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Harold Kline is an albino--an outcast. Folks stare and taunt, calling him Ghost Boy. It's been that way all of his 14 years. So when the circus comes to town, Harold runs off to join it.
Full of colorful performers, the circus seems like the answer to Harold's loneliness. He's eager to meet the Cannibal King, a sideshow attraction who's an albino too. He's touched that Princess Minikin and the Fossil Man, two other sideshow curiosities, embrace him like a son. He's in love with Flip, the beguiling horse trainer, and awed by the all-knowing Gypsy Magda. Most of all, Harold is proud of training the elephants, and of earning respect and a sense of normality. Even at the circus, though, two groups exist--the freaks, and everyone else.
Harold straddles both groups. But fitting in with those who are "normal" comes at a price, and sometimes it's recognizing the truth beneath what's apparent that ultimately leads to happiness . . . and turns a boy into a man.
From the Hardcover edition.
It was the hottest day of the year. Only the Ghost was out in the sun, only the Ghost and his dog. They shuffled down Liberty's main street with puffs of dust swirling at their feet, as though the earth was so hot that it smoldered.
It wasn't yet noon, and already a hundred degrees. But the Ghost wore his helmet of leather and fur, a pilot's helmet from a war that was two years over. It touched his eyebrows and covered his ears; the straps dangled and swayed at his neck.
He was a thin boy, white as chalk, a plaster boy dressed in baggy clothes. He wore little round spectacles with black lenses that looked like painted coins on his eyes. And he stared through them at a world that was always blurred, that sometimes jittered across the darkened glass. From the soles of his feet to the top of his head, his skin was like rich white chocolate, without a freckle anywhere. Even his eyes were such a pale blue that they were almost clear, like raindrops or quivering dew.
He glanced up for only a moment. Already there was a scrawl of smoke to the west, creeping across the prairie. But the Ghost didn't hurry; he never did. He hadn't missed a single train in more than a hundred Saturdays.
He turned the corner at the drugstore, his honey-colored dog behind him. They went down to the railway tracks and the little station that once had been a sparkling red but now was measled by the sun. At three minutes to noon he sat on the bench on the empty platform, and the dog crawled into the shadows below it.
The Ghost put down his stick and his jar, then dabbed at the sweat that trickled from the rim of his helmet. The top of it was black with sweat, in a circle like a skullcap.
The scrawl of smoke came closer. It turned to creamy puffs. The train whistled at Batsford's field, where it started around the long bend toward Liberty and on to the Rattlesnake. The Ghost lifted his head, and his thin pale lips were set in a line that was neither a frown nor a smile.
"It's going to stop," he told his dog. "You bet it will."
Huge and black, pistons hissing steam, the engine came leaning into the curve. It pulled a mail car and a single coach in a breathy thunder, a shriek of wheels. It rattled the windows in the clapboard station, shedding dust from the planks. The bench jiggled on metal legs.
"I know it's going to stop," said the Ghost.
But it didn't. The train roared past him in a blast of steam, in a hot whirl of wind that lashed the helmet straps against his cheeks. And on this Saturday in July, as he had every other Saturday that he could possibly remember, Harold the Ghost blinked down the track and sighed the saddest little breath that anyone might ever hear. Then he picked up his stick and his jar and struck off for the Rattlesnake River.
The stick was his fishing pole, and he carried it over his shoulder. A string looped down behind him, with a wooden bobber swinging at his knees. The old dog came out from the shade and followed him so closely that the bobber whacked her head with a hollow little thunk. But the dog didn't seem to mind; she would put up with anything to be near her master.
They climbed back to Main Street and trudged to the east, past false-fronted buildings coated with dust. The windows were blackboards for children's graffiti, covered with Kilroy faces and crooked hearts scribbled with names: Bobby Loves Betty; Betty Loves George; No One Loves Harold. And across the wide front window of May's Cafe was a poem in slanting lines:
He's ugly and stupid He's dumb as a post He's a freak and a geek He's Harold the Ghost.
In the shade below the window sat a woman on a chair with spindly legs, beside a half-blind old man with spindly legs sitting in a rocker. Harold glanced at them and heard the woman's voice from clear across the street. "There he goes," she said. "I never seen a sadder sight."
He couldn't hear the old man's question, only the woman's answer. "Why, that poor albino boy."
The man mumbled; she clucked like a goose. "Land's sakes! He's going to the river, of course. Down where the Baptists go. Where they dunk themselves in the swimming hole."
His head down, his boots scuffing, Harold passed from the town to the prairie. The buildings shrank behind him until they were just a brown-and-silver heap. And in the huge flatness of the land he was a speck of a boy with a speck of a dog behind him. He walked so slowly that a tumbleweed overtook him, though the day was nearly calm. In an hour he'd reached the Rattlesnake.
In truth it was no more of a river than Liberty was a city. The Rattlesnake didn't flow across the prairie; it crawled. It went like an ancient dog on a winding path, keeping to the shade when it could. But it was the only river that Harold Kline had ever seen, and he thought it rather grand. He splashed his way along the stream, a quarter mile down the river, until he reached his favorite spot, where the banks were smooth and grassy. Then he sat, and the dog lay beside him. He put a worm on his hook and cast out the bobber. It plunged in, popped out, tilted and straightened, like a little diver who'd found the river too cold. A pair of water striders dashed over to have a look at it, and dashed away again.
The dog was asleep in an instant. She hadn't run more than a yard in more than a year, but she dreamed about running now, her legs twitching.
"Where are you off to?" asked Harold the Ghost. His voice was soft as smoke. "You're off to Oregon, I bet. You're running through the forests, aren't you? You're running where it's cool and shady, you poor old thing." He looked up at the sun, a hot white smudge in his glasses.
The dog went everywhere Harold did. It seemed only natural to him that she would dream of the places he dreamed about.
"We'll get there," he said, leaning back. The grass and the water and the blue of the sky made a pleasant blur of colors around him. "David will be on the next train, maybe. Or for sure the one after that. And he'll take us away. You bet he will."
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
“This touching novel, [set a few years after World War II], will speak especially to readers who consider themselves different, flawed, or misunderstood.”
—School Library Journal, Starred
From the Paperback edition.