Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck
originally published 1977
Puffin Books, 12th edition, 2001
Genre: Young adult
Synopsis & Review: Blossom Culp: fourteen-year-old girl, outcast, troublemaker, Gypsy, psychic? Living on the edge of Bluff City’s society, in a tiny dwelling furnished with whatever they can scrounge or with what mama’s skills as a Seer can earn, Blossom Culp is a bit of a misfit. After events on Halloween Night cause an uproar at school the next day, Lizzie finds herself embraced by some of those in Bluff City “who have already arrived,” as she delicately puts it. To the great distress of the stuck-up Letty Shambaugh, Blossom makes an appearance at the former’s little after school girl’s club. When Bluff City’s mean girls try to embarrass Blossom with a seance, she turns the table on them with aplomb—until the Universe turns the tables on Blossom herself. Suddenly burdened with the Sight, Blossom saves Letty’s brother’s life and gains a patroness, the eccentric Anglophile spinster Miss Dabney.
With Miss Dabney’s support and interest, Blossom explores her abilities, soon freeing Miss Dabney’s own ghost hired girl Minerva from her eternal torment. As a rousing second act, Blossom first appropriates then discredits the act of a traveling spiritualist, gaining widespread notoriety in the process. But it is when she is called to the carpet by her principal Miss Spaulding, and interviewed by a local newspaperman, that Blossom really gets going. When asked by Miss Spaulding and Mr Seaforth for a demonstration of her Powers—with the idea of disproving them, natch—Blossom sinks into a trance that takes her to a small boy named Julian, left by his parents to drown in Arctic waters. Coming to again, Blossom is soaked with icy salt water, and clutching a blanket embroidered, Royal Steamship Titanic.
When reading Shelf Discovery, I experienced several of those HOW ON EARTH DID I NEVER READ THIS moments, and none were so intense at the one I had reading about Ghosts I Have Been, Richard Peck’s marvelous ghost story featuring the inimitable Blossom Culp. Seriously, how is it that I never read this?! I know I saw it in book orders and at the library, probably countless times and who could resist that evocative title? Plus, I have loved several Peck (haha, peck) books to distraction, especially Princess Ashley and Voices After Midnight. So how was this possible? I want to know whom to blame for this grievous error.
As you may have guessed, Ghosts I Have Been was well worth the read for the Shelf Discovery Reading Challenge. Blossom herself is magnificent: observant, canny, insightful, spunky to the max, and with a delightful voice unlike any other in YA lit, mordant with a touch of Southern gothic. Her curious circumlocution can take a little getting used to, but it’s never awkward and always engaging. Like our narratrix, the adventures on which she embarks are likewise charming, from her small scheme and playground fracas to a transatlantic journey to meet—who else?—the Queen of England.
When it came to writing my own book report on Blossom Culp and Ghosts I Have Been, I found myself inhibited by Lizzie Skurnik’s. What is there to say when it’s already been said, after all? Skurnik spends most of her book report explaining the plot and indulging in quoting lengthy passages of Blossom’s narration (how can I blame her?), but it’s the end of the essay I found so hard to write around. She discusses Blossom’s liminality, the way Blossoms acts as a bridge between the various worlds of Bluff City circa 1913: “between Miss Dabney’s barren spinster life and the queen of England’s; between formal Miss Spaulding and the world of the yellow press; and between loneliness and intimacy” (SD 262). Each of the lives Blossom touches suggests her power to bridge that gap, from her mother, sullen but blossoming (ha) under the attentions of Bluff City society, and Miss Dabney’s romance, to her own friendship with Alexander Armsworth, a much more genteel Seer. And so Blossom also fulfill her other role as a Seer by putting things to rights. As Skurnik points out, what does a medium (a responsible one, at least) do but put ghosts, “the embodiment of unfinished business” to rest (SD 263)? On one level, Blossom ends the suffering of Minerva and Julian, but in doing so she also stops the torments experienced by those left behind in the physical world, such as Miss Dabney and presumably Julian’s mother as well. So to is the matter of the con-artist settled, and the child he exploits set free, just as Mrs Culp, Miss Dabney, and Blossom herself are enfranchised by the results of Blossom’s exploits.
Highly recommended for young adults and those who love YA lit.
Read also: Melinda Takes a Hand by Patricia Beatty, The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright, Voices after Midnight by Richard Peck, The Root-Cellar by Janet Lunn and N.R. Jackson, A Walk in Wolf Wood by Mart Stewart
Cover: Really lovely and suggestive of the pathos that underlies Blossom’s tale (after all, these are real[fictional] dead people!). Although, she does look more like a Puritan than like a girl in a middy blouse. I also have fond memories of seeing the old cover on library shelves.
In earlier times I would have hastened to trap Alexander Armsworth in some out-of-the-way spot and there told him I’d saved him from a sure thrashing at Miss Spaulding’s hand. She’d got the names of Champ Ferguson and Bub Timmons out of me with no trouble. She’d already dealt with Les Dawson. And she’s called him “Leslie” as she walloped him, adding insult to injury.
But my new refined appearance made me refine my methods as well. Alexander would put two and two together. Even he would figure out I was the Ghost in the Privy and that I’d had a private word with Miss Spaulding. Let him learn in his own time, and let him stew in his own juice. It would dawn on him that he owed me a favor, and I could wait. He knows I collect my debts.
20 December – 21 December