“The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street,” by Karen White

Karen White

Reviewed by Brandy Renee McCann

The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street, the sixth novel in the Tradd Street mysteries series by Karen White, brings readers along with Melanie Trenholm as she uncovers the story of a Revolutionary War era spy ring. The rich and evocative language of the opening scene unmistakably draws readers in and places them in historic Charleston, South Carolina, Melanie’s hometown, which she describes as follows: “The steepled skyline at dawn is a familiar sight for early risers who enjoy a respite from the heat and humidity in summer […] or like hearing the chirps and calls of the thousands of birds and insects that populate our corner of the world.” Then comes the hook when Melanie explains why she rises early—to escape the “secret stirrings of the restless dead” who, along with her toddler twins, keep her up at night.  White sets the perfect pace through balancing these anchoring sensory details with a compelling story which had this reader alternately lingering over the lovely prose and turning pages to see what happened next.

Melanie, and the other women in her family, have the gift (or curse) of being able to communicate with the many ghosts that haunt them. Although she prefers to ignore them, these ghosts want Melanie’s help in resolving the mysteries that have left them earthbound so that they may depart for the spirit world. The narrative arc of Melanie’s personal growth gives this mystery weight and depth. On the basis of what she reveals in this Christmas novel, Melanie entered adulthood as a compulsive over-planner who could trust only herself—eschewing the vulnerabilities of close relationships. She attributes her personality largely to the fact that she was abandoned by her mother at a young age and left in the care of her alcoholic father. Although she has reconciled with her parents (in earlier novels), fallen in love, and become a mother, those early childhood experiences continue to resonate in her life.

A prime source of tension in this novel and the series is Melanie’s relationship with her husband, Jack, who is, like her father, a recovering alcoholic. Without having the full background of the previous novels, Jack does not come across as a sympathetic character. For example, he insists that Melanie share every detail of her day, especially as it relates to any ghosts she might encounter. Jack is a writer and needs Melanie’s abilities to help him plot his novels. In this regard he is not much different than Bad Guy, Marc Longo, who pesters Melanie and the scholars who are working at the Tradd Street house for any “finds” they might uncover. Both men want Melanie to use her ability to commune with ghosts for their own ends.

Indeed, few characters show sympathy for Melanie’s situation, highlighting a prevalent tension for women between old Southern values of family hierarchies and new Southern values of cooperation and mutual growth. For example, not only is Melanie constantly beset by ghosts wanting her attention, but also she has a career, young twins, a co-dependent husband, a new-found sister, and an aloof mother who has roped her into helping with the annual “Progressive Dinner,” an intense holiday affair that requires weeks of preparation. In these relationships, Melanie goes along to get along but is in clear need of boundary-setting with family members and standing up for her own needs and wants.

Melanie’s relationship with the dog, General Lee, whom she inherited with the Tradd Street house, is emblematic of her other relationships—and hopefully foreshadows a time when she will take responsible action that nourishes both herself and her relationships. In this novel, she brings the reader up to speed with the dog, saying that she had not wanted him, but then accepted him and left him to his own devices. Finally, in a previous book, his off-the-leash lifestyle has left Melanie with new puppies to care for. She realizes that she must confront the problem. General Lee, and the old problems of the South, are there whether she/we want them or not, and they will not go away on their own. With the dog, Melanie finally takes action and she has him neutered. The symbolism is clear: Melanie has inherited a lot of baggage that she must learn to cope with over the course of the series. That is, she is a woman of the New South and she must grow into that role and shape it by setting boundaries.

On its own, Karen White’s new novel is engaging mystery worth reading any time of the year. Readers of both literary and genre fiction will appreciate this story and, like this reader, want to get spirited away with the series. The novel ends with a bit of a cliff-hanger and I look forward to seeing how Melanie handles the changes she needs to make in her life and relationships.

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