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Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Author:  Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant)
Plot Type: Urban Fantasy UF     
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality2; Humor—2 
Publisher and Titles:  DAW
          Sparrow Hill Road (5/2014)    


     The following information about this series comes from a page on McGuire's web siteMcGuire began writing about Rose Marshall in an online series of 12 short stories back in 2010. You can view a list of those stories by clicking on the pink-link in the sentence above. Each story featured Rose, a legendary teen-age ghost who died in a car crash on her way to her high school prom.

     Here is McGuire's summary of Rose's tragic story: "Rose Marshall died in 1952 in Buckley Township, Michigan, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross—a man who had sold his soul to live forever, and intended to use her death to pay the price of his immortality. Trouble was, he didn’t ask Rose what she thought of the idea. It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running.

     "They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner. The Phantom Prom Date. The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by “Rose,” a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her. You can’t kill what’s already dead."

     Sparrow Hill Road compiles McGuire's stories into a sort of modern-day, paranormal, picaresque novel, although Rose is more of a waif than a wastrel…more of a sympathizer than a scoundrel. Rose's role in the afterlife is that of a psychopomp. That is, she escorts those who die on the road on to their final station in the great beyond. Due to the circumstances of her death, Rose is a hitchhiking ghosta ghost of the road. Here's that definition from the glossary at the end of the book: "Often referred to as 'hitchers,' these commonly sighted road ghosts are generally the spirits of those who died in particularly isolated automobile accidents. They are capable of taking on flesh for a night by borrowing a coat, sweater, or other piece of outerwear from a living person. Temperament varies from hitcher to hitcher; they cannot be regarded as universally safe." (p. 306)  

Here, Rose explains why some people rise as ghosts and some don't: "There aren't many hard and fast rules about who will or won't leave a ghost behind when they go. You can game the system sometimes, die the right way to really get the universe's attention, but for the most part,…you don't get a say in whether or not you move on when you die. One of the ways to stack the deck in your favor, though, is to die violently, unexpectedly, and in your teens. Trust me. I'm practically the poster child for 'die young, leave a hideously burnt corpse, wander the world forever as an unquiet spirit.'" (p. 46)   

     One of the themes of the series is that the American road is layered, with the present on top and the remains of earlier times stacked beneath. McGuire frequently refers to this as the "palimpsest skin of America." A palimpsest is a manuscript on which one or more successive texts have been written, each one erased to make room for the next. "The true secret of the skin of America is that it's barely covered by the legends and lies it clothes itself in, sitting otherwise naked and exposed. It's a fragile thing, this country….Things that happen in the daylight [living world] echo all the way down to the midnight [afterlife]. It works the other way, too. What happens in the midnight will inevitably make itself known in the daylight, given enough time to echo through the layers….What happens in the dark always shines through into the light." (p. 162)  

     NOTE: The glossary is titled "The Price Family Field Guide to the Twilight of North America Ghostroad Edition" and provides brief descriptions of the living and dead who have otherworldly connections with the American road. (You'll recognize the reference to the Price family if you are reading McGuire's INCRYPTID series.)  I recommend that you skim through the glossary before you begin reading to familiarize yourself with its contents. Then, when you come upon one of these beings in the context of a story, you can turn back and read the entire description for a better understanding of the character. Click HERE to read my review of the books in the INCRYPTID series.  

     Here are a few links to prom-girl ghost stories currently on the Internet:  Prom Ghost SightingsResurrection MaryShades of Death RoadBlack Bridge Ghost Girl,  Ghost Girl of ArkansasVanishing Hitchhiker (final legend on the page)Lydia the Phantom HitchhikerLydia Story #2The Girl in the Blue Dress.      

              NOVEL 1:  Sparrow Hill Road              
     The novel is divided into four "books," or sections: "Campfire Stories," "Ghost Stories," "Scary Stories," and "True Stories." In each section McGuire tells part of Rose's story, ranging in time from her death in 1952 up until the present time. The stories are not told in chronological order, and sometimes tales from the past and present involving the same secondary character are juxtaposed so that the reader learns the significance of the character to Rose's past while reading about a new event involving the character. Some reviewers have criticized the lack of a linear presentation of events, but as Rose explains on the first page, "The living are real fond of linear. The dead…not so much." Rose goes on to say, "This is not a story about my life, although my life will occasionally intrude on the proceedings, It's messy and unfortunate. It's also unavoidable. Sorry about that. Only not really, because like I said, the dead aren't all that invested in 'linear,' and I've been dead for a long damn time." 

     In "Campfire Stories," we meet Rose and learn the rules and constraints of her life as a hitcher. In the first story (1973), Rose smells lilies and ashes in the air when she meets Larry, a long-haul trucker, so she knows that he will be dying soon in an accident on the road. We follow her as she takes her place in the events surrounding Larry's death and completes her psychopomp duties after his ghost rises. In the second story (1956), Rose meets a little girl named Amy and manages to alter her fate so that she doesn't die…yet. The story follows Rose's involvement in Amy's life (in 1956 and 1958) as she, once again, saves Amy from death. But then, in 2008, it's Amy's time to die, and Rose is there to help her on her journey. It is in this story that Rose smells wormwood and ashes, the signature scent of the book's villain: Bobby Cross. In the third story (1998), Rose helps a homecomer ghost make peace with her own death. In this story, Rose pauses to explain more about the various types of ghosts of the American road. 

     The other three sections are set up similarly: stories about Rose's past and present, her interactions with other dead and living creatures of the afterlife, and her constant fear of being caught by Bobby Cross, who is still trying to claim her soul. Because this is a compilation of stories, some of the information is repeated, particularly details about the ghostroads and their inhabitants. That can slow down the pace in places, but it also leads to a deeper understanding of the mythology and the characters. In "Ghost Stories," we meet two ghosts who have dire effects on Rose's "life," and we hear the full story of her death, and watch her take the first step on her journey of vengeance against Bobby Cross. In "Scary Stories," Rose goes back to Buckley, Michigan, on the 62nd anniversary of her prom-night death and nearly gets caught by Bobby after being betrayed by an unlikely malefactor. Then she gets involved with a group of ghost-hunters who are related to one of the villains she met up with in an earlier story. In "True Stories," Rose has emotional reunions with three people from her past, two enemies and one true love.

     Rose is a great heroine, telling her story in a jaded, seen-it-all, voice while still looking like a 16-year-old small-town girl, frequently wearing her green, silk, 1950s prom dressthe one she put on lay-away and paid off over time back in 1952. Over the six decades since her death, Rose has developed a tough-girl exterior and a definite snark to her tone, but inside she's still the soft-hearted, lonely girl she was back in high school. She makes no apology for the choices she has made in her ghostly years on the road: "I was a virgin when I died, and I lost my virginity shortly after…I have sex with strangers in truck stop parking lots…in exchange fort the life they let me borrow and the rides they're willing to give me. It's not a livingnot exactlybut it's the only thing I've got, and that makes it good enough for me." (p. 163)  

Edward Hopper's Nighthawks
     McGuire is such a great writer, particularly when it comes to establishing a sense of place. Here, Rose describes a truck stop in such vivid detail that you can smell the greasy burgers and fries. It immediately made me think of Edward Hopper's iconic painting, Nighthawks. "The truck stop air has that magical twang that you only ever find in roadside dives that have had time to fully merge with their environment. It's a mixture of baked asphalt, diesel fumes, hot exhaust and hotter exhaustion. The smell of grease and lard-based piecrusts join the symphony as I get closer to the obligatory diner, the charmingly named FORK YOU GRILL." (p. 8) Rose's outlook is so gritty that she doesn't compare a man's brown eyes to melted chocolate (as we see in so many paranormal romances), but to "hard-packed median dirt." (p. 204)

     This is a book to be savored slowly. It doesn't always race along at breakneck speeds, but it does have plenty of scenes with high drama and goose-bump suspense (particularly the scenes in which Rose is nearly captured by her enemies). I enjoyed this fresh mythology immensely and particularly relished Rose's irascible voice. Rose's world is just complex enough to be engaging, but not perplexing. Again, I urge you to take a look at the glossary before you begin to read Rose's story. 

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