In Erica Waters’ debut novel, Ghost Wood Song, she brings us to the luscious, chilling woods of Florida where cicadas buzz and azaleas bloom. There, we meet Shady Grove, a young woman trying to hold her family together after her step-father is murdered and her brother, Jesse, stands accused of the crime. The only way she knows how to clear Jesse’s name is by finding an enchanted fiddle her own father left behind, but the instrument raises more ghosts, secrets, and questions than it does answers.
Though Shady is proactive and seeks truth and, at times, trouble, she also can’t escape her ties to history. Her two homes — her childhood house where her aunt still lives and the trailer that belongs to her mom and baby sister while Jesse sits in jail — are haunted by the things people tried to bury. Waters’ setting is contemporary, yet the story feels timeless since so much of it happens on the edges of both society and mortality. “Daddy always said twilight was good for ghost raising because it’s an in-between time,” Shady muses, “when the barrier between worlds seems to grow as thin as tissue paper and the ghosts are at their lonesomest.” Shady is at her loneliest in the in-betweens too.
And Shady lives in-between so much: childhood and adulthood, the secrets of her family’s past and the trauma of their present, and the shadow world of ghosts and the concrete realities of this world. She is also in-between her love for her longtime best friend, Sarah, and her new crush on a local rodeo boy, Cedar. Waters’ portrayal of Shady’s bisexuality is refreshing because it is never invalidated, and her struggle over who to choose has nothing to do with her orientation. Shady’s search for a partner hinges on which person makes the most sense for her and who shows up for her when she needs them. And both Sarah and Cedar do show up for Shady, along with their friends Orlando, Rose, and Kenneth.
The ensemble cast doesn’t always get along or trust each other, but they are unified by music. Shady has her fiddle, and the others all play bluegrass or folk music too. “I think it must be impossible to feel lonely while playing music with other people,” Shady says, “the way your minds and hearts and bodies all sync up, bound by the music you’re building together.” Waters’ introduces a catalog of songs in the text, and though music is a shared language for those in town, it’s also a powerful defense against sinister shadows. But which shadows should Shady step into? Which monsters should she raise, and which ones can she defeat? And if she can’t defeat them, how will she hurt the people she loves most?
In Ghost Wood Song, Waters leans into themes of family, shame, grief, and legacy. Her prose and setting are rich, and Shady’s voice is one many young people will be able to relate to as she navigates relationships and hardship. Like many of the other characters, she is secretive and interior. At times, this made it feel like the story was happening more inside her than around her, and because of this I felt disconnected from some of the biggest plot reveals. Similarly, I was sometimes surprised by characters’ opaque intentions. Perhaps this was part of the point, however — often people are unknowable.
Waters creates a sensory, spooky world that sent shivers up my arms when I read at night. The story is thoughtful and suspenseful, and I found myself wanting to know the truth right alongside Shady. I was ready to follow her to wherever she might find it. I am ready to follow this debut author to her next novels too. This contemporary YA with fantastical elements will appeal to young adults or anyone with a love of bluegrass, folk, ghost stories, or Southern settings. Read Ghost Wood Song to find yourself in the twilight, in the in-between spaces, and in the Florida pine woods where the best spell is a well-loved song.
Ghost Wood Song
By Erica Waters
Published July 14, 2020
Jen St. Jude is the managing director at Chicago Review of Books and has work in Catapult, Gigantic Sequins, and The Rumpus. Her debut YA novel, IF TOMORROW DOESN'T COME, will be published by Bloomsbury Children's in 2023. Find them on Twitter: @jenstjude.