ONE FOR SORROW: A Ghost Story, by Mary Downing Hahn, Clarion Books, July 18, 2017, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 10 and up)
The first book I read by Mary Downing Hahn was Wait Till Helen Comes. I got my paperback copy through a book order. That was around 1988-ish. I still have my copy. It’s a book that’s always stuck with me; the setting was absolute perfection. It’s with Wait Till Helen Comes in mind that I started reading Hahn’s latest middle-grade ghost story, One For Sorrow.
One For Sorrow takes place during WWI against the backdrop of the 1918 influenza epidemic. The book follows Annie as she enters a new school and is immediately claimed as best friend by Elsie, the school outcast. No one likes Elsie, who makes life miserable for all her classmates, tattling, lying and thieving when it suits her. Annie learns this firsthand when Elsie invites herself to Annie’s house and deliberately ruins Annie’s things.
Annie wants nothing to do with Elsie, and when Elsie doesn’t come to school for a week, Annie takes advantage of the situation. Soon Annie has the kind of friends she’s always had and has always wanted. When Elsie returns, Annie finds herself on the other side of things, joining her new friends in teasing and tormenting Elsie.
The girls aren’t in school long, though, before the influenza epidemic forces its closure. Thousands of people are ill and dying, and Elsie is one of them. When Elsie dies, Annie thinks she’s finally free, but she’s wrong. Elsie returns as a ghost to reclaim Annie’s friendship and punish everyone else. Annie is going to be Elise’s friend whether she likes it or not.
Hahn has a gift for creating a spooky atmosphere. One For Sorrow is nuanced and creepy. Even on a sunny day, you still have the shivers. You become fully immersed in the world she’s created. I just wish the world she created had characters I actually cared about.
It seems like all the children in One For Sorrow have a nasty streak. It’s not just Elsie who’s awful, although she immediately stands out as a horrid child. Annie and her other friends are by no means angels. They bully and taunt Elsie horribly, and then when school is closed they start visiting wakes of dead children they don’t know in order to get treats. Annie feels guilty about the practice, but her distaste doesn’t keep her from joining in.
One For Sorrow follows the typical ghost story plot for this age — outcast girl comes back from the grave to exact revenge. It’s a well-written book that moves quickly and is delightfully creepy. But without at least one character I really wanted to root for, it fell flat.
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