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Ten (Almost eleven) year old Ashley and her mom are moving from Baltimore to the small town of Monkton Mills, Maryland for a fresh start following Ashley’s father’s death. They are renting an apartment that’s on the top floor of a large house owned by the elderly Miss Cooper. Ashley gets on Miss Cooper’s bad side immediately because she takes a disliking to Ashley’s cat, Oscar. It wouldn’t have been difficult to get on Miss Cooper’s bad side anyway, she’s an old grump and bad is the only side she has.
Miss Cooper’s backyard is large and well-tended except for a garden that is an overgrown mess. That garden sits on the border of Miss Cooper’s yard and the neighbors, The Smiths. Kristi Smith is a little younger than Ashley, but they become friends anyway. There are no neighbors on the other side, just an empty lot. Ashley is warned by Miss Cooper to stay out of the garden.
Ashley and Kristi don’t listen to Miss Cooper and they play in the garden anyway. Kristi says the garden is haunted, that there is a ghost cat who hangs around and people hear a child crying at night. Ashley doesn’t believe her, until she sees the cat and hears the sounds at night. Curiosity gets the best of her and she and Kristi explore the garden. They do see the cat, who isn’t a ghost at all, but is corporeal and has a nametag which says Snowball. They also find a doll buried in the garden. The doll’s name is Anna Maria, and there is an apology note to Louisa Perkins from Carrie in the doll’s box.
Kristi is terrified of the doll, but Ashley wants to save it, so she sneaks it out of the garden and hides it in her room. Kristi and Ashley fight the next day over who should keep the doll. Ashley keeps seeing Snowball hanging around the yard and hearing the child cry. One day, Ashley follows Snowball to the other side of the yard and through a hole in the hedge to the empty lot next door.
Only, it’s not an empty lot anymore. There’s an old house with a little girl sitting on the front porch. Ashley talks to the little girl who has a terrible cough. The little girl is named Louisa Perkins and she has consumption and is terribly upset because her best friend Carrie took her favorite doll and won’t bring her back. Ashley promises she will bring Anna Maria back to her.
That evening, Miss Cooper arrives on Ashley’s doorstep, telling her that she knows Ashley stole her doll and demands it back. Ashley realizes that Miss Cooper is Carrie, and refuses to give the doll back, telling her that it’s Louisa’s. Miss Cooper is shocked Ashley knows who Louisa is. Ashley’s mom forces her to give the doll back to Miss Cooper.
The next day Ashley, accompanied by Kristi, follow Snowball to the empty lot, which magically transforms and timehops to Louisa’s house. They tell her they weren’t able to get Anna Maria. Louisa is upset because she knows she’s dying. Kristi and Ashley come to believe that if they get the doll back from Miss Cooper, they will give it to Louisa and her life will be saved because her mood will lift and her cough will get better.
But that means confronting Miss Cooper. It takes a lot, but finally Ashley convinces the cranky old lady to follow the cat next door. As they crawl through the hedge, Miss Cooper ages back to however old she was when she stole Anna Maria from Louisa. Ashley and Kristi follow the now-young Miss Cooper into the house and listen at Louisa’s door. Carrie apologizes for taking the doll and Louisa forgives her.
As they head back next door and into the present, Ashley and Kristi immediately run to the cemetery, convinced that they just saved Louisa’s life. But they’re heartbroken to see her gravestone with the same date on it. Miss Cooper makes them cookies and lemonade and they all become friendly. Miss Cooper and Ashley has similar dreams. Miss Cooper dreams that Louisa is forgiving her and telling her to be happy, while Ashley dreams that her father is forgiving her for being angry with him for dying and asking her to be happy.
While I didn’t get into it much, there is, underneath the main story of ghosts, the very sad story of a little girl who is grieving her lost father. At the end, Ashley and her mother end up having a very sweet heart to heart about how much they miss him.
This book was published in 1989, and while I know I read this one, I was twelve when it came out, which is really just a little too old to really enjoy this. This book wasn’t nearly as scary as Wait Til Helen Comes, nor was it as emotionally on-point as Daphne’s Book. Still, it was a fine story, and would definitely make good starter material for an eight or nine year old just getting interested in ghost stories, but for whom Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark might be a little too much.