Gretchen is a 16-year-old photography enthusiast, living in New York City with her oft-absent father. Her mother, renowned owner of the Mona Axton Gallery, disappeared without a trace nearly five years earlier. Gretchen is surprised to receive a call from her Great-Aunt Esther—a woman she doesn’t know—informing her that she is leaving the Axton Mansion, which Gretchen will inherit as the last remaining member of the Axton family. Gretchen agrees to go and help Esther with the house, and the next day she is on her way.
Contrary to her expectations, Gretchen arrives at her family’s ancestral home to find a dilapidated, 150 year old house that appeared ready to collapse. The interior of the house wasn’t any better. Papers and books lay in piles everywhere, and the house was cluttered with countless objects all over the place, looking as if nothing had ever been thrown out once it was brought into the house. Believing she came here to help clean up the house and help Esther move, Gretchen is overwhelmed—then she discovers that’s not the sort of help her Great-Aunt requires of her after all.
The Axton Mansion holds the key to a terrible secret from the past. Somewhere, hidden within old documents, the faded letters and journals of Gretchen’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandmother Fidelia Axton, and horrific photographs from the past lies the answer to an unsolved tragedy that occurred at the nearby church. A tragedy that the dead—and the living—cannot escape, even after 150 years. In order to free them all, Gretchen must discover and expose the truth of the evil deed.
What the Dead Want is a fascinating paranormal young adult mystery. Olson dives into the action almost immediately, and there’s never a dull moment. Gretchen’s story in the present is interspersed with glimpses into the past, through the letters and journal entries of Fidelia Axton and other relevant documents. Rather than being an unwelcome interruption, each piece is a crucial part of the story, taking the reader one step closer to solving the mystery.
The one thing that prevents me from giving this beautifully written story a full five-star rating is the inaccurate usage of the word racism. Fidelia uses this word several times in her letters and journals, which were written before and after the American Civil War. It seemed out-of-place as I was reading, and after I finished the novel I looked it up. The original date of its first usage was either in 1902 or 1927. I was unable to find a definitive answer on which date was correct, but either way, it was long after the time period in which it was used in the novel.
I feel very strongly that historical writing must stay true to the time frame it portrays in every way, but especially when it comes to word usage. Using a word that didn’t exist during the time frame you are writing about is a guaranteed way to throw your reader out of the story every time they see it. It’s always an unfortunate thing to run into, but it’s even more disheartening to see it in an otherwise wonderfully written story.
The out-of-place usage of that single word is my only criticism, however, and I still highly recommend this book.
About the Book
16 -year-old Gretchen takes photographs to understand the world around her, a passion her mother Mona fostered and encouraged when she was still around. Since her mom disappeared years ago, Gretchen and her dad have lived on their own in New York City, haunted by Mona’s absence.
When Gretchen’s great aunt Esther calls unexpectedly to tell her that she has inherited the pre-Civil War mansion on her mother’s side of the family in upstate New York, Gretchen understands nothing except that her aunt needs her help. But what she finds there is beyond her imagination. The house is crumbling apart, filled with stacks of papers and journals from decades, even centuries past, and it’s crawling with rodents. It’s also full of secrets and a legacy of racism and violence so reprehensible that the ghosts of the past are exacting revenge on the living.
Somehow the mystery of Mona’s disappearance and the atrocities that happened on the land during the Civil War are inextricably intertwined, and it’s up to Gretchen to figure out how…before even more lives are lost.
About the Author
NORAH OLSON is a former journalist who covered criminal cases for a regional New York newspaper and received a prestigious fellowship for her work. She was educated in New England and lives in Manhattan. Her novels for young adults include Twisted Fate, Before Now, and What the Dead Want.
Author bio via HarperCollins.