Oct 11, 2016

Avi’s Seer of Shadows: Historical Ghost Story

craft review by Sonya Doernberg

by Avi (HarperCollins, 2008).

New York City, 1872. Fourteen-year-old Horace Carpetine, a photographer’s apprentice, notices a girl standing outside the studio’s gate. She seems to appear magically out of the thick fog that envelops New York City. The two talk briefly about scheduling a photography session before the girl “vanishes into the mist as eerily as she had appeared.” Is she real or is she a ghost?  More importantly, how did Avi build so much suspense so quickly?  

Words like “fog, haze, mist, vanishing, eerily, unexpected, uncertain, unsettling, suddenly” communicate and create mystery. It turns out the girl, Pegg, is a servant for a wealthy family and very real, but the feel of the first scene sets up a very real ghost story. Within the first few pages of the novel, Avi has set up the spookiness and the historical setting that intertwine to create a masterful story.

**Note: This craft review contains spoilers.**


Blending Genres

Seer of Shadows reads like a ghost story at first rather than historical fiction. While set squarely in the late 1800s, the novel is filled with magical elements, such as the malevolent ghost that’s both real and central to the story. Remember those agents and editors who told you that a book cannot be both a historical fiction and paranormal?  Avi’s subject matter allows him to embrace both genres in one story.

Action: Does your subject matter allow you to write a two- or three-genre story?


Finding Conflict in the Historical Setting

Avi captures the battle of science and rationality versus spiritualism that raged the late 1800s. In the novel, technology and spiritualism connect and co-exist. Photography was the latest and greatest technology of the day, and it seemed like magic. Through the negatives Horace shoots, the story’s ghosts comes to life and grow stronger. Horace and Pegg are pulled into chasing and capturing the ghost, who turns out to be Pegg’s angelic (and dead) former master’s daughter and best friend. Since the spirit of the dead girl came through a photo negative, the ghost is the opposite of what the girl was. This creative turn uses the technology to amp up the spookiness.

Horace himself embodies the conflict between rationality and spirituality. Coming from a household that believes in science and rational explanations, Horace, at first, doubts the ghost’s existence. He soon discovers that in addition to having a rational mind, he sees ghosts and the angel of death. His empiricism leads him to acknowledge the reality of the ghost.

Action: What social conflicts occur in your time period? How can those conflicts inform your main character’s internal conflict?


Historical Setting as an Asset

Horace is endearing in his quest to do the right thing while surrounded by adults with dubious ethics or none at all. True to the time period, the character is archaic in his speech and deed. One advantage to writing historical middle grade fiction is that the writer does not have to be well-versed in the latest hipster vocabulary.

The historical setting also allows Avi to focus on friendship rather than romance. As the apparition grows more dangerous and life-like, Horace and Pegg join forces to return the ghost back to wherever. Their friendship becomes romantic only toward the very end of the book. Pegg is an orphan who goes to live with Horace and his parents once the ghost is defeated.  They marry when both are old enough, toward the very end of the book: “When I was eighteen, Peg seventeen, there being no one else with whom we wished to share our heart or our secrets, Pegg and I married.” Avi handles their romance with the delicate caution required by parents and teachers of middle-grade readers.

Action: How do you handle friendship and romance? What qualities lead from one to the other? How can your historical setting be an asset?

What did you learn about craft from Seer of Shadows?


  1. Kristi Wright says:

    Love this analysis! Thank you:)

  2. Well done, Sonya. Thoughtful analysis and plenty of food for thought with our own writing. I clapped when I read this line:
    “Action: Does your subject matter allow you to write a two- or three-genre story?” A freeing challenge for me. Out of the box and onto the page!
    Thanks… Kat St.Claire

  3. amstrwriter says:

    I especially love the section about how the historical setting gives rise to the conflict. Horace’s dilemma between the practical and logical view espoused by his father and the spiritualism of the time is a particularly striking element in the story. I love how the two come together when his empiricism leads him to accept that the ghost is real.


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