Rochester Knockings (A novel of the Fox Sisters) – Hubert Haddad (translated by Jennifer Grotz)

Spiritualism, another subject I know nothing about. Like most I know of those people who claim to be able to contact spirits, but the huge following it achieved in the 1800’s, the role that the Fox sisters played in the movement and the sensation that the women caused by running public shows where they “communicated” with spirits was something I knew nothing about. Step up Algerian writer Hubert Haddad, who writes in French, to give me a learning of the spiritualism movement.
Our fictional account of the Fox sisters opens with vivid descriptions of the 1800’s in the United States;
We arrived in the village without knowing any of its dramas. But children are quick to reveal everything to you. Lilly told me of the unfortunate Joe-Charlie Joe, the son of a former slave of a Mansfield ranch, who was hung form a great oak in Grand Meadow for taking a walk in the valley with the beautiful Emily. Before committing their crime, the lynchers would have obtained her vow that he had kissed her. If every stolen kiss of the young warranted the rope, there’d be none of us left to marry. It’s true, not everyone is black. The beautiful Emily Mansfield was full of remorse. Because of her, a black man hardly twenty years old went to heaven with a kiss for his last rite of Viaticum.
The date March 31,1848 is often set as the beginning of the spiritualist movement, as on that date, Kate and Margaret Fox reported that they had made contact with a spirit, the spirit making loud rapping noises, witnessed by onlookers. Early on in the novel the young sisters, Maggie and Kate, move with their mother and father to Rochester, into a house that creaks and moans and is rumoured to be haunted.
We were alone with Mother last night when the knocks started up again. Katie, who was pretending to sleep, sat straight up as if spring-loaded. I am always just as terrified when she gets up and walks toward the window or staircase with her arms outstretched, eyes rolled upward. But this time it wasn’t a case of sleepwalking. In the darkness of the bedroom, I could easily see her crafty look, almost cruel when she smiled. Kate is adorable, all slim, with the pretty figure of a theatre actress, but there is a bit of a demonic look to her. It could be said that anywhere she finds herself – in the forest, in the village, in the house – she is looking for the secret behind things.
Written in the first person, from the view of the sister, and the third person, this is a well-researched work, with most chapters ending or containing an 1800’s nursery rhyme, indigenous song or poem. The language painting a very vivid picture of the times, and the style making you feel as though you are reading a work written in the 1800’s.
Besides raw opium or the chandoo imported in brass boxes, they also serve absinthe among other alcohols, and black tea.
This is a novel full of bit players, free pardoned slaves, two bit lawyers, coroners, this is a multi-populated picture of the USA in the late 19th century, something from a Tarantino movie, or an HBO TV series?
As Spiritualism is the main theme the novel also captures the religious fervour of the time, from numerous Christian faiths through to the “Celestial Free Spirit and Universal Love” cult, who of course practice free love (well free love for the men folk!).
A novel that exposes the uncertain times of a nation being forged, moving from slavery, a work peppered with religious and spiritual thought, the definition of freedom and a nation moving towards such times.
The two main Fox sisters (Maggie and Kate) have a much older sister, who had moved out prior to their youthful times and their discovery of their ability to talk to the spirit world. She returns to the fold and takes advantage of their skills, creating a sideshow to pacify to inquisitive masses. Shows in large theatres, wealthy folk wanting to connect with lost ones being most vulnerable and of course great targets to build up the Fox family wealth and renown.
Press correspondents gave considerable coverage to the event, though their reports contrasted wildly. Whereas the papers of the South and Midwest spoke of the shameful deception of abolitionist clans and women’s rights movements, the New-York Tribune, under the pen of a young follower of transcendentalism, in fashion with progressives in the North, announced it a fundamental discovery proving nothing less than the immortality of the soul. The article ended with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson; “There are persons, from whom we always expect fairy tokens; let us not cease to expect them.: The Quakers on their end were heavily engaged in the spiritualist path, in competition with the Mormons who had the aim to recall, by their lawful baptized name or with good reason, all the souls that ever lived on Earth since Adam and Eve, without neglecting anyone.

A thoroughly well researched novel, however I am sure there would be spiritualist coverts or followers today who would poo-poo this is trite and shallow, however to a person not well versed in the history of the movement it gives credence to the characters pivotal in the movement’s beginnings, it layers this with a wonderful depiction of the era and the colourful characters of that time as well as enlightening the reader about a world now forgotten, a world where industrial and personal advancement was taking place at such a rapid rate that the plausibility of now being able to contact the dead is not too farfetched. An interesting novel, considering it is set in the USA but written by an Algerian, a work that reads as though it could well have been written at that time.

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