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Ruined, Paula Morris

April 20, 2013

Ruined Book blurb

“A gripping supernatural mystery and romance set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Rebecca couldn’t feel more out of place in New Orleans. She’s staying in a creepy house with her aunt, who reads tarot cards. And at the snooty prep school, a pack of filthy-rich girls treat Rebecca like she’s invisible. Only gorgeous, unavailable Anton Grey gives Rebecca the time of day, but she wonders if he’s got a hidden agenda. Then one night, among the oak trees in Lafayette Cemetery, Rebecca makes a friend. Sweet, mysterious Lisette is eager to show Rebecca the nooks and crannies of New Orleans. There’s just one catch. Lisette is a ghost..” ~ from Fishpond 

Ruined - Paula Morris“Welcome to New Orleans: city of Voodoo and beauty, of hurricanes and hauntings.

Rebecca couldn’t feel more out of place in New Orleans. She’s staying in a creepy house with her aunt, who reads tarot cards. And at her snooty prep school, a pack of filthy-rich girls treat Rebecca like she’s invisible. Only gorgeous, unavailable Anton Grey gives Rebecca the time of day, but she wonders if he’s got a hidden agenda. Then one night, in lafayette Cemetery, Rebecca makes a friend: sweet, mysterious Lisette. There’s just one catch.

Lisette is a ghost.

A ghost with a deep, dark secret, and a serious score to settle. As Rebecca is drawn into a web of curses and cryptic customs, she uncovers startling truths about her own history. Will Rebecca be able to right the wrongs of the past, or has everything been ruined beyond repair?” ~ from the back of the book

Ruined First Page

(Actually, the first two pages…)


New Orleans, the summer of 1853. Yellow fever ravages the busy port city. Bells toll for the souls of the dead. Boats on the Mississippi River are placed in quarantine, their cargoes left to spoil, their crews felled by disease. Before the summer is over, eight thousand people will die.

In the city, yellow fever is known as the Stranger’s Disease. Immigrants – Italian, Greek, German, Polish, new arrivals from the great cities of new York and Boston – have no resistance to the fever. The Irish, who’d traveled to New Orleans to escape their terrible famine, soon fall victim, dying within a week of the first sinister chill.

During the day, the streets are empty. At night, mass burials take place all over town. Graveyards fill, corpses lie rotting in piles, swelling in the sun. Gravediggers are bribed with alcohol to ignore the putrid smell and dig shallow trenches for the bodies of the poor. New Orleans’s black population – slaves and the free people of color – have seemed largely immune, but in August of 1853, even they start to succumb. Native-born wealthy families – Creole and American – suffer as badly as poor immigrants.

The ornate tombs in the walled cemeteries, New Orleans’s famous Cities of the Dead, fill with mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. At Lafayette Cemetery,  on the new, [-p.2] American side of the city, bodies are left at the gates every night. There is no room to bury these unknown dead, and many of the corpses are burned.

In the last week of August, in the dead of night, a group of men unlock the Sixth Street gates to Lafayette Cemetery and make their way by torchlight to an imposing family tomb. Two coffins of yellow fever victims, both from the same family, had been placed in the vault earlier that afternoon, one on each of its long, narrow shelves. According to local custom, once in place, the coffins should have been sealed behind a brick wall for a year and a day.

But the coffins are still unsealed. The men remove the marble plate, covering their mouths, choking at the smell of the bodies decomposing in the heat. Onto the top coffin, they slide a shrouded corpse, then quickly replace the plate.

The next day, the tomb is sealed. A year later, the men return to break through the bricks. The two disintegrating coffins are thrown away, and the bones of the dead covered with soil in the caveau, a pit at the bottom of the vault.

The names of the first two corpses interred in the vault that terrible August are carved onto the tomb’s roll call of the dead. The name of the third corpse is not.

Only the men who placed the body inside the tomb know of its existence.” (p.1-2)

Unbroken a Ruined NovelRef: Paula Morris (2009) Ruined. Point (Scholastic): New York

Themes in the novel


Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Ruined

The pervasiveness of RISK in this fictional New Orleans is interesting – – especially when you note that the dangers Rebecca must deal with are those created by people of the past. Obviously Hurricane Katrina lurks in the background, ‘haunting’ the events of this novel, but I am thinking more widely in terms of Beck’s World Risk Society… Consider: “This just wasn’t fair. Even if her father had lived here years and years ago, he’d changed his name and renounced his inheritance. Rebecca wasn’t part of this place. She didn’t belong here. The [-p.261] curse had nothing to do with her, but somehow she was at risk from it, just as Helena was.” (pp.260-261)

Haunted urban spaces in literature have achieved a fair amount of attention – especially from the Gothic angle, but they remain interesting to me nonetheless…. Of course, they raise the issue of ‘the past’ and this is something Morris touches on repeatedly in Ruined. For example, talking about all the neighbourhoods that have been pulled down for new highways and other urban developments, the protagonist, Rebecca, comments to her ghostly friend Lisette  that “‘It’s strange to think of how the past gets swept away,'” (p.141) but her friend responds: “‘The past doesn’t go away.’ Lisette gazed up at her house. ‘You just can’t see it anymore.'” (p.141)

The curse, the ghost, the haunting don’t just add danger and threat to this story – they also stabilise the belief that history shapes us; that the actions of those in the past impact on us greatly here in the present…. So does human action have distant repercussions (e.g., on our descendants 150 years from now, just as the Bowmans’ actions in this novel do)? …how does such a belief shape the events of this story? This environment of risk connects with Morris’s approach to the changing nature of cities – and the need for change to survive. Consider: “Anton had told her she didn’t understand ‘their’ [-p.213] history, but one thing she was sure of: Cities couldn’t, wouldn’t stay the same. They moved with the times, whether they were New York or New Orleans.” (pp.212-213) OR Consider the final lines of the novel (barring the epilogue): “Rebecca rested her head on her father’s shoulder, and they stood there together, in silence, watching Rome burn.” (p.307) This ‘Fall of Rome‘ theme is one that is woven into the tale from quite early on and reappears periodically throughout. It is made explicit by Rebecca’s cousin who explains the social factions of the neighbourhood to Rebecca soon after she arrives (Cousin Aurelia and her friend Claire divide locals into factions and labels them after the Romans (pp.36-39)). In what ways is urban change addressed in this novel? What impact does it have on the protagonist and her community?

Erin Mercer presents a very interesting discussion of Paula Morris work (specifically Hibiscus Coast) in terms of its New Zealandness (and her New Zealandness as an author, in spite of her often choosing to set her novels ‘elsewhere’). Ref: Erin Mercer (2009) ‘Urban Spaces, Hybrid Faces: Rethinking Identity in Paula Morris’ Hibiscus Coast‘ pp.124-141 in Eds. Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction. Victoria University press: Wellington. Consider alsoMorris’s statement about New Orleans, quoted in The Times Picayune: “I love this city. It’s always passing for something else, isn’t it? Aren’t we all?”

The setting of this novel is New Orleans, post Hurricane Katrina. Katrina and her effects are regularly mentioned. Much was made of the politics and social troubles in America as revealed by Hurricane Katrina. How does Ruined engage with some of these discussions? Consider, for example, Anton’s comment: “If Katrina showed us anything, it was how easily what people have built here can just disappear.” (p.108)

Note that Paula Morris blogged about the Hurricane and has archived these in an accessible fashion: Her thoughts and experiences in New Orleans may be of interest to readers studying this novel.

A couple of other questions that may be useful include:

  • What if the story were begun or ended in a different way – in a different place in the narrative? ie if events were told in a different order?
  • What if you ommitted or moved the prologue…? (What effect would this have on the reading experience?)
  • Why break the novel down into short chapters the way Morris has done?
  • What is hidden from the reader? What is hidden from the protagonist? How and why? (and to what effect on the reading experience?)
  • How does the structure of this novel ‘fit’ in terms of it being a ‘ghost story’? (I’m thinking of reader expectations and how these are used)
  • What does New Orleans add to this story? (I’m thinking Voodoo, history of racial turbulence, urban change, ghost stories, disaster, etc.) How might this story be rewritten in a different city (your own)?
  • What does Rebecca, as protagonist, bring to the story?

Consider also, what Morris had to say about the writing of this novel (in an interview with Alice Te Punga Somerville): “With Trendy But Casual, I learned how to write in first-person, and how to write a structured plot. By the time I began writing Ruined in 2008, I was working from a very detailed outline. Things changed during the writing of the novel, of course, but a mystery plot is an unforgiving taskmaster. Ruined was also the first of my novels to have one close-third point of view. The mystery seemed to demand the focus of one point of view, the claustrophobia of it.” (p.189 ‘Paula Morris: Interviewed by Alice Te Punga Somerville’ in Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion pp.176-196, Ed. Siobhan Harvey. Cape Catley Ltd: Auckland 2010)

Texts that invite comparison

Perhaps the other ‘haunted city’ novels that Morris herself has written – Unbroken and Dark Souls?Dark Souls

It might be interesting to compare this book with some of the many dystopian fictions around which also treat in the long term effects of bad decisions… This Fall of Rome theme that Morris has played on connects with much of the dystopian writing, but Morris has approached these ideas in a different way – through the ghost story and within the current landscape. To what effect?

Perhaps Gothic fiction (and all the supporting literature that goes with that!)?

Perhaps other family fictions dealing with the ties that bind families together? … I’m going to have to think this through some more in terms of specific texts.

Perhaps The Time of the Ghost (1981), by Diana Wynne Jones and/or Charlotte Sometimes (1967), by Penelope Farmer (in terms of how hauntings connect the adolescent’s ability to face the repressed in his/her family with the adolescent’s development of identity )… In Anna Jackson’s study of these books, ‘Uncanny Hauntings, Canny Children’, springs to mind; speaking of the above two texts (and of The Haunting (1982) by Margaret Mahy), she argues that “One of the reasons for thinking that these hauntings in adolescent fiction are more about intellectual uncertainty and the establishment of an identity than about repression and the return of the repressed is [-p.168] the way the main characters seem to be affected more by what other characters have repressed than by what they have repressed themselves.” (pp.167-168)… more on this tomorrow I think…

Ref: Anna Jackson ‘Uncanny Hauntings, Canny Children’ pp.157-176 Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (c2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York

Morris’s Ruined: a History

Publishing History:

Classed as ‘Young Adult Fiction’ and published by Point (Scholastic), this is the first of two books in the series –  the second being Unbroken.

Publishing details: Paula Morris (2009) Ruined. Point (Scholastic): New York

Bibliography of secondary literature:

Author information:

Refer earlier blog: “Introducing Paula Morris” 09LVmorris1 /