I just *love* spooky middle grade novels, so when I was offered a chance to read THE GRAVE DIGGER by Rebecca Bischoff, I leapt at the chance! *While I was given a free digital copy by Amberjack Publishing and NetGalley, opinions expressed here are my own.*
THE GRAVE DIGGER (out Oct. 29, 2019!) is a middle grade historical mystery with a decidedly creepy bent. Twelve-year-old Captain Cooper is an ingenious inventor and a somewhat middling student with a surprising side hustle: at night, Cap works with his father and his father’s shady pal Lum, digging up corpses and selling them to nearby medical schools for dissection. Lum’s got connections, see? And he knows where to sell the bodies at top rates.
Of course, their business isn’t strictly legal. And when the people of their small Ohio town discover that the graves of their loved ones have been violated, they declare open season on the grave robbers. Thing is . . . Cap and his dad really need the money. Cap’s mother is heavily pregnant and her health has been failing – and all those doctor visits have threatened to put the family in the poorhouse. Cap never wanted to rob graves. Hates it, in fact. But when Lum rallies the Coopers for another job, Cap has no choice but to obey his father and help out.
That’s the night they dig up Cap’s classmate, Jessamyn. Cap has always had special feelings about Jessamyn, even if he’s been too shy to actually speak to her before. So it’s Cap who tenderly brushes the dirt from her face as the digging crew begins to exhume her body. The moment he touches her, though, the most marvelous thing happens: Jessamyn opens her eyes. A startled Cap cries out and attracts the attention of the watch, forcing the crew to scatter. Cap narrowly avoids capture before taking Jessamyn home to the nuns who look after her.
Later, Jessamyn comes to thank Cap for saving her from what might have been a terrible fate – but she also asks him for his help. When she died, she had been wearing a ruby ring. The sisters swore she was buried with it, but when she woke the ring was gone. Jessamyn claims the ring is the only thing she has left of her parents.
Cap knows he has to help Jessamyn. He might have saved her life, but only because he was there to steal her body. He can’t tell her that, of course, but he can help her solve this mystery. Unfortunately for Cap and Jessamyn, the missing ring is merely the first clue to a much deeper, much darker mystery.
As Cap and Jessamyn follow clues, they begin to realize that the town’s grave robbing troubles are merely a symptom of a serious crime syndicate bolstered by some of the town’s most prominent members . . . and it’s getting hard to tell exactly who is involved, and who they can trust. One thing’s for sure: Cap knows he can’t trust Lum, and that means he can’t trust his father, either.
Luckily Cap meets another friend, Delphia – a young black woman bent on becoming a doctor – who he can rely on . . . as long as she doesn’t know the real reason he got mixed up in this business. With Delphia’s smarts and her connections to the local doctors, Cap learns quite a bit about the trail of (missing) bodies. But he still can’t find the missing piece that links it all together: who is Lum selling the bodies to?
Then Delphia’s own mother delivers a stillborn. That night, ol’ Lum comes knocking on the Cooper’s door, and Cap’s father drags him to the cemetery again, where they dig up the tiny corpse. This time, Cap knows too much about the baby’s fate to allow it. He takes the corpse and runs. When Delphia discovers him with the body, she draws all the wrong conclusions (sort of) and kicks Cap out into the night, where the neighborhood watch is waiting to round him up. Somehow, they’ve gotten wind that HE was the one responsible for the crime!
With Cap’s role in the grave robbing is uncovered, the entire town is hot on his heels. And Jessamyn and Delphia . . . well. Cap doesn’t think they’ll ever speak to him again. Not unless he can prove his (relative) innocence and uncover the true culprit behind the capers. Can Cap solve the mystery of who’s REALLY behind the body snatching and clear his name? And now that his role has been exposed, will he ever be able to face Delphia and Jessamyn – or his mama – again?
THE GRAVE DIGGER is a grim but highly enjoyable mystery that mature MG readers with a penchant for spooky things will likely love. Cap himself is relatable and, while at times morally ambiguous, ultimately wants to do the right thing. Readers will cheer for Cap as he delves deeper into the mystery of the body snatchers, at great risk, for the sake of his friends and a shot at personal redemption.
Author Rebecca Bischoff also presents an accessible portrait of post-Civil War Ohio, although race relations are generally painted in manner that might seem a bit rosier than history has led us to believe. It’s not all sunshine, though. The town’s black residents are referred to as “colored” (in keeping with the historical period) and the “colored” body count certainly tops that of the town’s white residents. This is because the grave robbers, and those that employ them, believe these residents won’t be missed – or if they are, that their loved ones won’t have the civil capital to pursue the matter further. (They’re right.) In that way, Bischoff doesn’t shy away from racial disenfranchisement. There is also one character who is presented as overtly racist (though the book does not use that term), and Cap’s mother – a literary progressive – provides a foil for this. Cap himself doesn’t seem to have many thoughts on race, though he befriends Delphia and it is also revealed later that Jessamyn herself is half black. Rather, Cap acts as a sponge, soaking in the words and deeds of those around him and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions on how the other characters interact.
Altogether, THE GRAVE DIGGER offers readers a winding mystery that is equal parts entertaining, thoughtful, and pretty dang creepy – a perfect way to ease into the spooky season!
Are you a fan of creepy reads? What are some of your favorite “spooky MG” titles? Help us make a list in the comments section!
Related post: Forty Favorite Haunted Tomes by Marti Johnson