I requested The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage at my library because it has gotten some attention over at Heavy Medal and I anticipated its nomination for a Cybils (and I was right). If I hadn’t already been introduced to both Turnage’s writing style and the characters in this book thanks to its prequel, her 2013 Newbery-honor winning Three Times Lucky, it’s unlikely that I would’ve picked this book up on my own. I don’t like ghost stories as a general rule, and since I have a very limited amount of time to read nowadays, I generally try to read things that are sure-bets for me. Well, I did enjoy this one, which is odd considering that it’s a ghost story through and through. It took me a while to warm up to Mo LoBeau and her sidekick Dale Earnhardt Johnson III in Three Times Lucky, but thankfully the hard work of deciding whether or not I like Mo in all her quirkiness and larger-than-life personality was already done, so I could just enjoy the story. In this latest case for the Desperado Detective Agency, Mo and Dale have taken on the formidable task of interviewing the resident ghost at the inn Miss Lana and Mo’s honorary grandmother, Grandmother Miss Lacy, buy. Mixed up in all this is Tupelo Landing’s ne’er-do-well, Mr. Red Baker, and the newest and most enigmatic member of Mo and Dale’s sixth grade class, Harm Crenshaw. This is a poignant history mystery, too, involving Tupelo Landing’s oldest residents. I thought for a long time this story was a Scooby Doo mystery–not a real ghost story at all, but one that would be resolved by the Desperado Detective Agency discovering that the real culprits are clothed in flesh and blood. It turns out that when the last page is read, this is a real ghost story, with a real, live (?) ghost. If that’s really not your thing, you might not like this one. However, if you’re like me and can enjoy the strong characterization and snappy Southern dialogue and descriptions, you just might find the ghost story isn’t so bad. This is what makes Sheila Turnage’s stories memorable:
Most days, Mr. Red looks like a bundle of throw-away clothes. Today he wore shoes fresh from the box, creased chinos, a blinding white shirt, and a red bow tie. “Hey,” I said, and his pale eyes flickered over me like lizard eyes over a fly.
Mr. Red looked Dale up and down. “You’re Macon Johnson’s boy,” he said, his voice splintery as just-sawn pine. “I hear he’s doing time in Raleigh for a murder he didn’t commit.”
“You almost heard right,” Dale said, very smooth. Dale’s family’s jail prone. To him, jail time is as normal as clean socks. (25)
There’s a lot between the lines in this story, including family dysfunction and family love:
She [Miss Rose, Dale’s mother] stretched the tape across the faded countertop. “Lavender’s installing a dishwasher for me,” she said. “I’m deciding how I’d like my kitchen to flow.” Miss Rose is one of the last in Greater Tupelo Landing to get a dishwasher. Dale’s daddy used to say if he had a dishwasher, he wouldn’t need a wife. That’s before Miss Rose kicked him out.
“Good. A dishwasher beats Dale’s daddy any day,” I said. The words went rancid the instant they hit the air.
Miss Rose didn’t look up from her tape measure, but a shadow darted across her face. “Macon is my ex-husband,” she said, smoothing the sharp from her voice. “Not Dale’s ex-father.” (59)
Turnage manages to package the sort of story I wouldn’t usually enjoy much so well that I forgot that the main point of the whole thing is a haunted inn. This is a good one, and one that I imagine has lots of kid appeal. Since I have some pretty sensitive middle graders myself, I’m not sure this is the book for them (if we want to sleep, that is), but if ghosts aren’t a problem for your middle grader, give this one a shot. (Penguin, 2014)