Justina Ireland’s 2022 Ophie’s Ghosts is a stand-alone historical occult novel.
After a white lynch mob murders her father and burns the family home to the ground, young Ophelia “Ophie” Harrison and her mother flee Georgia for the comparative safety of Pittsburgh.
Trauma wakes in Ophie a rare ability, the ability to see and to speak to ghosts. Whether this is a gift or a burden is unclear.
Ophie and her mother find shelter with Aunt Rose; she’s welcoming, but her children are less so. Life with Ophie’s cousins is unpleasant. Hence Ophie’s mother is determined to save enough for a home of her own. But she works as a servant and she isn’t well-paid. Ophie will have to work too. When a position opens up at Daffodil Manor (where Ophie’s mother works) Ophie leaves school to work as a housemaid.
Ophie and her mother escaped the mob because Ophie’s father’s ghost was able to warn Ophie to flee. Now Ophie can see all ghosts. Pittsburgh has many restless dead and Ophie finds the city unpleasantly crowded.
As is Daffodil Mansion. It has its living inhabitants, from bigoted and mean Mrs. Caruthers, her son Richard, and the staff; it also hosts a small army of ghosts. The house is old and many bad things have happened there, the circumstances that cause ghosts. Most ghosts are indifferent to the living. A few are helpful.
Aunt Rose can also commune with ghosts. She has some helpful advice for her niece. Ghosts preserve the worst traits of the departed and are not to be trusted. Ophie should treat all ghosts as potential threats, even the nice ones. Perhaps especially the nice ones.
While this book is aimed at younger readers, Ireland does not hesitate to dramatize just what it was like being African American in the US in the early 20th century. It was painful and oppressive and there was no justice for the oppressed. Nobody will ever be prosecuted for murdering Mr. Harrison; any attempt at justice might spark reprisals.
Pittsburgh is better than Georgia but the improvement is merely relative. Pittsburgh is rigidly stratified and there are consequences for African Americans who try to break out of their assigned caste. As the plot makes clear, some of those consequences are lethal.
Maybe that should read “many of those consequences are lethal.” There are a lot of ghosts in Daffodil Manor.
This is not to say no crimes will be punished . Some ghosts may get redress, if not by conventional means. Given the right circumstances and a brave girl with a keen grasp of timing, justice is possible.
Pittsburgh is full of restless dead; there is lots of room here for sequels. As this book has been quite popular, perhaps sequels may be expected. But they aren’t necessary; the book functions perfectly well as a stand-alone. In this the novel is more like a mystery novel (albeit a mystery novel with occult aspects ) than it is like the first volume of many a modern fantasy series.
As mentioned, this book is aimed at younger readers. The protagonist is a young girl and the prose, while beautifully written, isn’t challenging. But it’s a good enough book that even adult readers can enjoy the characters, prose, and the mystery of Daffodil House.
1: Aunt Rose may well be just a bit pessimistic about ghosts. No doubt she has her reasons.
2: Ophie has the advantage of being able to converse with murder victims long after their deaths. There are, however, complications. The murdered dead are often traumatized; they may resist talking about, or even facing, the how and why of their murder. They may not remember being murdered at all.