I picked up Ellen Oh’s Spirit Hunters when the oppressing heat of the summer was becoming unbearable for me. This was a perfect reading choice as I did not expect to be so chilled by a middle grade horror novel. Every time a ghost appeared on the page, the line read, “the temperature inside the room dropped suddenly.” So, I willed myself to imagine that the temperature inside my room had dropped a degree or two also. But really, the story had more blood and tears in store for the young characters than I had expected. I knew that they would be okay in the end, but still. They are babies! In danger!
The protagonist of this series is Harper Raine, a twelve-year-old biracial girl of Korean descent on her mother’s side. Harper’s matrilineal lineage gains more significance in the narrative as it is also a supernatural lineage. Her grandmother turns out to be a mudang, a Korean female shaman, who had passed on her ability to see ghosts and spirits to her descendants. My knowledge of shamanism and its rituals is very limited. Yet, I found it fascinating that Oh develops this supernatural element into a distinctively diasporic version of the original. The protagonist, however, does not find out this family secret until much later in the novel. We learn that Yuna, Harper’s mother, has been estranged from her own mother after certain events and finds it difficult to make amends after so many years of silence. Meanwhile, the Raine family’s newly purchased but haunted house in D.C. unravels its own dark secrets. As a reader, I kept wanting to yell at the well-intentioned but clueless parents that their children are in very, very grave danger and that they should call Grandma Lee ASAP!
As the founder of #WeNeedDiverseBooks initiative, Oh constructs a richly diverse fictional universe that readers will get to enjoy. The second book in this series, Spirit Hunters: The Island of Monsters is in fact already out! In Spirit Hunters, interethnic alliance blossoms not only among the living but also among the non-living, which creates room for the recovery of forgotten histories. There is one pivotal scene in the graveyard that effectively exposes more subtle and therefore more insidious forms of racism. I have too much books and articles to read at the moment. But, I do want to see what adventures Harper and her best friend, Dayo, a Jamaican American girl, will continue to go on.
Harper also happens to be the middle child in Raine household, who is young enough to be open towards the unknowable but also old enough to be fiercely protective of her youngest sibling, Michael, who is only four-years-old. Oh adds more complexity to this sibling hood as she shows how Harper, Kelly and Michael each grapple with their Korean Latina heritage. We get less insight from Kelly, who is a senior in high school and therefore older than the targeted readers. Yet, the dynamic between Harper and Kelly reveal the intricacies of navigating school and life as biracial teenagers and adds to what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “narrative plenitude.”
This summer, I have been consuming a number of YA/middle grade speculative fiction by Asian American and Latinx writers (Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost, Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper, David Bowles’ The Smoking Mirror). It is interesting that it is almost always the grandmas / abuelas who holds the key to the young female protagonists’ special powers. Mothers often (but not always) appear in these works as second-generation immigrants who have chosen to assimilate into the normative society, and thus have lost connection with their cultural as well as supernatural heritage. The important task of rekindling familial bonds eventually falls upon the teenage heroines, who are third or fourth generation immigrants and oftentimes also multiracial. I wonder if this formula will continue to appear in other works that I have lined up on my bookshelf.
Info on the illustration: Matt Rockefeller