Shadow Baby [NOOK Book]


Clara first spies him through the crack in the stained-glass window of her church, lighting a string of handmade lanterns in the Adirondack woods. A lone old man, Georg Kominsky moves stealthily among the shadow world of his hanging, glittering creations.

In Alison McGhee's stunning novel Shadow Baby, eleven-year-old Clara is struggling to find the truth about her missing father and grandfather and her twin sister, dead at birth, but her ...
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Shadow Baby

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Clara first spies him through the crack in the stained-glass window of her church, lighting a string of handmade lanterns in the Adirondack woods. A lone old man, Georg Kominsky moves stealthily among the shadow world of his hanging, glittering creations.

In Alison McGhee's stunning novel Shadow Baby, eleven-year-old Clara is struggling to find the truth about her missing father and grandfather and her twin sister, dead at birth, but her mother steadfastly refuses to talk about these people who are lost to her daughter. When Clara begins interviewing Georg Kominsky for a school biography assignment, she finds that he is equally reticent about his own concealed history. Precocious and imaginative, the girl invents version upon version of Mr. Kominsky's past, just as she invents lives for the people missing from her own shadowy past.

The journey of discovery that these two oddly matched people embark upon is at the heart of this beautiful story about friendship and communion, about discovering what matters most in life, and about the search to find the missing pieces of ourselves. McGhee's prose glistens with shrewd truth and wild imaginings, creating a fine novel that will reverberate in the hearts and minds of readers long after the book is finished.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Loss, guilt and regret are conquered and transformed in McGhee's graceful second novel (after Rainlight), a poignant tale of family history regained. Events of her past year are narrated by 12 1/2-year-old Clara winter, who spells her surname with a lowercase "w" as "a rejection of winter, an acknowledgment of what winter really is and how it can kill." Though Clara's mother, Tamar, never speaks about the past, refusing even to name the father and grandfather Clara has never met, Clara knows she was born in a blizzard that probably killed her twin sister. Her grandfather, driving her mother to the hospital from their remote North Sterns home in upstate New York, took the wrong road and ran his truck into a ditch. Stranded, Tamar delivered her own babies, and only Clara survived. Obsessed by her mysterious past, Clara tries to create her own world, reading avidly, writing brilliant school reports on imaginary works, creating story lives for real people. When she meets a solitary old man who hangs his beautiful, hand-crafted lanterns in the dark Adirondack woods, she feels she has found a "compadre." Immigrant metalworker Georg Kominsky also knows the power of winter; as a youth, the lantern he left with his younger brother failed to guide the boy through a deadly snowstorm. Clara becomes Georg's apprentice in "the art of possibility," scavenging with him discarded tin cans he transforms into "objects of light." Gradually, gently, Georg points Clara toward the answers she craves, and teaches her to see beauty in the overlooked and forgotten, even in past tragedy. With a mix of deadpan humor and pathos, McGhee perfectly captures the voice of a sensitive, wise child on the cusp of adulthood, at once knowing and na ve. Agent, Doug Stewart. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Clara Winter, the 12-year-old narrator of this tender coming-of-age tale, was born when the car in which her grandfather was driving her pregnant mother to the hospital crashed. Her twin sister did not survive, and Clara grows up feeling the loss of her sister like the phantom sensation of a lost limb. As Clara tries to make sense of what happened, she finds an unlikely soul mate and guide in Georg Kominsky, an elderly man she interviews for an oral history assignment. Clara soon uncovers the important pieces of his life story, including the tragedy that they have in common--losing a sibling during a cold, harsh winter. Georg drives her to meet her grandfather for the first time, and she prods him to heal his relationship with Clara's mother. When a terrible accident separates the two friends, Clara realizes that Georg has taught her a way of seeing objects in the world that she will continue using. Full of unforgettable, rich characters, McGhee's second novel will move many readers by its beauty and simplicity and by its implicit hopefulness. Highly recommended for all libraries.--Lisa S. Nussbaum, Euclid P.L., OH Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Clara Winter, 11, narrates this flashback about her friendship with elderly Georg Kominsky, an immigrant living in her upstate New York village. Their relationship begins as a school oral-history project, and the two form a bond over hot chocolate and cookie baking. Georg is a good match for Clara, who is anything but an ordinary child. She creates extravagant book reports for nonexistent books and makes up such vivid family history that she forgets it is fantasy. Mr. Kominsky teaches the girl to scavenge for discarded materials to make into useful and beautiful objects, like the intricately patterned lanterns he designs and hangs, lighted, throughout winter for the local people. Through their friendship, the child learns, "the art of possibility; and the possibility of beauty." They also share secrets. Clara yearns for her twin sister who died at birth, and for her grandfather whose mistake caused the twins to be born in a stranded car in a blizzard. Georg had to leave his injured brother in a blizzard on the trip to America and never saw him again. When Georg dies saving Clara from a fire in his trailer, his guidance enables her to talk to her mother about her twin and to bring her grandfather back into their lives. Clara's insights bring both introspection and humor to this skillfully told story about seeing and finding the possibilities in life.-Becky Ferrall, Stonewall Jackson High School, Manassas, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Suspenseful and moving."
New York Times

"This is one of those novels in which the quality of the writing lulls a reader . . . the way beauty does in real life."
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Perfectly constructed and beautifully written.”
The Dallas News
"A feisty little heroine who often seems equal parts Huck Finn, Eloise, and . . . well, maybe Shakespeare's Beatrice-to-be. . . At once witty, tender, funny, touching, and, by the end, tragic in a way that perfectly brings all to a close, if never to an end. Bound for success, or else the world has gone mad." - Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Loss, guilt and regret are conquered and transformed in McGhee's graceful second novel (after Rainlight), a poignant tale of family history regained…With a mix of deadpan humor and pathos, McGhee perfectly captures the voice of a sensitive, wise child on the cusp of adulthood, at once knowing and naïve.” – Publishers Weekly

"At last, a heroine to root for! In this charming novel, Alison McGhee has opened a new window on childhood."
-- Hilma Wolitzer

"Bright, funny, and almost spookily imaginative, Clara, by her own admission, is a student of the laws of nature, an expert in the ways of hermits and pioneers, an 'apprentice' to life. That she is also eleven years old is probably the least important fact about her; she's an old soul. With a mother who doesn't talk and a father who never existed, she manages to fashion a version of her own history that she can live with, at the same time that she chronicles a life for her best friend, Georg Kominsky, a retired metalworker who lives in Nine Mile Trailer Park. Clara, the yarn-spinner, lover of words and of happy endings, takes on the secrets of her past with wit and ferocity. Alison McGhee, with her seductive, almost hypnotic prose, has created a heroine that one simply must love."
--Judith Guest

"McGhee writes about childhood and old age with equal skill and grace. Poignant and bittersweet, her novel has life on every page."
--William Gay

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307462596
  • Publisher: Crown/Archetype
  • Publication date: 9/22/2009
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 601,543
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

ALISON McGHEE has been awarded the Minnesota Book Award and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award for her first novel, Rainlight. This is her second novel. Her short fiction has been published widely in literary magazines. Born and reared in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, she currently lives in Minnesota.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

Now that the old man is gone, I think about him much of the time. I remember the first night I ever saw him. It was March, a year and a half ago. I was watching skiers pole through Nine Mile Woods on the Adirondack Ski Trail, black shapes moving through the trees like shadows or bats flying low. I watched from the churchhouse as my mother, Tamar, and the rest of the choir practiced in the Twin Churches sanctuary.

        That was my habit back then. I was an observer and a watcher.

        When the choir director lifted her arm for the first bar of the first hymn, I left and walked through the passageway that leads from the sanctuary to the churchhouse. The light that comes through stained-glass windows when the moon rises is a dark light. It makes the colors of stained glass bleed into each other in the shadows. A long time ago one of the Miller boys shot his BB gun through a corner of the stained-glass window in the back, near the kitchen. No one ever fixed it. The custodian cut a tiny piece of clear glass and puttied it into the broken place. I may be the only person in the town of Sterns, New York, who still remembers that there is one stained-glass window in a corner of the Twin Churches churchhouse that is missing a tiny piece of its original whole.

        It's gone. It will never return.

        That first night, the first time I ever saw the old man, I dragged a folding chair over to that window and stood on it so I could look through the tiny clear piece of patch-glass onto the sloping banksof the Nine Mile Woods. Down below you can see Nine Mile Creek, black and glittery. You would never want to fall into it even though it's only a few feet deep.

        I watched the old man in the woods that night. He held fire in his bare hands. That's what it looked like at first, before I realized it was an extralong fireplace match. Tamar and I do not have a fireplace but still, I know what an extralong fireplace match looks like. I watched the old man for what seemed like two hours, as long as the choir took to practice. The moonlight turned him into a shadow amongst the trees, until a small flame lit up a few feet from the ground. The small flame rose in the air and swung from side to side, swinging slower and slower until it stopped. Then I saw that it was a lantern, hung in a tree. An old-time kind of lantern, with candlelight flickering through pierced-tin patterns. I knew about that kind of lantern. It was a pioneer lantern.

        You might wonder how I knew about lanterns. You might wonder how a mere girl of eleven would have in-depth knowledge of pierced-tin pioneer lanterns.

        Let me tell you that a girl of eleven is capable of far more than is dreamt of in most universes.

        To the casual passerby a girl like me is just a girl. But a girl of eleven is more than the sum of her age. Although it is not often stated, she is already living in her twelfth year; she has entered into the future.

        The first night I saw him the old man was lighting up the woods for the skiers. First one lantern hung swinging in the tree, then another flame hung a few trees farther down. I stood on my folding chair and peeked through the clear patch-glass on the stained-glass window. Three lanterns lit, and four. Six, seven, eight. Nine, and the old man was done. I watched his shadow move back to the toboggan he had used to drag the lanterns into Nine Mile Woods. He picked up the toboggan rope, he put something under his arm, and he walked through the woods to Nine Mile Trailer Park, pulling the toboggan behind him. The dark shapes of skiers flitted past. The old man kept walking.

        I watched from my folding chair inside the churchhouse. In the light from the lanterns I could see each skier saluting the old man as he walked out of the woods. A pole high in the air, then they were gliding on past.

        He never waved back.

        I pressed my nose against the clear patch of glass and then the folding chair collapsed under me and I crashed to the floor. My elbow hurt so much that despite myself I cried. I dragged over another chair and climbed up again. But by then the old man was gone.

The old man lived in Sterns and I live in North Sterns. A lot of us in North Sterns live in the woods. You could call a girl like me a woods girl. That could be a name for someone like me, who lives in the woods but who could not be considered a pioneer. Pioneer children lived in days gone by.

        I started at Sterns Elementary, I am now in Sterns Middle, and in three years I will be at Sterns High. So has, and does, and will everyone else in my class. CJ Wilson, for example. CJ Wilson's bullet-shaped head, his scabbed fingers, the words that come leaking from his mouth, I have known all my life. Were it not for CJ Wilson, and the boys who surround him, I might have been a different kind of person in school. I might have been quicker to talk, faster to raise my hand. I might have been picked first for field hockey. I might have walked down the middle of the hallway instead of close to the lockers. I might have been known as a chattery girl. I might have had a nickname.

        Who's to say? Who's to know?

        Jackie Phillips wet her pants in kindergarten. We were in gym class. Jumping jacks. I looked to my right, where Jackie Phillips was jumping kitty-corner from me, and saw a puddle below her on the polished gym floor. A dark stain on her blue shorts.

        Six years later, what do the students of Sterns Middle School think of when they think about Jackie Phillips? Do they think, Captain of Mathletics, Vice-President of

4-H, science lab partner of Bernie missing-his-right-thumb Hauser, Jackie Phillips whose hair turns green in summer from the chlorine at Camroden Pool, Jackie Phillips who's allergic to strawberries?

        They might. But they will also think: Jackie Phillips wet her pants in kindergarten while everyone was doing jumping jacks. That's the way it is.

        Does everyone look at me and think, Clara Winter who loathes and despises snow and cold, who lives with her mother The Fearsome Tamar in North Sterns, whose eyes can look green or gray or blue, depending, who has never met her father or her grandfather, who has represented Sterns Elementary at every state spelling bee since first grade, whose hair could be called auburn, who loves books about days gone by? Clara Winter who saw that Jackie had wet her pants in gym class and so stopped jumping jacks and ran out of line and tried but failed to wipe up the spill surreptitiously with a used tissue before anyone else would notice? Is that what they think?

        They do, and they do not.
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Reading Group Guide

1. One of the underlying themes in Shadow Baby is art, what it is, the people who make it, the people who appreciate it. (Think about, for example, Clara's soliloquy on book reports vs. actual books.) Clara believes that the old man has taught her the "art of possibility, and the possibility of beauty." What do you think the book is saying about the process of creating art? What are your own feelings on that subject?

2. In many ways the novel is a study in opposites. For example, Clara lives for words, while the old man is illiterate. In what ways do such contrasts serve to illuminate and deepen Clara's understanding of life?

3. In what ways do Clara's fake book reports mirror her world? In what ways do they represent her inner psyche? Why does she burn them all up in the end?

4. Shadow Baby opens with this line, "Now that the old man is gone, I think about him much of the time." Clara is twelve years old as she narrates the book, looking back on the past year of her life. Because she is still very young, she is not capable of having a long perspective of time, yet the book ends with this line, "But I was a child then." Think about other fictional child narrators, e.g., Holden Caulfield in A Catcher in the Rye and Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little House books, and discuss the events behind their transition into adulthood. Compare and contrast to Clara's.

5. Clara's mother Tamar practices weekly in a church choir. Yet Tamar never attends church, nor do the old man or Clara. Is there nonetheless some religious significance in the book?

6. What is the significance of the title?

7. While it is true that the mother-daughter relationship in the novel is difficult, did youfind it believable and real? Why does Tamar refuse to answer Clara's questions?

8. To Clara, "real life" is often indistinguishable from her fantasy life. What purpose does her wild imagination serve?

9. The story of Clara's relationship with CJ Wilson is intertwined with the story of her chickens. How do the two stories both reflect and enlarge each other?

10. In the book, one person looks at a dented tin can and sees garbage, another looks at the same can and sees the possibility of beauty in the form of a lantern or cookie cutters. How does the book play with ideas of how individual ways of seeing influence one's experience of the world?

11. Clara is obsessed with pioneers, their stories of incredible hardship and triumph over adversity. Can the book in some ways be viewed as a metaphor (or possibly an anti-metaphor) for the traditional American mythology surrounding its immigrant past?

12. Think about the opening scene of the book, in which Clara glimpses the old man hanging lanterns in the woods. Think about the ending scene, in which she is burning her fake book reports in the snow. How do these two scenes, which 'bookend' the novel, mirror each other? What do they tell us about how Clara has changed in the interim?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2013

    Worth reading

    I think I would have liked her

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2011

    Great book

    I love the way the book is miserious

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  • Posted September 10, 2011

    Very interesting and thought provoking.

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Posted September 10, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This is a terrific tale of lost souls finding one another

    During a blizzard in Upstate New York, Tamar Winter's father rushes his pregnant daughter to the hospital. However, he makes a wrong turn in the extremely poor driving conditions and ends up in a ditch. Tamar gives birth to twins by herself, but one dies.

    Twelve plus years later the surviving twin Clara winter, with a small w surname because she loathes the season of her birth, wonders whether her dead sister could have lived if they made it to the hospital and who her father and grandfather are; her mom refuses to talk about that incident or anything related to the past. Feeling isolated and perhaps a bit guilty for surviving, Clara makes up stories about people she knows. When she meets lonely elderly immigrant metalworker Georg Kominsky as he hangs up his hand-crafted lanterns in the woods, she feels they are soulmates. He too knows the power of winter when the lantern he gave his younger brother failed during a snowstorm leading to his death. Georg mentors Clara on turning throwaways into beautiful objects and to welcome her grandfather into her life; in turn the tweener hopes to reconcile her mother and her grandfather.

    This is a terrific tale of lost souls finding one another with tragedies leaving survivors mentally fractured. Character driven with a strong lead youngster and solid support from her mom, her new BFF and her grandfather make for a fully developed well written story line as the key players bring angst, sadness and a need to help one another move on especially past the blame, regret and remorse.

    Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2007

    Shadow Baby

    The book started out great, don't get me wrong, but the book ended with so many open strings that it was just frustrating!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2007

    Another one for the top ten

    The main character was entirely engaging. The plot was intriguing and had just enough of the unreliable narrator to keep me wondering what was real and what was not. Mcghee's control of voice was excellent. She never stepped out of character and made me remember that this was an adult writing as an adolescent. This book doesn't bump my all time top favorites, but it did head the list for 2006. It definitely made the Christmas gift list for those with whom I share the good ones.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2006

    Candle light blowing

    This is a lovely story, that I think every one can relate to, and every one loves and adores. I'm only still young, so my spelling might not be correct, but I do know a good book when I see it. Clara isn't faced with problems and questions that she wont find the answers to. This is splendidly writen, and captures you and you don't let go of it untill you finish it. It captures your heart, and is so vibrant of love, hatred, and passion, you can't not read it! ~Brittany

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2004

    Loved this book

    The author has a unique ability to create poignancy while maintaining humor. I love books that speak from a child's point of view without being cliche. McGhee is an artist at the top of her form in this book. Very endearing and moving without too much sappiness.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2004

    Not my typical book...

    I wasn't expecting to like this book. My mother loaned it to me thinking I would appreciate it's narrative style, more so than it's story and characters. Both of us were wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, once I started I couldn't put it down and read it over two slow days at work. Stylistically the book is handled well. Allison McGhee is an accomplished writer. The story she crafts, however, is something entirely astounding. It is heartfelt, sincere, never overwrought or sentimental, and yet it is a sad, charming and sweet tale that took me completely by surprise.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2004

    A Wonderful Book

    A beautifully written and poignant novel. The character of Clara will stay with me for a long, long time. That is what I believe to be true.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2003

    3 Cheers for Clara winter!

    I bought this book when it was picked for the Today Show book club. I loved it! The writing is beautiful and the characters are hilarious and touching too. I highly recommend this one!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2002

    Brilliance in a Feared Snowflake: Metaphysics at Eleven

    A year after the main few but significant, events of "Shadow Baby," narrator Clara "winter" turns twelve and tells her story. So little of the epic here: an old-man befriended, a mother struggling, poverty everywhere. Clara has so little, yet sees so much, the reader doesn't think how poor she is until two-thirds through this splendid second novel, with a third listed online. So little, yet so much grandeur. Clara sees (like Joseph Conrad) so much and tells real stories and imagined ones, without ever confusing the two. McGhee evokes a snow-diamond brilliance: from the unpromising woods of upstate New York. That brilliance reflected in and through the funny and oh-so-smart mind of her remarkable character. Eschewing, or rendering without capital letters, those without last names, but caught up with them (as in twinsister, or father, or grandpa the hermit), Clara creates complexity in a feared snowflake. The simple compulsion of the story moves ahead, from joy and expectation to metaphysics and existentialism (why are we here?). Clara's answer, as learned during her eleventh year: to take the next step, approach the next possibility. "You only need one," Georg, the Immigrant," --as she titles her book report--says. "With two, you're lucky, indeed." Readers get a basketfull. Clara's simply a dream, a "real" dream: everything about her to love and want to know more.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2013

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