Sunday, January 30, 2011

Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

I love bookstores that specialize in remaindered books.  I can wander the aisles at a store with a 3-month lease or browse the Daedalus catalog and for a few dollars buy a book that I've never heard of because the description looks interesting.  Sometimes that strategy backfires.  Talking to the Dead was remaindered for a reason - it's a badly written book, and the story of the Fox sisters isn't quite compelling enough to make the slog through the imprecise grammar and almost random jumps in the timeline which characterize Barbara Weisberg's attempts to tie the sisters' story into the social framework of their era.

One night in 1848, Kate and Maggie Fox heard mysterious 'rappings' which they claimed were produced by the ghost of a peddler killed years before and buried under the house in which they lived.  The girls eventually became 'public' mediums who held seances for profit, then fell into ill-fated romances, alcoholism, and ultimately died in poverty.  In the hands of a gifted writer, this would be a compelling story, but Weisberg's writing style had me re-reading paragraphs to determine basic facts and her attempts to connect the spiritualist movement to events such as the Civil War and the social changes of the Victorian era die at the hands of her disorganized text.  Talking to the Dead, even in its published form, is what my friend Pam would call a "hard edit" - I can only imagine what the original manuscript must have looked like.

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