I didn’t realize that Mary Downing Hahn is still writing and publishing books! In my mind, her books firmly belong in the 1980’s and 90’s. So imagine my surprise when I saw this book at my kids’ Scholastic Book Fair this year. I had to buy it. (For myself. Neither of my kids loves scary things).
I’ve reviewed several MDH books over the years on this blog, and if you’re a regular reader you’ll know she was one of my favorite authors growing up. I was all ready to not like this book because it didn’t have the nostalgia factor for me, but you know what? I actually loved it. It was a perfect read for anyone who loved Wait Til Helen Comes, which seems to be everyone’s MDH favorite.
The book starts out on a creepy note. An old woman watching from a hilltop as a new family moves into an old farmhouse. The old woman has a special interest in the little girl in the family, and tells her companion that their plans are coming to fruition. (Her companion squeals and snorts in response, which is creepy in its own right).
Except for a few brief interludes by the old woman, Auntie, as she’s called, this book is told from the point of view of seventh grader, Daniel. Daniel and his family are moving from Fairfield, Connecticut to Woodville, West Virginia. Daniel has a little sister, Erica, who is in second grade. They used to be rich. Their father had a big corporate job, but lost it with the recession. First the family downgraded (no more private school, only one car, etc) but when his dad couldn’t find work in Connecticut, the parents decided to move to rural Woodville, West Virginia where the living is cheap.
Things aren’t easy for the family after moving. The people in the town dislike them, particularly the school children, because they still wear rich-kid clothes. The dad has trouble finding a job, but eventually finds work at the Home Depot. Mostly though, Erica starts exhibiting some odd behavior. She stops talking to the family and communicates mostly with her doll, plus she claims the wind is calling her name at night.
Mom and Dad are so worried about the state of the old farmhouse and their money issues, that they don’t seem to be as concerned about Erica as Daniel thinks they should be. And Daniel is very worried. Especially after a boy who lives near them tells them a story of Auntie, a conjure woman, who lived up on the hill in the woods behind Daniel’s house who kidnaps a little girl every fifty years. Fifty years ago, the little girl, Selene, who lived in their house, was ‘took,’ as the locals say. This woman has a companion called Bloody Bones, the skeleton of a bipedal wild boar who does Auntie’s killing for her.
Daniel catches Erica wandering off into the woods and tries to get her to come home. They fight and Erica runs off, too fast for Daniel, dropping her doll in the process. Erica never makes it home.
The whole town comes together to search for her, but all the Woodville locals know the story of Auntie and flat-out refuse to go up the hill where her cabin is. Daniel decides to go alone, and finds another little girl, wearing Erica’s clothes. He takes this other girl back home, and the older locals are stunned that it’s little Selene who went missing fifty years ago, not aged a bit.
Daniel’s parents meanwhile, can’t even look at this little girl, and don’t believe anyone who tells them about the conjure-woman. They don’t even believe Daniel as he starts to understand that something supernatural is happening out on that hill in the woods. That Erica was Took, just like Selene had been.
With the help of a friendly neighbor, who takes in a very scared and confused Selene, Daniel finds Auntie’s last kin. An old lady who lives on the outskirts of town with her dozens of cats. This old lady, Miss Perkins, is known as a conjure-woman as well, though not evil like Auntie. And together they devise a plan to get Erica back, help Selene, and rid the woods of Auntie and Bloody Bones.
Does the plan work? Sure it does. They get a much happier Erica back, and their parents can not deny that Erica wasn’t lost in the woods. She was, in fact, Took. Selene is being raised by the elderly neighbor couple, and she and Erica become good friends. Daniel ends up becoming friends with the neighbor boy, Brody, who tried to scare them when they first moved there with stories about Auntie and Bloody Bones.
- This is something that I wouldn’t have batted an eye at as a kid, but as an adult it’s so illogical. The decision to move from CT to rural WV makes absolutely no sense. Yes, the real estate is cheap there, but did Daniel’s parents stop to think WHY the house was so cheap? Here’s a hint, it’s not because the woods are haunted by Auntie and Bloody Bones. It’s because there are no jobs in rural West Virginia. So when his dad is upset that he has an MBA and is working at the Home Depot…well. What did he think was going to happen? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to move more locally and just rent an apartment instead of purchasing a house?
- The public school the kids go to is very bare-bones. And yeah, old rural schools aren’t going to have promethean boards and Chrome Books necessarily. But Daniel was talking about how even the walls were bare. No school work or art work was hanging up. His classroom has only an American Flag and a picture of George Washington. And I can go into detail about the issues facing rural education. But I swear, they can afford worksheets and coloring paper to hang on the walls in the classrooms.
- Daniel stands out in his class because he has an accent (though to him, he’s the one without the accent) and he wears kind of preppy clothes, while all the kids are in grungy jeans and sneakers and t-shirts. At the beginning, Daniel is just mad at the kids for making fun of him. But later on in the book, he has a moment of growth when he sees that Brody’s shoes have holes in the them. “Something’s wrong with a world that lets me have waterproof boots and someone else have tennis shoes with holes in the toes.”
- Before he gets to where he feels for the impoverished kids, he is fairly judgmental of the local dialect. When Erica starts fretting about being ‘Took,’ his response is “Took? That’s how kids in Woodville talk. Not you and me. We say ‘taken.'”
- Overall, this is a good scary story. Anyone who liked the other MDH ghost stories is sure to like this one as well.