Review: Ghost Train by Paul Yee and Harvey Chan

Ghost Train

Left behind in China by her father, who has gone to North America to find work, Choon-yi has made her living by selling her paintings in the market. When her father writes one day and asks her to join him, she joyously sets off, only to discover that he has been killed. Choon-yi sees the railway and the giant train engines that her father died for, and she is filled with an urge to paint them. But her work disappoints her until a ghostly presence beckons her to board the train where she meets the ghosts of the men who died building the railway. Will Choon-yi find a way to make peace with her father’s death? — [X]

Ghost Train by Paul Yee and Harvey Chan is one of the more brilliant picturebooks I’ve read and I can’t believe it took me so long to read it and talk about it. The time period itself is a pretty unique one, and the people that populate these pages in history aren’t talked about a lot in fiction– which is why Ghost Train caught my attention in the first place. The story does not disappoint.

Ghost Train is a meditation on the lives and deaths of migrant workers in North America (pretty sure they were referring to Canada), but it is also about Choon-yi and her father. Choon-yi, it is revealed at the very beginning, was born with one arm. Her disability repulsed her mother, but her father doesn’t seem to care. Besides, what Choon-yi can do with one arm is pretty remarkable:

When she held an ink brush, the pictures she painted looked as real as life.

At the age of twelve, Choon-yi has to say goodbye to her father who decides to go work on the railway in North America in order to ensure that his family doesn’t starve. Before he leaves, though, Choon-yi’s father promises that they’d reunite again and that “together (they would) pain a picture”. One day, a letter arrives with a large sum of money, inviting Choon-yi to come to North America. Without hesitation she packs up her things and sails to her father’s place of work– only to find that he had been killed the week before. That night, Choon-yi dreams of her father, urging her to paint for him.

And so, Choon-yi sets out to fulfill a promise that her father could not uphold while alive.

The rest of the picturebook is a gentle but heartbreaking look at grief, art, and family. It explore’s Choon-yi’s loss but does not ignore the deaths of so many others. The writing is easy to follow, though the simplicity of language does not mean it is any less gut-wrenching and poetic. Combined with the artwork, Ghost Train wreaks havoc on your heart.

If you like history, historical fiction, ghost stories, and/or beautiful art, this is the book for you. Recommended.