Ghost Boy

Ghost Boy

4.1 11
by Iain Lawrence

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Harold Kline is an albino—an outcast. Folks stare and taunt, calling him Ghost Boy. It’s been that way for all of his 14 years. So when the circus comes to town, Harold runs off to join it.

Full of colorful performers, the circus seems like the answer to Harold’s loneliness. He’s eager to meet the Cannibal King, a sideshow attraction who&

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Harold Kline is an albino—an outcast. Folks stare and taunt, calling him Ghost Boy. It’s been that way for all of his 14 years. So when the circus comes to town, Harold runs off to join it.

Full of colorful performers, the circus seems like the answer to Harold’s loneliness. He’s eager to meet the Cannibal King, a sideshow attraction who’s an albino, too. He’s touched that Princess Minikin and the Fossil Man, two other sideshow curiosities, embrace him like a son. He’s in love with Flip, the pretty and beguiling horse trainer, and awed by the all-knowing Gypsy Magda. Most of all, Harold is proud of training the elephants, and of earning respect and a sense of normalcy. Even at the circus, though, two groups exist—the freaks, and everyone else. Harold straddles both groups. But fitting in comes at a price, and Harold must recognize the truth beneath what seems apparent before he can find a place to call home.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This touching novel, [set a few years after World War II], will speak especially to readers who consider themselves different, flawed, or misunderstood.”
School Library Journal, Starred
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Lawrence seamlessly shifts from the open sea (The Wreckers; The Smugglers) to landlubber territory with this tale of an albino boy who runs off to join the circus. Although the novel's premise may be familiar, there is nothing conventional about the author's portrayal of this taunted hero growing up in a post-WWII America. In lyrical prose, the narrative probes the isolation and alienation of 14-year-old Harold, better known as "Ghost Boy." As the novel opens, Harold awaits a train that does not stop (two years after the war, he still hopes his brother will be on it), when the Old Indian from Hunter and Green's Circus approaches him, posing as an exotic lure. With his father and brother both claimed by the war, his mother remarried to a banker, and the townspeople tormenting him because of his looks ("From the soles of his feet to the top of his head, his skin was like rich white chocolate, without a freckle anywhere"), Harold dreams of heading west. The circus provides his ticket out. Depicting the circus as a microcosm of society, Lawrence effectively conveys the universal desire for acceptance and approval. His knowledge of the big top and insight into humanity add depth to his writing as do vibrant images of circus life and razor-sharp characterizations (e.g., the tiny Princess Minikin, fur-covered Samuel the "Fossil Man" and the compassionate Gypsy Magda, a Holocaust survivor). This poignant adventure invites readers to look beyond others' outer appearances and into their souls. Ages 12-up. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
An albino boy runs off to find comfort among the members of a circus troupe in post-WWII America. In a starred review, PW wrote, "This poignant adventure invites readers to look beyond others' outer appearances and into their souls." Ages 12-up. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Wherever fourteen-year-old Harold goes, people point and jeer, calling him "ghost boy" and "maggot." Harold is an albino, and in small-town Liberty, on the Canadian prairies, he stands out, although he wishes to be invisible. Then the circus comes to town—and Harold runs off to join it. He is thrilled to be taken under the wings of Princess Minikin, a motherly midget, and her kind but hideously hairy friend the Fossil Man. The prescient Gypsy Magda and the Indian legends of Thunder Wakes Him Up fascinate him. He eagerly anticipates meeting the Cannibal King, another albino. But Harold longs to be normal, not one of the "freaks" of the circus, and when Flip, an attractive and flirtatious bareback rider, offers him a chance to work with the elephants, Harold is eager to prove his worth and impress her. This leads to both triumph and tragedy; against the odds Harold teaches the huge beasts to play baseball and then an accident on the ball field strikes down someone he cares for. Harold learns to look for what lies beneath people's surfaces, and he returns home changed and wiser. Lawrence, the author of The Wreckers and its companion The Smugglers, draws on his childhood in Western Canada here, and he creates a weird and wonderful portrait of a ragtag circus traveling across the prairies just after WW II, of performers tinged with strange sorrows, of a lonely boy desperately seeking a place he belongs. No one is quite what they first appear to be, and Harold's exotic experiences are a backdrop to his hard-won understanding of himself and those around him. Readers will suffer and celebrate along with Harold, and like him come away with somewhat more of an idea of what exteriors, bothfreakish and normal, can conceal. KLIATT Codes: J—Recommended for junior high school students. 2000, Random House/Delacorte, 328p, $15.95. Ages 13 to 15. Reviewer: Paula Rohrlick; September 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 5)
They mockingly call the boy with skin as colorless as white chocolate, "Ghost Boy" or "Maggot" or "Whitey." For fourteen-year-old albino Harold Kline, there is no escaping the cruelty in his post-World War II midwestern hometown. His loneliness is compounded by knowing that his father is a war fatality and his beloved brother is listed as MIA. His mother nags him, and his new stepfather sets limitations. When the traveling circus comes to town, Harold sees a chance to escape from a bleak future. He begins a serendipitous journey in search of a place to belong. Immediately welcomed by sideshow attractions Princess Minikin, Fossil Man, and Gyspy Magda, Harold finds acceptance and family. With Flip, the beautiful horse trainer, he experiences the wonder of unrequited love. Discovering his resourcefulness, Harold trains circus elephants to play baseball, earning admiration and respect from all. Yet, oddly, he feels that he belongs with neither the freaks nor the "normal" members of the company. Ultimately, only the solace offered by meeting with the Cannibal King, an albino sideshow performer, and the wisdom of the Gypsy psychic, Magda, help him to rouse the man within him and to discover his self-worth. Using the lure of life "under the big top" that strikes every child, Lawrence presents a myriad of colorful characters in this study of the complexities of human nature. Themes of acceptance, rejection, love, betrayal, deception, and loneliness abound. One aches with Harold as he yearns to shed his skin, falsely believing that the world forever will view him solely on his physical appearance. Through self-examination and personal growth, he realizes the truth of Magda's words, "If you thinkyou are less than them, can you blame them for thinking that they are better?" This well-written novel is sure to please the young adult reader, and booktalking certainly will increase circulation. VOYA CODES: 5Q 3P J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2000, Random House, 327p, $15.95. Ages 13 to 18. Reviewer: Cheryl Karp Ward

SOURCE: VOYA, December 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 5)

School Library Journal
Gr 5-9-This sequel to The Wreckers (1998) and The Smugglers (1999, both Delacorte) is another fast-paced, swashbuckling maritime adventure in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson, and another sure winner. John Spencer, now 17, is sailing aboard the schooner Dragon to Jamaica. Although his father has warned him of pirates and cannibals, John is hardly prepared for the harrowing series of events that seem to begin when the ship picks up a mysterious seaman adrift in a lifeboat. Is Horn a curse or a guardian angel? At points in the story, John is separated from his shipmates, stranded on an island, marooned on a ghost ship manned by corpses, and chased by sharks. The crew's bouts with malaria leave John in charge of sailing the ship back to London, even though he has little knowledge of navigation and a bent sextant. Lawrence brings the trilogy full circle, as the young man arrives at the Tombstones in Cornwall, where The Wreckers began. Vivid nautical details are expertly woven into a cliff-hanging narrative peopled by the most colorful of scurrilous scalawags. Lawrence's style is rich in imagery. He is particularly adept at evoking landscapes that nearly take on the stature of characters in the novel. This story will be gobbled up by readers of the first books in the trilogy; others will be drawn in by the great jacket painting of a pirate ship in the high seas. A sailor's yarn not to be missed.-Connie Tyrrell Burns, Mahoney Middle School, South Portland, ME Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fourteen-year-old Harold Kline is an albino and thus an outcast in his small-minded community. Everyone in the town ridicules him, including his own stepfather. His father was killed in WWII; his older brother is missing in action. When a small traveling circus comes to town, Harold runs away from his unhappy life to join it. There, he meets an amazing cast of characters who offer him love and belonging: an Indian; a tiny Princess; the enormous Fossil Man; a gypsy, who has survived the Holocaust; and another albino. Among this unlikely group, Harold begins to find the friendship he has been longing for. He learns to work with the elephants and takes pride in his new skill. When he does return home, he is able to see his grieving mother and harsh stepfather in a new light and accept that his brother is truly gone. Lawrence has worked his magic with what could have been a commonplace story; his prose is near poetry, his characterizations, as usual, fascinating and unique. But, it is the ache of Harold's longing to be a part of something and the gift that these odd circus people offer that sets this coming-of-age road story apart from the average YA novel. In his earlier work (The Smugglers, 1999; The Wreckers, 1998), Lawrence's characters were colorful and well-defined; now they stand for looking beyond their picturesque or off-beat qualities and into the depths of their real beauty. Memorable in every way. (Fiction. YA)

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
Reprinted Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.74(d)
Age Range:
12 - 13 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

It was the hottest day of the year. Only the Ghost was out in the sun, only the Ghost and his dog. They shuffled down Liberty's main street with puffs of dust swirling at their feet, as though the earth was so hot that it smoldered.

It wasn't yet noon, and already a hundred degrees. But the Ghost wore his helmet of leather and fur, a pilot's helmet from a war that was two years over. It touched his eyebrows and covered his ears; the straps dangled and swayed at his neck.

He was a thin boy, white as chalk, a plaster boy dressed in baggy clothes. He wore little round spectacles with black lenses that looked like painted coins on his eyes. And he stared through them at a world that was always blurred, that sometimes jittered across the darkened glass. From the soles of his feet to the top of his head, his skin was like rich white chocolate, without a freckle anywhere. Even his eyes were such a pale blue that they were almost clear, like raindrops or quivering dew.

He glanced up for only a moment. Already there was a scrawl of smoke to the west, creeping across the prairie. But the Ghost didn't hurry; he never did. He hadn't missed a single train in more than a hundred Saturdays.

He turned the corner at the drugstore, his honey-colored dog behind him. They went down to the railway tracks and the little station that once had been a sparkling red but now was measled by the sun. At three minutes to noon he sat on the bench on the empty platform, and the dog crawled into the shadows below it.

The Ghost put down his stick and his jar, then dabbed at the sweat that trickled from the rim of his helmet. The top of it was black with sweat, in a circle like a skullcap.

The scrawl of smoke came closer. It turned to creamy puffs. The train whistled at Batsford's field, where it started around the long bend toward Liberty and on to the Rattlesnake. The Ghost lifted his head, and his thin pale lips were set in a line that was neither a frown nor a smile.

"It's going to stop," he told his dog. "You bet it will."

Huge and black, pistons hissing steam, the engine came leaning into the curve. It pulled a mail car and a single coach in a breathy thunder, a shriek of wheels. It rattled the windows in the clapboard station, shedding dust from the planks. The bench jiggled on metal legs.

"I know it's going to stop," said the Ghost.

But it didn't. The train roared past him in a blast of steam, in a hot whirl of wind that lashed the helmet straps against his cheeks. And on this Saturday in July, as he had every other Saturday that he could possibly remember, Harold the Ghost blinked down the track and sighed the saddest little breath that anyone might ever hear. Then he picked up his stick and his jar and struck off for the Rattlesnake River.

The stick was his fishing pole, and he carried it over his shoulder. A string looped down behind him, with a wooden bobber swinging at his knees. The old dog came out from the shade and followed him so closely that the bobber whacked her head with a hollow little thunk. But the dog didn't seem to mind; she would put up with anything to be near her master.

They climbed back to Main Street and trudged to the east, past false-fronted buildings coated with dust. The windows were blackboards for children's graffiti, covered with Kilroy faces and crooked hearts scribbled with names: Bobby Loves Betty; Betty Loves George; No One Loves Harold. And across the wide front window of May's Cafe was a poem in slanting lines:

He's ugly and stupid He's dumb as a post He's a freak and a geek He's Harold the Ghost.

In the shade below the window sat a woman on a chair with spindly legs, beside a half-blind old man with spindly legs sitting in a rocker. Harold glanced at them and heard the woman's voice from clear across the street. "There he goes," she said. "I never seen a sadder sight."

He couldn't hear the old man's question, only the woman's answer. "Why, that poor albino boy."

The man mumbled; she clucked like a goose. "Land's sakes! He's going to the river, of course. Down where the Baptists go. Where they dunk themselves in the swimming hole."

His head down, his boots scuffing, Harold passed from the town to the prairie. The buildings shrank behind him until they were just a brown-and-silver heap. And in the huge flatness of the land he was a speck of a boy with a speck of a dog behind him. He walked so slowly that a tumbleweed overtook him, though the day was nearly calm. In an hour he'd reached the Rattlesnake.

In truth it was no more of a river than Liberty was a city. The Rattlesnake didn't flow across the prairie; it crawled. It went like an ancient dog on a winding path, keeping to the shade when it could. But it was the only river that Harold Kline had ever seen, and he thought it rather grand. He splashed his way along the stream, a quarter mile down the river, until he reached his favorite spot, where the banks were smooth and grassy. Then he sat, and the dog lay beside him. He put a worm on his hook and cast out the bobber. It plunged in, popped out, tilted and straightened, like a little diver who'd found the river too cold. A pair of water striders dashed over to have a look at it, and dashed away again.

The dog was asleep in an instant. She hadn't run more than a yard in more than a year, but she dreamed about running now, her legs twitching.

"Where are you off to?" asked Harold the Ghost. His voice was soft as smoke. "You're off to Oregon, I bet. You're running through the forests, aren't you? You're running where it's cool and shady, you poor old thing." He looked up at the sun, a hot white smudge in his glasses.

The dog went everywhere Harold did. It seemed only natural to him that she would dream of the places he dreamed about.

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