I can hang like a mist, seep through solid walls, slither through keyholes. When you turn to look, you won’t see me, just feel a chill frost ruffle the hairs on your neck. You will sense my presence and stare hard into the dark, but I’ll be already gone, into a past or future where you can’t follow.
We know from the very beginning of Deborah Swift’s Spirit of the Highway that our narrator, Ralph Chaplin, is a ghost – the ghost of a former Roundhead soldier, looking back on his role in the Battle of Worcester and what happened in its aftermath. What we don’t know is when he died and how. To find the answers, we will have to read the whole of Ralph’s story because the truth is only revealed near the end.
The Battle of Worcester takes place in September 1651 and is the final battle of the English Civil War. Having fought on the winning side, Ralph should be triumphant, but instead he is sickened by the bloodshed and shocked by the abrupt death of his father. Accompanied by his army friend, Cutch, he returns home in the hope that at least some good will have come out of the fighting and the world will now be a better and fairer place to live…but with a defeated enemy on his trail, looking for revenge, it seems that things will go no more smoothly for Ralph in peacetime than they did during the war.
The woman Ralph loves – Lady Katherine Fanshawe – was on the other side of the conflict, having married into a Royalist family. Despite their differences in class and background, Kate shares Ralph’s dream of starting a community of Diggers (a movement who believe that land belongs to everyone and should not be enclosed or bought and sold). But although Kate’s Royalist husband is in exile, there is always a chance that he could return, and while he lives, she can never be free.
This is the second book in a trilogy of Highway novels, although the story makes sense on its own if you don’t want to read all three. The previous novel, Shadow on the Highway, does set up some of the storylines which are continued in this book, though, so I think it’s a good idea to read them in order. The first book is narrated by Ralph’s sister Abigail, who is Kate’s friend and maid, and the final novel, Lady of the Highway, is written from Kate’s point of view, which means we will have heard from all three of the trilogy’s main characters by the time we reach the end.
The character of Kate Fanshawe is based on the real life ‘Wicked Lady’, a highwaywoman from the 17th century. The name of Ralph (or sometimes Rafe) Chaplin is mentioned in some versions of the legend, but otherwise nothing is really known about him, which has given Deborah Swift plenty of scope to build an interesting story around him. Ralph’s two sisters, I think, must be completely fictional. I got to know and like Abigail in the previous book, but this time Elizabeth plays a more prominent role – and proves to be entirely different from her sister (not in a good way). As for Ralph himself, I liked him too, although his impulsiveness frustrated me and I wished he would stop and think before acting!
The opening chapter made me think this was going to be more of a ghost story than it actually was, but I didn’t mind that at all. The supernatural elements are quite subtle and confined mostly to the beginning and the end, but I thought they were handled well. I should also point out that this is described as a YA trilogy, but I think they are the sort of books that can be enjoyed by both young and not-so-young adults. I’ll have to read Lady of the Highway soon to see how the story ends.