"At Briarwood School for Girls" by Michael Knight; Atlantic Monthly Press (240 pages, $26)


With evocative language and a true sense of place, Southerner Michael Knight combines a coming-of-age tale, a ghost story and a meditation on history in his engrossing latest novel, "At Briarwood School for Girls."

It's 1994, and Virginia boarding school student Lenore Littlefield is keeping a huge secret from even her closest friends: She's pregnant. She also seems to be getting messages from beyond the grave from Elizabeth Archer, a student who hanged herself after her fiance was killed during World War I.

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Meanwhile, Lenore's rebellious buddy Poppy Tuttle wants to fight the Walt Disney Company's real-life plan to build a theme park nearby called Disney's America. Using pep talk straight from the basketball court, Coach Fink leads her new Drama Club charges - including Lenore, who's working off a demerit for busting curfew - in a production of "The Phantom of Thornton Hall," a Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Briarwood alum Eugenia Marsh. History teacher Lucas Bishop finds himself befuddled by the rarefied all-girls environment and teams with Coach Fink to track down the now reclusive playwright.

Does history repeat itself? Is it "just a story we tell ourselves about the past"? Featuring clever plot twists, the colorful "At Briarwood School for Girls" takes the reader on a memorable ride.

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