Book Review of “How I Became a Ghost”

Tingle, Tim. How I Became a Ghost. Oklahoma City, OK: The Roadrunner Press, 2013.

How I Became a Ghost cover

Reviewed by George Gottschalk, Collection Development Librarian for Rogers State University

How I Became a Ghost is the tale of one Choctaw boy’s departure from Mississippi with his family on the Trail of Tears. After suffering his own harrowing tribulations and watching several others die before him, ten-year-old protagonist, Isaac, meets his own tragic death. At this point, the action really picks up.

Now that he has become a ghost, Isaac faces serious work to pull off the heroic rescue of Naomi, a Choctaw girl enslaved as a prisoner in the Nahullo (white) soldier camp. Fortunately, plans are already underway with the help of Joseph, the panther boy, Nita, Isaac’s newfound little sister who became a ghost before him, and several Choctaw elders, both living and ghosts. Oh, and do not forget Jumper, Isaac’s faithful, Choctaw-speaking dog.

As with Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom, (illus. by Jeanne Rorex Bridges, Cinco Puntos Press, 2009) there are echoes of Choctaw storyteller and author Tim Tingle’s earlier collection, Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Puntos Press, 2003). How I Became a Ghost, though, is haunted by only a few paragraphs and images from the earlier tale. Tingle otherwise animates his new narrative with a compelling life of its own.

Like all storytellers, Tingle speaks with an authentic voice given resonance through his authentic ear. Drawing on years of careful listening to the tales of others, How I Became a Ghost presents a genuine and holistic Trail of Tears tale. Tingle maintains a storyteller’s vigilant focus on the deep humanity of Isaac and those around him. Against the epic sweep of history, the storyteller offers tender moments of humor and delight, as well as lyrical moments of sadness and reflection. Even the character best positioned to become a stock villain is saved from one-dimensionality by the end of the book, as Tingle refuses to yield to a simplistic cliché.

Ostensibly geared to a middle school audience, How I Became a Ghost includes discussion questions at the end for use in classrooms or book clubs. Readers of any age will profit from reading this book for enjoyment, and may find several engaging questions to ask. As such, Tingle’s book affords a fantastic opportunity for cultural learning discussions. As one of many examples, some might ask, “Do Choctaw people really believe in ghosts, panther people or even talking dogs?” To this last, perhaps the best reply may be from Jumper, the dog in the book, who quips, “What? You never heard a dog speak Choctaw before?”

As the 2014 AIYLA Middle School Award winning book, it will come as no surprise that Tim Tingle’s How I Became a Ghost receives a rousing endorsement. It deserves a place in any collection that serves audiences interested in either American Indians or great stories. In pragmatic terms, even those with the tightest budgets can rest assured knowing that this book deserves to be at the top of your purchase list.