Shady Grove, the protagonist of Nashville writer Erica Waters’ debut novel, Ghost Wood Song, lives deep in the pine woods of Florida, in a haunted world where the past is constantly creeping up on the present and there is no beauty without darkness.
Shady’s father used to say that “twilight was good for ghost raising because it’s an in-between time, when the barrier between worlds seems to grow thin as tissue paper and the ghosts are at their lonesomest.” Four years after her father’s death, Shady seems to be trapped in the dusk.
Though Shady convinces herself otherwise, life was no simpler when her father was alive. He had the ability to raise ghosts by playing his fiddle, which had been in the family for generations. The spirits, once awakened, began haunting Shady’s dreams, which quickly devolved into nightmares. But her father continued to play obsessively, unable to stop, even as he risked his own safety and his family’s. Only after a freak car accident took his life and destroyed his fiddle did Shady’s family move out of their ghost-ridden house and the hauntings stop. Until now.
Without her father’s music, the ghosts receded, hovering constantly on the edge of Shady’s reality, nebulous, but without the power to take shape or form. “To me, the ghosts are mostly gentle presences — light as air,” Shady says, “more like familiar smells than menaces, hardly distinguishable from the aromas of honeysuckle and dust.” But this peaceful coexistence ends with the return of the Shadow Man, the most menacing of the apparitions that used to haunt Shady’s dreams.
At first, she has no idea what has brought him back and, to make matters more confusing, she begins to hear what sounds like her father’s fiddle echoing through the woods. When someone close to her is murdered, and her brother Jesse becomes the prime suspect, Shady begins to doubt that the recent hauntings are merely coincidental. “Maybe my daddy wants me to know his fiddle’s still out there somewhere, waiting for me to play it,” she thinks. “Most of all, I wonder what this song means, what Daddy’s trying to tell me. Is he reminding me of who I am or warning me about something still to come?”
Following her hunch — and ignoring her family’s objections — Shady begins a search for her father’s fiddle, aiming to raise the ghost who would be able to tell her if Jesse committed the murder. Her quest only begets more questions: What really happened the night of her father’s car accident? What are the true origins of his fiddle? Who is the Shadow Man, and why is he so intent on seeing her dead?
To practice raising ghosts, Shady enlists help from a musician-sibling duo, Cedar and Rose, in addition to her bandmates and best friends, Sarah and Orlando. Music fans will appreciate the scenes in which the group jams and works out their set, arguing about song choice and key. As the band grows closer, Shady is unable to shake her feelings for the impossible-to-read, closed-off Sarah. At the same time, she finds herself falling for Cedar, a suave, mandolin-playing, bona fide cowboy. The love triangle, however, never takes center stage nor eclipses the more salient themes of family and grief. Shady herself says, “[T]here are some things even cowboys can’t protect you from.”
Waters has created a compelling character in Shady, a courageous and independent-minded queer female protagonist who fights to unearth secrets buried for years. Ghost Wood Song is difficult to put down, as Waters keeps the story taut with unanswered questions. Only in the final chapters do we learn the truth about the murder, the Shadow Man, and the death of Shady’s father. And only then does Waters reveal the real essence of the story: themes of healing and letting go and the connection between music, loss, and family. This gripping novel exemplifies how a mystery can be the perfect vessel through which to tell a coming-of-age-story. Growing up means pushing through adversity with no idea how it will shape you until you’ve come out the other side.
Bianca Sass is an undergraduate at Amherst College studying English and a recent intern for Humanities Tennessee. Her writing has appeared in Pfeiffer University’s The Phoenix, and she is currently working on a novel. She is a Nashville native and Harpeth Hall graduate.