Monday, October 12, 2009

The Ghost in the Swing

Things have not been easy lately for twelve-year-old Joan. Her parents have just gotten separated, and to make things worse, her mother and little sister have gone to Florida together, and Joan has stayed behind with her father. It wouldn't be so bad - Joan adores her father - but he has to take a long business trip, so Joan must stay at her aunt's house for a few weeks until he gets back.

When they pull up in front of her Aunt Margaret's house, it looks enormous and spooky. Aunt Margaret is clearly delighted that Joan is there, and even though Joan hasn't seen her since she was little, she feels comfortable with her immediately. But it looks like things are going to be pretty lonely and dull. There is no one her age nearby, no neighbors at all, in fact. The house is very secluded, with nothing around it but acres of apple orchard and a cottage where Mr. Cree, the strange old caretaker lives.

But it turns out that Joan won't have much time to be bored. There's the odd singing she hears in the night, the swing that moves back and forth all by itself, and a taunting voice that comes out of thin air. These odd occurrences seem to be connected to a girl in the enormous oil painting that hangs in the entrance of her aunt's house - a girl who looks almost exactly like Joan. When the ghost asks her for help, Joan agrees, not knowing that helping will involve putting her own life at risk and facing the things that she fears the most...

This was one of my hands-down favorite books when I was a child. I always checked it out of the library, and even when I wasn't going to check it out, I'd often wander over to the "S" shelves, just to see if it was there. Simply seeing it there on the shelf made me happy - knowing I could come and get it, bring it home to read again. Which I did - a lot.

Years passed, and I thought I'd see if I could find a used copy, since it has long been out of print. Well, the cheapest one I could find was about $50 on Amazon - for a used mass-market paperback! I just couldn't bring myself to pay that much, but a couple years ago my husband presented it to me for my birthday! (He may have just wanted to stop the whining already, but I so appreciated it!)

I actually saved it until now to reread - I wanted to share it with my own girls, who are nearly 9 and 11. And of course this was a perfect book for the R.I.P. Challenge. I am pleased to announce that the book was a smashing success. The girls loved it so much that they would get up early on school days and help with breakfast and lunch packing so I'd have time to read them a chapter before school. And they'd hurry through their chores and homework after school so I could read it to them before I left for work. I'm so glad they enjoyed it!

It wasn't as dated as I thought it might be - part of that is that Aunt Margaret's house is so secluded, and she doesn't even have a television, so it feels pretty timeless. The story just drips with atmosphere, from the twisting maze that is the apple orchard to the dusty attic with its abandoned dollhouse and other toys. The ghost is funny, and she has a lot of attitude. When I was little I identified more with Joan, and I felt indignant at the ghost's behavior the way Joan did, but rereading the book, I found myself thinking that Joan needed to loosen up and not be quite so stodgy. I also found Joan's dad to be rather irritating, particularly the way he is so patronizing and condescending to Joan's aunt about the mere possibility of ghosts, when Aunt Margaret has researched and is writing a book about haunted houses. I don't remember noticing that when I was a child. Still, it was clear her dad loved Joan very much, and they have a sweet, close relationship.

I do think the book holds up amazingly well, and I'm so, so pleased to have a copy of my own now. It's a timeless ghost story with a bit of humor and a lot of excitement, and I wish it were back in print and available to anyone who wants to read it.

The Ghost in the Swing by Janet Patton Smith (Tempo Books, 1973)

Have you reviewed this book? Please leave me a link in the comments, and I'll link to your review. Thanks!


  1. Never heard of this before, but it does sound good! Thanks for the review!

  2. Kailana - It's a shame it's out of print. Reading people's comments on Amazon, I learned that I'm not the only one with fond memories of this book!

  3. This sounds delightful! I love books where kids go off to live with a relative and find ghosts and mysteries and things. :)

  4. Jenny - Me, too. Have you read Mary Downing Hahn's All the Lovely Bad Ones? That starts out the same way. I'll have to read it to the girls next Halloween!

  5. The title sounds familiar but I can't place the story. Maybe I'll be lucky and find one in a thrift shop some day. Why do good books have to go oop?

  6. Nicola - I know, it's such a shame. :-( Often, I think, they can't even locate the legal copyright owner, and so the book is just in limbo. Our copyright laws really need adjusting, imho. Good luck finding a copy!

  7. This does sound like a terrific spooky story! Love how you shared the story of finally getting your own copy and reading it with your girls!

  8. Thanks, Joanne - it will always be such a special book to me. It's one of the ones that, looking back, are like stepping stones on my path to becoming a dedicated reader. :-)

  9. This book is driving me crazy because I have my own copy, from when I was a child. But somewhere along the way, the back page came out. So what I don't have, is the ending! The publisher should really re-release this as an e-book.

  10. Wordsmith - Do you have a hardback or paperback? Let me scan the last page(s) of mine and email it to you! Just email me at the address on the sidebar, and I'll scan it and send. You HAVE to be able to read the ending!! And yes, I completely agree that it should be an ebook. I wonder if there are reprint/copyright issues because the paperbacks sell for so much money, you'd think they'd have reprinted it by now.


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