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  • Ghost Boy
  • Written by Iain Lawrence
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  • Written by Iain Lawrence
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On Sale: May 14, 2002
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-375-89006-2
Published by : Laurel Leaf RH Childrens Books
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

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.
Iain Lawrence

About Iain Lawrence

Iain Lawrence - Ghost Boy

Photo © Donald Lawrence

“Writing for young readers is almost like dipping into a fountain of youth; for hours a day, I am a child again.”—Iain Lawrence

Iain Lawrence is a journalist, travel writer, and avid sailor, and the author of many acclaimed novels, including Ghost Boy, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, and the High Seas Trilogy: The Wreckers, The Smugglers, and
The Buccaneers.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

When I was 12 or 13, I wrote picture books for my younger brother . . .

I started writing short stories after I graduated from high school and kept it up—though sporadically—during my ten-year career as a newspaper reporter. But journalism has a way of sponging creativity, so I went to work at a fish farm instead, in the hope that I would have more time to do my own writing. Two years later, when the farm went bankrupt and I found myself on employment insurance, I started writing seriously. I thought I could produce a publishable book during my one year of E.I. It was a naive idea; five years passed before I sold my first book.

My favorite stories from my childhood are the ones that were read to me . . .

The first story that I remember reading for myself is Robinson Crusoe. I would take it down to the river that flowed behind our house and lie in a little grassy nest. But I never finished it; I didn’t have the patience to read books as thick as that. I remember reading Owls in the Family and Born Free, skipping every second page and then every third in my hurry to reach the end.

My favorite stories from my childhood are the ones that were read to me, a chapter or two at bedtime. Strongest in my memory are beautiful stories like Stuart Little and The Wind in the Willows, and others that gave me nightmares like Treasure Island and Moonfleet.

Stories for young people are tremendously fun to write . . .

I love the shorter length, the quicker pacing, and the necessity of trying to see everything through the eyes of a child. Writing for young readers is almost like dipping into a fountain of youth; for hours a day, I am a child again.

I don’t think any story begins with just one idea . . .

. . . but from a connection of unrelated thoughts. I think all my stories begin with this idea of reliving old favorites, and of trying to capture the emotions that went along with them—fear or wonder or magic. When I look for new ideas, or decide what to tackle next, I think of what sort of story I would like to hear.

I write every day, starting in the morning and going on until mid-afternoon . . .

In winter and in rain, I go back to it in the evenings. But I find summer days too tempting to keep me inside. I always write on a computer and always play classical music, often the same CD over and over and over. In an annoying ritual, I have to win a game of computer solitaire before I can actually begin writing.

I begin every story with an outline, working forward and backward to fill in the plot. The outlines include notes on characters and settings, and they tend to be very chaotic, written almost as a dialogue with myself. They are full of questions and answers, of diverging alternative plots. I revise as I go along, replacing sentences and paragraphs with better ones, but keeping all the words on the computer screen. The passages that I’ve changed—and little notes that I’ve made to myself—keep piling up below the point that I’m working on. When I reach the end, I’ve got many, many pages of disjointed phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. It’s like a junk pile that I like to pick through now and then, just to see if there’s anything useful among the things I’ve thrown away.

I hope most of all to create characters that readers will remember . . .

I think it’s an amazing process that allows a reader to actually see what a writer imagines, to actually feel what a writer feels. I love getting letters from readers who say they felt as though they were inside the story. When I was the same age as them, I read about Captain Bligh’s amazing voyage in an open boat. I remember being so enthralled by one scene, where the sailors were trying to capture a seabird that had landed on the gunwale, that I almost shouted at my sister, who came into the room just then, “Shut up! You’ll scare the bird away.” That’s the feeling I’d like to create for my readers: that the story is utterly true at the time of its reading—that if you so much as move, you’ll scare the bird away.

Iain Lawrence lives on one of the Gulf Islands off the coast of British Columbia, and is an avid sailor. He lives with his longtime companion Kristin, as well as their dog Misty, and cat Sam.

A CONVERSATION WITH IAIN LAWRENCE ON THE LIGHTKEEPER'S DAUGHTER
Q: When did you develop an interest in writing? Did your teachers recognize your talent and encourage you?
A:
My grade three teacher told my parents that I would grow up to be a writer. In later years, in junior high school and high school, creative writing class was my favorite part of school. I remember being praised but not encouraged. I was a very shy child, so it was intensely embarrasing if my stories were chosen to be read aloud, and excruciating if I had to read them myself.

In grade eleven or twelve, I volunteered to be a school correspondent for the neighborhood newspaper. But my first published story was so changed from the version I submitted that I never wrote another one. When I graduated from high school, though, I hoped to be a writer.

Q: In the Acknowledgments you talk about Lucy Island as the inspiration for the setting of The Lightkeeper's Daughter. What was your inspiration for the characters and story?
A:
The first time I sailed to Lucy Island, there was a lightkeeper and his family living there. The last time, their house was just a stub of foundations poking up from burned and bulldozed ruins. It was like a different island, sad and somber, and it's this one that the McCraes inhabit–with a different name so that the real and very happy lightkeepers won't be mistaken for my fictional ones. The McCraes were inspired in part by the sense of loneliness and loss that lay thickly over Lucy then, and in part by the needs of the story. I gave each of them one strong desire, and their relationships arose naturally from the clashing of their different wants.

Q: You write "Alastair was good at everything because he only did the things that he was good at" (p. 101). How should we decide what to do, if it's not simply the things we're good at? Is there something you're not good at that you enjoy?
A:
It's a bit of a Catch-22, isn't it? You can never enjoy doing something you don't do well, but if you do it badly long enough, you get good enough to enjoy it. There are many things I like to do now that were only painful at first. By never trying twice, Alastair limited himself to a very narrow range of interests.

Q: Tell us about your process. Some writers say that their best writing comes out of revising and editing, while others prefer the spontaneity of their first version. How do you work?
A:
I love writing but don’t care much for rewriting. Once I’ve told a story, I tend to lose interest in it and want only to go on to the next one.

I used to start a novel knowing nothing of what would happen. I just began at the first page, wrote through to the last, and called the whole thing finished as soon as I reached the end. After many rejections, I realized I was doing something wrong. It’s my theory now (and I wonder sometimes if I didn’t just pick it up from someone else) that you can outline and write, or write and rewrite. But, really, it amounts to the same thing. A story that is started without an outline will become the outline, going through changes and revisions until it seems right.

Now I like to plan the story carefully and fully, going through it chapter by chapter until I know, for each of them, the beginning and the end, and most of what will happen in between. I like to know the characters, what they are like, and how they talk. The writing always strays from the outline in places. But, like a new highway built beside an old one, they eventually rejoin.


Q: Do you have any personal experiences with whales? What is your connection to them, and why was it important to you include the whale in the book?
A:
This story really began with the whales. The very first thought that inspired it was to tell the songs that whales might sing to each other. Its title then, and nearly till the end, was The Singing of Whales. Several years passed from the day I started the first version to the day I finished the last, all during a time when I spent entire summers wandering the coast in a little sailboat. I often saw whales, and sometimes sought them out. I bought a hydrophone to listen to their voices in the water, and it was always incredibly moving to be near them. One time, we were overtaken by a pod of killer whales. We were going so slowly that they could have shot by, but instead they slowed as they passed. They surfaced right beside the boat, and all around it, a big group of adults and children, and it seemed for a while that we were traveling with them. It was magical, really. The killer whales of the coast represent the ultimate in freedom to me, and it breaks my heart that they're dying.

Q: Usually we think about parents sacrificing for their children. Yet, in a way, Alastair sacrifices his future for Murray's when he agrees to stay on the island. Do you think that happens often in families? How do you decide what to sacrifice for someone or something you love?
A:
I think children seldom make even small sacrifices for their parents. But when they're older, and adults themselves, they often make huge ones, I think. It's ironic that Alastair, by giving his father what he wants, almost guarantees that Murray can't hang onto it. I can imagine that Alastair might have gone to school, studied whales, and returned to Lucy Island one day. I can imagine, too, that Squid would have stayed, and that Murray would have died a happy man on his own little island. But Alastair found that he had given up too much, and by doing it had doomed them all. If sacrifice has a limit, I have no idea what it is. But I can't imagine giving up life for a country, or even for a tiny little island.

Q: In many ways, this story is a tragedy. The characters learn and change, but only through great pain and the death of Alistair. Did you consider other fates for Alastair?
A:
For a time, Alastair did have a different fate - or at least the possibility of one. An earlier version of the story made it clear, at the end, that Alastair paddled away from the island in hope of reaching Vancouver. Whether he arrived or not wasn't said. But it was unthinkable that Alastair would go on with his life without letting Squid, at least, know that he was still alive. So the ending was changed to be less ambiguous, and I think this one is better. But, yes, these character became very real for me, and I thought about them for a long time afterward, often wondering if Alastair might have survived.

Q: At one point Hannah reminds Murray that "No man is an island" (p. 112). Do you agree? Do you identify with Murray's desire?
A:
Hannah, of course, is quoting the poet John Donne: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main..." I agree very much with that. The more firmly a person is connected to the mass of humanity, the better that person seems. At the same time, I understand Murray's wish for a simple life in an idyllic place, free from the worries of the world. That he can't have it, no matter how he tries, is a sad reality. Like most people, I think, I'm often less of an island than I'd wish, and sometimes more than I'd like.

Q: Why did you want to tell this story (particularly for a young adult audience)?
A:
For a long time, I considered telling this story in a more straightforward way, beginning with Alastair's birth and ending with his death. It would have been the same story, but very different. Trying to tell it as a series of memories was a puzzle that interested me through the planning and the writing. I wanted a sad story about people struggling for something they couldn't quite reach, and settling for something close. That, to me, pretty well sums up what life is about.


PRAISE

THE WRECKERS
“A fast-paced, atmospheric yarn that will have adventure buffs glued to their seats. . . . First-rate!”—Starred, Publishers Weekly


GHOST BOY
“This poignant adventure invites readers to look beyond others’ outer appearances and into their souls.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly

“This touching novel, [set a few years after World War II], will speak especially to readers who consider themselves different, flawed, or misunderstood.”—Starred, School Library Journal


LORD OF THE NUTCRACKER MEN
“Big themes are hauntingly conveyed through gripping personal story and eerie symbolism.”—Starred, Kirkus Reviews
Praise | Awards

Praise

“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

Awards

WINNER 2002 Texas TAYSHAS High School Reading List
WINNER 2001 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
WINNER 2001 ALA Notable Children's Book
About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Guide

Fourteen-year-old Harold Kline is an albino–an outcast. When the circus comes to town, Harold runs off to join it in hopes of discovering who he is and what he wants in life. Is he a circus freak or just a normal guy?

* “Lawrence’s outstanding coming-of-age novel features fascinating, fully rounded characters who drive the story forward while drawing readers in to think about perceptions vs. reality.”–Starred, School Library Journal

About the Author

A CONVERSATION WITH IAIN LAWRENCE

Q. What was the hardest part about writing this novel? What was the best part?

A. The hardest part was trying to imagine the world through Harold’s eyes. I spent a fair bit of time squinting at things, but never fully understood how things would actually appear to him. But apart from his vision, there was also the question of how he would imagine the world to be. Harold had lived all his life within a couple of miles of his house. He had never seen a television or a forest or a three-story building. But when he set off on his journey he had particular ideas of what all of those things would be like. And that was the question always in my mind: What would Harold make of this?

The best part, by far, was any scene involving Thunder Wakes Him. I developed a real fondness for the old Indian and his wandering existence.


Q. You are from Canada, yet you chose to set the story on the plains of America. What was the reason for this?

A. The story had to take place just after World War II, when the small-time traveling circus was fading into history, when sensitivities were bringing an end to the public display of “freaks” and “human oddities.” At that time, and still today, the towns of the Canadian West were smaller and farther apart than those south of the border. But more important to Ghost Boy is Harold’s journey to the West.

It’s an exploration for him, a small counterpart to the travels of Lewis and Clark and the settlers on the Oregon Trail. Like them, he goes west hoping to find a better life.


Q. Harold appears in and is the center of all that happens in the story. Why didn’t you have him tell the story in the first person?

A. I normally write at least one scene of a story in both third person and first, and then decide which I like better. With Ghost Boy, though, there was never a question. I didn’t feel capable of describing the world through Harold’s eyes and mind. An elephant, to him, would be a big, brown blur; a face might be unrecognizable. I imagine now that a story told in that way could be extremely powerful, every visual image mysterious, every sound sharp and clear. In retrospect, I probably should have tried to tell Ghost Boy that way, but I would probably still be struggling with the first few pages. As it is, I think the story already sometimes steps a bit too far from Harold’s point of view.


Q. You know more about the characters than you have told us. Can you give us more background?

A. I never develop detailed character sketches before starting a book. I’m more likely to write something brief, in the first person, that will give an idea of how the character sounds, and more interested in knowing his ambition than his past. So I really only have vague ideas myself about the background of the characters.

Thunder Wakes Him is just a middle-aged white man. He lived an ordinary life in an ordinary household, until he started performing his trick-riding act in the costume of a Plains Indian. His eccentric and romantic shift into a full-time portrayal of an Indian took place over time, until he now nearly panics when rain splotches his makeup. But it is recent enough that the circus people still know him as Bob. If Harold’s eyesight was better, and if he was a little less naïve, he would have seen through the makeup right away.

Samuel and Tina met at Hunter and Green’s and have been traveling together ever since. They intend to get married as soon as they have saved enough money to buy their little house. Tina is perfectly happy with her lot in life; she has never wished to be anything else than she is. Samuel, though, is often bitter and angry at the world in general. Abandoned by his parents, sold into a type of circus slavery, he carries on for Tina’s sake alone, and will likely quit the circus before another summer’s over.

Mr. Green has been looking for ways to make money ever since he was a child. He formed Hunter and Green’s only a few years before the story began. He sees it only as a business and lacks the ambition and the imagination to turn it into anything better.

Flip grew up in circuses. Her parents were stars in a much larger European circus before coming to America to escape the looming war in Europe.


Q. Did you consider a different climax to the novel–another event other than Tina’s death that would allow Harold to take what he’s learned and return home?

A. The story was only roughly plotted, but I knew from the first word that Tina would die. I nearly changed my mind when I reached that point in the story. She had become so real then that I could hear her voice in my mind and see how she walked and stood and gestured. I actually cried as I wrote the scene, and in the days that followed felt terribly guilty. But Harold brings everything on himself: He largely ignores the warnings of the Gypsy Magda; he doesn’t listen to Flip when she tells him he’s spoiling the elephants. The discovery that the elephants make him powerful, and his love of that power, lead inexorably to Tina’s death. The elephant is only protecting him from an imagined threat.

In the original plot outline, Harold found his brother. He saw him in the bleachers as he rode the elephants round the circus ring. Apart from the unlikelihood of that–the faces would all be blurs to Harold–it didn’t seem to help the story. Harold would naturally go home with his brother, ending his journey right then. It wasn’t much of a resolution.


Q. Many of the themes you explore in the book appear throughout literature. What books influenced you in the writing of Ghost Boy?

A.It was the idea of elephants playing baseball that started Ghost Boy. I was well into the story when I started thinking about Toby Tyler: or, Ten Weeks with a Circus, a book I loved as a child, and the basis for a Disney movie I remembered enjoying very much. It was a bit of a shock when I saw it again, as I discovered that I was basically rewriting this half-forgotten story. I threw out all that I’d done and started over, shaping the story around Harold instead of the elephants. I looked for novels about people with albinism, but found very few. The only one I was familiar with was Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre, though just from the movie version. In Ghost Boy, Wicks, the circus cook, imagines that all albinos can sniff out gold and dowse for it with forked sticks. I hoped the reader would conclude that Wicks had formed this opinion by reading Caldwell’s book.

A friend in Prince Rupert [British Columbia] read my developing story and pointed out that Harold was quite close to the classical hero, that in searching for the Cannibal King he was off on an almost heroic quest.

My friend steered me toward Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but while I delved into this study of myths and heroes, it’s hard to say how much influence
it really had.

Unfortunately, I don’t keep good records of my research material. I read many books about circuses, looking specifically for first-person accounts from days long
enough past to include memories of freak shows.


Q. How much of the story did you mean for readers to take literally and how much for them to take on another level–metaphor, fantasy?

A. Ghost Boy is a fairly simple story meant to be taken pretty much as the truth, though parts of it definitely stretch the bounds of credulity. The reader, though, is meant to wonder for a while if the old Indian really does exist when he offers to take Harold off on his journey. It’s not until the very ending, when the children of Liberty acknowledge that Harold has been gone for some time, that there’s really no doubt that the entire story isn’t taking place within Harold’s mind as he sits in the empty field near Liberty.


Q. In the late 1940s, the circus was often the only place where people with gross physical deformities could find work. Such sideshow performers were exhibits and commonly called freaks. In today’s more sensitive times such language and treatment have been expunged from popular culture. Why did you choose to use such blatant language? What did you anticipate your teen readers’ reactions would be to such language in print? What about the reactions of adult readers?

A. To be true to the period, Samuel and Tina and even the Cannibal King had to be referred to as freaks. I understood that the word, without even quotation marks around it, would appear insensitive or jarring to some people, but I never doubted that it was the right thing to do.

Nearly every character in Ghost Boy turns out to be a bit of a paradox. The monstrous ones are really nice people inside, while the nice people act in monstrous ways. Though that was a deliberate choice, I didn’t intend the book to be a lesson in how to judge, or not judge, people. That was something for Harold to learn. I suppose, though, that it is a reflection of how I see the world, as I believe that no one can ever truly know anyone else. Quite possibly, you can never really know yourself.

There are other sensitivities. Harold is referred to as “that poor albino boy,” not as “that poor boy with albinism.” Thunder Wakes Him is “the old Indian” instead of “the old Native American.” But to force the politically correct terms into the characters’ mouths would have sounded absurd. Ghost Boy was supposed to create a believable world for a boy in the 1940s, and I’ll be very disappointed if it’s criticized for its use of cruel-sounding terms.


Q. On second and even third readings of Ghost Boy, the richness of the language, the themes, and the characters reveal new levels of meaning to the reader. Does this happen to you as the writer as well? Can you give specific examples?

A. The original version of Ghost Boy contained many more references to race and skin color. Thunder Wakes Him, especially, went on at great length about the meaning of being white. Ghost Boy’s editor, Françoise Bui, encouraged me to take most of it out, and I’m very glad that she did. What is left comes naturally from the characters as they discuss their particular worries and hopes.

I think this is the time when most of those changes were made–the ones that were at once the smallest and the biggest. Françoise would mark a sentence as being unclear or a passage as being heavy-handed, and the rewriting would bring out the intended meaning.

As an aside, you might be interested to know that I’m just old enough to remember what was probably the very last of the traveling freak shows. When I was ten or eleven, I went to the Calgary Stampede with my brother and two cousins. We had just enough money to last the whole day if we were careful where every penny went.

I remember standing outside a booth of painted canvas, listening to the talker describe the creature inside and debating whether it was worth spending the dime to get inside. We sent a cousin as a scout, and she paid her dime and climbed up to a little platform where she had to peer down behind a screen. I can’t remember what we hoped to see, but I can still see her standing there, shouting at us in a voice loud enough to carry halfway down the midway, “This is a gyp! He’s just sitting there doing nothing.” To this day, I’m glad every time I think of it that I didn’t pay my dime and see that poor soul inside.

Discussion Guides

1. From the very beginning of the novel, Harold is on a journey. What is he looking for? Does he find it?

2. At no time during this journey does Harold stop and wonder about the consequences of running away. Why not?

3. Describe Harold’s personality. Which of his characteristics do you find admirable?

4. “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.” (p. 3)

Harold has seen this cruel rhyme and heard the people of Liberty call him names such as Whitey, Maggot, and Harold the Ghost so often that he has accepted it all as true. How do other people’s perceptions of Harold affect his perception of himself? How do others’ perceptions of you affect the way you look upon yourself?

5. The Gypsy Magda asks Harold, “If you think that you are less than them, can you blame them for thinking they are better?” (pp. 88—89) Discuss the meaning of her question. When does Harold begin to see himself clearly? How has society tried to justify its treatment of minorities, foreigners, and others who don’t fit into the conventional models of the community?

6. Harold struggles to exist between two competing worlds: the world of the sideshow performers and the world of the “normal” people. Teens are often faced with a similar dilemma: family versus friends or one group of friends
versus another. How would you manage these choices without alienating one group or the other?

7. “The morning clouds were thick toward the west. Blue and black, smeared with yellow, they made the sky look bruised and battered.” (p. 45)

There are beautiful descriptive passages throughout the novel. Read aloud your favorite of these lyrical passages and talk about why you find them so pleasing.

8. Throughout the novel, there are characters, events, and places that are symbols for ideas: the circus, the Cannibal King, the Oregon Trail, and the storm, to name a few. What does each of these metaphors represent?

9. Whenever Harold feels threatened, he closes his eyes tightly and chants silently to himself, “No one can see me, no one can hurt me. The words that they say cannot harm me.” (p. 11) Harold’s belief in his own invisibility defines his sense of being an alien. Many teens share these feelings of being an outsider. How have you experienced these feelings? How do you deal with them?

10. At first Harold thinks Samuel is the ugliest thing he has ever seen. Yet when Harold stares into Samuel’s eyes he sees something other than ugliness. Samuel and Tina carry the message that a person’s self-worth is determined by what is inside, not by physical appearance. But every message from the media today seems to be that your physical appearance is the only important thing. Where do you stand on this issue? Talk about the instances in the novel where the sideshow performers show their goodness. In which instances in the novel do the “normal” people show their lack of humanity?

11. “Beware the ones with unnatural charm. And the beast that feeds with its tail. . . . A wild man’s meek and a dark one’s pale. And there comes a monstrous harm.” (p. 60)

This is one of Gypsy Magda’s prophecies in the novel. What are some of the others? What do her prophecies mean? Do they come true?

12. We meet Tina, Samuel, and the other malformed sideshow performers when they are adults. What do you suppose it was like for them as teenagers? Did they view themselves as freaks? Did they have the same hopes and aspirations that you do? Do you think they would receive the same kind of treatment now as they did back then?

13. Harold is beset with loss. His father dies in World War II, and his brother is missing in action; he feels he has lost his mother to another man; he loses his dream romance with Flip, the bareback rider; he witnesses the death of Tina; and he even suffers from the lack of pigment in his skin. How does Harold deal with these losses? What losses have you had in your life? How did you cope with them?

14. When Harold first meets Tina, it is she who says to Harold, “Maybe you should come with us.” (p. 16) Yet her dying words to him are “Go see your mama. Okay? . . . She’ll miss you, kiddo.” (p. 313) What does Tina know about what Harold needs?


Discussion questions prepared by Clifford Wohl, educational consultant.


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