The Ghost Dancer [1981]

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Ghost Dancer 1Ghost Dancer 2Ghost Dancer 3

Published: Jinty 3 January 1981 – 28 March 1981

Episodes: 13

Artist: Phil Townsend

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: Dansen in het maanlicht [Dancing in the Moonlight] (in: Tina 1983)

Plot

Ferne Ashley’s mother, Martina Kerr, is a famous ballerina and her father a famous composer. Unfortunately Dad is a short-tempered man who flies off the handle easily, especially when his work isn’t going well, and he picks constant fights with his wife. This has tragic consequences that shape the course of the entire story.

Ferne passes the audition to her mother’s old ballet school with Madame Naninska. But instead of being thrilled for her, Dad starts an argument with Mum that Ferne only got in because Mum was Madame’s ex-prize pupil (frustration over his latest composition not going well). Worse, he’s doing it while driving instead of watching the road, and fails to avoid a tractor that’s driving on the wrong side of the road for some reason. Mum gets killed in the ensuing crash. Ferne blames Dad for Mum’s death, and decides to punish him by pretending to be crippled so he can’t see the joy of her dancing.

The doctors can’t find any medical reason for Ferne’s paralysis of course, but assume it is a mental block that’s come from the shock of Mum’s death. The decision is made to send Ferne to the ballet school anyway, in the hope it will help to unfreeze the block.

What this really does is make it increasingly difficult for Ferne to keep up the pretence. There is temptation on all sides, including urging from Madame to dance again, to just give in and start dancing. Although Ferne still blames Dad for Mum’s death, the reality of what she is doing and the consequences it has wrought are now sinking in – including denying herself the dancing she loves so much. She is beginning to feel shame and guilt. However, Ferne is too afraid of what everyone will say, especially her bad-tempered father, to confess what she has done.

So Ferne tries pretending that she is gradually regaining the use of her legs and quietly rejoin the ballet class. Madame notices that Ferne seems to be moving her toes in time to the ballet music and joyfully tells Dad. However, when Dad hears about it, he guesses the truth. He comes up to the school, confronts Ferne over it, and leaves her out in the woods, telling her to walk straight back to school. Ferne refuses to do so and her wheelchair is stuck, so she’s trapped herself, and then a downpour starts. By the time anyone finds her she is suffering from hypothermia and Dad is in big trouble for leaving a crippled girl like that. After this, Ferne is finding it even harder to own up.

One night Ferne yearns to dance so much that she slips out to some Roman ruins to secretly dance in them, as her, as her mother used to do. Unfortunately one of the pupils, Jolie, spots her, and blabs it around. At first the girls think it’s imagination, but later it adds to a rumour that the ghost Ferne’s mother is haunting the school.

Ferne is also secretly wandering around the school, and one night Madame catches her in her mother’s Firebird costume. This sends Madame into a faint, and after this the ghost rumour well and truly starts, with even staff members believing it. Ferne is appalled at what she has started and knows that owning up would stop it, but she is still too scared to do so.

The rumour just grows and grows; Ferne actually finds the girls trying to contact the ghost with a Ouija board and breaks it up. Jolie even goes to the ruins to call upon the ghost for help, because she is having trouble with her dancing and lost confidence. She is trying to distract the teacher from it by goofing off in class and playing the fool, but knows that in the end it won’t stop her being told to leave because she is not progressing. She does not realise Ferne is listening in.

Ferne soon realises what Jolie’s dancing problem is, having experienced it herself several years earlier, and wants to help. Deciding that openly helping Jolie won’t work out, Ferne decides to play the ghost. Dressing up in the Firebird costume and pretending to be her mother’s ghost, Ferne appears before Jolie in the ruins and walk her through the problem. This overcomes Jolie’s problem, but of course the big gossip can’t resist telling everyone about her encounter with the ghost of Martina Kerr.

At this, the girls crawl all over the ruins in search of the ghost. The caretaker angrily chases them off and, following this, the headmistress abruptly puts the ruins out of bounds. Despite the ban, the girls trick Jolie into coming to the ruins for another supposed rendezvous with the ghost, where they intend to have some sport with her.

Ferne overhears what they are plotting but does nothing about it, figuring Jolie had it coming for being such a blabbermouth. Then she overhears the headmistress saying she put the ruins out of bounds because the caretaker’s lawn mower badly cracked one of the pillars, and it could fall at any time. At this, Ferne abandons her pretence once and for all – she’s off and running to stop a potential accident – right in front of an astonished Madame, Matron and every pupil who sees her.

At the ruins, Ferne warns the girls and gets Jolie out of the danger the girls unwittingly put her in. But Jolie, realising the trick Ferne pulled on her, angrily shoves her away, and Ferne hits a pillar. Unfortunately this is the dangerous pillar, and Jolie’s action sends it toppling. Ferne manages to push Jolie clear of the pillar, but does not make it herself. The pillar lands on top of her.

Of course Ferne’s deception is now out, but everyone forgives her because of her heroism – no wait, there’s a far more serious reason why nobody can be angry with Ferne. The pillar damaged her spine and now she really is confined to a wheelchair. Her deception has turned into dreadful reality.

Ferne’s accident makes Dad lose heart for composing music, including completing the ballet, “Sea Maiden’s Dream”, that he was composing for Mum before she died. Ferne is informed that stress is the reason for Dad’s constant temper problems. At this she is really ashamed at blaming him, and she resolves to dance again for his sake. After weeks of secret work, she manages to dance a few steps before him, which restores his heart for composing. At Ferne’s request, he resumes work on the ballet. Some years later Ferne has fully recovered and dancing the lead in the premiere of “Sea Maiden’s Dream”.

Thoughts

This story has the rather sad distinction of being Jinty’s last ballet story before the merger. Ballet-wise, it does show that Phil Townsend can draw beautiful ballet. It’s a shame he did not draw ballet more frequently. It is also the last Jinty serial to use the theme of ghosts (unless you count the ghost that appeared briefly in “Worlds Apart“), even if there is no actual ghost in the story. Finally, it is also the last Jinty story to use the theme of bad reactions to grief without thinking of the consequences (a la “Nothing to Sing About” and “Stefa’s Heart of Stone”). So it is quite surprising that Alison Christie did not write it.

There have been scores of girls’ serials about girls (and adults) pretending to be disabled, either by their own free will or by circumstance, such as being forced. Sometimes it’s linked to tragedy and grief, as it is with Ferne, but more often it’s due to scheming. The theme cropped up frequently at DCT, but appeared less often at IPC; neither Tammy nor Jinty used it much.

Unlike most girls who willingly pretend to be disabled, Ferne never uses her deception to play upon people’s sympathy or take advantage of them. It’s a kneejerk reaction to grief and blaming her father for her mother’s death, which is quickly regretted once Ferne realises the consequences. While most girls in girls’ serials keep up the pretence for as long as possible, Ferne changes her mind about it fairly quickly, but can’t see how to end it without getting into trouble. Every time she decides to confess, something happens to scare her into staying silent and continue the deception. And in the meantime, everything just continues to get more and more out of hand.

Ferne’s heroism in giving up her deception to save Jolie would have been the perfect way  for Ferne to end the deception gracefully and be forgiven. Indeed, the story could have ended with that. Instead, there is one final twist – Ferne’s deception turning into reality  and the final episode of her story being dedicated to comeback. It seems a harsh way to go before the final happy ending, especially for a girl who deserved it far less than other schemers who pretend to be disabled in girls’ comics. After all, her deception was prompted by grief, shock and anger, which hardly made her conducive to thinking straight. On the other hand, it is far less trite than the alternate ending the story could have taken, as described above.

There is no doubt the father’s bad temper started the trouble, whether or not he was actually to blame for his wife’s death. Things would have been so different if the father had done what he should have done: been overjoyed that Ferne passed the audition, congratulated her wholeheartedly and took the family out to celebrate. Instead, he uses it as a vehicle to vent his frustration and pick a fight with his wife. Moreover, he was doing it while driving, which would have made his driving dangerous. It was asking for an accident.

It is never officially established just who was responsible for the accident or why the tractor was on the wrong side of the road. Dad knows Ferne blames him for her mother’s death, but he does not blame himself. The mother might still have died, but at least Ferne wouldn’t have blamed Dad if he hadn’t started that fight in the first place. His bad temper may be due to strain and work stress, but that really is no excuse for it. He admits in the end that he does have a temper problem, but it’s something he should address with stress and anger management therapy instead of making everyone in the household suffer for it.

Discussion should also be made of Jolie. Jolie is one of the standout supporting characters in the story. She could even be a more rounded character than Ferne, and is certainly more humorous. She’s a bit of a butt of jokes at the school. For one thing, English is her second language (she is French), so she doesn’t always get things right. For example, she comes up to the girls to say she heard the gardener say a motorway is going to be built through the school grounds, when in fact the driveway is just going to be enlarged. She has the unfortunate reputation for big imagination and tall tales as well, which go hand in hand with her being a big gossip and blabbermouth by nature. But really, the pranks she plays in class (blowing down a girl’s neck for example) do not endear her much to the girls, so she is asking for a big revenge prank from them at some point. And it comes with fateful results at the climax. Jolie becomes more sympathetic there when we learn the reason for her goofing off: covering up loss of confidence in her dancing because she can’t get the hang of certain steps, and she is terrified she will leave the school. She is so human, and has potential for her own story. We can just see this one being retold from Jolie’s point of view. It would be interesting to see how it looks.

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