The Teenage Ghosts in Laura Ruby’s National Book Award Finalist Never Sleep

The narrator of Laura Ruby’s THIRTEEN DOORWAYS, WOLVES BEHIND THEM ALL (Balzer + Bray, 359 pp., $17.99; ages 14 and up) is a teenage ghost named Pearl, who warns at the start that the dead never sleep, because “we have so many other things to do.”

All the ghosts in this work of historical fiction, a National Book Award finalist, are very busy indeed: knocking over books in the public library, wandering the shores of Lake Michigan with knives sticking out of their necks, spying on the living through their kitchen windows. But in this story of a young Italian-American teenager named Francesca living in a Chicago orphanage during World War II, it’s Pearl whom we get to know best, as she narrates Francesca’s adolescence in a voice that is part whimsical teenage girl, part sage from the other side.

Frankie, as she is called, and her siblings are not orphans, but they have been left in an orphanage by their shoemaker father because he is unable to care for them after their mother’s death. He visits on Sundays with meatball sandwiches and other gifts until he suddenly remarries and moves away, leaving Frankie hurting and confused.

The bulk of the story is set in the orphanage, and Ruby has crafted a broad cast of well-developed supporting characters. The Catholic nuns who operate the place are not a monolith — some are kind, others horrifically abusive. Frankie’s younger sister Toni, more focused on popularity and fun than Frankie, and Frankie’s blunt best friend, Loretta, add to the rich mix. Ruby dedicates the novel to her late mother-in-law, who spent years in a Chicago orphanage during the Great Depression and World War II, and the tiny details (screenings of “Bambi” on movie night, kerosene doused on heads during lice outbreaks, showers taken while wearing dresses to protect the nuns’ idea of modesty) contribute to a vivid sense of place.

But this is not just Frankie’s story. Pearl has her own tragic tale to tell. One of several ghosts who travel among the living in this novel, she died in the flu pandemic of 1918. Or did she? Pearl is not so much unreliable as she is unclear on the details of her past, her “not-brain” foggy and filled with fragments of her life as the only daughter of a wealthy man who plans to orchestrate a marriage of convenience for Pearl in order to advance his own business interests. Pearl’s back story and Frankie’s journey are skillfully interwoven so that parallels appear, driving the reader forward to several surprising revelations.

Ruby captures first love and the first moments of sexual awakening for both girls with tenderness and authenticity. When Frankie falls for a fellow orphan named Sam, a trumpet-playing boy who loves to garden, Frankie thinks about his hair, teeth, lips and “all the other truths of a body that seem so mundane when that body is yours, and so fascinating when that body belongs to someone else.” The young couple meet in secret despite the risk. When Pearl recalls a romance in her own life, she notes that “when the fury of it had passed like a thunderstorm, and we lay panting in the pine needles, I didn’t feel any shame, I wouldn’t damn myself for it.” One of many themes that emerge from this rich and layered book is that young women are too often reproached for desiring and for wanting agency over their own lives and bodies.

The novel does not shy away from grappling with America’s history of oppression, but never veers into the didactic. Ruby approaches race with nuance and sensitivity. When Pearl befriends a fellow ghost, a young black woman named Marguerite, the two travel together until the shocking cause of Marguerite’s own death is made known.

Some of the ghosts in Pearl’s universe are trapped re-enacting their violent deaths, and these scenes might be particularly intense for very sensitive young readers, but this novel deserves to be read by a wide audience of teenagers and adults. It is haunting and hopeful in equal measure.

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