I chose to read this book knowing nothing about it except it had something to do with ghosts. I’m working on a ghost story myself, so I like to read ghost stories by other authors. Turns out, the paranormal ghost part of the book is minimal. Ghosts of a different sort haunt eleven-year-old Verbena Colton.
The story begins with the exposition of a secret—Verbena has just discovered that her parents are really her aunt and uncle. The man she thought was her uncle is really her father. And he’s in jail for murder. Have you ever been ashamed of your family? Ever wanted to be part of someone else’s family? Then you have something in common with Verbena.
When Verbena’s best friend, Annie, begins to mature faster, seems to have a new best friend and leaves for the summer, Verbena spins into a horrible funk. Verbena’s life takes a turn for the better though when a nine-year-old boy and his mother rent the house next door.
At first, Verbena lets her new neighbor, Pooch, believe that she is the ghost of a young girl who drowned in a nearby lake. Pooch and Verbena soon develop a fast friendship as they work to repair a sunken boat. Using the boat results in a near-drowning and requires Verbena to act with more courage and strength than she ever thought she had. Verbena’s humorous and believable (to Pooch anyway) ghost persona starts as a game. Later the truth comes out and Pooch is understandably angry and hurt.
I didn’t like this book to start with, though it was beautifully written. It gave me a prickly, uncomfortable feeling. Verbena suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and she’s just plain mad at the world which causes her to lash out at her overweight mother. It was painful to read. Slowly, I came to admire the book and relate to it on a deeper level. It brought me back to experiences and feelings from my own childhood.
Sometimes life is very complicated and sometimes it is sweetly simple. Verbena’s happy ending is a friend gained and a friend returned, growing a few inches taller over the summer and accepting the unconditional love of her mother. “It’s a wonderful thing, knowing that you are someone’s whole world…”
—Constance Van Hoven, children’s book author and teller of tall tales
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