Jeanne Mackin – Author of “The Sweet By and By”

By October 25, 2009episode

The strange-but-true history of Maggie Fox, 19th-century founder of the American Spiritualist movement, haunts a 20th-century journalist in this double-barreled tale of love and loss. Mackin (Dreams of Empire; Queen’s War; etc.) skips between Fox’s story and that of middle-aged magazine writer Helen West, who takes on an assignment to write an essay about Maggie and her sister Katie. In 1848, the two inventive children drew crowds by claiming that they were receiving spirit messages at their home in upstate New York; in fact, they had devised a clever system involving hidden hammers and cracking joints. The “Hydesville Rappings,” as they were dubbed, gained popularity, and the Fox girls were swept off to New York City, where they performed s‚ances for the likes of Horace Greeley. As Helen uncovers this bizarre tale, she begins to feel a kinship with Maggie, an unhappy child who grew up too quickly in a harsh environment. Like Helen, who has been mourning the death of her married lover, Jude, for three years, Maggie also lost her one great love, Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane, and spent the rest of her sorrow-filled life communing with his ghost. Although Helen is not a believer at first, she soon finds herself spooked by mysterious bumps in the night. She believes she feels Jude’s presence, and a desperate hope of seeing him again persists even as a new man attempts to woo her. Mackin shifts skillfully between these two atmospheric worlds, and once she tones down the overwritten prose of the first few chapters, the dual narrative acquires rhythm. Intelligent if predictable in its setup, the novel pays homage to two strong women separated by history but united in spirit.

Brad Shoemaker

Author Brad Shoemaker

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