Review: Shadowed Summer

Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2009. Review copy from publisher. Book website.

The Plot: Iris and her best friend, Collette, are fourteen. It’s summer, a hot, humid Louisiana summer; the last summer of childhood. They play some of the make believe games of their childhood, but this year it’s different. Collette is flirting with their neighbor, Ben; and Iris sees a ghost — the ghost of Elijah, a teen who disappeared years before. He speaks to her: “where y’at, Iris?”

The Good: I love the description of Iris and Collette and their games of knights or witches or “whatever good things we thought up or got from our library books. We found magic everywhere, in the trees and the wind, in teacups and rainstorms. We were bigger than [our town of] Ondine, better than the ordinary people who came and went and never stopped to wonder what lay underneath the church’s tiger lilies to give them such bloodred hearts.” It is while playing at spells in the cemetery that Iris first hears and sees Elijah.

This is a story of two friends, Collette and Iris, with Iris (the narrator) still interested in their imaginary world while Collette will play only when boys can’t see. When Iris tells Ben “we can call up the dead tomorrow,” she does it to embarrass Collette and keep Ben away. Collette initially hushes her until she realizes Ben is interested. Then, Collette uses it. The triangle of Iris, Collette, and Ben is a quiet one, one that is equally about children growing unevenly to adulthood as it is about the feelings they have for each other. Iris is annoyed at Collette’s attention to Ben, Collette gets angry if Iris isn’t nice to Ben then gets jealous if Iris and Ben get along too well, and Ben … Ben is a fourteen year old boy, and he flirts with Collette but also with Iris. Each is growing into who they are, leaving behind childish things.

Iris sees a ghost. As she and her friends prepare to leave childhood behind, the most childish thing one could believe in — ghosts — visits her, talks to her, haunts her, wrecks her room. The ghost is real; and, it turns out, Elijah — the boy who died years before — has a connection to her family. It’s not coincidence that he appears to Iris. That Elijah is real is not just proven by a witchboard and the notes he leaves Iris, it’s proven as Iris solves the mystery of his disappearance and death. And yet — and yet — there is a part of me that wonders whether Elijah’s ghost was real, or whether it was Iris’s last grab at remaining a child. Elijah and her search for who he is, how he died, where his body is are all things that she can do, that she can act on, that can stop her from worrying about Collette drifting away and from the way Ben almost flirts with both of them and the inevitable changes that life brings. As Leila at Bookshelves of Doom put it,  “It’s a genuinely creepy ghost story, as well as a coming-of-age story.  And it’s also about how relationships between best friends can change, about a single father who works third shift and is raising a daughter and about life in a very small town.”

I enjoyed this interview with the author at Cynsations (Cynthia Leitich Smith).

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