Sunday, July 17, 2016

Speaking with the Spirits --Rochester Knockings by Hubert Haddad

Hubert Haddad. Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters. Translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz. Rochester: Open Letter Books, 2015. Published in France as Théorie de la villain petite fille by Zulma.

With Rochester Knockings, Haddad gives us an interesting look at the United States of the second half of the 19th Century. Haddad imagines the story of the historical Fox sisters, Leah, Kate, and Maggie, who through their communications with the spirits of the dead ignite the cross-continental Spiritualist movement. Haddad paints a United States still, as he describes it, under the influence of Puritanism, with a population naive enough and traumatized by the frequent death of children, spouses, and the great losses suffered in the Civil War to sustain a movement ascribed to by ardent believers and determined charlatans alike.

In Rochester Knockings, two young sisters have just moved with their parents to a small town, Hydesville, in New York State. The youngest, Kate, has recently witnessed the death of her much beloved younger brother. Sister Margaret is old enough to feel the loss of dear friends in the move to a new town. Both sisters are lonely; not yet accepted into the social circles of the community’s school and church. Kate dreams of her brother and feels a child’s responsibility for her brother’s death. She is a sleepwalker and seems especially in tune to her natural surroundings and alert to every noise within the house. Both sisters think of the house as a kind of living entity that will accept its occupants or not as it comes to know them. Left alone one night while her sister and parents attend to the birth of a calf, Kate hears strange knockings. When Margaret returns, Kate has her listen for the knocks and over time, both sisters make their mother aware of the strange occurrences. Soon the whole town knows about the knockings at the Hydesville house. The church’s strict pastor, lost within his own guilt at the loss of a young wife, excommunicates the family, who are then in jeopardy from the mob-like reaction of the townspeople. The girls are whisked off to safety with an older sister, Leah, in Rochester. Leah has plans for her sisters’ penchant for communicating with the afterlife. She drives them into a life of public demonstrations and seances. Leah shares in the role of medium to the spirit-world herself. Haddad’s Kate is the true medium of the three sisters. The two older sisters become adept at creating the proper atmosphere and simulating their conversations with the dead. Kate lives in a foggy world with no barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead. Both Kate and Margaret are exhausted by Leah’s ambitions and only Leah, through marriages and prudent management of her (and the younger sisters') earnings, sustains her spiritualist activities and comfortable lifestyle.

Celebrities are dependent on the waxing and waning whims of the public, and as the competition grows from imitators eager to cash in on the spiritualist opportunities, the girls’ hold on their public fades. As wooers and supporters die or drift in different directions, Kate and Margaret are left alone and die in poverty. This novel is as much about the rise and fall of the Fox sisters as it is about an American population of immigrants and religious zealots eager and ready to believe not only the sisters who might or might not have been sincere in their exhibitions, but the many fakes who follow in their footsteps.

The narrative has a wandering style, characters appear, disappear, and reappear later only to disappear again. The sisters' stories follow sometimes separate, sometimes intertwining threads. I sometimes wondered if the translator got a bit lost in the translations —some of the sentences seemed unnecessarily long and convoluted, and the style a bit inelegant in places.

A word about Open Letter Books. This is the nonprofit imprint from the University of Rochester, with the mission of publishing English translations of exemplary literature from throughout the world. Look to Open Letter’s publications to discover writers new to the English speaking reading population.  We should hope that Open Letter will thrive. Their beautifully produced books each celebrate the collaboration between writers and readers, the work of the writer to provide creative insight into the human experience and the work of the reader to absorb, understand, and make the writer’s expression meaningful. 

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