Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith – Retro Review by Jenny Cameron Paulsen
If you are an Andrew Smith fan, you may not have come across this book, his first, published in 2008. There was a copy in my classroom when I inherited it a few years ago, but I didn’t discover it until long after my obsession with Winger began and students of the teacher next door put it on my radar. From the exquisite lyricism of the prologue’s opening lines, you know this will not be like other books. The main character, sixteen-year-old Troy Stotts, places us right into the physical scene of his memory:
I can see myself lying in the dirt, on my back, on a warm, starry night with my feet up on those rocks, ringing a swirling and noisy fire, listening, laughing, seeing the sparks that corkscrew, spinning above me into the black like dying stars, fading, disappearing, becoming something else; my hat back on my head so I can just see my friends from the corners of my eyes. I can feel the warmth of the dirt in my hair, smell the smoke, hear the horses’ hooves as they move restlessly in the humid summer dark. And I can close my eyes and see the conjuring, electrified, and vaporous shapes of the granite mountains, those two fingers; parting the wind, luring the thunder in that time of year.
I never really figured out why those boys had to die. (vii).
After the warm beauty of the beginning, the stark statement of tragedy punches the gut. Knowing up front that tragedy will strike, readers empathize with the characters right away, relieved our main character has survived to tell the tale, with the foreshadowing of three deaths looming to keep us in dreadful suspense. The son of an English teacher, Troy is a crack shot with a rifle and consummate horseman, who has suffered the recent loss of his mother and an earlier loss of a brother. The silence of grief has taken up residence in his house and heart, reverberating with increasingly painful volume, driving a deep wedge into his relationship with his father. So many of Andrew Smith’s male characters suffer in silence—perhaps because we culturally teach our boys to do so. Perhaps because their pain is beyond articulate language. Ultimately, both are true. Smith captures the unspeakable and paralyzing nature of grief so well.
As we travel on this summer journey with Troy, we come to love his friendships with Tommy Buller, son of an alcoholic ranch hand, and Gabe Benevidez, the ranch owner’s son. And then there is Luz, Gabe’s sister and the glow of Troy’s heart, who is the smartest and most capable of them all, and yet is overprotected and limited by her family. We also meet the town bully, the sheriff’s son, whose cruel pranks escalate into violence. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the plot was the complete absence of technological devices, and the dominant presence of magnificent horses.
The characters are so lovingly crafted. True and honest, the friendship of the three boys was layered and realistic. I loved how Troy could see Gabe’s potential when no one else would. Tommy was bold and brave, with a sensitive heart, which drew me to him the most. We must raise our boys with messages other than violent, silent masculinity. This book offers “masculinities” that are authentic and healthy, individually designed, one character at a time.
And the brilliant Luz, the light to draw Troy from his personal darkness, was so wisely and tenderly developed. My favorite line was Troy’s description of her: “She kept my head and heart held in a safe place where all my ghosts, disarmed, fell silent (355).” Can there BE a better description of friendship growing into love?
This is the most atmospheric of Smith’s works, providing a clear flavor place and time in mountainous California ranch country. Like Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones and Lauren Myracle’s Shine, the setting was a strong, and beautifully rendered, influence on the plot. There were multiple grace notes of language to savor. This book is as intelligently insightful about empathy and cruelty, friendship and enmity, longing and denial as I’ve read in a long time. If you love coming-of-age stories, if you are a fan of the movie Stand By Me, if you love a leisurely-paced read laced with beauty, if you also carry ghosts, you must read Ghost Medicine.
English teacher by day and ninja bookworm by night, Jenny Cameron Paulsen reads YA non-stop. Teenagers are her chosen people. Jenny lives on a farm near Cedar Falls, Iowa, with her husband and son. She is currently serving as President of Iowa Council of Teachers of English (ICTE.) You can follow her on Twitter @jennypaulsen555, and Goodreads @Jenny Paulsen. Or ask to join the Iowa Council of Teachers of English Group on Facebook. It’s where Iowa Nerdy Book Clubbers hang out.