Darcie Little Badger’s 2020 Elatsoe is a young adult contemporary fantasy novel. Elatsoe has been nominated for both the Lodestar Award and the Norton Award.
Kirby was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. But Elatsoe — Ellie to her friends — can summon the dead back from the other side. Dead that include her beloved dog, Kirby.
The America which Ellie calls home is very different from ours in some ways. Magic is real and so are monsters. In other ways, Ellie’s America is just like the real one, down to the nearly successful attempt by the USA to exterminate Ellie’s Lipan Apache people. Of course, in 21st Century America it would be impolitic to dwell on the unpleasant past. Surely such things are unfortunate historical relics.
Named for her great ancestor Six-Great1, young Ellie shares Six-Great’s gift for summoning ghosts. The gift is a grave responsibility. While animal spirits can be benign, human ghosts are invariably malevolent. Grief may inspire people to wish to see their loved ones again, but calling them back is always a terrible mistake.
Ellie can also contact the dying … or rather, the dying can contact her. As her cousin Trevor is dying, he reaches out to her, to tell her that he was murdered and that his killer was Abe Allerton of Willowbee.
Abe Allerton is easy to find. He is picturesque Willowbee’s most respected physician, a man with legions of friends and powerful connections. Ellie has no evidence beyond that one dying message; if she were to accuse Abe, the law would not believe her.
Nor is there any physical evidence of murder. Trevor seems to have died in a car accident. There’s even some evidence that it’s NOT murder: a celebrity psychic, Chloe Alamor of Hollywood Crime Scene Psychic, assures the authorities that no mortal is responsible for Trevor’s death. The guilty party was a passing ghost.
Ellie and her friends are convinced that Alamor is lying. A bit of sleuthing reveals that Allerton has a patient named Justin Alamor, who just might be a relative of Chloe Alamor. Is there a connection? Is Chloe covering for the doctor? Yet more sleuthing reveals that there is something very odd about Willowbee in general and Allerton in particular. A little extra work and time might make this clear … but there’s no time, because another crisis is bearing down at top speed.
Although the Lipan Apache try to avoid waking the dead, going so far as to avoid mentioning deceased people by name and concealing their gravesites, someone has disturbed Trevor’s resting place. Alive, Trevor was a good person. His ghost, like all other human ghosts, will be bent on bloody revenge.
Normally, I would consider giving my readers a warning about dead pets but in this case, Ellie’s dog Kirby has been dead for five years when the story opens. Ellie has long since come to terms with her dog’s death, if using her abilities to raise Kirby’s ghost can be considered coming to terms. Fortunately Kirby is an exemplary pet (even if he sometimes lets loose with banshee-like howls loud enough to burst blood vessels). Bonus effect: Ellie saves a lot of money that she would have spent on dog food.
The malevolent nature of human ghosts is a given in this novel, not a puzzle to be solved. The Lipan have developed some useful coping mechanisms. Readers may wonder whether, given this fact, settler customs of naming the dead and marking their graves are grievous errors, errors that must lead to an abundance of malevolent ghosts. This seems plausible, in that people are willing to accept “an evil ghost did it” as a sufficient explanation for a traffic accident.
This world is dealing with magical pollution issues that are as attention-grabbing and as effectively handled as global warming is in our world.
It might seem somewhat impolite to mention the whole attempted genocide issue at this late juncture. After all, a handful of Lipan survived! Furthermore, they are permitted to live largely unmolested in settler communities (even if some of the settlers don’t want to acknowledge that whole attempted genocide thing or even that there are still Lipan). But the past isn’t irrelevant; it’s quite clear that the Lipan are still way the hell down the “who cares?” list that cops consult when deciding to investigate possible crimes. If one wanted to assault or murder without having to worry about repercussions, it would be logical to target Native Americans. Even if their white neighbours feign tolerance.
Given the above, one might expect an unrelentingly bleak novel about prejudice, abuse, and the inevitable, apocalyptic consequences of short-sighted industrial policy. That’s not the case. In fact, to the extent a murder mystery/investigatory procedural involving entrenched powers and official indifference coupled to corruption can be upbeat, Elatsoe is indeed an upbeat, skillfully crafted story of a determined protagonist and her friends tackling city hall and being, not to spoil the novel too much, far more successful than her opponents thought she could be. I suppose the lesson is: never underestimate pesky kids.
1: Six-Great was known by several names; Elatsoe was one of them.