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With the help of their favorite teacher, two rival clubs, the all-boy Copycats and the all-girl Tattletales, stop trying to out-do each other long enough to help the ghosts of a baby elephant and a herd of mastodons that appear near their small Vermont town.
In the wake of a classroom argument about the existence of ghosts, the Tattletales (girls) gleefully don fright masks and beehive wigs (" `There is nothing quite so terrifying as hairstyles that have gone out of fashion' ") and send the Copycats (boys) fleeing down spooky Hardscrabble Hill in panic, where there are actual ghosts—indistinct mounds that appear at the first sign of peanuts and wander about with a mournful air. With the help of the new boy, Salim Bannerjee, a newly deceased pet mouse named Jeremiah Bullfrog, plus lots of chocolate donuts from the local bakery-cum-auto repair shop, the Copycats divine the source of the mammoths' unhappiness; they ease it with a handy baby elephant ghost that has followed Salim all the way from the Bombay Zoo. Then, using many cans of hair spray, they give the obliging pachyderms new hairstyles to turn the tables on the Tattletales. Maguire's wit sometimes slips its leash, but the climax is sidesplitting and the gender rivalry thoroughly skewered, although the heartwarming ectoplasmic adoption scene prompts a Thanksgiving Day truce between the factions.
"If you ever see a ghost," the boy told his friends in a whisper, "you must do three things. First, pinch yourself to make sure you're awake. Second, pinch the ghost to make sure it's real."
"That's only two things," said someone.
"If it pinches back," said Salim, "the third thing to do is run for your life."
The other boys nodded. It was fun to be in the tree house at sunset, talking about ghosts. No one was scared. You could hear Mr. Grubb hammering on the back porch. A hammer pounding was a nice safe sound.
"But did you ever see a ghost?" asked Sammy Grubb, whose tree house it was.
"Yes," said Salim.
"You're making it up," said Sammy Grubb.
"Oh, I tell the truth," said Salim. "I saw a ghost on the Air India jet coming from Bombay this summer. I had been in the washroom at the rear of the cabin. When I came out, the movie had started. Everyone in the smoking section was lighting up cigarettes."
The other six members of the Copycats club stared at him.
"Just then," Salim continued, "the pilot spoke over the intercom. He said for all passengers to buckle their seat belts. We were flying over the Himalayas, tallest mountains in the world. We were heading straight for turbulent winds."
"And?" said the boys in unison.
"As I stood there, a ghost appeared, formed out of cigarette smoke. It floated in the light from the in-flight video. The ghost made a shadowy shape against the screen, sortof like a legless man with a tapering tail. At first people laughed because they thought it was part of the show. But somebody said, "It's a ghost! And everyone began to scream."
"Then what?" The boys waited breathlessly. Sammy Grubb's mouth opened up so wide that his gum fell out onto the tree house floor. He brushed the dirt off with his thumb and popped the gum back in his mouth. He wasn't scared of a little dirt. Besides, he needed to chew. That's how anxious he was.
Salim went on. "The jet hit an air bump and people screamed again. Chicken curry went globbing through the air, followed by a thousand grains of rice. The ghost stretched out something like a long thick arm, pointing toward the back of the cabin. An old granny screeched, 'We're all going to die!' and then she fainted. But I thought the ghost was pointing at me."
The boys began to wish they had more than a single candle burning in their tree house. The evening was getting a bit too dark, and Mr. Grubb had finished his hammering and gone inside. "Then what?"
"The airplane bucked and stumbled on the currents like a fish flopping around on the bank of a river. The ghost began to swarm over the heads of everyone sitting in economy class. People ducked. I thought I should slip back into one of the washrooms, but they were all occupied. I was trapped!"
"And then?" asked Sammy Grubb, Chief of the Copycats club.
"And then?" echoed the other loyal members, Hector, Stan, Moshe, Mike, and Forest Eugene.
"There was no place to go!"
"When she fainted, the old granny leaned against the buttons in the arm of her seat, and she accidentally rang the bell for the steward. So, ghost or no ghost, an Air India steward came leaping bravely down the aisle. He yelled at me to get to my seat. Then he leaned over the granny to see what she wanted. He thought she was just asleep, so he opened an overhead luggage compartment to find her a complimentary Air India blanket."
"The ghost came floating nearer and nearer. If it was coming for me or the old woman, I couldn't say. But just then the airplane slid into a pothole in the air and everything in the cabin jumped around again: babies, more chicken curry and rice, little airplane pillows, me -- and also the smoky ghost. It was jostled upward into the open overhead luggage compartment. The steward slammed the door shut. Everyone cheered. We had a quiet trip all the way to London, where we had a stopover before changing planes for Boston. But the steward said that nobody should open that overhead compartment until all the passengers were safely off the plane."
"Who do you think the ghost was after? You?" asked Sammy Grubb.
"I don't know," said Salim. "When the granny came to her senses, she began to shriek that it was the ghost of her dead husband coming to haunt her. But when we landed in London her husband met her in the arrival hall, and then she remembered that he wasn't dead yet."
"I wonder where the ghost is now," said Sammy Grubb.
"Who can say?" " said Salim. "Air India flies to many cities. But if a ghost ever shows up, remember the three things I told you to do."
"Number one: Pinch yourself to make sure you're awake," said Sammy Grubb.
"Right," said Salim.
"Number two: Pinch the ghost to make sure it's real," said Sammy Grubb.
"Right," said Salim.
"Number three: If the ghost pinches back," said Sammy Grubb, "run for your life."
"Right," said Salim. "But there's not very far away you can run if you're in an airplane."
Overhead, a jet airliner floated in the inky night the stars. The Vermont woods nearby seemed dense eith shadows and alive with suspicious sounds.
"What's that in the woods?" Sammy Grubb suddenly screamed. "Look! Down there!"
"It's a ghost!" Salim whispered. "Everybody, pinch yourselves!"
They all did. "Ow," said Sammy Grubb.
"Pinch the ghost! said Salim. But nobody threw himself out of the tree house to do it. Down below, the figure in the woods came a little nearer.Six Haunted Hairdos. Copyright © by Gregory Maguire. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.