Chapter 16
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Cherokee Ghost Story

Sonia Gensler’s first YA novel is set against a suspenseful background of mystery, murder, and miscegenation

As Sonia Gensler’s new historical novel The Revenant opens, Willemina Hammond is running away from boarding school in Columbia, Tennessee, to escape her family’s expectations. Willie assumes the identity of a graduating schoolmate and heads to Oklahoma in her place, but she never dreams that her new job as a teacher at the Cherokee Female Seminary will lead her on a chilling journey into the supernatural. As she struggles to maintain the facade of confident authority figure to girls uncomfortably near her own age, Willie is confronted with nightly manifestations believed to be caused by the ghost or “revenant” of Ella Blackstone, a student who recently drowned in the nearby river.

Initially a skeptic, Willie begins to doubt her senses as she experiences firsthand the sudden noises, temperature changes, flooded rooms, mysterious voices, and violent “accidents” taking place at the school—and in her dreams. Worse, Willie can’t always tell when the dream ends and the waking life begins: “I felt the weight of someone—or something—next to me. The hand continued to stroke my arm, sliding up to my neck and cheek, nearly covering my mouth before my limbs finally unfroze and I leapt off the setee.” Full wakefulness clarifies nothing, however: “No one was there.”

Further complicating matters is Willie’s dangerous attraction for Eli Sevenstar, a Cherokee student at the nearby male seminary, and her unfamiliarity with the cultural pressures faced by her students. Following the forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation in 1838, survivors of the devastating Trail of Tears march established a new capital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and eventually began to intermarry with their non-Cherokee neighbors. Nearly sixty years later, during the time frame of The Revenant, Willie finds herself thrust into a complicated world of class tensions and bloodline distinctions that she is poorly equipped to navigate.

With help from Eli and her friend and fellow teacher Olivia Adair, Willie attempts to uncover the identity of the ghost and of those responsible for Ella’s death, while continuing to hide her own true identity from everyone around her. It’s a task made more difficult by rich, beautiful, and contemptuous student Fannie Bell and the school’s no-nonsense principal Miss Crenshaw, both of whom are watchful and suspicious. Blinded by her own guilt and fear of discovery, Willie’s eyes are opened during her students’ performance of scenes from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, a classic story of mistaken identity.

Along this suspenseful journey Willie wrestles with the identity issues characteristic of the YA genre, and young readers will be captivated as her own truth and the surprising secrets of those around her are unexpectedly and dramatically revealed.