How I Became a Ghost is an emotional historical fiction of the Choctaw Trail of Tears 1820s. Isaac and his family flee their burning town and hide from the white men who did it. As they journey, Isaac has visions of the future and can tell who will die next, but is helpless to stop it. Their family eventually makes it to what is known as the Trail of Tears, where many of the Choctaw Indians are being forced to walk to a relocation reservation because of “Treaty Talk.” On the way, they run into many obstacles like Small Pox filled blankets and a kidnapped girl.

Isaac knows that he will die on this journey, but he doesn’t know when. After Naomi is kidnapped, he is told by another ghost that he can make her parents happy again by finding her. Isaac and his friend Joseph (who can turn into a panther) set out to save Naomi on a treacherous journey where the true evil of the white men are displayed. Isaac is authentic and courageous, culturally diverse (obviously) and likeable.

While this is a fast moving book with lots of action and a side storyline as a vehicle to show the historic Trail of Tears, the book is true to native folklore and spirituality. Some Choctaw language is sprinkled in and given meaning. Joseph can turn into a spirit animal. Isaac sees the future and can communicate with the ghosts of his ancestors, and the teens are motivated to please their ancestors by helping the families survive the trip. The magical realism didn’t bother me except that the dog, Jumper, can talk.

Although the text doesn’t dwell on it, there is a lot of honest gore. Make sure your reader can handle that. It’s slightly graphic in that it talks about a girl freezing to death and the parents wrapping up her dead body and carrying her, a group of old women  spraying blood everywhere to scare the white people, the same group picking clean human bones to save for burial, a wolf ripping open a boy’s throat and killing him, a girl kidnapped by soldiers into slavery and tied to a wall and later strung up by her wrists by a rope hanging on a tree, the general forced walk and genocide of an entire people, a scene where a boy’s feet freeze to the ground and it rips his skin off, leaving bloody footprints, a girl hiding in a box of human bones, and a description of natives dying in fires and from Smallpox.

How I Became a Ghost is a short, accessible novel that is candid and engaging. It addressed weighty social issues that may be revelatory to young readers. The tone is haunting, sad and moving despite feeling slightly adventurous (to lighten the mood a little bit for the youngsters). It has a strong sense of place in that all the tools and strategies Isaac uses are based on the natural world and the ways of the Choctaw people.

How I Became a Ghost was a 2014 American Indian Youth Literature Award winner. Here is Debbie Reese’s review:

Read-alikes: Ghost Hawk (Tingle’s book is much better and shorter) by Susan Cooper. For more adventurous stories where Native Americans are mistreated by soldiers, try Code Talkers by Joseph Bruchac.