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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds Jade Green: A Ghost Story.Atheneum, 2000. [176] p
ISBN 0-689-82005-4   $16.00    Gr. 7-10

Before young adult fiction established itself as a genre, gothic romance novels were a reading staple of adolescent girls. The plots were, to put it kindly, predictable: a young woman (preferably an orphan) with no visible means of support arrives to stay in an old mansion (family or otherwise, depending on whether she is poor relation or governess) far from wherever it is she comes from, hoping that, at last, she has found sanctuary. Ah, but it is not to be, for the elegant/faded/respectable facade of the manor hides a terrible secret/scandal/family curse, and it is only after the beautiful-and-brave heroine hair-raisingly escapes from potentially tragic accidents, develops suspicions about the dark and brooding lord/worthy stableman/bastard son of the manor, witnesses the unexplainable, and discovers the truth that it (the secret/scandal/family curse) is laid to rest. Along the way the heroine finds true love and the promise of a smoldering (and respectable, since she marries immediately) sex life. Which brings us to this month's Big Picture.

Orphan Judith Sparrow comes to the town of Whispers, South Carolina, knowing little of the uncle who has agreed to give her a home. What she does know is that the color green is strictly prohibited in her uncle's house, but Judith cannot bear to part with a silk frame in the forbidden color that holds a photograph of her late mother. She smuggles it into her room and hides it in the bottom of her trunk, inside her closet.

Life at her Uncle Geoffrey's is more than she dared hope-the house is fine, her uncle kind, and the cook, Mrs. Hastings, warm and welcoming. Judith gets a job at a local milliner's shop trimming hats, and she meets the handsome miller's son Zeke Carey, who shows a good deal of interest in her. At the milliner's shop Judith hears about Jade Green, a young woman taken in by Judith's uncle some years before. Tragically, Jade killed herself under mysterious circumstances (she chopped off her own hand with a meat cleaver and bled to death) and Uncle Geoffrey and Mrs. Hastings still mourn her loss. This lurid tale explains the prohibition of green, Jade's favorite color, in the Sparrow household. But gnawing guilt (for having secreted the forbidden color in her trunk) and unexplained incidents (noises in the closet, photographs that change images) prey on Judith's mind, and begin to make her doubt her own sanity.

Welcome to young adult southern gothic, aka "Hush, Hush, Sweet Judith." Naylor knows her genre and plays it for every histrionic note. Judith's mother died in a madhouse and Judith fears the same fate; her older, dissipated cousin Charles has "rooms in town" so he can dally with "ladies of the night"; and there is rising tension regarding the disposition of the Sparrow family fortune now that there is another possible heir (Judith). But these comparatively mundane problems pale beside the supernatural goings-on. That green frame Judith brought into the house has awakened the ghost of Jade, or rather, it has awakened her severed hand: "I gasped in horror, and my breath stopped. For there on my rug lay a hand, a human hand. A girl's right hand, detached from arm and body. . . . I could only stare at the ghastly spectacle-the limp, white fingers, the delicate wrist, and then, the jagged stump on which dried blood was visible, the broken connection of bone and muscle and skin. . . ." Jade's hand skitters around the mansion, playing the piano, juggling cleavers, locking doors, and generally terrorizing Judith until the night of a furious hurricane, when the vengeful hand saves Judith from the lecherous advances of cousin Charles, who, it is revealed, murdered Jade when she refused to submit to his lustful appetites.

Judith tells her own story in the prim-but-passionate style of an old fashioned romance heroine ("By the time Zeke broke in, would I be ravished, losing not only my honor but possibly my life?"), and there is a subtle tongue-in-cheek flavor to the prose. It is clear Naylor can find her way blindfolded through the turns of this just slightly decadent, barely risqué plot, and she does so with glee and a great deal of authorial control. Her restraint is admirable, for just when you think she's going over the top, she draws back and instead offers a wholesome picnic by the sea and a first kiss "as delicious as any tea cake."

Staying true to gothic form, the small cast of characters are developed just enough to keep them from being flat without slowing down the trajectory of the swiftly building plot. Naylor gets some heart-thumping shock value out of the genuinely creepy appearance of the detached hand, leading up to its debut with scratching sounds in the night, movement caught out of the corner of the eye, something that brushes the face in the dark, and other hints that things aren't quite right. The author uses her late nineteenth-century south-by-the-sea setting to good advantage, combining a foreshadowed hurricane with the final confrontation between murdering cad and (ghost hand of) murdered maiden in a roaring blast of wind, rain, and vengeance that is positively operatic. Judith flees the rising flood with Zeke on "the last wagon to leave Whispers" with one final nightmare image for the road: "I turned in my seat, my eyes riveted upon the hand. Down it came, lower, then lower still, until it reached the swirling water and disappeared. Forever."

No problematic inexplicable adolescent angst here. This is unapologetic, craftily constructed romantic melodrama, complete with hurricanes, stolen kisses, bloodstained steps, and echoes of Mr. Fox. I hope Naylor had as much fun writing it as young adults are going to have reading it.

-- Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
February's Bulletin cover illustration by Mark Elliott from
Jade Green: A Ghost Story,
Copyright 2000. Used by
permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers.



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