Book review: Ghostly Echoes, by William Ritter

William Ritter’s Ghostly Echoesthe third in the Jackaby series, is, to be honest, a kind of underwhelming book. It just doesn’t have the same sharp, creative sparkle as JackabyIt’s not bad, and I’m not saying don’t read it, I’m just saying that you might want to recalibrate your expectations a little. However, there’s one area where it excels: Some really great character development, and as in the other Jackaby books, some really thoughtful, striking commentaries embedded as asides.

There’s a lot of interesting characterisation going on in Ghostly Echoes, but the one character who really stands out for me is Miss Lee, who is actually quite peripheral to the narrative. We see her a handful of times, and while she helps to drive the plot, she’s not integral. She just happens to be there, like so many characters who make up a lush tapestry of people who come together to create a story.

She’s introduced to us when Jackaby and Abigail encounter her being attacked in an alley. She’s beaten severely enough to have obviously serious injuries, which she attempts to dismiss when Jackaby and Abigail escort her back to her home. What strikes me about her, though, is what comes later, in a conversation between Jackaby and Abigail.

‘Was Miss Lee really…’ I hesitated.

‘What?’ Jackaby looked back at me.

‘Miss Lee was really a boy, wasn’t she? Underneath?’

He slowed and then came to a stop and looked me square in the eyes. ‘That’s up to her to decide, I suppose, but it’s not what I saw. Underneath, she was herself.’

Miss Lee is trans. And in a quick exchange, we see Abigail trying to grapple with that, negotiating something that is foreign and deeply unfamiliar to her, and Jackaby taking it in stride. Some might view this scene as kind of moralising and lecturing, a ‘let’s all take time out to gawk at the trans character’ scene, but it’s not how I read it. It’s a conversation like so many others that Abigail has with her employer, as she understands that the boundaries of the world are way bigger than she ever imagined.

These novels are set in a fictionalised version of turn of the last century New England, which gives Ritter a lot of license when it comes to people and scenery. But the fact is that we rarely see trans characters in fiction, and when we do, it’s almost always in contemporary fiction, in a nod to the growing visibility of the trans community. Some people are exploring transness in science fiction and fantasy, but I almost never see trans people in historical fiction (or pseudohistorical fiction). That’s not to say that they don’t exist, but they’re quite rare. Which makes it hugely affirming to see a trans girl treated as a matter of course by a progressive character, while still dealing with the incredible social stigma that comes with being trans in a society that is extremely resistant to transgender people.

People like to claim that the transgender community somehow sprung into existence in the last couple of decades, which simply isn’t true. Pioneers like Lili Elbe and Christine Jorgensen were laying the groundwork for medical transition earlier in the 20th century, but long before that, people were socially transitioning. They weren’t wearing drag (though people certainly did), nor were they disguising themselves as a different gender for various purposes (though people certainly did). They were just people, who were trans, and were trying to make the best of what was often a very bad lot in eras when the trans community was poorly understood and transition could be extremely dangerous.

Women like Miss Lee existed. It’s notable that we encounter her experiencing violence, but also that she’s poor, reflecting realities for actual trans women of the time. Ritter often does a really sharp job of balancing absurdity and humour and fantastical elements while grounding his stories in reality. We don’t see Miss Lee married to a nice man in a fancy house, living the high life. We see her experiencing what a lot of trans women dealt with, and continue to deal with.

And that means a lot to me. It’s frustrating sometimes to feel like fiction only presents tragic trans stories, which Miss Lee’s definitely is, but in this case, it feels contextually appropriate. It fits with the narrative, the time, and the characters — it would feel really stiff and artificial for a trans woman to be magically accepted in the higher echelons of society, with everyone totally hunky dory and on board with everything going on.

The problem that characters like Miss Lee face is that because there are so few of them, they’re carrying an outsized load of expectations and demands. When we mostly see tragic trans stories, it’s easy to condemn all of them for reinforcing stereotypes and suggesting that life as a trans person is inherently tragic and sad and distressing. We know this isn’t the case, and we definitely need to see more diverse trans characters, living across a wider spectrum, but at the same time, tragic trans stories have a grain of truth. They reflect real lived experiences. So while we fight to show the full spectrum of trans life, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Image: Ghost, Jordi Carrasco, Flickr