A Novel of the Fox Sisters
by Hubert Haddad
Trans. by Jennifer Grotz
|Open Letter Books, 2015
In Rochester Knockings Tunisian author Hubert Haddad brings to life with exquisite historical detail the theater and sensation of the Fox sisters, spiritual mediums who captivated the world in the mid-nineteenth century. Haddad travels through time and space and spiritual plane to bring us this tale, channeling both the voices and the spirit of this turbulent time in history when abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage were forefront on the political stage.
The novel opens in the small town of Hydesville just outside of Rochester, New York, where sisters Maggie and Kate begin to witness strange phenomena in their farmhouse home. In the dead of night, doors slam, furniture scrapes across the floorboards, and unexplained rapping comes erratically from underfoot. Instead of treating the farmhouse as the innocuous setting for these bizarre events, Haddad introduces it as another character in the story of the Fox sisters with complexity and agency of its own: “Certain long-poisonous houses seem indifferent, bored with human lives, and then one eye half-opens suddenly from the depths of their comatose sleep.”
Maggie and Kate become convinced that a spirit from the beyond is attempting to make contact, so the sisters perform their first séance before a crowd of Hydesville neighbors. As the spirit knocks in response to their questions, they learn that a man named Charles Haynes had been murdered and his body buried beneath the farmhouse. This shocking information is regarded with both fear and skepticism, but their unnerving ability to communicate with the other side launches the Fox sisters’ career throughout North America and across the Atlantic. It was the first of hundreds of séances the sisters would conduct over the course of their forty-odd years spearheading the Spiritualist Movement.
Haddad works hard to place the Fox sisters within their proper historical context, resurrecting the uncertainty toward rapidly evolving science as well as a general dissatisfaction toward conventional religion. In the wake of this societal unrest, spiritual mediums pierced the veil, providing much sought-after answers about death and the afterlife. Furthermore, Haddad ties together the power of spiritualism with the rising demand for equal opportunity: “[As mediums] American women finally held a new way to take their turn speaking without being booed at like those feminists in municipal assemblies advocating the right to vote.”
While Haddad’s extensive research no doubt provided the framework of this intricate story, it is truly the prose that sends readers spinning through time. For this artfully crafted narrative, Jennifer Grotz’s translation retains all the fluidity and precise word choice of the original French. At times, the writing might feel stuffy and cumbersome, not unlike the nineteenth century, and this technique speaks to the expertise of the author and translator in mimicking and recreating the formal air of the time. It’s one of a few tricks that serves to further engulf readers within the realm and world of the Fox sisters. Masterfully written, Rochester Knockings is a haunting tale you won’t be quick to forget.