The bestselling author of the young adult novel Dread Nation brings her storytelling prowess to middle grade to create a story that will definitely cause you to start seeing things—namely, ghosts, but also the injustices suffered by generations of Black Americans.
In Ophie’s Ghosts, Justina Ireland transports readers back to the early 1920s, a time when Black Americans were fleeing the South to escape the poverty and persecution caused by the long arm of Jim Crow laws. The novel opens in rural Georgia, as 12-year-old Ophelia “Ophie” Harrison’s father wakes her up in the middle of the night and tells her to take her mother to her favorite hiding spot just beyond the tree line. From there, she witnesses a mob of angry white men burn her family’s home to the ground. The next morning, Ophie learns her father was murdered by the same mob earlier that day because he voted—and that’s how Ophie discovers she can see and speak to ghosts.
Ophie and her mother flee to Pittsburgh to live with Great Aunt Rose with hopes of starting over. Rose tells Ophie that the women in their family have been seers for generations, aiding the ghosts trapped in this world so they can transition onward to the next. It’s their duty to help bring the ghosts peace so the human world can remain peaceful as well. In Pittsburgh, Ophie and her mother take jobs at Daffodil Manor, where they meet Mrs. Caruthers, the wealthy estate’s sickly, irritable matriarch, and her benevolent son, Richard. Daffodil Manor is also home to a full staff of house servants and a whole host of ghosts.
Ophie gradually befriends the kind but elusive ghost of Clara, a servant whose unsolved murder occurred in the manor, which keeps Clara tied to it, unable to pass on. But Clara’s ghost can’t quite remember the details of what happened to her, so Ophie is determined to uncover the murderer as well as their motive. In doing so, she risks unearthing secrets about the dead that threaten to put the living directly in harm’s way.
Ophie is a compelling, realistic heroine with a strong sense of justice and duty. The hopefulness and idealism she’s able to retain, in spite of the horrors she’s experienced and the death that surrounds her wherever she goes, ultimately become her saving grace. Though the story’s pacing is uneven at times, Ireland conceals a massive reveal so expertly that even the savviest readers won’t see it coming.
In an author’s note included in advance editions of the book, Ireland writes that she wanted to explore the question, “How do we grieve when the ghosts of our loss appear in the everyday suffering around us?” Ophie’s Ghosts offers a moving answer through Ophie’s unwavering sense of what is just—for both the living and the dead.