Walking Mary



Intriguing tale with mature themes; best for teens.

What parents need to know

Educational value

The length, type size, and vocabulary might make this book a good fit for reluctant teen readers, who will be mature enough to handle the subject matter and understand the unusual storytelling.

Positive messages

This book encourages teen readers to think about some big issues such as racism and abuse.

Positive role models

Pearl may cut class and keep quiet when she sees Mary being attacked, but she ultimately does befriend the elderly woman. Her brother does his best to protect her.


Frankie confronts his father with a baseball bat. A person is run over by a train. An attempted suicide. It's implied that Pearl's father molests her.


Frankie spies on his sister and a friend taking a bath.

Not applicable
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking
Not applicable

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that the length, type size, and vocabulary make this look like a book for younger children, but the content issues may be confusing at best to the elementary school set. This is a better fit for teens, perhaps particularly reluctant readers mature enough to handle the subject matter and understand the unusual storytelling. This book will encourage teen readers to think about some big issues, such as racism and abuse.

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What's the story?

The title character is an old African-American woman who meets every passenger train that pulls into her small town in the '40s and '50s, searching in vain for her son, who was killed in WWI. Pearl, a young white girl from a fundamentalist Baptist family, is strangely drawn to Mary, who saves her from drowning in a pond and seems to have cured her poor eyesight. As Pearl grows older she begins to follow Mary to find out where she lives, and then to dress like her and imitate her. Eventually they form an odd friendship, though Mary never speaks, but the town, and Pearl's father in particular, doesn't approve.

Is it any good?


In his Acknowledgments the author says it took him 30 years to get this story right; perhaps he should have waited a bit longer. While the basic story is intriguing, the telling is all over the map. There's a hint of magic at the beginning that is never followed up or even mentioned again, a hint of ghosts at the end that comes out of nowhere, intimations of incest that are never resolved, some halfhearted stabs at comedy, and plot elements that disappear like a pebble in a murky pond.

There are some terrific elements here: a beautiful, eerie nighttime skating scene, a stalwart and appealing younger brother, and a fluid writing style that keeps the pages turning even when what's happening doesn't make a lot of sense. It seems the author never quite figured out what he wanted this story to be. This is James VanOosting's second book for children; the first, The Last Payback, was a gem with a strong voice that showed tremendous promise. We'll just have to wait for that promise to be fulfilled.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about some of the mature content in this book. It deals with some pretty heavy stuff, like racism and abuse -- what age kid would you say the book is appropriate for?

  • Reviews of this book differed on its conclusion: Is there hope at the end? What do you think? How have the characters changed?

Book details

Author:James VanOosting
Genre:Family Life
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:HarperCollins Children's Books
Publication date:June 20, 2005
Number of pages:130
Publisher's recommended age(s):12 - 17

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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