The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead by Paul Elwork
Published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, an imprint of Penguin
In the long, slow days during the summer of 1925, Emily Stewart discovered what to a thirteen year old is an amazing talent: she can crack her ankle in such a way as to throw the sound, a talent best put to use in her twin brother Michael’s room in the middle of the night. Michael, unlike Emily, sees a purpose for this parlor trick beyond making things go bump in the night, and so he gathers a group of local children, telling them stories of the family’s cousin Regina, who died decades earlier as a young girl on the property and pretending that Emily can summon and converse with her, with Regina answering in knocks. News of Emily’s alleged talent quickly spreads, and soon reaches local adults. In a time when the wounds of World War I still lay so heavy on American hearts – particularly the wounds caused by young men who failed to return – the belief that Emily can speak for the dead catches on much more quickly and with far more people than she could have even imagined.
The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead is interesting not only as a tale of spiritualism in the early parts of the 2oth century and how it took hold, but also as a story of how seemingly harmless events can get out of hand so quickly. Emily’s spirit knockings started first as an innocent trick on her brother, then as a slightly less innocent trick on the somewhat obnoxious boy who liked to follow around after Michael. Before she knew it, she was adding other spirits to her repertoire, beyond simply Regina. Some of the spirits were her and Michael’s concoctions, but sometimes she was feigning to speak for people’s actual lost loved ones, and it was not too long before she felt that she was in over her head. As for the spiritualism, Elwork’s novel laid out quite clearly how and why it would have been so easy for people in the 20s to get caught up in such things, I don’t think I’ve ever fully taken into account the impact World War I had on the national psyche in this area – incidentally, I think I am somewhat more sensitive to it than I would otherwise have been, being as I am in the middle of the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, which deals with life in England between the wars.
Elwork has written a very interesting novel that has left me with many things to ponder about human nature – particularly when grief is endemic – and the way the world works. The connection between grieving and spiritualism is one I now want to continue to explore in other books, and I hope to see more, similarly thought-provoking novels from Elwork in the future.
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