The Ghost Daughter, by Maureen O’Leary: An Earthquake Disrupts the Lives of Four Women

ghost_daughter1989. The Loma Prieta Earthquake. For three women, life will never be the same.

The Ghost Daughter ($14.95, 236 pp, 6×9 Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-60381-287-0), is a work of literary fiction/women’s fiction by Maureen O’Leary. When the Loma Prieta Earthquake nearly claims the life of a young woman, it also unearths a dark past she is too young to recall.

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“A remarkable and deftly crafted read from beginning to end, The Ghost Daughter showcases author Maureen O’Leary’s impressive flair for creating truly memorable characters and embed them in a riveting and complex storyline.” Read more….

—Mary Cowper for the Midwest Book Review

“In October 1971, a little girl disappeared and her mother was arrested for murder. In October, 1989 a strong earthquake hits San Francisco leveling a shelter for homeless men and burying Angel who works there. Across town, Reese’s husband crashes his car with their daughter in the car. He doesn’t survive and their daughter is seriously hurt. These seemingly unrelated events turn out to be strongly connected and long kept secrets finally come to light. O’Leary’s book is a mystery full of surprises, but at its heart it’s really a story about the meaning of family and the long-lasting damage that mental and physical abuse has on a person. I loved the way the story is revealed slowly and the changing points of view drew me in and kept me emotionally attached to the lives of the three women. Violent at times, emotionally charged, and sometimes invoking tears, a gripping story.”

—Diane Ferbrache for the Unshelved Book Club

“The West Coast has always been the last best place, a region equal parts Eden and earthquake. In Maureen O’Leary’s hands, that landscape is charged with mystery, disaster, and a wealth of drama, all headed by a cast of irrepressible woman. The Ghost Daughter is that rare and fabled beast: the literary page-turner.”

—Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals

“Two parts thriller, one part meditation on the nature of love and motherhood, and one part poem, The Ghost Daughter combines masterful storytelling and artistic language to create a breathtaking work of literary suspense. Reading it was like riding a roller coaster overlooking an ethereal canyon. Intricately woven twists, turns, and plummets abounded, inducing a sublime mental whiplash. And yet, in spite of my hunger to learn what happened next, I found myself slowing down, craning my neck to absorb O’Leary’s rich, haunting language and gripping narrative voice. Peopled with human monsters, mortal ghosts, and lost maidens, The Ghost Daughter plays out like a modern fairy tale, a linguistic aria written in praise of the power of reinvention, resurrection, and redemption. As eviscerating as it is lovely, The Ghost Daughter is not to be missed.”

—Tawni Waters, author of Beauty of the Broken

“In the fragile landscape of Northern California, Maureen O’Leary excavates her characters’ hearts with precise honesty, exploring the ways connections between mothers and daughters, friends and lovers stretch, break, endure. A beautiful and moving book.”

—Karen E. Bender, National Book Award finalist and author of Refund, Like Normal People, and A Town of Empty Rooms

“In The Ghost Daughter, Maureen O’Leary writes honestly and beautifully. Her characters come alive, and her wise and subtle insights on them—and on the human condition—will stay with the reader long after the last page of the novel.”

—Jamie Kain, author of The Good Sister and Instructions for the End of the World

“In The Ghost Daughter, O’Leary weaves through memory and loss (and thick golden strands of fairy tale) to invoke a world of mythology and monsters where, as it turns out, every player is only a person, flawed and damaged; ultimately hopeful. O’Leary’s writing glows.”

—Tricia Stirling, author of When My Heart Was Wicked

In 1971, a wounded young man runs with his daughter in the woods at night. As he collapses, he tells the little girl to run, and she does.

Eighteen years later, in October 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake buries twenty-two-year-old Angel Kelley under a collapsed building. Her adopted mother Judith is diagnosed with cancer while her deepest secrets surface in national news. In nearby Silicon Valley, Reese Camden loses her husband in an accident that kills him and critically injures their five-year-old daughter Madison.

As news images of Angel’s rescue emerge, Detective Laura Redleaf recognizes Judith from an unsolved missing child case. She travels to Santa Cruz and learns from Judith that Reese is actually Angel’s biological mother Teresa, who has always known that Judith had her child. But Teresa has already fled and reinvented herself yet again, leaving her second daughter Madison in the hospital. Facing a kidnapping charge, Judith refuses medical treatment and bars Angel from visiting her in prison.

For life to move forward, Teresa must reclaim her identity and confront her terrible past. In the end, it will take more than tons of rubble to crush the spirits of these four strong-willed women as they fight for their families, seek redemption, and find love.

Says O’Leary, “When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989 I was at work in a brick building on Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz, California. The building collapsed around me, trapping me under a desk and killing the people in the coffee shop on the other side of the wall. In the aftermath of the earthquake, I suffered debilitating night terrors and hallucinations. Yet I also began working in a homeless shelter, where indeed I was the only one willing to go into the shower house to retrieve the schizophrenics from the steam. I am fascinated by the way a physical geography affects the people who move on it. I am fascinated with the way parenthood as well as the loss of it shapes identity, and how human beings can find peace and healing in the redemptive power of romantic love.”

Maureen O’Leary is a writer and teacher living in Sacramento, California, with her husband and daughters. She loves writing, teaching, public speaking, and hiking in redwood forests and desert canyons. Her fiction has appeared in Esopus, Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, Prick of the Spindle, Xenith, Fiction at Work and in an anthology from Shade Mountain Press. The Ghost Daughter is her third novel. In 2014, she published How to Be Manly (Giant Squid Books) and The Arrow (Geminid Press). Click here to find Maureen online.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

“Where’s my mom again?” Her mouth was lacerated. Made it hard to talk.

“I think a friend of hers died or something.” Russell kept his eyes on the screen. “She had to go to a funeral.”

“What friend?” Angel asked. She’d never heard her mother talk of a friend.

“She wouldn’t leave without good reason, I’ll tell you that,” Russell said. “She stood on the sidewalk for four days straight, Angel. Never left once.”

That was impossible. No one could stand for four days straight. It was impossible but nonetheless true. It seemed the whole world bent to the will of some random perverse storyteller so that things that could never happen were happening. The Bay Bridge had broken in two. Double highways had pancaked flat with people driving on them and under them. The ground had split open in trenches deep enough to swallow houses.

Russell ran his thumb over her knuckles. Angel’s school picture from senior year of high school flashed on the television. They kept showing the same footage of Angel carried on a stretcher, her mother running alongside and Russell following behind.

They called it the Miracle of Angel. She was one of the last of the catastrophe’s buried people found alive. She had survived three days without water.

They’d found a kid in the Cypress Structure in Oakland that morning. Angel was obsessed with the story. She switched channels to skip commercials. They had to cut through the body of the boy’s dead mother in order to rescue him. She craved the details of that excavation. She imagined the rebirth of a child emerging through the barrier of his mother’s bones and muscles and skin. How did the first breath of air feel after something like that?

“I want to go home,” Angel said. She did not know what home. She meant she wanted her mother.

“I don’t think they’re letting you out for a while,” Russell said. He turned off the television. She was too weak to protest. She was falling asleep again. “It should have been me under there. Not you.”

“You would not have fit,” she said. Her tongue wrestled with her mouth. The morphine made thinking and talking a labor. Yet despite her fuzzy brain she was the world’s expert of under the desk and Russell would not have fit. But he wasn’t listening. He leaned forward and swished his palms together like a penitent man.

“I was in the courtyard,” he said. “I made everybody else go to the dining room while Jerry hid in the shower. Did you know that? He wanted to watch the water spin down the drain. I sat outside thinking I could wait for you so we could talk in private.”

He bowed his head. She wanted to hold his face and kiss his craggy cheeks. She would absolve him of his sins. Her mind pulled at something he said. He was with Jerry. Maybe the tree king lived. She meant to ask him.

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