Rochester Knockings

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The subtitle of this offbeat novel is “A Novel of the Fox Sisters.” Written in French by the Tunisian-born Hubert Haddad (translated by Jennifer Grotz), the book dives deep into American waters and finds rich, unexpected treasure there. The time is the 1840s onward to the end of that century, when the Spiritualist Movement was in full swing and mediums were as popular as movie stars, thanks to their ability to communicate with the dead.

In ROCHESTER KNOCKINGS the Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret have genuine psychic gifts, gifts they were born with (honed by a childhood spent in a farm house inhabited by a ghost they playfully called Mr Splitfoot.) Haddad follows their fortunes as they grow up, turn professional, become famous and wealthy, meet such luminaries as Frederic Douglass, Horace Greeley (whom Kate eventually marries), Victoria Woodhull and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Always, even as they rise in life, the sisters are under attack from their many enemies: priests, Puritans, lawyers, scientists, scoffers and scam artists (some of whom try to turn the sisters’ calling into a lucrative racket).

Haddad weaves various strands of 19th century history into his narrative: the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the industrial revolution, mass immigration, the opening up of the West, the battle for women’s rights, the class war between capital and labor. It makes for a rich and insightful novel, one whose broad canvas manages somehow to keep the Fox sisters front and center. Although Kate ends up in drunkenness and poverty (but is still being vilified as a witch), she continues to “perceive the voices of Creation, barely audible, and the geometric figures of an infinite precision that were endlessly in the middle of her skull.”