Series: The Virginia Mysteries #3
Published by MyBoys3 Press on October 2014
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Legend says that the haunting lights over the rapids on the James River at night are the ghosts of long-dead soldiers still fighting the Civil War. Just past the water lies historic Belle Isle, the former Union soldier prisoner-of-war camp, now a city park filled with crumbling ruins and dark wooded trails. When brothers Sam and Derek explore the island and local monuments to Richmond’s past on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with their friend Caitlin, some ghosts may be more alive than they expected!
Join the adventure as the kids face their fears and a confederate biker gang led by the notorious Mad Dog DeWitt. Along the way they’ll explore the island, suspended bridges, hidden hideouts, and secret graveyard ceremonies, while learning about Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and more.
I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
Ghosts of Belle Isle is Steven K. Smith’s best work to date. Before I started reading it, I wondered how long he could sustain the “hey, we found a mystery leading to a historical artifact” story line that made his first two books successful. It’s like he can read my mind or something because Ghosts of Belle Isle does not follow the formula that he establishes in the first two books. Sam and Derek are a little older now. This time, they’re left at home with an adult cousin while their parents travel to Paris. Instead of uncovering some historical artifact though, Sam and Derek learn some history and explore some places that don’t immediately put them in danger. Don’t get me wrong, Sam and Derek *think* they’re in danger plenty of times.
This leads me to the awesome fake out that Smith pulls on us. At the beginning, I was convinced that Sam and Derek would go ghost hunting and either uncover another artifact or find out (Scooby Doo style) who was really behind all the ghost sightings all along. But the beauty of Ghosts of Belle Isle is that it’s about misconceptions, first impressions, and bullies before anything else. Rather than have Sam and Derek take us on another historical artifact hunt, Smith brilliantly makes this a book about historical relationships and personal relationships. Smith pretty accurately describes modern views of the Civil War from both a northern and southern perspective. Sam is pretty fed up with Derek. Sam and Caitlin get a little closer. I think I see an inkling of Sam possibly liking Caitlin but I don’t think he’s quire ready for that yet. Sam even learns that you can’t always believe what someone says about someone else. In the end, Ghosts of Belle Isle is about building, expanding, and creating new relationships. It will serve Smith well when he decides to write another Sam-and-Derek-find-a-historical-artifact novel because he has a new group of ancillary characters to work with. I can totally see Mad Dog and his biker gang return in another adventure.
As for history, this time we learn a lot about the Civil War. Smith does a particularly brilliant job explaining all the different names for the Civil War. “The War of Northern Aggression” is most often used by those who blame the north for “ruining” the south, so to speak. “The War Between the States” is most often used by those who want a more accurate name for a war that was certainly uncivil. And then there’s just “The Civil War,” used by most of us. I think Smith asks us to reconsider the war’s name. It was bloody. It certainly wasn’t civil. And it was very complicated. Does it deserve such an innocuous name?
Smith hands us another fake out with notorious, dangerous biker gang leader, Mad Dog DeWitt. Many in the town fear him, causing Sam to fear him as well. My favorite part of the novel comes at the end when we learn that Mad Dog isn’t who we think he is. I’ve got a soft spot for that character and I hope he returns.
Even though there really is no traditionally villain, the real danger in Ghosts of Belle Isle comes from bullying. It almost gets Sam killed in a bike accident. It almost gets Derek into a lot of trouble later. I think this particular theme is explored very well. It’s also an important theme for middle grade readers to grapple with. Middle school is often torture for those who are bullied (speaking from experience here. Shew, being a pre-teen is rough) so I think it’s fantastic that Smith gives us something very serious to think about as we read about Sam and Derek’s pretty awesome summer adventure.
In the end, Steven K. Smith is at his best with Ghosts of Belle Isle. I’m certainly looking forward to more Sam and Derek (and Caitlin … and Mad Dog) adventures.
© 2014 – 2016, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.