By Vivien Gorham
Vivien Gorham’s The Spirit of Summerwood is a compelling mystery tale for young readers. The story takes place at Summerwood, a fictional stable in Nova Scotia, Canada, that sits within the Cole Harbour Heritage Park. The park itself is real, though the heritage society that figures later in the book, like the stable, is fictional.
Readers are introduced to 12-year-old protagonist Aislinn MacLeod, excited to spend part of her summer at horse camp, though she takes lessons at Summerwood year-round.
Maybe it’s because I’m reading as a 30-year-old adult a couple of decades beyond the target audience’s age range, but, frankly, Aislinn comes across as an unlikeable brat for approximately three-quarters of the book. I ultimately enjoyed the book and kept reading because I absolutely wanted to know how everything turned out, but there were many moments where I wanted to grab Aislinn by the shoulders and say, “LISTEN UP, KID.”
Aislinn feels her parents love her brother more than they do her just because he’s musical like her parents, whereas she’s horsey. She lies about sneaking out of the bunk at camp multiple times, which she’s doing to help Gabe, a ghost of an indigenous Mi’kmaw boy who lived at the poor farm, find his family. With each lie, she digs herself in deeper until she’s to the point where she doesn’t feel she can be truthful. Then there’s the standard horse story magical bond trope, where she feels like she’s going into “the zone” while jumping. There were moments where I wanted to just jump into the story and tell Aislinn to CHILL OUT and listen to her instructor.
I also somewhat disliked how Aislinn didn’t like a teenage camp counselor, Starlen, for seemingly no reason. Particularly because Starlen is consistently described as having a flat voice, a trait consistently pointed out in the story. I’ve volunteered at a therapeutic riding facility for multiple years — flat voices can be a sign someone is autistic or neurodivergent and I just felt it was a little ableist, even if unintentionally so.
Aislinn ultimately gets a wake-up call and redemption arc. One night, she’s distracted from her mission of helping Gabe, but comes close to reuniting him with his family’s spirits. What happens? She decides at the last minute to go jump the cross-country course with Firefly. She falls off, unharmed. Firefly is injured but expected to fully recover. She’s kicked out of Summerwood, sent home, and grounded by her parents.
Here’s where I started admiring Aislinn, who is very gritty for a fictional 12-year-old horse girl. The area surrounding Summerwood is being sold to developers. She doesn’t want to see the farm disappear — even if, as an adult reading this, I was thinking, “Kid, you’re being way too nosy” when she snooped around prior to being kicked out of camp and found out about the farm being sold.
Aislinn launches a one-girl campaign to save the farm – which, yes, saving the farm is another children’s horse story standby, but this is a well-executed “let’s save this farm” tale. Aislinn is persistent. She wants to get back to helping Gabe find his family and she finds out that if there is a Mi’kmaw burial site on the land surrounding Summerwood, it can’t be developed because it’s a historic site. She contacts the historical society to try to research Gabe and tips them off to the existence of a potential burial site. She calls the developers, emails them, and then contacts her local elected officials, showing persistence that I, a grown adult newspaper reporter, admire — even if I did find her naivety in expecting a response the same day from the historical society on a Saturday amusing. She demonstrated tremendous grit, determination and unrelenting persistence and I’m just going to say: Aislinn, you might be fictional, but GO GIRL, GO!
Without spoiling too much – everything turns out okay! The farm and surrounding land are saved, Aislinn returns to camp and riding, and it’s clear she’s grown a lot and learned her lessons. Readers do learn a bit about Mi’kmaw culture and history, though Gorham states up front she’s not Indigenous and took a few respectful creative liberties. Gorham consulted Indigenous Mi’kmaw individuals as readers and they advised her on Mi’kmaw culture where needed. In all, this is a page-turning read with a main character who learns and grows and likely is very relatable to younger readers and I’d recommend this to most horse-crazy youngsters – with the caveat to their parents that while yes, Aislinn does start out kind of a brat, she has a ton of character development, probably more than I’d normally expect in a children’s book.