One for Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn

By Ekta R. Garg

March 13, 2019

Genre: Middle grade fiction

Release date: July 18, 2017

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A young girl, spiteful and mean, dies from illness, and her classmates think they won’t have to worry about her anymore. When she returns as a ghost to haunt one of them, however, they realize she may never truly leave them alone. Author Mary Downing Hahn tries to infuse a story of bullying with a sense of intrigue in the dismal World War I novel One for Sorrow.

It’s 1918, and Annie Browne has just moved to the Baltimore suburb of Mount Pleasant. When she arrives at Pearce Academy for Girls, Annie wonders what the other girls will think of her. Will she fit in? Will she make friends?

The answer to the last question is a decided yes, although Annie isn’t the one doing the deciding. Elsie Schneider declares that Annie is her new best friend, and but Elsie makes Annie uneasy. She creates situations so that others get in trouble, and she expresses her spite in a loud voice for popular girl Rosie O’Malley. The fact that Rosie returns Elsie’s disdain tenfold only makes things worse.

Elsie tries to force the friendship with Annie, but Annie isn’t one to be cowed. She agrees with Rosie and the other girls that Elsie is a liar and a tattletale. Soon enough, Annie goes from being an outcast by association with Elsie to being a part of the “in” crowd by taunting and bullying her.

At the same time, the dreaded Spanish influenza begins circulating through the small town. When Elsie falls victim to the disease, Annie, Rosie, and their other friends feel guilty. A week earlier, they had sought her out for the sole purpose of teasing and tormenting her; now she lies dead in a coffin.

Only a person with Elsie’s stubbornness can defy death itself, however. She comes back as a ghost and chooses Annie as her main target. Forcing Annie to act and speak in outlandish ways, Elsie manages to get Annie sent to a home for convalescents and says the next stop is the insane asylum. Annie is determined to gain freedom from Elsie, but it may require the one thing she doesn’t want to do: become Elsie’s friend after all.

Author Mary Downing Hahn rolls back the years for her novel about bullying with a wartime backdrop, but the story feels disjointed. The outbreak of Spanish influenza may indicate a World War I story, but it could have easily been replaced with any sort of tragedy. The taunting Annie and the others inflict on Elsie could have happened during any time period.

In many ways, the book doesn’t seem to know what it should be about. Is it a story about the Spanish influenza? Is it about bullying? Is it about peer pressure? Is it a ghost story? Is it to highlight the fact that some patients went to a convalescent home instead of the insane asylum? The novel tries to tackle all of these subjects and ends up doing justice to none of them.

Because readers hear from Annie in first-person point of view, they get to know her best. Everyone else, from Rosie to Elsie and even Annie’s parents, don’t get their due in character development. While popular girl Rosie’s behavior toward Elsie is reprehensible, Elsie is no more innocent than Rosie. Unfortunately, readers don’t ever get to find out why both girls behave the way they do. The only character who has a distinct voice is Annie.

As such, the motivation for Elsie’s revenge remains unclear. She says on Annie’s first day at the academy that Rosie has tormented her for a long time. Why, then, does Elsie choose to haunt Annie instead of Rosie? Wouldn’t it make more sense to target the person who has targeted her?

Also, while Elsie’s vengeance is clear-eyed, her objective isn’t. She wants to torture Annie, yes, but to what end? As a ghost, she has nothing to lose or gain by making Annie miserable. Hahn tries to create some tender moments between the girls where Elsie shares background information, but they only create more confusion. One minute Elsie is confiding in Annie; the next she’s possessing her body and making her perform horrible deeds.

The book may make parents shake their heads at its lengthy displays of bullying and zero consequences for it. There is a hint at the end that Rosie may have suffered slightly for her behavior, but none of the other friends complicit in the action receive any sort of reprimand. The adults are largely absent in the story, with the exception of a special friend Annie makes in the convalescent home, and the book’s ending seems forced and almost bizarre. For those reasons, I believe readers should Bypass One for Sorrow.