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“The dead don’t care how new your shoes are or what kind of job your parents have,” Shelly. –The Ghost Collector
The Ghost Collector
by Allison Mills
Ghosts don’t scare Shelly. As an apprentice to her ghost-hunting grandma, Shelly catches ghost cats, dogs, and raccoons in her hair. She helps them move on to wherever comes after death. Shelly watches her grandma do the same with people. It’s what the Cree women in their family have always done.
When Shelly’s mom is in a terrible accident and dies, Shelly’s world is completely shattered. Now, Shelly wants to know what happens after death. Where do all of the ghosts go? Why do some spirits stay as ghosts? Shelly is in a desperate search to find her mother’s ghost. She wants to talk to her mother one last time. If Shelly’s mom loved her, wouldn’t she come back as a ghost?
Without her mom, everything has changed. Now, Grandma doesn’t take Shelly to hunt ghosts. Shelly feels lost and alone. She knows she’s breaking the biggest rule of ghost-hunting: it’s not right to force spirits to stick around. Shelly never intended to keep ghosts hidden in her bedroom, but when she’s surrounded by ghosts she doesn’t feel as lonely. If she keeps hunting ghosts, maybe she will eventually find her mother’s ghost.
The Ghost Collector uses a unique premise to show one girl’s struggle with grief. In a desperate attempt to understand her mother’s death, Shelly questions several ghosts about the afterlife. At first, Shelly is angry and confused because her mother doesn’t reappear as a ghost. However, by the end of the story, Shelly accepts her mother’s death and is able to put away the belief that if her mother loved her, she would have come back as a ghost. The Crees’ beliefs are intertwined with the story, which gives Shelly an added depth.
As Shelly’s grandmother teaches her about ghosts, she also teaches her a set of rules. For example, Grandma teaches Shelly that “we’re not supposed to charge everyone for their ghost.” However, after Shelly’s mother dies, everything begins to change and Grandma begins breaking her own rules. Grandma says, “Sometimes the rules are what you make them. Sometimes they need to be bent—broken. Sometimes the world is made of hard choices.” Shelly is angry and confused that Grandma doesn’t follow her own rules, and soon Shelly thinks she also doesn’t need to follow the rules.
Shelly encounters a variety of ghosts who have various reasons for not passing on, including confusion, fear, and unfinished business. One of the ghosts encourages Shelly to spend more time with the living. The ghost tells Shelly, “I’ve got nothing but time. You, on the other hand, still need to get through the business of living. Enjoy it. Being dead isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Some readers, especially ones who are experiencing grief, may be disturbed by the way ghosts are portrayed (see below for specifics). The Ghost Collector allows the reader to see Shelly’s mixed emotions and understand her grief. At times Shelly’s grief is heart-wrenching, but her personal growth is also inspiring. The Ghost Collector is an engaging story that will allow readers to explore the topic of death. Parents may want to use the story to begin a discussion of the difficult topic of death.
- Shelly thinks back to when she was younger and a classmate “cut off the end of her braid and when she hit him the principal said they were both wrong and called their parents. . . Shelly’s mom said she didn’t see how her daughter hitting a kid after he cut her hair was an unreasonable response.” Later Shelly’s mother told her, “Hitting people shouldn’t be your first response, but fighting back when someone tries to bully you isn’t a bad thing.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- The women in Shelly’s family can see ghosts. “Shelly’s grandma teaches her about ghosts, how to carry them in her hair. If you carry your ghost in your hair, you can cut them off when you don’t need them anymore. Otherwise, ghosts cling to your skin, dig their fingers in under your ribs, and stay with you long, long after you want them to.”
- Shelly’s grandmother helps people get rid of ghosts, and Shelly often goes with her. One woman asked for Shelly’s grandmother’s help. When Shelly and her grandmother go to the woman’s house, “Shelly can see the ghost that haunts the lady’s apartment dancing around her feet. It’s a little dog with a constantly wagging tail, trotting around on tiny paws with nails that click against the hardwood floors. . . Shelly catches the dog in the ends of her hair then scoops it into her arms . . . when the puppy licks her face it feels like someone is rubbing an icicle against her cheek.”
- Several times in the book, Shelly’s grandmother helps animal ghosts move on. “Animal ghosts tend to be simple—the spirits of creatures that haven’t realized they’re dead yet. Being outside helps them fade away because a ghost removed from an anchor—whether that’s its home where it died, a favorite place, or a grave—will start to fade unless someone tries to keep it around. . . Shelly and her grandma use their hair like a net, like a fishing lure. They let ghosts cling to them and act as a hook to carry the dead to new places, places where they won’t be tied to anything and will be able to fade.”
- One of the characters is the ghost of a teen, who sits on his gravestone. When he talks, “his mouth moves, but his voice comes from the headphones around his neck. . . Ghosts don’t usually come with accessories—Joseph having the player and headphones means he was buried with them.” Joseph tells Shelly, “I don’t know why some people stay and some people go. I don’t know why I stayed, except I was less scared of being a ghost forever and being stuck here, alone, than of whatever comes next.’
- Estella stays at the graveyard where she was buried. She wants to wait and see her headstone.
- Shelly and her grandmother help a raccoon move on. When Shelly first sees it, she thinks, “It’s an easy ghost. A raccoon that got stuck in the chimney. He looks furious about being stuck. When Shelly lets down her hair, he grabs hold of it eagerly, pulling himself free from the shaft and climbing straight into her arms.”
- Shelly and her grandmother go to a friend’s house to get rid of a ghost. Shelly “feels the ghost as soon as she steps into the house. . .There’s nothing nice feeling about this ghost at all. It’s like static electricity all along her skin—a prickling sensation that makes the hair on her arms stand up and has her shivering.” When the ghost appears, “It looks like static, too, all flickering black and white and gray. . . it doesn’t walk, just flashes on and off, on and off. . .” The scene is described over two and a half pages.
- While learning about ghosts, Shelly learns that “sometimes the dead are just confused about what happened, so they don’t move on. Sometimes they’re angry or upset. Sometimes, like Estelle, they do want to stay so they can do one last thing. But ghosts can get stuck, and that’s when hauntings happen.” Sometimes when “people throw out old things, ghosts go with them on their way to find a new home—confused spirits Shelly and Grandma used to snip off objects and bundle up to set free later.”
- Shelly and her grandmother go to a house because a ghost was knocking pictures off the wall. When they arrive to set the ghost free, they see a “bird is sitting on top of a bookshelf. Its feathers are ruffled up and it looks about as disgruntled as a bird can look. . . Grandma bundles her hair up around the bird and holds it there until she’s sure it’s caught.”
- Shelly meets the ghost of a little boy, who is confused and angry. He wants to know where his mother is.
- When Shelly gets mad at Joseph, she “lashes out and kicks her foot through Joseph’s immaterial body and he topples over from the force of it, coming uprooted from his spot on the ground by his grave. . . He flickers, like the man who Grandma once dredged up from the river.” Joseph is scared and confused “as he twists in place and tries to claw his way back toward his grave, his spot.”
- Shelly learns that “Death is going to happen to everyone, but knowing when it’s going to happen, choosing when you make the transition from life to death, choosing whether or not you’ll be a ghost and stick around a little longer, isn’t something most people get the chance to do.” She also learns that “Ghost are echoes of the person they once were. They fade away slowly, personalities and memories eroding over time.”
- Shelly’s mom asks her if she wants to eat or go to the thrift store. Shelly says she wants to eat. Her mother replies, “Thank God, I’m starving.”