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Book Review

Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the first book in the "Skeleton Creek" series.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Teenagers Ryan McCray and Sarah Fincher are bored in their small mountain town of Skeleton Creek, Ore. Their boredom gives way to curiosity about the town's name and mining history. They're especially interested in the dredge, a monstrous mining machine in the forest that once ate through the land and forged Skeleton Creek. (The company that owned the dredge used it in their quest for gold.) A miner named Joe Bush died at that time, and some believe his ghost still haunts the dredge.

Ryan and Sarah sneak out one night to search the dredge. Ryan is startled when he sees what he believes to be Joe Bush's ghost. Ryan falls and injures his leg. This isn't the first time Ryan and Sarah have been in trouble together. Ryan's love of composing spooky stories in his journal, and Sarah's obsession with investigating and videotaping, have caused their parents concern in the past. Ryan's injury is the last straw.

Both sets of parents forbid the kids to see or communicate with each other in any way. The parents even put tracking software on the kids' computers, which Sarah and Ryan easily disable. Though they can't see each other, they continue secret communications online. While Ryan is laid up at home in his cast, Sarah makes several trips to the dredge, recording eerie sounds and brief, startling images of Joe Bush's ghost. She digitally sends her video findings to Ryan, encrypted with passwords. (Readers can go to her website, type in the password and watch Sarah's videos. These kinds of interactions happen throughout the book and allow readers to get her side of the story.)

Sarah and Ryan begin to piece together the connections between the dredge, the now-defunct mining company, Joe Bush and a secret alchemistic society called the Crossbones, of which Ryan's dad may be a part. They theorize that Joe Bush's death was murder and that he has returned to the dredge to guard his gold.

When Ryan gets his cast removed, the kids sneak out at night to further investigate the dredge. They find a secret room hidden below the gears where Joe Bush died. Inside the room is a box engraved with names that include Ryan's dad's name. As they try to open the box, they see the ghost above them. He closes the door to the room, leaving them stranded in the dark. Anticipating the worst, Sarah linked her video camera to her computer before leaving home. If she and Ryan weren't home by morning to disable it, her computer would automatically send S.O.S. emails to their parents, letting them know where Ryan and Sarah were. As the camera batteries die, readers (watching Sarah's video online) hear the kids plead for help.

Christian Beliefs

When Ryan is scared by some of Sarah's video footage, he turns on the radio and listens to the church channel. He turns it off after they start talking about spiritual warfare, which scares him even more. Ryan reads a John Steinbeck book called To a God Unknown that contains Christian characters, which Ryan calls creepy.

Other Belief Systems

Ryan says privacy has long been the religion of Skeleton Creek. The kids believe the dredge is haunted by the phantom of Joe Bush. The ghost taps out a code on the gears, asking if Ryan is the alchemist. Ryan and Sarah try to learn about the Crossbones, a secret society that may include Ryan's dad and other townspeople. The kids find papers that include alchemy-related diagrams and symbols. Ryan says he and his dad are both storytellers because they like the idea of myths and spirits.

Authority Roles

Ryan's and Sarah's parents, concerned for their children's safety, have forbidden the kids to see each other after Ryan breaks his leg at the dredge. Dad may be a member of a secret society called the Crossbones. The new ranger repeatedly urges Sarah and Ryan to stay away from the dredge because it is dangerous. Dad's friend Henry gives Ryan information about the days when the mine worked and elaborates on some of the legends surrounding the dredge.


Sarah uses the Lord's name in vain in her email. The word heckuva also appears. Joe Bush was killed when his pant leg got caught in the gears of the dredge. The dredge pulled him through, crushing his leg bone to gravel and pulling him into the pond. Ryan mentions being disturbed and crying after watching his dad catch a fish then bash its head against a rock until it was dead. He says it makes him sad the way humans kill things without any reason.



Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Frightening aspects: Ryan writes extensively in his journal about the things that scare him. The aspects of this book/online project most likely to frighten some kids are Sarah's video messages, which include the footage she takes at the dredge at night. They're filmed in low-quality black and white and often include scary sounds and startling images of what appears to be the ghost of Joe Bush, especially video no. seven.

Lying and deception: Sarah lies regularly. She tells her parents she's sick so she can stay home. Then she sneaks out to see Ryan. She lies to the ranger, telling him she wants to call her parents and explain why she's in a forbidden location. She's actually trying to get information off the ranger's phone. Sarah and Ryan sneak out of the house to discover the secrets of the dredge. They know their parents have put monitoring software on their computers, but they quickly disable it. Ryan says any 15-year-old who can't get around those controls is probably having trouble tying his own shoes. Ryan sneaks into his parents' room with the purpose of looking through Dad's personal items. He lies to his mom, saying he hasn't had any contact with Sarah. He journals that being friends with Sarah makes him a liar and there's no way around it.

Gambling: A small amount of gambling takes place at Henry's poker parties.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

10 to 18




Patrick Carman






Record Label



Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.


On Video

Year Published



Oregon Battle of the Books list, 2010-2011; Pennsylvania Young Readers Choice Awards, 2010-2011; Nevada Young Readers' Award, 2012


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