It’s the summer of 1978 and Ruth Windsor is headed to Buckle, Newfoundland, to spend the summer with her Aunt Doll. Born and raised in Ontario (or “Canada,” as Aunt Doll calls it), Ruth has never met her aunt or visited there before.
Her mother, Meg Duggan, died when Ruth was two, and her father, Bill Windsor, doesn’t talk much about her. Ruth assumes he doesn’t want to stir up upsetting memories — he’s not an emotional type of guy, but takes a pragmatic, detached approach to life. They get along well, though. Bill studies plants and the two of them have spent their summers on exotic botanical adventures.
And then, along came Gwen. Now Bill is remarried to this awful person, and honeymooning in Greece, while Ruth is shipped off to Newfoundland.
It’s a new place with new people. Ruth knows she will soon be joined by her cousin Ruby. In fact, on her first night, Ruth wakes as a “girl in a long white nightgown tiptoed into the room, carrying a candle that skittled in the draft and threw strange shadows across her face.” (There’s no electricity in that space, because Clarence, Doll’s father, didn’t believe it was a safe or reliable utility, so Aunt Doll just had her half of the house wired.) The girl climbs into the bedroom’s other bed and Ruth, soothed by her presence, goes back to sleep. In the morning she looks for Ruby but Aunt Doll says she hasn’t arrived yet. Ruth’s “girl” of the night before must have been a dream.
Buckle is that kind of place for that kind of dream. Eldred, whom Ruth meets after breakfast her first morning, is a family friend and jack-off-all-trades who’s also full of stories. Some are about family, some about fairies, and some about the ghost road — an avenue into the nearby, and emptied-by-tragedy community of Slippers Cove, which only some people can see. Ruth is one of them, though she refuses to believe she has “the Sight.”
Even the family stories can be unsettling. For example, Ruth had never been told that her mother had a twin sister, Molly. Molly is Ruby’s mother, so that makes her even closer than the usual cousin. And when Ruth and Ruby meet, they’re both in for a shock — as Ruth sees, they look exactly alike.
“She was just my size, wearing a bright-green sweater and green pants. Her cheeks were flushed pink with her climb. But her face … her face was my face. Blue eyes, small nose, high cheekbones, slightly crooked mouth, strong chin — it was like looking in a mirror. Even her hair was the same, except it was short and stuck out all over the place.”
The more Ruth and Ruby learn about their family roots, the more mysteries are unearthed. Their maternal line, the Finns, sailed from Waterford, Ireland, in 1832. Every generation included a set of twin girls, blond and blue-eyed. And each set was shadowed by whispers of a curse.
Some of this information can be verified, by conversations with Aunt Doll, or studying the gravestones by the church. But some of it emerges from Ruth’s dreams, which quickly morph into daytime visions, disorienting and disturbing. “There were people screaming all around me, or was it the wind? It sounded like the wind in the cemetery, a wind with a human voice. Suddenly I understood the words: ‘By water! By water! By water!’”
And some of their relatives, like Ruby’s Nan, Mildred Barrett, a.k.a. “the witch,” hold fast to secrets of their own. She contends the Barretts have always hated the Finns, but won’t explain why, even as she still continues to blame the long-lost Molly for luring her son, George, away from her.
The girl climbs into the bedroom’s other bed and Ruth, soothed by her presence, goes back to sleep. In the morning she looks for Ruby but Aunt Doll says she hasn’t arrived yet. Ruth’s “girl” of the night before must have been a dream.
Undeterred, Ruth and Ruby continue to search for answers in their past, in Aunt Doll’s house, and along the ghost road.
This is Charis Cotter’s third young adult novel, all ghost stories. In pitching to her audience, among other experienced notes, she knows the importance of food. Aunt Doll keeps Ruth and Ruby well supplied with mac-and-cheese and partridgeberry muffins. (Even the witch, despite her apparent coldness, is a deft hand with gingerbread men and cinnamon buns.)
And the cover design, worked in purple, cream, and green patterns of the Newfoundland wildflowers Ruth collects, is lovely.
The drama progresses nicely, with events increasingly haunted. Speaking of food, and spookiness, early on, Eldred slips some bread into Ruth’s pocket. “You’re walking on a fairy path, my love, and just because you don’t believe in them, doesn’t mean they won’t come after you.”
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.