April 2023

Funeral Songs for Dying Girls

By Cherie Dimaline
This lyrical ghost story portrays how a bond between two girls—one living, one not—transforms the grief that roots them both in place.
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Sixteen-year-old Winifred Blight lives in a small house near the gates of one of the oldest cemeteries in Toronto with her father, who runs the crematory. For as long as Winifred can remember, her father has been in mourning for her mother, who died giving birth to her. Winifred, too, has been shaped by this absence, as she knows her mother only through the now-vintage clothes and records left behind. 

Desperate to assuage her father’s grief and form her own deeper connection with her mother, Winifred goes to her favorite part of the cemetery one day and calls out to her mother’s spirit—but she summons the ghost of a teenage girl named Phil instead. Soon, Winifred no longer aches with loneliness, nor does she care that her best (and only) friend doesn’t reciprocate her romantic feelings. But Winifred and Phil’s intimate connection is threatened when a ghost tour company wants to exploit the cemetery and Winifred’s con-artist cousin risks exposing Phil’s existence. To protect Phil, Winifred will have to sacrifice the only home she’s ever known.

Acclaimed author Cherie Dimaline’s Funeral Songs for Dying Girls is a lyrical coming-of-age ghost story that’s more interested in capturing emotion than explaining the nuts and bolts of its supernatural elements. Phil is a specter who appears when Winifred thinks of her, but her body is, at times, corporeal; in one scene, Winifred braids Phil’s long hair. The novel instead focuses on how the bond between the girls lessens the grief that roots them both in place as Phil slowly reveals to Winifred what happened in the months leading up to her death.

Dimaline is a registered member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and Winifred and Phil’s Indigenous identities play crucial roles in the novel. Winifred’s mother and great aunt Roberta were Métis, and Winifred infers that Phil is Ojibwe. The stories Phil tells about her life as a queer Indigenous girl growing up in the 1980s are often harrowing, as she recounts moving from the reservation to the city to escape a miserable situation at school only to find herself in even worse circumstances that ultimately lead to tragedy.

Wrenching and poignant, Funeral Songs for Dying Girls is a haunting tale about what it means to search for home—not the place, but the feeling you carry with you.

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