Highways and biways are part and parcel of the American consciousness, and alongside those miles of blacktop, dozens of urban legends have popped up, telling stories of a phantom hitchhiker. Rose Marshall has heard them all—and then some: this protagonist of Seanan McGuire’s Sparrow Hill Road is none other than the Phantom Prom Date herself, the Girl in the Green Silk Gown.
Rose was just 16 when she was run off the side of a treacherous patch of road in 1952, and she has been hitching ever since. Give her a jacket and offer her a meal at a roadside diner, and she takes on corporeal form until dawn or whenever she sheds the jacket. Sometimes she accompanies a lonely trucker to keep him talking and awake, thus preventing a tragic accident; other times, she cannot prevent tragedy but can at least usher the newly dead to their next stop. After all those years, though, the man responsible for her death is still out there, still driving folks off the road to collect the souls that keep him young, and he hasn’t forgotten the one that got away. A final confrontation is, of course, inevitable.
Seanan McGuire is quickly making it onto my list of favorite authors. She maintains a tone balanced between darkness and lighter moments of humor; Rose herself is a sympathetic figure, both weary by spells and game for the next adventure, the right blend for a character who has been 16 for the last 50+ years. The inconveniences of being dead (being constantly cold while incorporeal, for instance) can be alleviated with a jacket and a freely given hot meal, and Rose knows how to appreciate a good burger at a roadside joint. She is genuinely interested in the people she meets on the road, both living and dead, and while she is no pushover if she is betrayed, she does generally err on the side of helping people, contrary to some of the darker renditions of her urban legend.
The chronology and pacing of the story work well. The chapters can almost be read as short, self-contained stories that each build toward a larger story arc. The plot is largely linear, though detouring through relevant backstory that adds layering to the story gradually. The book is broken up by excerpts from songs about the phantom hitchhiker and testimonials from experts and people who have encountered Rose. Though Sparrow Hill Road can be read as a standalone, it is tangentially set in the world of McGuire’s Incryptids series (which I still need to read per a friend’s recommendation!).
The emphasis of this tale, fittingly, is the journey itself, and it is an entertaining one. Sit back, grab a bite to eat at the Last Dance Café, and enjoy the tale. It’s a great ride.