Trace, Pat Cummings (HarperCollins 978-0-06-269884-1, $16.99, 320pp, hc) April 2019.
Sometimes, readers want a gentle story with big-hearted characters that manages to convey powerful drama in a subtle plot. Trace by Pat Cummings is exactly that, a ghost story that combines an unfolding historical mystery with a heartfelt coming-of-age tale. It is a muted novel, as much about the struggle of adapting to a new family situation as it is about a young ghost in the New York Public Library. But don’t mistake an absence of horror or suspense for lack of compelling narrative. Trace, both the book and the main character who shares its name, are emotional and endearing and achingly smart. Author Pat Cummings has a gift for making readers care deeply for the young people she writes about, and that gift is what keeps the pages turning.
Trace Carter is a young teen struggling to hold himself together in a new school, new town, and new life. His parents were killed in a devastating car accident from which he barely survived. Although his loving aunt has opened her heart and home to him, his grief is an overwhelming thing that makes even the smallest joys difficult to accept. Plowing doggedly through another typical day, he sets out to meet some classmates for a group assignment when he sees the ghost of a small boy in the basement of the New York Public Library. The boy is looking for someone, longing for someone, and in the ensuing chapters he reaches out repeatedly to Trace for help.
It makes perfect sense that Trace would latch onto the mystery of the boy and who he was as a welcome distraction from his sorrow. Bit by bit, with the help of everyone who cares about him (including a librarian!), he learns about the 1863 riots in New York City and the destruction of the Colored Orphan Asylum, near the present location of the library. As to how the ghost boy is connected to the asylum, and more importantly connected to Trace, that is for the reader to discover. It is a satisfying connection that works both with the city and Trace’s own family history. All in all, Cummings performs some neat plot tricks that will satisfy mystery readers.
As much as I liked the ghostly connection however (and the history!), it was the characters who really appealed to me in this book. Trace is a good kid bearing a heavy weight, and Cummings allows all of his emotions to spill over onto the page as he navigates the new world that is his life. It’s his Aunt Lea and the friends the two of them surround themselves with who create a place of peace and joy in Trace that makes readers believe the rest of the book is possible. The bohemian Lea shows her nephew in everything she does that there is still good in the world, and with her meals and music and laughter-filled existence she makes him believe that hope can be his. Her grief is there too, but more than anything it is her love that Cummings places on the page. Trace is certainly a ghost story, and also a mystery, but mostly, it is about finding the family and friends who will never stop saving you, even if it takes more than one hundred years to get the job done.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the August 2019 issue of Locus.
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