The familiar American ghost story, writes scholar Kathleen Brogan, is a “thrilling fireside tale.” We imagine nineteenth-century authors—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe —composing these tales by candlelight, detailing black veils and catacombs with an inky quill. Their settings, haunted houses and graveyards, are manifestations of grief, corruption, and shame. Ghosts are evil.
But in some contemporary literature, Brogan argues in her seminal article “American Stories of Cultural Haunting,” ghosts take on new meaning. Writers of color—Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Cristina Garcia—use phantoms not to symbolize threat, but to “recreate ethnic identity through an imaginative recuperation of the past.” Their characters’ ancestors were subjugated, colonized, and displaced. They suffered bloody deaths and were buried in unmarked graves. It’s no wonder their spirits still roam the earth. But they aren’t necessarily malicious: at least, not forever. These books follow a “movement from possession to exorcism—or more accurately, from bad to good forms of haunting.”
When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky, Margaret Verble’s new novel, is just this kind of ghost story. It follows Two Feathers, a visiting horse-diver at Nashville’s Glenville Park Zoo in the summer of 1926. One day, her routine—diving from a high platform into a pool of water, on the back of a horse—goes terribly wrong. The rest of the book is consumed with Two’s recovery from injury, her reckoning with a sinister zookeeper, and the stories of other people who live on the park’s property. Near the novel’s close, the zoo’s animals come under threat. It’s an unusual structure that saves major plot points for the beginning and end, with a middle designed to process what’s happened and worry about what’s to come.
Two loves these creatures, communing with the bears and buffalo. She “smudges,” burning cedar and sage to cleanse tainted spaces. She hears her grandmother’s voice, though she lives miles away on an Oklahoma ranch with the rest of Two’s extended family. And she’s haunted—protected by the ghost of a Cherokee brave named Little Elk who was killed centuries ago in a skirmish with white settlers on Glenville’s property. The ghost scrounges for tobacco; he gets jealous and petulant. He wants to be acknowledged and remembered. And he isn’t evil.