GHOST WOMAN by Lawrence Thornton


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Thornton (Imagining Argentina, 1987, Under the Gypsy Moon, 1990) expands on an ancient Indian legend--and gives it a pronounced Greek-tragedy twist--in this haunting tale of an Indian woman on the California coast who transforms the lives of all who know her. Most inhabitants of early 19th-century Santa Barbara have heard the legend of the Ghost Woman who haunts San Nicolas Island: a member of an Indian tribe removed by ship to serve the local mission ten years before, she is said to have jumped ship, drowned in the ocean, and returned to wander the island as an evil spirit. When portly, ambitious Fray Santos of the Santa Barbara mission becomes convinced that the woman may still be alive, his dreams of bringing about a miraculous conversion spur him to contract adventurous shipowner Henry Harper to take him to the island. To everyone's amazement, the Indian woman is indeed found still living in her abandoned village, wearing a dress of feathers and praying to a totemic, feather-covered miniature ship with which she believes she brought her rescuers to her shore. She is brought back in triumph to Santa Barbara, where the needs and desires of her several hosts--Fray Santos, who depends on her to pave his path to glory in Rome; Henry Harper, who lusts after her; Henry's lonely wife, Elizabeth, who befriends the woman and names her Soledad--initiate an inexorable chain of transgressions that cuts deep into the next generation. Thornton's measured, elegiac style adds an undertow of mystery and wonder to what is, in essence, classic tragedy. Though readers may balk at a poorly disguised contrivance here and there, the tale's mythic power is worth the subterfuge. Solemn, engaging, and politically correct.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0520220684
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin