Joseph Bruchac, Skeleton Man (HarperCollins 2001)

Molly is a Mohawk girl who lives with her parents in the city. She loves her fatherís stories, especially the legend of the Skeleton Man, who is so hungry that he eats his own flesh until thereís nothing left but bones, then, still hungry, devours his family. Only his niece escapes. She outwits him and returns her family to life.

One day, Mollyís parents vanish without a trace. Because she has no other family, sheís taken in by a creepy old uncle who reminds her of the Skeleton Man. She's never heard of him before, but he has ID proving that heís her uncle. So off she goes, to an eerie old house where he locks her in her bedroom each night, does strange things in a shed she's forbidden to visit, and urges her to eat more and more.

Though Molly canít prove to anyone that thereís anything wrong with her alleged uncle, she takes comfort in a series of dreams in which sheís the girl in the legend. She decides that she, too, will beat the Skeleton Man.

The lengthy uncertainty over whether this is an urban fantasy or a realistic story of child abuse makes this book fairly disturbing. Itís a quick, suspenseful read, and Molly is a likable character, but itís less successful as an inspiring tale of a brave little girl who succeeds against the odds than it is as a mood piece of sustained uneasiness.

Because the story is so grounded in everyday life, and because every seemingly supernatural event could conceivably have a mundane explanation, questions of probability arise.

Itís not that any one thing that happens is unbelievable: given the horror stories which regularly appear in the papers about the failures of child protection agencies, it seems all too likely that a psycho with cleverly falsified ID could be given custody of an abandoned child. Itís that, plus the explanation of what happened to Mollyís parents, plus the action-movie climax that, together, seem over the top. But only if the Skeleton Man is a regular, if weird, criminal. If he really is the Skeleton Man, the story's completely plausible as a myth acting itself out in modern times.

Itís easier to believe in folkloric demons than in humans who behave like them, even though we know that only the humans are real. Because we know that only the humans are real. A suggestion made at the end, regarding the Skeleton Manís motives, is chilling because it applies equally to men and monsters. Set against that, the cheerful last page explaining that everythingís O.K. now flickers like a lone candle in a strong cold wind.

[Rachel Manija Brown]