Following the death of her mother, 16-year-old Katie D’Amore is spending the summer tending to the grounds at the home of the famously reclusive Miss Martine. It’s the kind of work Katie’s mother would have appreciated—the quiet pursuit of beauty—and the physical labor is a welcome diversion. She joins a cast of devoted caretakers, working under the guidance of the inscrutable Old Olson, who begin clearing a patch of land for a new gazebo. The project is the latest in a string of orders seemingly handed down by Miss Martine herself—though she was last seen in 1954—that reflect a meticulous and somewhat puzzling need to perpetually reorganize the lush landscape of the vast estate.
In Nothing but Ghosts, acclaimed author Beth Kephart (Undercover and House of Dance) artfully juxtaposes themes of grief and torment with the persistence of beauty. Katie must reconcile herself with the notion that “Things disappear and vanish. That’s the fact. Before you’re ready for them to go, they go, and after that all you can do is keep the idea of them bright inside yourself.”
Spurred by a need to make sense of her own recent loss, Katie becomes compelled to solve the mystery that has shrouded Miss Martine’s withdrawal from society. She begins to delve into the community archives with the assistance of a local librarian, an atypical beauty herself, trying to break through a tangle of riddles and hidden truths.
Though confronting her own ghosts, Katie keeps busy through the long, hot summer, dividing her time between the big old house she now shares only with her father, the library where she conducts her research, and Miss Martine’s garden where secrets are being unearthed daily. Meanwhile, Katie’s father is grieving in his own eccentric but even-handed way. He restores paintings for a living and his latest acquisition might just hold an important key.
Beth Kephart’s dazzling new novel is wise and wonderful, certain to be a revelation for young adult readers. As Katie makes a few necessary discoveries, she begins to let love in once again. In doing so, she honors an important promise, “a daughter’s promise: to live my life with my eyes wide open. To honor exuberance, and color.”
Ellen Trachtenberg is the author of A Parent’s Guide to the Best Children’s Literature.