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60 pages 2 hours read

Mary Downing Hahn

Took: A Ghost Story

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Mary Downing Hahn’s middle grade horror novel, Took: A Ghost Story (2015), is a tale of courage, family, isolation, and small-town folklore. The story follows Daniel, a seventh-grade boy trying to fit into a new town, as he learns scary stories about the woods and tries to rescue his sister from the clutches of a witch known as Old Auntie. The Prologue, Epilogue, and titled sections between chapters shift from Daniel’s first-person perspective to third-person present tense, detailing the happenings in Auntie’s domain.

This guide follows the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt paperback edition (2015).

Content Warning: Took: A Ghost Story contains sensitive material, such as physical and emotional abuse.

Plot Summary

Seventh grader Daniel and his family move from their privileged life in Fairfield, Connecticut to a small country town called Woodville, West Virginia. Daniel’s parents—Mother and Father—lost their wealth when Father lost his job, and the family has bought a dilapidated farmhouse at the edge of town, near the woods. Daniel and his sister—Erica—hates that they are leaving their old lives behind. As a consolation, Daniel was given binoculars for hiking, while Erica was given a doll custom-made to look like her—Little Erica. Erica spends most of the car ride to West Virginia interacting with the doll, which annoys Daniel. When the family reaches their new home, it’s nighttime. The house looks terrible, and it scares Erica. Daniel feels something watching them from the woods. The family camps in the living room because the moving truck hasn’t brought their furniture yet. Daniel wakes in the middle of the night and steps outside to pee. He spots a tall figure with a bone-white head at the tree line and hears it howl. He stumbles back inside, terrified, but Mother assures him that he’s just seeing things.

In the daytime, the house looks even worse. The family’s belongings arrive, and everyone moves in. Erica continues to protest the new home, crying about how scary everything is. She talks to her doll and protests unpacking. The family paints the inside of the house but cannot afford to paint the outside or replace the roof yet. At school, children mock Daniel and Erica for their accents and privileged backgrounds. On the bus home, a boy named Brody learns where Daniel and Erica live and tells them the story of Selene Estes—a young girl who disappeared from the house 50 years ago. He warns them about things lurking in the woods. The bus driver assures the children that Brody’s lying, but the story scares Erica. She asks Daniel if he hears whispering at night—the whispering of her name. This whispering is that of Old Auntie, who has been watching the house. She wants Erica and has been whispering to her through the doll.

The next day on the bus, the siblings’ schoolmates torment them with stories of Selene’s disappearance, the old witch in the woods, and the witch’s companion Bloody Bones. The state of the house and job-related stress create tension between Mother and Father.

Daniel and Father hike in the woods on the weekends. Erica and Mother usually stay home, but one Saturday, Mother has to work—so Erica joins Daniel and Father. The trio stumbles upon the ruins of a cabin in the woods. Father photographs the bones and mysterious artifacts inside, while Erica (who brought her doll) and Daniel wait outside. Daniel feels like they are being watched. Erica asks Daniel if he hears the whispering again, and he says he doesn’t.

Mother and Father fight more often; the chores in the house go undone. Daniel and Erica hate school and grow distant. Daniel confronts Erica about talking to Little Erica, but she insists the doll is alive. One day, a friend of Father’s, Mr. O’Neill, gives Daniel a ride home. He tells Daniel the story of Old Auntie—the witch in the woods—and Bloody Bones—her skeletal razorback hog companion that walks on two legs. Daniel asks about Selene, and Mr. O’Neill says the stories about her are true: The O’Neills knew Selene’s family. Mr. O’Neill tells Daniel to keep an eye on Erica because of what lurks in the woods. Daniel chooses not to talk about this around Erica, as he doesn’t want to scare her.

Meanwhile, Erica’s doll convinces her that no one loves her and to visit the woods. Erica does not remember what happens in the woods; the doll tells her it’s a secret.

One day, Daniel secretly follows Erica to a clearing in the woods. Erica sits on a log and whispers to her doll; Daniel believes she’s speaking to someone he cannot see. He leaves her there, thinking she’s being strange. When he asks her about it later, she denies going to the woods—but does say she has secrets. Daniel is frustrated, so he follows Erica the next day to the same spot. This time, he sees a shadowy figure moving toward Erica, and he snaps her out of her trance. Daniel grabs Erica, causing her to drop her doll. He drags her out of the woods, the latter screaming and begging to retrieve her doll. Daniel is too afraid of what he saw to stop. Erica tells Mother and Father about what Daniel did, and they tell him to look for the doll the next day. Daniel and Erica return to the clearing, but the doll is gone. Erica remains upset with Daniel. He tries to get Erica to reveal her secrets again, but she refuses. He shakes her by the shoulders and shoves her down. Upset, Erica runs into the woods. Daniel chases Erica but eventually gives up, assuming she will beat him back to the house. While Erica is alone in the woods, Old Auntie abducts her and puts her under a spell.

When Daniel returns home, Erica is not there. Mother and Father arrive, and Daniel explains what happened in the woods. Mother and Father are furious. Daniel and Father search for Erica but cannot find her. Mother and Father call the police, and the officers bring dogs to aid the search; a detective interviews the family. No one finds Erica. The next morning, volunteers are assembled to sweep the woods. Daniel sneaks past them to search for Erica on his own. He goes to the clearing, and Brody finds him there (as his father is part of the search party). Brody tells Daniel that Erica has been “took” by Old Auntie and offers to bring him to her cabin. Daniel thinks Brody is tricking him but follows anyway. Daniel wants to enter the cabin ruins, but Brody is afraid and leaves. Daniel finds a girl in the ruins—dirty, frail, and wearing Erica’s clothes—and mistakes her for his sister. The girl fights Daniel, swearing she doesn’t know who Erica is, and claims Auntie abandoned her. Before Daniel can drag the girl out of the woods, she asks to retrieve her doll, which turns out to be Little Erica. She says Auntie gave her the clothes and doll. Daniel takes the girl to his house. In Auntie’s cabin, she forces Erica to be her slave. She beats Erica and threatens her with Bloody Bones.

Mrs. O’Neill is at Daniel’s house with his parents and recognizes the mysterious girl as Selene, who hasn’t aged for 50 years. The girl doesn’t remember life before Old Auntie and desperately wishes to go back to her. Mrs. O’Neill bathes and feeds Selene before having her sleep in Daniel’s room. Eventually, the search party reconvenes at the house. Word gets out that Selene was found. The townsfolk are uneasy and agree that Auntie likely took Erica. Mother and Father don’t believe the local folklore. Mr. O’Neill wants to show Selene to Father, but she has escaped through Daniel’s window. Daniel goes to Brody’s house to ask for company, as he plans to return to Auntie’s cabin. Brody refuses but gives Daniel one of his dogs, Bella, to guide him.

Daniel finds Selene at the cabin ruins and begs to be let inside. Selene sees the cabin as intact with lights on, but all Daniel sees is the abandoned ruins. She says she sees Erica inside and tells Daniel about Old Auntie’s beatings. She runs off into the woods and returns with Auntie. Selene begs to be taken back, but Auntie rejects her and threatens to have Bloody Bones eat her and Daniel should they return. Daniel and Selene leave. The O’Neills take Selene home and invite Daniel over the next day.

Daniel, Brody, and Bella go to the O’Neills’, where Mrs. O’Neill shows Selene photos of her past. Selene doesn’t care because she doesn’t remember. Mrs. O’Neill tells the boys about Miss Perkins, an old lady across town who is rumored to be Old Auntie’s relative and a witch herself. The next day, they visit Miss Perkins to ask for help. Miss Perkins sends them away while she thinks of a solution. The next day, Miss Perkins tells Daniel that he must visit Auntie’s cabin alone at midnight and gives him an elaborate script of riddles to get the witch to open her door. She enchants Little Erica to distract Auntie while Daniel grabs Erica. If Daniel is successful, Auntie’s spell over Erica and Selene will break at sunrise.

Daniel brings the enchanted doll in a burlap sack to Old Auntie’s house at midnight. He follows Miss Perkins’s script, stumping Auntie with a riddle until she lets him inside. He gives Auntie the doll to be her slave forever. She is so enamored by the doll that Daniel manages to sneak Erica away. Erica doesn’t remember Daniel and wishes to stay with Auntie. Bloody Bones pursues them, catching Daniel when he trips on a rock. Erica throws rocks at Bloody Bones to get him to drop Daniel, breaking his bones; he falls off a cliff. Auntie catches the siblings, but her magic begins to work against her and turns her back to the cabin. As Daniel and Erica leave, they see the cabin burn.

At sunrise, Old Auntie’s spell breaks. Erica and Selene remember who they are and recall their time with Auntie as a nightmare. The O’Neills agree to raise Selene as a granddaughter. Erica and Selene become friends; Daniel and Brody remain friends as well. Two years later, Daniel’s family has fixed up their house and adjusted to their lives in Woodville.

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