05 January 2015

Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Andrew Smith. I read WINGER, GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, and 100 SIDEWAYS MILES last year and all three of them were absolutely amazing. As 2014 wound to an end, I got all five of his other books, and have been reading them in order of publication.

GHOST MEDICINE is Andrew Smith's debut, but in it one can read the DNA of his later stories. It was fun and heartrending in equal measures, and it shone a light on those aspects of Smith's writing I find so enchanting.

Troy Stotts just lost his mother, and as GHOST MEDICINE begins, he is taking his horse up into the mountains to be alone. Is he running away or running toward something. That question is at the heart of the novel.

Troy's closest friends, Tommy Buller and Gabriel Benavidez, and his de-facto-girlfriend, Luz Benavidez, fill most of the novel, as they grow up, argue, chase down mountain lions, and get into a fight with the town bully. And as intense and real as those relationships are, as heartwarming and heartbreaking as they can be at times, what struck me most about GHOST MEDICINE were the times when Troy was interacting with his father. It reminded me so strongly of 100 SIDEWAYS MILES, it was like the two were in the same universe. Maybe they are.

But I knew things about my father I didn't have to say; all boys know those things about their dads.

This line came early on in the book, but it stuck with me throughout, and even now that I've finished I keep thinking about it. 100 SIDEWAYS MILES was informed by Smith's feelings about his son going away to college; I wonder how much of GHOST MEDICINE was informed by his relationship with his son when he was younger. Smith is brave and generous to share that part of himself with us.

Anyone who has read books by Andrew Smith knows there's bound to be amazing supporting characters, and in particular an awesome Best Friend. Tommy Buller was all that and more.

I talked once or twice about mothers with Tom Buller, and it was probably the only the only thing we ever talked about that made him quiet or uncomfortable. I understood now what kept my friend from mouthing certain words, and I never for a moment believed I knew anyone in my life who was stronger or more admirable. 

Wow. Just wow.

And, in keeping with form, there was a gutwrenching twist at the end - not a surprise, so much as an unexpected turn of events, and even though you know it's coming, it still manages to shock you. GHOST MEDICINE might be the template for all that came after.

I'm so glad I read GHOST MEDICINE, but, strange as this sounds, I'm glad I read Smith's other books first. GHOST MEDICINE was a bit heavier than, say, WINGER, and while it was beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable, it was not nearly as breezy. The witty humor in WINGER or GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE are hinted at in GHOST MEDICINE but aren't as prominent, and it made me realize just how truly funny the later books are.

Not that everything needs to be funny, mind you. I would not change a single word of GHOST MEDICINE, but it was interesting to see how things have changed.

I suppose this is rambling, and I think, maybe, that's okay. There was a certain elliptical pattern to GHOST MEDICINE's narrative that lends itself well to the western theme and the dry imagery of California ranch country. And so, too, to this reflection.

Final verdict: Go read GHOST MEDICINE.

That is all.