White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway | Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
White Ghost Girls

White Ghost Girls

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by Alice Greenway

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Summer 1967. The turmoil of the Maoist revolution is spilling over into Hong Kong and causing unrest as war rages in neighboring Vietnam. White Ghost Girls is the story of Frankie and Kate, two American sisters living in a foreign land in a chaotic time. With their war-photographer father off in Vietnam, Marianne, their beautiful but remote mother, keeps the family


Summer 1967. The turmoil of the Maoist revolution is spilling over into Hong Kong and causing unrest as war rages in neighboring Vietnam. White Ghost Girls is the story of Frankie and Kate, two American sisters living in a foreign land in a chaotic time. With their war-photographer father off in Vietnam, Marianne, their beautiful but remote mother, keeps the family close by. Although bound by a closeness of living overseas, the sisters could not be more different — Frankie pulses with curiosity and risk, while Kate is all eyes and ears. Marianne spends her days painting watercolors of the lush surroundings, leaving the girls largely unsupervised, while their Chinese nanny, Ah Bing, does her best to look after them. One day in a village market, they decide to explore — with tragic results. In Alice Greenway’s exquisite gem of a novel, two girls tumble into their teenage years against an extraordinary backdrop both sensuous and dangerous. This astonishing literary debut is a tale of sacrifice and solidarity that gleams with the kind of intense, complicated love that only exists between sisters.

Editorial Reviews

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In the tradition of The Diary of Anne Frank, Greenway demonstrates that not even the most difficult situations can quell the yearnings of young adolescents. Not familial discord. Not the strange surroundings of expatriate life in China. Not political upheaval or the Vietnam War, replete with exploding bombs and bodies floating in nearby waters.

This eloquent debut novel takes place in 1967 in Hong Kong, where two teenage sisters -- Kate, the sensitive and cautious narrator, and Frankie, her older, more daring sister -- explore all that is sensual and chaotic in the foreign world they inhabit. Ah Bing, their Chinese nanny, hates men and calls the two girls houh hau (whores) when they disobey. Their mother has lost control over them and fears that her husband, an intrepid photojournalist covering the American war in Vietnam, will not return.

But their world is also one of astonishing beauty, which Greenway describes in sheer poetry. A deaf boy watches Kate and brings her a purple sea snail as a love offering; Frankie and Kate, the gwaimui (little white ghosts), compete for love and share secrets, risking everything in the process. A heartbreaking account of love and loss, of memory and homesickness, of war and devastation, White Ghost Girls is an unforgettable story told in bold and graceful prose. (Spring 2006 Selection)
Vendela Vida
Greenway employs brevity and marmoreal prose, trusting the reader to fill in the relevant facts — something many first-time novelists lack the courage to do. This is a brave and artful book, not less powerful for its economy, but perhaps even more so because of it.
— The New York Times
Judy Fong Bates
White Ghost Girls is a gut-wrenching exploration of the complexities of sisterly love, delivered with vividness and poignancy. As you close the book, you will find yourself -- like the narrator -- haunted by events of a summer long ago.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
For all its dreamy lyricism, this debut novel about two teenaged American sisters growing up in Hong Kong one summer boasts a satisfyingly complicated plot and a devastating conclusion. While their father is away photographing the war in Vietnam for Time magazine, 13-year-old Kate, the book's now adult narrator, and her big sister, Frances, revel in the simple life of Pok Fu Lam village. They swim in the harbor, dive for sea slugs and urchins, and listen to housekeeper Ah Bing's intense folk wisdom. ("Having babies is hard and sore," she tells them. "If you die, your spirit will sit in a pool of blood.") Their mother, on the other hand, spends her time pining for their absent father and painting watercolors that picture grassy western knolls. As Frances grows wilder that summer, Kate is forced to look more closely at their father's growing addiction to war reporting and their mother's lack of engagement with her surroundings and her family. Meanwhile, Vietnam, the Maoist cultural revolution and Frances's budding adulthood all threaten the "shipwrecked" sisters' intimacy. Along with death and sex, Greenway makes the illicit excitement of war and the sisters' opposing natures inextricably entwined. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
The bond of sisters is forever. In this debut novel, Alice Greenway creates a story where everyone is sure to be moved. Pulled in from the very first page, we are introduced to the narrator, twelve-year-old Kate. She is living in Hong Kong during the Vietnam war—the summer of 1967. Her experiences with her vibrant sister Frankie lace the plot of this novel. Their father is a photographer for Time magazine. He takes pictures of war—of dead people, explosions, violence, peace, communism, and the unknown. His darkroom holds the secrets to what is happening and Kate and Frankie try to put the pictures together. Their mother placidly paints and withdraws from the events. Fish, a deaf boy who loves Kate, is one of the subplots in the story. A fisherman is around when they witness some of war's devastation. Their Chinese nanny, Ah Bing, takes them to the market one day where the girls get to experience the reality of war. The girls are caught up in a deadly demonstration and their fate is in question. A boy and a mother are killed, and Kate feels guilty. Frankie's life changes dramatically, and Kate is unable to rescue her. What ultimately rips them apart may leave one in tears. The themes are universal and timeless. This novel can easily be read in one sitting. Once read, it will change the way one looks at two sisters and possibly at war. 2006, Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic, Ages 14 up.
—Kelly Grebinoski
Library Journal
American teenagers Frankie and Kate are living in Hong Kong with their mother and nanny. It is 1967, and their photographer father is on assignment in Vietnam. Although he visits every six weeks, he is so caught up in the war that he pays little attention to his family. His wife, similarly distracted, spends her days painting landscapes of the lush environment. Not surprisingly, the girls crave parental attention and scheme to get it, their efforts taking them to places and introducing them to people both dangerous and tempting. Their intense bond, which draws them together while pitting them against each other, is brilliantly wrought, as is the era's political upheaval, which comes into sharp focus as the pair struggles to delineate friend from foe. As Frankie and Kate proceed to unravel life's rhythm and mysteries, Hong Kong itself becomes a third character. Greenway, an American reared in Asia and the Middle East, has created a compelling, heartbreaking, and original first novel. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Kate and Frankie are American girls growing up in Hong Kong during the summer of 1967. Their father, a war photographer for Time magazine, can visit from Vietnam only sporadically. In the political turbulence of Mao's China and the United States's involvement in Vietnam, Hong Kong is hardly a safe haven, and their mother, overwhelmed by reality, retreats into the isolation of her painting. The sisters are supervised primarily by their amah, and when they decide to escape Ah Bing's watchful eye and explore the marketplace on their own, the consequences are devastating and far-reaching. As the summer progresses, Frankie becomes more and more reckless, and Kate must confront her ambivalence about her role as keeper of secrets and protector for her older sister. The author does a lovely job of exploring their relationship. Her sensuous prose evokes lush landscapes and languid afternoons. She masterfully interweaves peaceful physical beauty with the savage turmoil of war and paints an enthralling picture of the different ways that each family member responds to encroaching chaos. Despite the relatively short length of the novel, it is not a choice for reluctant readers, but teens who are interested in a different perspective on the Vietnam War era and enjoy being immersed in Eastern culture will find much to appreciate in Greenway's first novel.-Kim Dare, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An auspicious debut sensitively and impressionistically evokes adolescent turmoil in Vietnam War-era Hong Kong. Short, overlapping chapters give voice to Kate, the younger and more fearful of two sisters whose father, a photographer for Time magazine, is on assignment in Vietnam. His regular trips back to the family in Hong Kong cause a rivalry to develop among the girls and their mother for his attention. While he's away, Kate and Frankie run wild, exploring, swimming and absorbing the local culture under the cool gaze of their amah, a combination of nanny and housekeeper. Ah Bing, a tough survivor of communist China, calls her charges gwaimui-white ghost girls-with affectionate mockery. One day they are caught up in a pro-Red Guard demonstration, and Frankie is kidnapped; her captors force Kate to carry a bag they claim is "full of lychees" to a nearby police boat. It contains a bomb that kills a woman and burns a child. Kate's complicated emotions involving her family are additionally burdened by these events, which blossom in her imagination. She feels guilty about a possible sexual assault on Frankie and complicit in something akin to the guerilla missions of the Viet Cong. The story harbors multiple layers of violence and fatalism. An early vision of a bloated body surfacing in Hong Kong waters suggests the encroaching menace of the communists. Kate's father is in constant peril as he works, photographing horrors in a country he loves. Eventually, danger bursts into the foreground as Frankie's behavior grows ever wilder. Her intensity has already become too much for Kate, whose need to break free is fulfilled at a price that will haunt her memories. Greenway vividly conjures up thefears, passions and fantasies of a teenager against a heart-rending political background. Assured, sensuous and brilliantly colored.

Product Details

ISIS Large Print Books
Publication date:
Isis Hardcover Series
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


What can you give me? Can you give me a back alley, a smoke-filled temple where white-hooded mourners burn offerings and wail for the dead? The single chime of a high-pitched temple bell? The knocking of a wooden fish?

Can you give me hot rain, mould-streaked walls, a sharpness that creeps into my clothes, infests my books? The smells of dried oysters, clove hair oil, tiger balm, joss burning to Kuan Yin in the back room of a Chinese amah? The feverish shriek of cicadas, the cry of black-eared kites? The translucent green of sun shining through elephant ear leaves?

Can you give me a handful of coloured silk? An empty pack of cigarettes? A tape recorder? Narrow, stepped streets, balconies hung with shop signs, laundry strung on bamboo poles, rattan birdcages? A ripened pomelo split open? The chalky bone of cuttlefish?

Can you give me my father's hand in mine, Frankie's in the other? Then take everything and go away?

Because if you can't, it's not enough. And if you can, I might leave anyhow. I'll head for cover. Disappear in jungles of triple canopy.

~ ~ ~

Out in the harbour, at the end of summer, fishermen feed the hungry ghosts. They float paper boats shaped like junks and steamships. One is double-prowed like the cross-harbour Star Ferry which plies its way back and forth between Hong Kong and Kowloon, never having to turn around. The fishermen load each tiny paper boat with some tea leaves, a drop of cooking oil, a spoonful of rice, a splash of petrol before setting it afloat.

Boats for the lost at sea, for the drowned. They hire musicians to clang cymbals. Children throw burning spirit-money into the waves. This summer, the one I'm going to tell you about, is the only time that matters. It's the time I'll think of when I'm dying, just as another might recall a lost lover or regret a love they never had. For me, there is one story. It's my sister's -- Frankie's.

~ ~ ~

'Touched you last,' Frankie taunts. She runs out across the beach. Arms waving, shouting Indian war whoops, she plunges into the warm, green waves. Dares me to follow. Shaking off the stupor of the heat, I dash out after her.

Inside our shack, it's hot and close. Rank smells of sea salt, mould, sand. Air so wet, it trickles down the creases of our skin. Pools collect in the bends of our arms, behind our knees. Waves lap. Cicadas shriek. Barnacles and snails, stranded above the tide line, clamp tightly to rocks.

Frankie feeds me roe she's extracted from the belly of a purple-spined sea urchin, the way the boatman Ah Wong has taught us. I lick the soft yellow eggs off her finger. The taste is raw and salty-smooth. It's how explorers, castaways survive: Magellan, Columbus, Crusoe, eating the flesh of wild sea turtles, mangy gulls. Sometimes we dive for rubbery black sea slugs. Frankie squeezes one, shooting me with a film of sticky innards. It's the creature's only means of defence. It takes them a full year to rearm.

~ ~ ~

We're already too old for this, our games of castaway. We take them up self-consciously. Construct our shacks of flotsam and jetsam: rope, tin, fishing-net, Styrofoam, driftwood. Drag our finds back from rocks along the shore, step barefoot on crusty barnacles, rough granite, through tidal pools harbouring crabs and limpets. At the back of the beach, sharp vines clasp at our skin: vitex, rattlebox, morning glory. They criss-cross our ankles with scratches and scabs. Calluses grow thick on the soles of our feet. Startled, an ungainly coucal crashes through the undergrowth. Its echoing, whooping cry sounds like a monkey rather than a bird.

Then again, it's in our nature to gather, to scavenge. My mother hoards tubes of paints, charcoal pencils, erasers, inks, pens. Stores them in art boxes and Chinese baskets piled in her room with hard blocks of watercolour paper. My father keeps war relics in his darkroom, treasures my mother doesn't like to see: slivers of shrapnel he dug out of his leg, a grenade pin, a smuggled AK-47 stashed under the basin. A string of tiny temple bells that jangle on the door so you have to open it slowly, carefully, if you don't want anyone to hear you. A thin, tattered Vietnamese-English dictionary.

Secretly foraging, Frankie and I discover the Vietnamese words for nationalism and People's Democratic Revolution, dialectic materialism and exploitation. We find words for blood transfusion, guerrilla warfare and napalm. A bomb exploded and killed many people: Bom nô gi ´ êt ch ´ êt nhi`êu ngu'ò'i. Words for utopia, không tu'o'ng, and sexual intercourse, gió'i tính. We pronounce them phonetically, like witches' spells. We look at the pictures my father's taken. Photographs of war.

~ ~ ~

Secret sisters. Shipwrecked sisters. Viet Cong sisters is what we call ourselves.

Frankie's back is strong and dark. She ties her long brown hair in two braids. Although our mother pleads with her to wear a top, she swims only in cut-off shorts. Maybe she's not ready to grow up. More likely, she wants to upset our mother. Her breasts are already full and round, like mangosteens. They bounce when she runs. Voluptuous is the word McKenna used when he and my father last came out of Saigon. It made my mother wince.

Me, I am thinner, leaner. Miró or Giacometti, my mother calls me. My hair is fair and cropped like a boy. It mats to my head with sea salt. I wear a threadbare blue-and-white bikini, hiding pointy, childish nipples. My skin is sunburned. When my father takes photos of me, I stare straight at the camera. I am twelve, nearly thirteen.

'Come, Kate,' Frankie calls me from the sea. I sprint. Feet, knees, legs fly across the sand, batter through the warm water. A wave rises up and slaps hard against my chest, then sweeps back, scratching my ankles with island sand, pulls as if to drag me down. I dive.

Underwater, it's cooler, quieter, green-blue. Purple-black sea urchins cling to rocks. Rough-skinned starfish stretch their arms in every direction. Fish dart past, swept along by the wash of waves. A pink sea anemone shudders fleshy tentacles. I hear the throbbing whine of a boat engine, an ancient kaido ferrying passengers to Yung Shue Wan, on the opposite end of Lamma Island.

Frankie grins, swims off; her arms pull broad, strong strokes, skimming the sandy bottom. I swim as fast as I can, knowing I won't beat her. Hold my breath until my chest aches, then kick to the surface, gasp in air. Frankie is faster, bigger, stronger. But she's also more needy. She needs my participation, my surrender in order to assert herself.

Breathless, I flip over. Floating upward, I dip my head back so the water licks my forehead. My eyes squint in the sun. From here, our shack looks like one of the squatter huts that catch fire or collapse down the muddy slopes of Hong Kong in sudden landslips.

Or maybe it's a Cubist painting in one of my mother's art books: a collage of forgotten items tacked on a cork-board. The Chinese believe dragons lie curled asleep under these hills. Construction of new roads, the digging of foundations for apartment buildings can cut into the creatures' flesh. The earth bleeds red ochre. Then the great beasts must be appeased, offerings made, to avoid disease, bankruptcy or sudden, unexplained death. These bare, knobby hills are a dragon's vertebrae, spinal humps that might plunge under at any time, sucking us down with them.

All Hong Kong's islands look this way. Their forests cut down for firewood and shipbuilding. Their fertile valleys flooded at the end of the Ice Age, leaving steep mountains jutting out of the sea.

Copyright © 2005 by Richard Lloyd Parry. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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