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Books in Brief: Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart

CHILDREN’s

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart; Scholastic, 234 pages, $16.99. Ages 8 to 12.

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A 12-year-old boy grieving the deaths of his parents and little sister sets off on foot through the wilds of 1890s Washington to recover his beloved Indian pony – the only “family” he has left – in this gripping historical novel from the author of “The Honest Truth.” The typhoid claimed his mother and sister, then a wagon accident killed his father, leaving Joseph Johnson in the care of a drunken farmhand who sells Joseph’s pony, Sarah, to a crooked horse trader named Ezra Bishop. Joseph sets out to track down his pony, and his journey through the wilderness, in the company of a Chinese boy his own age, is a dangerous one as they encounter a grizzly, treacherous river rapids, strangers who are prejudiced against Chinese immigrants – and an outlaw or two. The two don’t speak each other’s language but manage to communicate, forging a strong friendship along the way. Gemeinhart offers thrilling adventure, a well-crafted plot, memorable characters (including the pony, Sarah) and a vivid portrait of the Wild West and a boy’s struggle to be true to the values he learned from his parents.

– Jean Westmoore

FICTION

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (318 pages, $24)

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“All stories are ghost stories,” says Cora, the narrator of part of Samantha Hunt’s unsettling third novel “Mr. Splitfoot.” Maybe she’s right: Our pasts inevitably haunt us, whoever and wherever we are.

But that title conjures up something more frightening than a ghost, more menacing than your garden variety dead person. “Mr. Splitfoot” sounds like a beast of dark appetites, a stealer of souls. His presence is represented by black pages separating every chapter, each adorned with a single white hoof print (the novel is beautifully designed, from these pages to its provocative jacket cover). We may not know who “Mr. Splitfoot” is, exactly, but we know instinctively we want no part of him.

Author of the novels “The Seas” and “The Invention of Everything Else,” a finalist for the Orange Prize and winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, Hunt maintains a dark and disturbing atmosphere throughout this intriguing, well-drawn gothic, creating a terrain that’s familiar and yet alien and unnerving at the same time. Two stories unspool, as the characters work their way toward ominous revelations.

The first (and most compelling) narrative involves Ruth and Nat, teenagers on the verge of “aging out” at the grim Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission in upstate New York. At 18, they’ll be dumped unceremoniously on the street, like Ruth’s older sister El, who vanished when Ruth was 5. But for now they and other unwanted or orphaned misfits survive under the watchful and megalomaniacal eye of Father Arthur.

Nat, though, can talk to the dead. Summoning an invisible entity – Mr. Splitfoot – as a conduit, he conjures up long-vanished mothers for the other children at the home (for a price). Then an enterprising salesman, Mr. Bell, shows up with a proposal: He can introduce Ruth and Nat to desperate people outside the home who will pay a lot of money to contact the dead, cash Ruth and Nat can use to strike out on their own. Soon Ruth learns the rhythms of grifting, pretending to be talking to the dead herself. But she never doubts Nat’s connection to Mr. Splitfoot, even when it leads them into danger.

In the second story set decades later – the chapters alternate throughout the book – we meet Cora, Ruth’s niece, who works at a job she hates and spends too much time on the Internet. She’s at loose ends, pregnant with her married lover’s child, her future uncertain. Then Ruth shows up unannounced.

But don’t abandon hope. As Cora and Ruth keep walking, ever closer to whatever surprise (or horror) lies ahead, your patience will pay off. If all stories are ghost stories, if our pasts do haunt us, maybe they can save us, too.

– Connie Ogle, Miami Herald