Revisiting the Works That Influenced the Nonfiction Murder Mystery ‘Ghosts of the Orphanage’

GhostOrphanageBookListGhosts of the Orphanage took me around the world, led me into conversation with all sorts of people, and it challenged me as a human being in ways I never imagined. The reporting journey for the book was dramatic, horrifying, and moving. It took years to gather all the puzzle pieces, to assemble them into a larger whole, and to slowly weave together all the stories of the children who spent time in a 20th century orphanage, and the ghosts that some of those children left behind.

Like nothing else that I have written before, Ghosts prompted me to revisit all the disparate genres and styles of writing that I have loved all my life. When I was reflecting on structure, or musing about character, or thinking about the million different ways that way one thing leads to another in a story, I reached for writers that I admired. Ghosts of the Orphanage is a nonfiction murder mystery, so I reread some of my favourite journalists. The story in Ghosts follows a huge historic arc, so I looked especially at the writers who weave close-up narratives into broader social change. It’s also a dark fairy tale, a small doorway that opens into a vast other world. That sent me back to some of the children’s book authors I have read, both as a child and as a mother to my children. Of course, Ghosts is also about the arcane, powerful, grim and funny experience of being catholic, so I reached for one of the funniest memoirists I know.



Finally, there is Lapsed: Losing Your Religion is Harder than it Looks by Monica Dux. No, Ghosts of the Orphanage isn’t funny, although there are some funny moments in it. Yet there is so much about the experience of growing up catholic that is hilarious. Monica Dux, author of Lapsed, wrote about what it was like to grow up catholic in Sydney, Australia, and about her adult journey in leaving the church. It was a total delight to read and reread the book (Dux writes like David Sedaris and David Rakoff), and it reminded me of the genuine humility of ordinary catholics. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that an Australian memoir of childhood could be so recognisable to and relatable for Americans. The experience of being raised catholic is so common after all. But I think Dux’s ability to pin down the ubiquitous but often odd experience has as much to do with her insight and skill, as it does with being a member of this ancient diaspora. She absolutely nails the humility and the pomposity of catholic education, the ubiquitous phase, for girls at least, of entertaining the idea of becoming a nun, as well as the joy of liturgical dance. Dux’s book wasn’t officially published in the US but it is available on Amazon. It made me laugh out loud many times.

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