When it came to tomfoolery, shams and mass deception, the Fox sisters were arguably the greatest of their day. Starting in 1848 in upstate New York, Leah, Maggie, and Kate persuaded both the gullible and the skeptical that they could communicate with the spirits of those who had “gone over Jordan.” Their séances and public channelings of the dead eventually gave rise to the Spiritualism movement, which continued to snowball even after Maggie and Kate later admitted it had all been a hoax. The “rappings,” they said, had been nothing more than the two of them cracking their knuckles and toes under the table.
In the novel Captivity, Deborah Noyes takes the tale of the teenage Fox sisters and interweaves it with that of the fictional Clara Gill, a middle-aged spinster who retreated from society after a love affair ended tragically. While the young girls are giddy when fame starts expanding their horizons (“We were born for this, [Maggie] thinks”), Clara has become “a ghost in her own home, neither awake nor asleep, aware of her own transparency.”
Noyes’s previous novel, Angel and Apostle, was a retelling of The Scarlet Letter from the perspective of Hester Prynne’s illegitimate daughter Pearl. In that book, Noyes proved it’s possible to revisit classic literature and give it a sharp, post-modern twist without resorting to zombies or werewolves. The remix of Hawthorne’s morality tale spiked the familiar with the fresh.
By the same token, Captivity is equal parts Henry James and Joyce Carol Oates. As they get deeper into their own game, the Fox sisters unfold like flowers, reveling in all that fame and fortune bring their way. The rappings, in particular, kindle a spark of feminism within Maggie, giving her a sense of self-confidence she never felt before. Soon, she’s faulting her audiences as captains of their own delusions: “What’s the difference, after all, between real and unreal when people react precisely the same way to either?” Her sly self-justifications poignantly capture the close relation between fraud and faith: “…there’s altogether too little mystery in this world, don’t you agree? I mean, what’s so terribly wrong with not knowing for certain one way or another…and believing anyway? It’s what the majority of the people prefer.”
Noyes wisely never lets the reader in on the mechanics of the fakery, neither does she leave us in doubt that it really was all a sham, a child’s game spun out of control. The novel isn’t concerned with the actual hocus-pocus of the clairvoyant sessions, but focuses on the tattered psyches of all the girls—Maggie, Kate, Leah, and especially Clara as her life intersects with the Foxes. Soon, she too will be opening like a flower—though in a much different way than the spiritual charlatans. Captivity takes its time building the backstory of all the characters, but once the shimmer of the book’s prose folds into the tension of the plot, the book becomes an unstoppable force, culminating in an unforgettable séance with Clara.
Near the end of the book, Maggie says, “For all that’s dubious in it, rapping made me someone.” Captivity is a cautionary tale, showing just how strong the iron grip of fame and self-delusion can hold a person prisoner. And, through Clara, it also illustrates how it’s possible to break free of those shackles and rejoin the world of the living.