, her voice clear and distinct, and that solidity certainly translates to my experience as a reader. If only all characters-- especially all female characters-- were as complete in their humanity as Mo LoBeau.

I'm assuming Turnage will be putting out another sequel soon, only because I can't imagine saying goodbye to a character and a place I've come to adore so much after only two books. People often deride adults who read children's books (James Wood's recent invective, quoted here, springs to mind), but whatever your age, Ghosts of Tupelo Landing gets my full-throated recommendation to anyone who likes good writing or is in need of a good laugh.

Overall rating: 4.5/5 stars (rounded up to 5 for how much it made me laugh)
Geek quotient: 2/5 stars
Girl quotient: 5/5 stars
Gay quotient: 2/5 stars (Mo has a gay "uncle" who's a very positive role model in her life- normally I wouldn't give this two stars, but in a book for this age group it gets more weight.)

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