Most of the things one would like to say about The Ghost Drum have already been said. When a book has won the Carnegie Medal, been admired and loved on both sides of the Atlantic and included in reference guides such as Julia Eccleshare’s 1001 Books to Read Before You Grow Up it has surely become part of the children’s literature canon. In which case all one might reasonably want to know is why on earth did Faber allow it to go out of print?
But of course that isn’t all. The list of Carnegie Medal winners begins with Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post in 1936 and runs to Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon, the 2013 winner. To read solidly through the list would be a literary education. I began The Ghost Drum expecting something good but being prepared to glean at least part of my pleasure from seeing it in its 1980s context. Secretly I was just a little anxious that the brilliant complexities of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (Carnegie Medal winner 1996) might cast a backwards shadow over The Ghost Drum. It didn’t. There are points of comparison (the shaman’s drum / the alethiometer, the way the witches are conceptualised, the shape-shifting bear) but The Ghost Drum is a very different type of story.
Our narrator is a learned cat on a golden chain (a reference to Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmilla) and we are at once in the world of long dark winters and Slavic myth. The witches’ houses run on chicken legs or cat’s paws but their inhabitants are not as instantly terrifying as the iron- toothed Baba Yaga of Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales. They are old and wise and various. Their magics are the powers of words and music. They must be learned. At the beginning of the story it is the deepest midwinter night and a slave-woman, huddled close to the big communal stove, has given birth to a baby girl. An old witch is nearing the end of her three hundred year life. She needs an apprentice and has come to take the child.
Now the horror of the slave-mother’s situation becomes apparent. She would like her baby to have a better life but she is afraid. “My baby doesn’t belong to me. I am a slave, her father is a slave, and she and we belong to Czar Guidon. If I gave you the baby, we should be whipped for giving away our master’s property. We should be executed for stealing from him.” This modern fairy-story is about power. The witches and shamans have power but theirs is a power that has been worked for and learned and must be exercised within rules – even by the wicked Kuzma. The Czars and Czaritsas, however, are human and ignorant and are finally driven mad by their own absolutism – though not before they have caused untold suffering and death along the way.
The Ghost Drum is beautifully written using a starkly simple vocabulary. “Far overhead the sky-stars glisten white, bright, in their darkness; underfoot the snow-stars glitter white in whiteness. Between the sky-stars and the snow-stars hangs a shivering, milky curtain of twilight.” Many of the most telling moments use this simplicity to shocking effect. “Swiftly she was brought into the dazzling light of a small courtyard and there – when the soldiers’ eyes had got used to the light – they cut off her head.” When the Czaritsa Margaretta succumbs to paranoia she sees the ghosts of her naked and starving people in every palace mirror. Naturally she has all the mirrors smashed and then ground into powder. This then is “poured into jars and put away in the palace storerooms for sprinkling on the food of her enemies. Though a Czaritza, she was a thoughtful and thrifty housewife.”
Fairy stories have traditionally given a voice to the oppressed. The Ghost Drum can be read as an exotic and magical story from a faraway land and simultaneously relished as a satire on the madness of dictators. It’s timeless.
(The Ghost Drum is the first of three linked volumes: Ghost Song and Ghost Dance follow.)