A Stir of Bones

( 10 )


Fourteen-year-old Susan Backstrom seems to have a charmed life-she's smart and beautiful, the only child of wealthy, attentive parents. But there are secrets inside her expensive house that Susan would never tell. One day, at the library, she overhears their housekeeper's son talking with some friends about sneaking into a nearby abandoned house. Much to her own surprise, Susan very much wants to join them-and soon she's part of the best secret of all. The house has a resident teenage ghost. More important than ...

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Fourteen-year-old Susan Backstrom seems to have a charmed life-she's smart and beautiful, the only child of wealthy, attentive parents. But there are secrets inside her expensive house that Susan would never tell. One day, at the library, she overhears their housekeeper's son talking with some friends about sneaking into a nearby abandoned house. Much to her own surprise, Susan very much wants to join them-and soon she's part of the best secret of all. The house has a resident teenage ghost. More important than that, the house itself is a living, supernatural thing, able to serve as a magic conductor. With the help of five new friends-three humans, one ghost, and House, Susan has what she needs to transform her life, if she dares. A Stir of Bones is the stand-alone prequel to acclaimed fantasist Nina Hoffman's award-winning adult novels A Red Heart of Memories and Past the Size of Dreaming. It is every bit as remarkable, warm, and heartwrenching.

After discovering the secrets that lie in an abandoned house, fourteen-year-old Susan Backstrom, with the help of some new friends, has the ability to make a safe, new life for herself.

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Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-Susan Backstrom, the protagonist of this haunting and harrowing novel, appears to have everything. In reality, she is a prisoner of her abusive father, who beats his wife whenever he disapproves of his daughter's behavior. In a rare moment of freedom at the library, Susan overhears a group of kids talking about entering a haunted house and convinces them to let her go with them. With these new friends, she discovers that the house has a life of its own. Susan forms a close bond with the house and with Nathan, the ghost of a boy who committed suicide in it. When her father's menacing becomes too much, she decides to kill herself to be with Nathan and the house forever, and it is up to her friends to stop her and the house to show her how to use her newfound powers, derived from a piece of Nathan's bone, to heal rather than hurt. In this prequel to Hoffman's adult novels A Red Heart of Memories (1999) and Past the Size of Dreaming (2001, both Ace), the author creates an unusual world. As the story is told through Susan's eyes, everything, even the more fantastical events, seems matter-of-fact and dispassionate, which draws readers in and intensifies the horror. However, while some readers may find it satisfying that Susan has found a way to help her mother, others are likely to question her ability to protect herself from her father and worry that she has no adult to turn to for help.-Lisa Prolman, Greenfield Public Library, MA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Susan, 14, begins to find answers in this haunting ghost story, a prequel to A Red Heart of Memories (1999) and Past the Size of Dreaming (2001). If Susan doesn't do exactly as she's told, her incredibly controlling father beats her mother and explains that it's Susan's fault. She lies to carve out some time when she can visit a strange old house with a motley assortment of school friends. Susan can feel this house: its thoughts, its memories, and its history, the more so when the group meets Nathan, a teen ghost whose hanged skeleton still remains within its walls. Susan is deeply attracted to Nathan and begins to wonder if being dead might be preferable to her current life. A quiet climax offers hope but not resolution. The writing is controlled and effective; Susan and Nathan have vivid personalities almost in contrast to their silvery presences and the sentient house is a fine character. The best of the three. (Fiction. YA)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142403617
  • Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,134,938
  • Age range: 12 years
  • Product dimensions: 4.20 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 0.57 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One

Susan's gaze slid past her mirror image as she headed into the locker room, arrested, returned. What was that on the inside of her right thigh, below the hem of her blue gym shorts, that plum-purple oblong the size of her hand?

A bruise.

All the seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade girls trooped in off the marshy Oregon hockey field, filling the gray and gold girls' locker room at Heron Country Day School with warmth and movement, chatter and scents: sweat, deodorant, wet tennis shoes, perfume.

Girls stowed hockey sticks in lockers and changed from their P.E. uniforms into their regular school clothes. In her uniform, with her heavy silver-blonde hair tied back, Susan thought maybe she looked like all the others, enmeshed in the same web of banter and gossip.

That feeling of belonging never lasted.

She sighed, sat down, and took off her sneakers.

The chatter swept over her head as she removed her white short-sleeved uniform shirt and blue shorts, buttoned herself into her crisp white long-sleeved shirt, and zipped her plaid knee-length skirt.

She remembered how the bruise happened: she had run into Pam's hockey stick as Pam raised it to strike the ball.

Pam, tall, strong, always a team captain, her long dark frizzy hair unbound now, had changed from a teammate into Other in khaki slacks, peasant blouse, and sweater. She paused near Susan. "Sue, I'm really sorry."

Susan dropped her hem; it covered the bruise. She smiled at Pam. "That's okay. It was an accident."

"Does it hurt much?"

"Not a bit," said Susan. She never felt pain. She took secret pride in that power. Burns, cuts, scrapes: she watched them blister and bleed with clinical detachment, as if they were happening to someone on television.

"I wish there was something I could do," Pam said.

"Don't worry about it. It was my fault." Susan folded creases into her uniform.

"Well…have a nice weekend." Pam touched Susan's shoulder and walked away, glanced back just before she went out the door.

Susan stored her uniform in her locker, put her sports socks in a plastic bag to take home for the laundry basket. She laid a hand on her sneakers. Life would be lovely if one could live it in sneakers. She was never allowed to wear them at home. Father considered them unfeminine. She sat down, pulled on white knee socks, slid into shiny brown loafers.

By the time she had shrugged herself into her coat, the other girls had left. She looked toward the narrow strip of window that let in distant, clouded October sunlight, and listened to the faint sound of her breathing in the empty space of the locker room. With her eyes shut she sensed the space that opened out around her, not very high above her head, as she stood with her back to the lockers. The linoleum floor made the room feel different from carpeted space.

She leaned back, searching, as she often did, for a way to melt into the walls. This would be a strange but safe place to be part of a building. Girls talking, changing, and teasing for a small fraction of the day. No men except the janitor, who would come alone. So much safer than her house, though the house told her what was going on in it, and she knew where to hide.

She slung her blue cloth school bag over her shoulder, took her umbrella in one hand and her sea stone in the other, and walked toward the door with her eyes shut, listening to the echo of her footsteps between the banks of lockers. Someday she might go blind. She practiced for it.

Outside, the cool, damp coast air closed around her. A light fog had come in as afternoon leaned toward evening. Gym was final period. Everyone else had gone.

Today she was going to the public library to find books or magazines she could check out for her science project. This year she wanted to do a project on home computers. Nobody she knew had one, even though last year, 1981, almost a million and a half home computers had been sold to people in the United States. Susan had never actually seen a home computer except in advertisements. She was pretty sure things would change when everyone had a computer. She just needed to invent a hypothesis about how things would change, and then find somebody, more than one person if possible, who was using a computer, and test her hypothesis. If everybody had a computer, would people talk to each other anymore? Could a computer be your friend? If you had one, was it like opening a door into another world?

She couldn't test those sorts of things, but she could try to measure whether having a computer made a person change. If she could find someone who had a computer.

She had gotten special dispensation from Father to come home from school later than usual so she could research. He always supported her science projects, and had been thinking about getting a computer for his law office.

Instead of turning left at the end of the school driveway, she turned right, toward a part of Guthrie she rarely visited, the downtown part with stores, the movie theater, the DairyMaid, places other kids talked about between classes, places she had never been, or had only been once or twice.

Most days she went straight home to an empty house.

Susan's mother left the house every day she was well enough. Mother had meetings of the bridge club, the garden club, the book club, the watercolor club. On Mondays, she volunteered at the hospital. Every afternoon she stayed away from the house until just before Father came home; then she returned and heated up whatever Juanita, their housekeeper, had left for supper. Father liked the family to be together for supper.

Wednesdays, Susan went shopping at the supermarket with Juanita. Aside from that, Susan spent her afternoons home alone. She did homework. She read. She wasn't supposed to watch television after school. Father liked to decide what she could watch. He forbade nighttime dramas like Dallas, outlawed any viewing of the new TV station MTV, and encouraged her to watch PBS.

Sometimes Susan watched afternoon cartoons, even though they were on the forbidden list. She watched MTV, too. The culture there seemed utterly alien. She also spent hours lost in daydreams about all the things she might do if she were someone else.

Father called a couple of afternoons a week to make sure she was home--but never on the same days. She couldn't count on his not checking, so she always went home after school. If he ever checked and she wasn't there--

Today, with Father's permission, a little adventure. Maybe her quest was futile. Guthrie's public library didn't have many books. Home computers were too new for the library to have books on them, but she didn't care. She'd given herself a gift of time.

The public library was in a small two-story building. It was one place downtown that Susan had been to a lot. Whenever she had a weekend paper for class, her father would drop her off at the library on Saturday and pick her up, or she walked there and back. Father liked it better if he took her, though. He always wanted to know where she was and what she was doing.

Mrs. Garrison sat behind the front desk by the door, looming even though she was short, her hair in tight red curls, her glasses thick, with black frames. Susan had never seen her smile.

"What are you looking for today, missy?" she asked.

Susan smiled, pretended she was Mother, who always behaved like a princess in public. "Do you have any books about computers?"

"Not a blessed one." Mrs. Garrison pursed her lips. "Check the magazines, though. They write more about those infernal machines all the time."

Susan went to the periodicals section, where the most recent issues of magazines were kept. The library had no storage facilities except a shed, where older magazines went to wait for the library's annual sale. She grabbed recent issues of Time and Newsweek and took them upstairs to the nonfiction section, which had tables by the windows between tall, heavy bookcases. Susan had a favorite table, the one farthest from the stairs. From there she could look out at the ocean, imagine her way to the beach.

She got her three-ring binder and a Bic out of her school bag and set up at her table. With lined paper in front of her and pen in hand, she opened the first magazine to the table of contents.

Below, the ocean was gray under a gray sky, and stretched away forever.

Happiness hummed inside her.

She had dropped down into study mind when she was roused half an hour later by the sound of people scraping chairs across linoleum, settling at the table just the other side of the shelves from her.

"We can't do it here," said a gruff girl's voice. "Can't count on being private."

"We have to find a better place," said a boy's voice. "Somewhere no one else will go. At home my little sister snoops all the time."

"Yeah, and my mom's home all afternoon," said the girl.

"I had a great idea during last period," said another boy.

Susan straightened, set her pen down silently. The first two voices she had never heard before, but the third she recognized: Julio, the son of Juanita, the housekeeper. Julio and Juanita were the only real friends Susan had.

She and Julio were both in seventh grade, but Julio went to the public middle school in downtown Guthrie. They had played with each other when Julio's mother first started housekeeping for Susan's family, nine years before. These days they rarely spoke.

"I mean, it's perfect. The haunted house," Julio murmured. "When's the last time you heard of anybody going there? Too many scary stories about it."

The haunted house! Susan had heard stories about it, too, girls muttering tales to scare each other when rain trapped them in study hall during recess. The haunted house was halfway between her house and Heron, at the end of an overgrown side street where no one ever went.

She pressed her hand to her chest. She couldn't feel her heartbeat. She lived in a haunted house, but no one else knew it. What would it be like to go to a house everyone knew was haunted?

"Wow," said the other boy. "That is a great idea. Maybe there's already--"

"Yeah, there's stories. Remember the one Trudie told in comp class?" asked the girl.

"Trudie," said the first boy.

"She's a world-class liar," Julio said, an edge to his voice. Susan had never heard him say anything mean about anyone before.

"Sure," said the girl impatiently. "We know that. We found out the hard way. She sounds so good, though. Everybody always believes her, even though nobody likes her. 'Cause she says stuff that sounds true, and sometimes it is true. She said she knew somebody who went in the haunted house to spend the night on a dare, and when he came out the next morning his hair was all white, and he died a week later. His heart gave out."

"Did she name names?" Julio asked.


"She can't name names, because it never actually happened," said Julio. "She's so full of it."

"But that's good," said the other boy. "If she tells everyone scary stories about it, people will stay away. She'll stay away."

"'Cause maybe there's a good reason to stay away," the girl said, her voice even lower than it had been.

"I vote we check it out," said Julio. "Walk up to the front porch, anyway. While it's still light. Tomorrow's Saturday. We could do it then."

"Right. Tomorrow, early. You're not chicken, are you, Dee?" asked the other boy. His tone was teasing.

"I'm not afraid of anything," said the girl.

Susan touched her fingertips to her wrist. She could never find her pulse. She gave up, shoved her notebook into her school bag and dropped the pen in after it, curled her hand around her sea stone, pushed back her chair with a scraping noise, and stood.

The others quieted. Susan's legs shook. How odd. She peeked around the end of the bookcase. Julio and a strange boy and girl stared her direction.

"Oh," said Julio. "Susan." He wore a black sweatshirt. His brown sugar face paused somewhere between expressions, his black eyes intent.

They hardly spoke anymore. But this was the first time in her memory that he wasn't happy to see her. Then again, she was interrupting their private meeting. If she'd just stayed still, they would never have known she was there.

"We forgot to check for spies. I can't believe we forgot to check!" said the girl, her voice ferocious. She looked wiry and short, with thick untidy brown braids down her back and shaggy bangs over her forehead. Dark brows frowned above her tea brown eyes. Her face was square-jawed. She wore a bright purple rain slicker with red trim.

The other boy had curly light-brown hair. He had an angular jaw and hazel eyes, and he wore jeans and an off-white fisherman's sweater. He frowned at Susan.

"Hi," she said, trying her princess smile.

Julio sat up. "Hi, Susan. These are my friends, Edmund and Deirdre. Guys, my friend Susan."

"She's your friend?" Deirdre asked.


"From where? She doesn't go to Guthrie Middle School."

"My mom works for her mom."

"So how's that--" the girl began.

The other boy stood up and held out a hand. "Hi, Susan."

"Pleased to meet you." Susan shook his hand. He had long fingers, and his palm was dry, his grip firm.

He smiled at her, held her right hand with his right, jiggled his left hand, and snapped his fingers. A red chicken-feather flower appeared in his left hand. He let go of her and offered her the flower.

"Stop that, Edmund! Don't waste magic on her! We're not pleased to meet you," said the girl. "Were you eavesdropping on us?"

"Not on purpose." She took the flower, touched it to her face, stared wonderingly at Edmund. No boy had ever given her a flower before. Besides, he had made it appear from nowhere. Did it mean something special?

The girl's hands tightened into fists on the tabletop. "Yeah. I can't believe what idiots we were! How dumb were we not to check?"

"It's all right," Julio said. "Susan doesn't gossip."

"I won't tell anyone," Susan said. She swallowed, lowered the flower to her side. "But I want to go with you."

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2010

    This is one of my favorite book

    I read this book in high school.I loved it so much i would check it out everyday to finsh reading it.The story was so chilling i would stay up till midnight.For me i would give a 5 star because i never put it down.I just kept on read and read.The more i kept on reading the more it got better and better.But that is my opinion.I hope i can find it the book soon cause i would like to read it aging.

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  • Posted April 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Don't Waste Your Time

    I only made it through chapter 4 and gave up. The story was not well written. Example: the girl finds a skull and plays with it like it's no big thing, she just found a skull! Also the group she is with finds a ghost and is freaked out about it for 2 seconds then their okay?? This story would probably be okay for anybody around 10-14 years of age.

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  • Posted March 26, 2009

    A very interesting book, a must read for almost anyone.

    A Stir of Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a fictional story about a teenage girl named Susan Backstrom with a dark secret. Her wealthy, attentive father beats her mother whenever he disapproves of his daughter's behavior. So everything Susan does is monitored: schoolwork, things she watches on TV, and even the people with whom she associates.
    One day at the library, Susan overhears the housekeeper, Juanita, son Julio with two of his friends, Deirdre and Edmund, talking about a trip they were going to take to the local haunted house. After being discovered eavesdropping, Susan then invites herself along.
    Upon arriving at the house the friends discover a ghost named Nathan, a boy who committed suicide about sixty years earlier. They also realize the house is also a supernatural thing, not dead but alive as they are, and is able to keep people in or out and change the furniture inside of itself. Susan then keeps a bone from Nathan's hand, which seems to make her stronger and less afraid of people.
    Susan bonds with her friends, both living and dead, and ends up spending most of her time at the house with Nathan. After spending Halloween night with him, Susan becomes even closer to the ghostly host. When her father's menacing becomes too much, Susan makes the decision to kill herself, to be with Nathan and House forever. Now her five new friends must prove to her that killing herself is not the way to help her mother.
    Many people can relate to Susan and the pain she has endured. Susan is very real in her problems with her abusive father and being considered an outcast at school. Susan is strong and her friendships with Nathan, Julio, Edmund, Deirdre, and House have made her stronger.
    This story is mostly about how friends are some of the best things you can have. Also it's about courage and how doing the right thing can be the hardest thing to do sometimes. Susan is very brave and real in the way she deals with her problems.
    I thought this book was amazing, and it's one that I will read over and over again! There was not one part of this book that I didn't like. Even though this book is mainly for 12 to 16 year olds, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good story. It shows how strong you need to be when there is no longer an adult to turn to for help.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2006

    Reality meets science fiction

    This book reveals peoples feelings to make the characters feel so real. You feel as if your really in the book. You can hear, feel, and see everthing going on. I could'nt put this book down once I'd really gotten into it. I recommend this to people between the ages of 12-16.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2005

    I Loved It!!!

    I was searching through the book store, bored at finding absoultly nothing to read, and then out of the corner of my eye BONES caught my attention. I picked up the book which I thought had a strange image on the cover, but I knew I had discoverd something very special here. It was slow moving at first, and the whole super-natural thing amazed me, so I kept reading. The end disappointed me, but I would read it and recomend it in a heart beat!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2004

    Slow moving, but also suspensful!

    This book was very slow moving and boring in the beginning. In the end it was very suspensful. I was a little disappointed at Susan because of what she decided to do about her father. But the book is worth reading!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2004

    Not to bad...

    I thought this book was a good read but not really that great. It was very slow-moving and a little bit boring at times but not too bad. In my opinion I thought Susan was too shy with her father and really should have done more about the situation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2004

    Very strange

    This book is a good read, but very odd. Nothing like I had expected when I picked it up. Nevertheless, I liked it and recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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