Authors: Delia Ray
Copyright Â© 2003 by Delia Ray
All rights reserved. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Clarion Books, an imprint of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2003.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to
or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.
Cover art Â© by Julia Denos
Cover design by Whitney Leader-Picone
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
Ghost girl : a Blue Ridge Mountain story / by Delia Ray.
Summary: Eleven-year-old April is delighted when President and Mrs. Hoover build a school near her Madison County, Virginia, home, but her family's poverty, grief over the accidental death of her brother, and other problems may mean that April can never learn to read from the wonderful teacher, Miss Vest.
[1. SchoolsâFiction. 2. TeachersâFiction. 3. GriefâFiction. 4. Hoover, Herbert, 1874â1964âFiction. 5. Hoover, Lou Henry, 1874â1944âFiction. 6. VirginiaâHistoryâ20th centuryâFiction. 7. Skyline Drive (Va.)âHistoryâFiction.] I. Title.
2003004 1 1 5
ISBN: 978-0-618-33377-6 hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-544-70633-0 paperback
a true mountain man in deed and spirit
I would like to thank the staff at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, for patiently guiding me through their fascinating collection of Hoover letters, diaries, and photographs. I am grateful to George Nash for reviewing my manuscript and sharing his extensive knowledge about the Hoover family. During the initial stages of this project, Darwin Lambert and the staff at the Shenandoah National Park Archives provided valuable answers to my questions about the park's history. I also owe a great deal of thanks to the sons of Christine Vest WitcofskiâRobert and Richard Witcofskiâwho so graciously provided details and information about their mother's life.
Thanks to my wonderful writing groupâTerri Gullickson, Carolyn Lieberg, Jennifer Reinhardt, Julie Wasson, and Adeline Hooper Samuelsâfor generously giving your talents and support. And finally, thank you again to my faithful team of undercover editorsâMatt, Caroline, Susanna, Lily Howard, and especially Bobby Rayâfor serving as a constant source of inspiration, encouragement, and writing wisdom.
'Course I never believed Dewey Jessup
when he said he had met the president of the United States. Dewey was always telling tales about one thing or anotherâabout his pa being the best preacher in the whole Blue Ridge. About how fast he could run, how far he could spit.
But there he was, standing like a hickory stump in my way, boasting about how he had just spent the afternoon with President Herbert Hoover, how he got to see every little hidey-hole of Camp Rapidan, the president's new summer place down the mountain.
“I brung him a baby possum for his birthday,” Dewey told me.
I looked sideways at his dusty feet and worn-out overalls. “You brung the president a
“Yep,” he said, poking his chest out. “Pa told me he heard it was Mr. Hoover's birthday and that he was at Camp Rapidan to go fishing. So I caught a little bitty possum hiding up under our shed. Then I throwed him in a gunnysack, went right over there, and gave that possum to the president.”
“What about all them marines they got watching the place?” I asked. “They just let you walk right past?”
Dewey was ready with his answer. “None of them marines even seen me,” he bragged. “I snuck through the woods, round the back way. Pretty soon I was settin' on their settin' porch, with my feet up, eating on a big piece of layer cake.”
“Huh” was all I said. I pushed by him. Mama wanted me to go fetch some snap beans from Aunt Birdy's garden and get back before dark, so I had to hurry. Night always came an hour early to our hollow over on Doubletop Mountain.
“Don't you want to know what-all me and the president talked about?” Dewey asked. He stuck right to me like a mayfly, but I never even turned my head.
“Miz Hoover asked where me and all the kids round here go to school. You should have seen her face when I said there weren't no school to go to. She turned just as white as your hair, April Sloane.”
I kept marching straight up the trail, holding tight to Mama's best oak-split basket. Dewey and his friends were always teasing me about my towhead and my light eyes and my skinny arms. They called me ghost girl.
“Better watch out, ghost girl!” they'd holler. “We can see right through you!”
Dewey was still following, practically breathing down my back. “Miz Hoover says since we don't have a school, the president and her might just have to see about getting us one.”
I stopped cold, then turned around real slow. “What did you say?” I asked.
A big grin spread out over Dewey's wide face. “I said, the Hoovers say they're gonna build us a school.”
“You're lying again, Dewey Jessup,” I whispered.
His grin turned sour. “That so?” He smirked at me and reached down into the pocket of his overalls. “If I'm lying, ghost girl, then where'd I get this?” He waved something green at me.
It was cashâa five-dollar bill. I had seen a five-dollar bill only a few times beforeâhiding down in Mama's money jar, when Daddy had steady work at the tannery.
I was already halfway to Aunt Birdy's place, and Dewey was still crowing. “Five dollars!” he hollered after me. “President Hoover give me five dollars for that little bitty possum!”
I first heard the hammers a couple months later when I was out hunting ginseng root. Kneeling there in the hickory shadows, in the finest patch of sang I had come across all October, I felt a chill run up my neck. A little voice breezed through my head.
“He weren't lying after all,”
“He weren't lying after all.”
Right away, I wanted to track down the pounding of those hammers and make sure it was trueâthat we were getting our very own schoolâbut I knew Mama would be hot if I came home without my sang sack full. She was planning on drying the roots and fetching a good price for them down at Taggart's store. Folks with rheumatism would pay their last dime for a chance to brew the ginseng into tea and ease the ache in their joints. So I grabbed up my sang stick and went back to digging the spidery roots out of the ground, trying to push the echo of those hammers out of my head.
It wasn't until after we'd had a few hard frosts that I managed to get away from chores long enough to see for myself what was happening. I found the workers up on the ridge above Aunt Birdy's place. They had already laid down a layer of stone, and a frame of timbers was rising high up over it, higher than any cabin or barn I'd ever seen. I reckoned that if you stood on the roof you'd be able to see all the way over our rolling mountainsâover Fork Mountain and Doubletop and Stonyâmaybe all the way to Criglersville.
I climbed a little closer and saw that Preacher Jessup, Dewey's pa, was there, working alongside the other men. Then, the next thing I knew, Dewey himself was coming up over the ridge, bringing his daddy supper in a tin pail. He was whistling, like always. And like always, I knew the tune right off.
Whistling was one of the reasons I despised Dewey Jessup. He didn't just whistle any old songs. They were my songsâones that Mama and Daddy and Riley and I had listened to over and over on our Victrola.
I'll never forget the day when Daddy brought the Victrola home in the back of the wagon. At first Mama was angry when she heard he'd traded a month's work down in the valley for a phonograph. But when Daddy cranked the handle and the first notes of sweet music filled up our cabin, even Mama had to smile.
That was all before my little brother died and Mama made Daddy sell the Victrola and our stack of records to the Jessups because they reminded her of Riley and because we needed the extra money. Now that smooth red mahogany case with the turntable inside was sitting in Dewey's front room, and every day he walked around whistling the tunes that rightly belonged to me.
Before Dewey saw me, I scooted behind a pile of lumber and watched him through a chink in the boards. While the workmen sat down to eat their supper, he walked around the building two or three times with his chest pushed out farther than ever. I smiled to myself, thinking about what my Aunt Birdy would sayâ“just a backyard goose struttin' like a front-lawn peacock.”
I was feeling antsy and getting ready to sneak off when I heard a low rumbling sound that made my stomach flip-flop. I peeked through the boards again, and pulling up in front of me was a shiny black automobile, long and sleek as a bull snake. The workmen were just as shocked as I was. They froze in the middle of chewing, with biscuits and drumsticks halfway up to their faces.