True Crime, Real Ghosts, Great Read: Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls Review

“Mary Downing Hahn has written about fictional ghosts in acclaimed books such as The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall, The Old Willis Place, and Wait Til Helen Comes. Now, in this compelling young adult novel inspired by a true crime, she writes of real-life ghosts who have haunted her for most of her life.”

If that back cover copy doesn’t make you want to pick up the book I don’t know what will. Maybe that cover- I *adore* that cover. I have always been a big fan of Hahn’s ghost stories, and when I read about this book and caught sight of that gorgeous cover (I can admit to being swayed by a cover) I immediately added it to my must read list*. This is a departure for Hahn, but she employs her excellent pacing and atmospheric writing to this fictionalized true account of a small town murder. In her afterword, Hahn discusses the origin of the novel, which is based on the shooting of two girls in her home town. The facts of the case are similar, but Hahn is careful to point out that the characters and their responses are fictional.

The majority of this book is written from the perspective of Nora, a sensitive and curious girl who s worried about a lot of things: her height (too tall), religion (she is not as enamoured with God as perhaps a Catholic should be), boys (will any ever like her?), and her future (her parents can’t afford the art college she dreams of attending). After her friends Cheryl and Bobbie Jo are shot on their way to school, the tone of her worrying changes completely.

Mister Death’s Blue-eyed Girls is not a traditionally structured narrative. While it feels like Nora’s story most of the time, it is really a collective examination of the aftermath of a horrific event. Hahn includes chapters from the perspective of the killer, the accused boyfriend, and diary entries from victims Cheryl and Bobbie Jo, and Charlie, Nora’s maybe love interest. The result is a creative case study of a how murder effects a group of teens, only not nearly as clinical as that sounds. The book is full of nuggets of wisdom and truth, wrapped up as big life lessons and small life lessons. In some cases, Nora’s moments of enlightenment stem directly from the murders, but other moments are the kind of thing that occur to all teenagers at some point (how far should I go with my boyfriend, my parents aren’t perfect, maybe my best friend and I are growing apart, etc). For these reasons, it is a near perfect coming of age story (which readers will know is my all-time favourite category).

Hahn’s sophisticated but accessible prose is well-sculpted and brings 1956 Maryland vividly to life. I love this time period and Hahn does a great job making this bygone- and at times more innocent- era relevant for contemporary readers. Some people may find Nora too earnest, but that didn’t bother me. Some of Nora’s thoughts were so personal and honest I found myself cringing, because I remember having those feelings (or writing them in a diary) many years ago and the thought of someone reading them makes my skin crawl. YA narrators tend to be jaded/edgy or earnest/naive, and truly earnest YA narrators are harder to come by. It feels at times that YA novels are praised for being edgy when there are plenty of readers out there who appreciate a quieter, less rebellious narrator. This is not to say that Nora’s actions or thoughts aren’t controversial or without a streak of rebellion, but at her core, Nora is an average girl thrown into an unfortunate and difficult situation.

Despite the tragedy and Nora’s depression, which Hahn so convincingly depicts, I did not find the book too heavy or without hope. There are lots of moments of friendship, first love, parties and dances. The balance between the happy and sad parts is what makes the book so effective.  I think this is a remarkable work from an author who I may have previously pigeon-holed as a great ghost story writer.  While there are certainly scary bits, Mister Death’s Blue-eyed Girls does not fall under the ‘scary-as-escapism’  category (ala The Old Willis Place or Wait til Helen Comes, both Hahn books that I love) but is a psychological exploration. Readers who enjoyed The Miseducation of Cameron Post (emily m. danforth), Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson), and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)will enjoy Mister Death’s Blue-eyed Girls. This is a special book and I thought it was a sophisticated and beautiful way to pay homage to the young victims in Hahn’s past.

Mister Death’s Blue-eyed Girls is published by Clarion Books and will be available in Canada from Thomas Allen & Son in April 2012.

*Many, many thanks to Heather at Thomas Allen Canada for the review copy.

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