The Ghost Collector
The Ghost Collector
“This kind of graveyard, you aren’t going to find a lot of ghosts,” Grandma says, leading Shelly toward the outer limits of the graveyard to the cheaper graves. “Lots of old ladies like me with nothing left to haunt about.”
On the outskirts of the graveyard are small graves with tiny aluminum stakes and rusted old plaques instead of proper headstones. They’re the cheap seats of burial places for people who can’t afford or aren’t willing to pay for a big headstone to get buried. The graves are closer together and weeds sprout up between them. There’s a ghost there, a teen-aged boy, sitting on a small grave, playing with a black plastic box that looks almost like a radio.
He looks up at Grandma and Shelly with eyes like black holes.
“Hello, Joseph,” Grandma says. (Pp. 28-29)
Shelly’s belief in ghosts earns her ridicule at school, but she knows the truth. She is her grandmother’s apprentice, learning to catch ghosts in her hair and help them move on in their journey. Like all the women in her family, Shelly can see souls that haven’t transitioned yet, and she likes the process of freeing their spirits. When her mother dies suddenly, Shelly hoards ghosts instead of helping them move on. But the human, cat and dog spirits she hides in her room can’t make up for the ghost she is desperate to see – that of her mother.
Inspired by stories from her own great-grandmother, author Alison Sills anchors The Ghost Collector in a Cree worldview and shows the warmth and power of an intergenerational community of women and girls. First Nations culture is incorporated as a way of life, woven into Shelly’s experience. At Shelly’s mother’s funeral, sweetgrass and drumming are as natural as the urn of ashes and the cemetery. Shelly and her grandmother gather up ghosts in their loose hair, braiding it when they want to be ghost-free. The Cree references are unselfconscious and integrated into daily reality. The modern context suggests that stories are all around, that the past is a part of the present.
The story also explores the concepts of grief and loss and the ultimate choice of life over death. Shelly’s exposure to the dead leads to her casual acceptance of ghosts. Yet the shock of her mother’s death reveals that she understands death only at a distance. Her grief leaves her even more socially isolated, and Shelly seeks consolation in the company of the ghosts she gathers around her.
The serious subject, however, does not mean the book is without humour. An entertaining cast of ghost characters, from confused mice to a garrulous old woman waiting for a massive headstone, keeps Shelly company in her crowded bedroom. The kindness of others, including her neighbour, Mrs. Potts, and her school friend, Isabel, provide hope for social connection.
Her grandmother’s guidance eventually helps Shelly accept her mother’s death. In the end, Shelly realizes she must embrace change and transformation and learn to move on in her own journey. Simple language makes The Ghost Collector accessible to its tween audience while introducing sophisticated concepts. In Shelly, Mills has created a believable, likeable character who learns important life lessons about the future in the rich context of her cultural past.