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A 'Ghost' Story Woven With Teen Love And Tragedy

Melanie Sumner, who was raised in Rome, Ga., has written saucily about her Southern roots (in her first novel, The School of Beauty and Charm) and knowingly about West Africa, where she served in the Peace Corps (in her story collection Polite Society). Her second novel is distinguished by its setting in the historically rich and evocative landscape of Taos, N.M. She draws upon the area's natural beauty, and its Hispanic, Pueblo, Apache and Anglo roots, as the backdrop to an intricately woven tale of a community at risk.

The Ghost of Milagro Creek is the story of a teenage love triangle. Mister Romero and Tomas Mondragon, blood brothers since boyhood, are mesmerized by Raquel "Rocky" O'Brien, a Santa Fe gringa, from the moment she enters their all-male high school classroom in 1995.

"Yowza," whispers Mister.

"S'up hoochie-pants!" calls Tomas.

The primary narrator, a ghostly presence hovering over the novel, is Mister's abuela, Ignacia Vigil Romero, a curandera (medicine woman) who helped raise both boys in the Taos barrio. Ignacia begins her story as she lies in her casket on the Wednesday before Easter 2001. "Only in Taos, New Mexico ... would you hold a wake for a witch," Ignacia notes wryly.

Ignacia is trained in the age-old ways. She gathers medicinal herbs, grows her garden, and teaches Mister the life lessons of his Taos ancestors. At 15, Ignacia runs away from the Indian boarding school in Santa Fe and survives a year in the wilderness with her younger brother Ernesto. Years later, she snatches Mister from his mother's abusive boyfriend. She also provides a home for Tomas and his younger sister when their single mother is in jail.

Sumner begins each chapter with a petroglyph, an ancient carving in stone that Ignacia teaches Mister is part of the ancient "book of life." The plot unfolds via police reports, witness transcripts, faxes and other testimonials. This weaving together of the traditional and the contemporary suits Sumner's multigenerational tale. The drama of love turned to violence is almost secondary in this novel. Sumner's most winning creation is Ignacia, the fiercely loving abuela, and the chorus of strong-willed and eccentric Taosenos, a community whose voices are rarely heard in literature.

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Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and BBC.com among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.
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