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What the Dead Want by Norah Olson

What the Dead Want is Norah Olson's second novel; it is the first novel by Olson that I've read.  It's a rather fast paced novel in that the whole story takes place over just a couple or three days.  This is also a young adult novel.  I don't read a lot of YA, and even though there are quite a few YA titles in the library that pique my interest, I usually don't ever get around to reading them.

Gretchen travels on short notice out to the boonies of upstate New York to spend the summer helping a great-aunt she never knew she had clean out her family's ancestral mansion.  When phrased like this, this seems an extremely ill-advised decision that Gretchen, a teenager, makes.  And her de facto guardian, Janine, just lets her make it even though Janine is so "level headed" and calm.  When Gretchen arrives, she finds the mansion isolated, dark, and in disrepair; the aunt, Esther, is eccentric and evasive; and cell phone reception is spotty and unreliable.  Gurrrrl.  RUN.  Like now, just go right back to the city on the car service you rode in on.  Despite all the glaring signs that she should go, Gretchen stays and endures a frightening, exhausting night that ends in a shocking, early morning tragedy when Esther downs a bottle of poisonous chemicals and kills herself.  Left on her own to deal with the house and the ensuing "anniversary" during which all manner of malevolent ghosts trapped on the property for the last century following the harrowing fire that burned down the property's church return to make their anger felt.  Over a hundred years ago the church, home to an integrated congregation, burned to the ground with half the congregation trapped inside and around each anniversary the angry spirits of both the victims and the perpetrators return to wreak havoc on the property and in the nearby town.  Every year the accidents and the death toll rise as the ghosts grow stronger.  And Esther with the help of Gretchen's long missing mother was trying to resolve the mystery and release the ghosts from the land.

The mystery of the ghosts and their growing strength is tied up with Gretchen's family history and her ancestors' involvement in abolitionism and the Underground Railroad in the years leading up to and during the Civil War.  Yet despite the church's position as a stop on the Railroad and Gretchen's influential family's role in ferrying countless slaves to freedom in the North and forging an integrated community in nineteenth century upstate New York, white supremacy has established a foothold in the community.  The White Christian Patriots, a white supremacist organization, regularly hosted 'community picnics,' rode sheeted up through the town's streets, distributed white nationalist propaganda, and burned down the homes of black residents.  The hauntings and violence are no doubt tied to the town's blood soaked past and the racial tensions that claimed many lives and drove many black residents from the town.

Luckily Gretchen finds help and sanctuary with Hawk and Hope, two teens living on their own after the "anniversary accidents" claimed their parents' lives a few years ago.  As their neighbor, Esther also acted as the teens' legal guardian and enabling them to stay in their home.  Gretchen's friend Simon also arrives from New York City and with their help sifting through the family archives, Gretchen and her friends piece together what really happened the night the church burned.  Will it be enough to set the spirits free?  And will Gretchen find out what happened to her mother?

My thoughts:

Where are all the adults in this story?  Not here.  And when they are around, they make questionable decisions.  Gretchen's guardian, Janine, needs her head examined for letting her go to the aunt sight unseen.  Gretchen's absentee father, who runs off to distant parts of the world to volunteer in medical clinics because he can't deal with his wife's absence/disappearance, also needs a good talking to.  And I have doubts about Gretchen's mother who kept so much of her family history hidden from Gretchen and, it seems, her husband.

Esther's cremation is suspiciously speedy.  Like her ashes are ready nearly the same day that her body goes to the funeral home.  And there's no autopsy.  How long does it take to cremate a body anyway?

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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