Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf BYR
Publication Date: June 14, 2011
In a year that seems to be saturated with ghost stories, The Revenant stands out with its gothic, late nineteenth century setting and gutsy main character.
Learning that she must go back home to help her mother an stepfather, Willie assumes the identity of one of her classmates and accepts a teaching position at the Cherokee Female Seminary. Believing it to be a post teaching girls from traditional Cherokee families, Willie is surprised by what she finds in Oklahoma. The girls are much more refined and the Seminary better attended than she expected. Within a few days, Willie learns that a student, named Ella, drowned in the nearby river the year before and it turns out that she is living in Ella's room.
Soon, odd things begin to occur: odd tapping sounds at Willie's window late at night and the smell of river water in different areas of the school. It seems as though Ella's ghost wants the mystery surrounding her death to be solved. In the midst of teaching, romance, directing the school play, and trying to keep her true identity secret, Willie attempts to unravel the clues about Ella's death.
The setting was what really drew me to The Revenant. 1896 Oklahoma, Indian Territory, is not where you would expect a YA novel to be set, but it worked here. Ms. Gensler captures the mood, language, and style of the time so well, that it becomes almost like another character. And she doesn't skip over some of the important issues, like the racism between the students. The snobbery of those who were wealthy towards the girls with a more traditional background was just one of the issues Willie faced at the Seminary.
I'm normally not a fan of ghost stories, but this one was done so well; it had just enough creepy to keep the story moving along and interesting without getting too scary. Also, despite what was happening at the school, it seemed that the revenant wasn't a malevolent spirit, which made the creepy/scary parts easier to read. The mystery surrounding Ella's death and the search for her killer ended up being my favorite of the main storylines. The mystery touched all of the characters (from Ella’s friends to her teachers and Willie, who had never met her) and it was interesting to see how they were each affected.
Another piece that I really loved was the romance. It was difficult to read, in that way that even though you’re routing for the characters and want them to be together, you know actually getting to that point won’t be easy. It was nice to read a romance where the two people actually spend time getting to know each other. This is also where Willie’s age really shows itself, because she likes this boy, but doesn’t really know how to deal with the fact that 1) it seems that one of her students may be in a relationship with him, 2) she really likes him and 3) she can’t believe that he may just have feelings for her too! And as always, it doesn’t hurt that he’s swoon worthy.
With all that there is to love about The Revenant, the whole stolen identity portion didn’t interest me at all. At first it added tension: will Willie get caught or will she do or say something to rouse suspicion? But after awhile, I got tired of her having to hide who she was.
Overall, The Revenant is a terrific atmospheric read. I love the ghost story combined with the mystery. And the setting is one that I have not really encountered outside of non-fiction texts. I would love to read more books set in both this time period and place. I recommend The Revenant to those that like their ghost stories with a side of romance.