Friday, October 30, 2015

A Full Moon, An Old Man, and a Dog

Tony Johnston's New England Ghost Story, The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe

A weathered New England farmhouse. A bleak winter’s night; a cold so deep and air so laden with moisture that your bones ache to their very marrow in protest, and not even the finest of down can offer relief. Under the pale, full moon, an old man lays dying, shuffling off his mortal coil at exactly the stroke of midnight.

In the morning, the grieving family hurries through the formalities of Christian burial, and the body of Nicholas Greebe is laid to rest under the thinnest of frozen soil.

But not for long.

New England + Supernatural to me always equals Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown. A wealth of scholarly articles have been written about that particular tale, almost all of which I quit reading somewhere before the end. (Disclaimer-the minute someone other than the author starts to wax eloquent regarding the true meaning of any book, short story, poem, etc., I'm out of the room. I'll find my own meaning; thank you very much.) I first read the story in high school, a rare required reading assignment in that I actually enjoyed it, and the story, with all its pervasive sense of ominous foreboding and other-worldliness, has stayed with me ever since. A perfect capture in words of a time, a place, and a people, focusing on the private backrooms as opposed to the public parlor.

I am not, for even a minute, claiming that The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe is the younger set's equivalent of Young Goodman Brown. What I am saying is that Tony Johnston's text, combined with S.D. Schindler's illustrations - wonderful, fantastic illustrations - capture perfectly the mood and setting for a New England tale of the paranormal. And since this is the season for spirits and shadows and bumps in the night, I present…

Book #34: The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe (1996) by Tony Johnston; illustrated by S.D. Schindler. 32 pages.

Yankee farmer Nicholas Greebe, born in the year 1692, dies in his own bed an old man, at the precise stroke of midnight, and is buried the following day, a bone-shivering, brutally cold and damp winter morning. The ground was so frozen that the deceased remains were just barely covered, and marked by a marble headstone with the face of an angel (who just happens to wear a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles).

A year to the day later, during a party at his house where the departed man is toasted by his remaining family, a small dog escapes through the front door and begins to dig at the grave of Nicolas Greebe. His efforts are rewarded with the old man's thighbone, which, through a series of circumstances, travels from it rural resting place to a place on a whaler that sets sail to Alaska from Boston.Nicholas, furious at the loss of his bone, appears as a ghostly specter to his family in the midst of a holiday gathering and declares:

                                                       From this night forth

                                                       I quest, I quest,

                                                       till all my bones
                                                        together rest.

All present run shrieking into the night, leaving the ghost of Nicolas Greebe in his house, along with his frightened widow.

Greebe proceeds to haunt the farm, and every year his specter appears in the parlor on the anniversary of the theft, repeating his determination to continue until his bones, once more, together rest.

These shenanigans continue for the next hundred years.

Meanwhile, his bone has been decorated with scrimshaw, survived a shipwreck, and been transformed into the handle of a satchel.  But not any satchel.  This satchel was purchased in far off Alaska, by a seaman who was a direct descendant of Greebe. Betrothed to a local girl, the seaman returns home to marry, on a night that is exactly one hundred years to the day that the bone was carried away by the family dog.

The family still has a dog, a dead ringer for the original canine, and this dog immediately goes to the satchel, and, while the family is busy celebrating, chews off the handle, carried it outside, and buries it in the grave of Nicholas Greebe.  His skeleton whole once again, the spectral Greebe appears before his startled descendants, declares his quest over, and is never seen again.

The same can be said for the face of the angel on his headstone. Visiting the sight of the old man's grave, visitors from that day forward saw a new, and unexplained carving where the angel had been. A small dog was now carved into the stone, and in his mouth, he held - a bone.

The End.

This is not a scary story, but it is a ghost story, and an excellent one for young audiences. Not all ghost stories are scary, after all. The illustrations of the colonial Massachusetts countryside and the wharf at Boston Harbor, the details of the clothing and Schindler's use of grey, brown and white as predominant colors creates a feeling of cold, damp and slightly antique. There is too much quirkiness in the expressions of the people for a reader to feel any type of apprehension, although if the text were used strictly for storytelling, the story could come off as significantly spookier. I read this aloud to my second and third graders and they thought it was just great.

So do I.

The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe at

Tony Johnston has published over 100 books, over a vast range of subjects, with audiences ranging from Pre-K to YA, written in English, Spanish, and English/Spanish, collaborating with illustrators such as Tomie dePaola, Walter Tripp, Margot Tomes, Lillian Hoban, Leo Politi, Mark Teague, James E. Ransome, Barry Moser, Wendell Minor, Tony DiTerlizzi, Melissa Sweet, and more.

Born in 1942 and named after Tom Mix's horse, she taught grade school and worked as a editor for a number of years before beginning her writing career in 1972. Some of her other books are Five Little Foxes and the Snow (1977), Conchas y caracoles (1979), The Vanishing Pumpkin (1983), The Quilt Story (1985), The Soup Bone (1990), and Day of the Dead (1997).

Johnston and her family lived in Mexico for fifteen years.  In 1999, she adopted the Del Rey School in King City, California, her goal being to provide an ongoing source of classroom and library books.

Biography of Tony Johnston at Penguin Books, Inc.

Tony Johnston's Papers at the University of California, Fresno.

S.D. Schindler  at