Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters

Written by Hubert Haddad
Review by Jackie Drohan

In a laudable project for the University of Rochester’s press, Haddad combines high literary style and unity of effect in this believable and engrossing historical journey.

Set at the beginning of the late 19th-century Spiritualist movement in Western New York, coinciding in time and origin with the broader religious Great Awakening which swept the country, the book presents a meticulously researched tableau. The historical Fox sisters –Margaret, Kate, and the much older Leah – interact with the spectral causes of mysterious rappings in their home. Their seeming ability to communicate with spirits launches them to overnight acclaim. Their later confession to fraud is well known, but Haddad imagines a rich inner life in the youngest sister, Kate, which persists in the reader’s mind, just as the Spiritualist movement itself persists today, contrary to common reason. Her anxiety, as the family moves house three times during her childhood, evokes widespread beliefs in the connection of pre-teen angst to psychokinetic phenomena.

But it is the book’s resonance with the zeitgeist of our own era that is most compelling. Western New York at the time was a crossroads culturally, religiously and economically. It was a gateway for immigration of European peasants to the rich lands of the Ohio Valley and the West, and the children of its earlier settlers felt disenfranchised. Notable is the character of Marshall McLean as a sort of mediator cum observer of the mix of these influences with Canadian, native, Mormon, and other religious splinter groups. Strongly recommended.