The Long Shadow of Racism Depicted in a YA Paranormal Novel

What the Dead Want, by Nora Olson, (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins), 304 pages, released 26 July, 2016, listed by the publisher as directed to readers thirteen years old and above

Nora Olson’s What the Dead Want explores racism, war, and hatred using both paranormal conventions and a variety of prose genres. The previous sentence may sound ponderous, but the novel isn’t. Gretchen, the protagonist, is the daughter of a father who is gone for months at a time on medical missions and a mother who ran a gallery specializing in spiritualist photography. Her mother disappeared years ago, and Gretchen is primarily being raised by a neighbor. Gretchen is, like her mother, a photographer, though not of the spiritualist variety.

At the start of summer vacation, Gretchen receives a phone call from a great-aunt she never knew of who wants to bequeath a mansion to Gretchen, but first needs Gretchen to come and help “tidy up” the place. When she enters the cluttered mansion, Gretchen realizes that tidying up will be a major undertaking—and that’s before she encounters any of the malevolent spirits who make the mansion their home.

Gretchen discovers that her great-aunt was a well-known war photographer, who spent her life capturing important, but disturbing images of some of the 20th Century’s great conflicts. In addition, the mansion grounds themselves were the site of an atrocity: a mass killing of of members of a Black church by racist vigilantes. For years accidents and deaths have occurred on the anniversary of that atrocity. And, of course, that anniversary is coming soon.

As Gretchen works to overcome the spirits haunting the mansion, she—and through her, the reader—is given a chance to reflect on the lasting impact of violence. She is moved less by the atrocities themselves than by the lost histories of those killed in the atrocities. She wants, in some way, to do right by these victims, which means she has to puzzle out “what the dead want.” Because Gretchen is both clever and brave, she finds a way of doing what she can to ease the mansion’s spirits.

Olson peppers the novel with invented “historical” documents, including newspaper clippings, letters, and photographs. This provides perspectives—both destructive and benign—beyond Gretchen’s own.

If you know a middle schooler who loves paranormal fiction and who also worries about questions of justice, What the Dead Want will provide her with satisfying reading. Yes, the world’s great history of violence can’t be easily resolved in a novel of 300 pages, but 300 pages is enough to raise important questions and to offer some possibilities for addressing these wrongs.


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