Book Bag: ‘When All the Girls Are Sleeping’ by Emily Arsenault; ‘West of Boston’ by William Conelly

Staff Writer
Monday, September 06, 2021

When All the Girls Are Sleeping
by Emily Arsenault; Delacorte Press

Shelburne Falls novelist Emily Arsenault began writing primarily for adults, fashioning mysteries built around atmosphere, dialogue and slowly percolating stories rather than dramatic events or sudden plot twists. In more recent years, she’s applied that formula to some young adult novels, drawing — as many writers do — on some of her own experiences and interests, such as going to amusement parks as a teen.

In Arsenault’s new mystery, “When All the Girls Are Sleeping,” her ninth novel and her third YA title, the author has looked back on her experience as a Mount Holyoke College student, when she heard campus stories about a ghost that supposedly haunted one of the dorms.

For her new book, Arsenault has exchanged Mount Holyoke for Windham-Farnswood Academy, a longtime girls boarding school somewhere west of Boston that also has its share of ghost lore. The ghost, known as the Winter Girl, supposedly haunts one of the dorms, Dearborn Hall, a “drafty 19th-century building with crotchety old radiators.”

The spectre’s origins aren’t completely clear, but the general storyline is that she was once a student at the school and came to a tragic end.

Dearborn Hall, reserved for seniors, is where the novel’s narrator, Haley, lives. Now in her last year at Windham-Farnswood, Haley is already haunted by a couple of other things. She’s a scholarship student at a place awash with rich kids; she struggles with self-doubt about her abilities and intellect; and she’s also emotionally scarred from her parents’ divorce.

And it was just about a year ago that one of her friends at school, Taylor, fell to her death from her room on the top floor of Dearborn Hall. It’s still not clear whether Taylor committed suicide, or maybe had a bad reaction to drugs. Or was she pushed or terrorized by someone — like the Winter Girl? The school seems largely to have hushed up the whole incident.

The Winter Girl reportedly shows up in January or February, and as the novel begins, it’s late January, a little less than two weeks before the anniversary of Taylor’s death. And strange things are happening in Dearborn Hall: Heart shapes, supposedly a sign of the ghost, are found carved in door frames, and the window to Taylor’s old room — deliberately left vacant this year — is found wide open one night, letting in freezing air.

Haley also receives a mysterious video from one of Taylor’s brothers, that Taylor had on her phone and which appears to show her being frightened in the dorm by something. In addition, Haley is dealing with a certain measure of guilt: She had broken off her friendship with Taylor, an older student who’d been much more assertive than her, a few months before Taylor’s death because of her friend’s dark side.

“She had an insatiable appetite for gossip — the darker and dirtier the better,” Haley recalls. “[S]he was intensely interested in people’s secrets and especially their vulnerabilities. She liked to step into them — to splash around in them like puddles.”

Haley begins trying to learn more about Taylor’s death as well as the backstory of the Winter Girl, examining school archives and talking to alumnae who believe they once encountered the ghost; she learns ghost sightings at the school date back well over a century.

Arsenault unfolds the story amid plenty of scenes of Haley with her roommate, Star, and other classmates and students, fleshing out Haley’s background and inner thoughts and developing the novel’s secondary characters. She does a good job of sketching the nuances of the girls’ relationships and the mix of affection, tentativeness, and snark that can accompany them.

She also offers a teen’s acid view of a few adult figures, such as Anna, the school’s residential director, who tries too hard “to look the part of the housemother from central casting.”

In addition, “When All the Girls Are Sleeping” works in some historical background on paranormal activities in the U.S., and Arsenault examines the way money can lead to a sense of entitlement, arrogance and even cruelty among some of the wealthiest students at Windham-Farnswood. Haley begins to see evidence of a “mean girls” presence at the school dating back to the 19th century.

And though the plot builds slowly, the author steadily increases the tension and creepiness factor. Haley’s becoming convinced the Winter Girl is coming back to claim another victim — possibly her — to become the new ghost of Dearborn Hall.

As one woman who once worked at the school tells her, “It’s not in your head. Or rather not just in your head. There’s something real happening in that building.”

West of Boston by William Conelly
Illustrated by Nadia Kossman; Bumblebee Books/Olympia Press

William Conelly, a writer and former associate professor of English studies at Warwick University in England, grew up in the U.S. and lived in western Massachusetts for over 20 years before both he and his wife both found work in Great Britain.

Conelly, now retired from teaching and living in Warwick, in England’s West Midlands, has drawn on what he calls his “boy-rearing” years in the woods of Leverett to write the children’s book “West of Boston,” a tale told in verse about a young boy named Tom and his explorations of life — from wading in a pond, and hiking through the woods, to buying his favorite fruit drink.

Tom also does the kind of crazy things that can alarm his parents, like digging in his mother’s garden for earthworms, which in an accompanying illustration he seems ready to pop in his mouth while his mother looks on, aghast.

In another section, titled “Hobby Hens,” Tom also imagines bringing in one of his mother’s chickens as a pet: “Tom wants an indoor hen. / He has an indoor cat, / but birds won’t use the cat box. / Mom’s not okay with that.”

The colorful illustrations by Nadia Kossman of Queens, New York, enhance the book’s sense of fun and exploration. Conelly, meanwhile, notes that he grew up in a family with three brothers, then had three sons himself, and wanted to create a “lyric boyhood” with his book as an ode to his time as a father to young boys. The book, he notes, has been composed “with reading aloud in mind.”