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The second story in Captivity is about loss and grief. It is the evocative tale of the bright promise that the Fox Sisters offer up to the skeptical Clara Gill, a reclusive woman of a certain age who long ago isolated herself with her paintings, following the scandalous loss of her beautiful young lover in London.
Lyrical and authentic—and more than a bit shadowy—Captivity is, finally, a tale about physical desire and the hope that even the thinnest faith can offer up to a darkening heart.
"Told in a haunting, multi-narrative voice style, Captivity is a phenomenal, literate read packed with mystery, suspense, compassion, intrigue and fear threading stories within stories of this brilliant novel indeed of those revolutionary times." Historical Novels Review
“With her crystalline prose Deborah Noyes creates characters who feel lit from within and at the same time she teaches the reader to ask different questions, expect different answers. I love the many surprises of Captivity and the way the novel beautifully blurs the lines between the living and the dead, the true and the false.” Margot Livesey
“Engaging Circumstances bring the two women together early on in the book, notwithstanding their very different spheres of existence. Their intertwining stories, covering a fair number of years and miles, form the arc of the novel. The trajectories of their two lives create an effective double-strand, a sort of literary double-helix that uses as its raw material both faith-based spiritualism and scientific naturalism. Readers with a sympathy toward either philosophy will find much to ponder here.”—PopMatters.com
“In the end it doesn’t really matter what’s fact and what’s fiction. The novel is written in the third-person, but Noyes still describes what people are thinking and feeling enough for the reader to become invested in the characters. On top of that, she was able to pull me into the story and believe everything she’s presenting as complete truth. It’s rare that a novel can do that with as much ease as this one.”—Feminist Review
"Captivity is haunting and evocative, a heartbreakingly poignant, emotionally luminescent tale of the prisons we build for ourselves out of expectation and desire. Beautiful and subtly powerful. I loved it." -Megan Chance, author of Prima Donna and The Spiritualist
"Interweaving two tales of passion and deception, Noyes vividly evokes an era of intense fascination with both the wonders of science and the world of spirits. An engrossing novel about an extraordinary time."--Barbara Weisberg, author of Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism
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.
March 31, 1848 Rochester, New York
A bell is tolling for me, Clara thinks, awakened in her chair by the wind. Or in spite of me. For weeks now she's listened into the creaking strangeness of the old house she shares with her father, a roused house. She's tracked footfalls and merry whispering behind closed doors. But tonight, in the clamor of dusting and meddling downstairs, she hears at last the death of something. She understands that to be as she was before-to barely be-will not be tolerated.
The same rude wind that seized her curtain with a snap, startling her awake, holds her at the window. She rests her forearms on the sill, her nose twitching like a fox's. Out there, all is bluster and agitation. Flailing laundry haunts the lines, and if carriages are arriving round front, she can't hear them for the wind; beyond alley rows and back gardens, it propels anything light and loose along the roadways. Ash-can covers clank, and a raccoon makes its furtive, clumsy way down the neighbors' rain vent. Clara watches with delight as the animal shimmies, curling like a flag at low mast before lighting on its haunches in Matilda Frye's winter garden. Then it pads out of sight into the outer wilds of Rochester.
It was unseasonably warm earlier, almost sultry, so she letthe fire die, opened her bedroom windows, and drowsed in her chair, soothed by the good smells of river and thawing mud. She forgot for a time the mean truth: that the parlor downstairs will soon be full of strangers.
Father has broken their pact. He's betrayed her to that Widow Bray, who now "advises" him on domestic matters, it seems, though Clara has managed to run their modest household these twenty years past. Worse, by requesting her presence at his gathering, he has forced Clara to refuse. He has made his grown daughter publicly defy him, an agony for both.
Delicacy is not the widow's strong suit.
Clara wouldn't begrudge her father a companion, a helpmeet, but let him steer that helpmeet-machinations and all-away from her. Isn't that understood? Clara's never had with maids underfoot, and Father eats at his club; no need for a cook. In fact, since the unpleasantness in Philadelphia, they haven't hired in at all.
How then is this house, Clara's only refuge, lately, incredibly, crawling with strangers?
Closing the shutters, she turns her thoughts to horses. If carriages must intrude at the front gate-and by now, they must have-there will be horses. Black and bay, dapple and gray, all the pretty little horses, swinging their glossy manes. But there will also be coachmen setting out carriage steps for ladies in ringlets and hoops and shawls. Doors will open and close, and open.
And they do.
Little by little, the lower story fills with voices.
Clara knows how sound inhabits every room of this house. She knows what board squeaking signifies what stance and where her father is at any given moment and whether he's in boots or slippers. Her ears are like spies and travel out, fan out an army and return with intelligence.
But this is cacophony.
Clara smooths the folds of her wrinkled morning gown and slips out into the upstairs hall, easing the door closed behind her.
She moves slowly at first, calmly, until her hip bumps a table, knocking some knickknack to the carpet, and she spooks like a horse in a narrow stall. Her bare toes curl in defense, but she doesn't pause. Her hands trail over oval frames and carved wainscoting.
If she could she would stop the voices, the laughter, rising round her like bars. Her breath is feathery, her life a crushed bird. Who are these people? Who's playing the square piano-unplayed all these years? Who thought to tune it and unseat the dust? Not Father.
Why has he exposed her this way? He owes Clara her privacy, and more. What else does she have? What more could she want? To die, maybe, or live. To leave the place between.
For nearly two decades, her entire adult life, the place between has served. It has been Clara's habit and shelter, her home, and now it's under siege by progressive ladies in clip bonnets and cross-barred silk. She knows the crowd well enough, if secondhand; to keep his recluse up on the world's passing, Father gives regular updates on the doings in his social circle. Clutching the banister, Clara listens, but she can't distinguish voices in the cheerful din or find her father's. He speaks so softly.
As if she might yet descend and make her entrance, Clara smooths her simple skirts-no hoops for her, no boning, no bother-and plunks down on the top step. She lurks long in that dim stairwell in a gown the same tired shade as the marmalade cat (a feral tom who sometimes graces them ... like her, he's found himself exiled upstairs) now purring and stabbing his front paws lustily into her thighs. Wild-haired and bare-footed and with Will at her back-near enough to feel but never near enough-Clara gives the tom the rough strokes he craves. Spotting a dribble of tea on her bodice, she sees herself as her father's guests might now, given a candle and a chance, as a mad, furtive creature, a truth best hidden.
She cranes into the gaping air, and the dark is dizzying. Strains of conversation emerge, now that the tinkling piano has ceased: someone has been to a thrilling lecture by Margaret Fuller ... Seneca and abolitionism ... capital punishment ... prejudice against the poor and the Irish ... asylum conditions and hygiene ...
Clara hears her name amid the worthy clamor like a strange bird's song. Her listening sharpens. That vile woman's asking after her health again as if Clara is an invalid ... perhaps she is, in her way, but would the widow raise that specter in polite company? No. They've absconded. Father and his Mrs. Bray are out in the hall now, hovering between the drawing room and Clara's realm above. She sees the widow, or her reflection, in the glass of a heavy walnut hall stand heaped with coats and top hats on pegs. One gloved hand grazes the multitude of umbrellas in the stand as if to assess their quality.
"Your daughter has so much to offer." The voice drops to treacherous, flirtatious. "As you yourself attest. Why let her live like a recluse?"
Clara can scarce make out the words now. She has to strain and imagines how her face, poised between the banister bars, would appear from below. An apparition. Were they not so absorbed in each other, they might sense her up there spying, but they don't; they won't, Clara knows. For one with so little social care or opportunity, she's learned to read people precisely.
Father remains out of view, but the widow-or her reflection-moves in accord with him, speaking with her hands. "I know a capable physician...."
Does he love her? Say he's invited Mrs. Bray and the others here to announce his intentions. What then? Submitting to the will of a busy housemistress (someone like Aunt Alice, perhaps, who lived with them throughout Clara's youth in London-a woman with bold opinions about how Mr. Gill's de pen dents ought conduct themselves) is beyond humiliating at Clara's age, even if her temperament allowed.
"... a gentleman who attends nervous conditions ... sensitive to the artistic, in women especially ..."
"One doesn't 'allow' Clara anything...." Father laughs uneasily. "Goodness."
Well that he remembers how to speak, how to salvage for his child the smallest dignity.
But the widow's intent is obvious, monstrous. "You've sheltered her well, sir. It does you much credit and your daughter no good." The hand in the mirror reaches. "Now, then. Who heads this household?" Clara has a glimpse of trimmed whisker as he tilts his head to receive her caress, all obedience. "Let us go together and fetch her."
Clara stiffens, and the disapproving cat leaves a chill. The upper hall is full of shadows that she, like the rangy tom, might dissolve into.
As the widow in the looking glass peels off a glove, Father appears in the mirror, trying almost playfully to detain her. Instead, she steps out into full view. Striding the length of the hallway below, she runs her plump hand, loosed and creamy, over framed rows of zoological drawings: Clara's.
Sometimes Clara can desert her senses the way the cat did her lap, absent herself from nubby carpet and waxed wood of banisters and chiming clocks. But however expert her stillness, they'll spot her and say (sternly), What are you doing out here? What do you want? As if they hadn't set out to find and disturb her. As if they were not in the least responsible.
"She's in frail health," Father says with such grave patience that Clara loves him again.
The widow considers, accepting the lie as she might a satisfactory bolt of fabric from her dressmaker. Father scoops her glove from the floor, she accepts his arm, and they return to their noisy party.
Mine, Clara thinks. This is mine. But a peal of laughter behind the drawing-room doors rebukes her. Tell me again, Will, she pleads. Why have they come? All these strangers?
Clara listens for an answer.
Hydesville, NY, 1848-the same night
Here is how the Fox sisters teach the dead to speak.
Maggie and Kate are giddy with fear on the mattress when Ma comes running with the candle. "We've found it out," they cry, and Ma's monstrous, flickering shadow rounds the bedroom wall. She nods hard, poor soul, hefting the candle higher, and her hand shakes.
"It" is the rapping that's robbed them of sleep and peace for so long, a hellish business, and who can bear it? Not Ma, surely.
She'll have to, thinks Maggie, who is filled with fate as a sail is for going. Yes, they'll go, she understands, from Wayne County with its brittle fields and trees-an unrelenting patchwork of brown and white to which spring takes its sweet time coming-and it won't be long. Even Ma's weary, pious face can't prevent it.
As if reading Maggie's thoughts, her younger sister, Kate, springs out of bed and snaps babyish fingers. "Follow me," she orders, and how can Maggie not? Who can take their eyes off Katie Dear, so like a blithe spirit herself, all hush and mischief in her threadbare shift? Snap snap, and then, in the shadow of Kate's trailing hand, rap rap, audible as a heartbeat, deep inside the house.
"Here, Mr. Splitfoot." Kate claps milky hands three times. "Do as I do."
Rap rap rap.
The phantom makes the very walls quake, it seems.
Beneath the spectral racket, Maggie hears the usual soft sounds of night, the ordinary unease of their little rented saltbox cottage: mice scrabbling in the walls, moaning March wind, creaking cold floorboards. These were lonely sounds before and chilled her, but now and suddenly she misses them. Almost. Their empty promises.
She watches the shadow-flicker of branches dreamily. They've not been in the cottage-meant to serve till Pa gets the new farmstead built-long enough to inhabit it, really. Ma hasn't hung their few gilt-framed pictures. The walls, paperless and water-stained, are bare but for the cameo of Grandmother Rutan over the washstand.
Maggie would sooner leave "Mr. Splitfoot" out of it. Already, in just these few days' time, she finds it hard to unravel the sounds she makes or imagines from those without-from her sister, from the earth or the air. It's like when you're rapt with your chores and hear a voice humming but only later, an instant later or an hour, recognize your own voice. Now's no time for the Devil to come calling.
"Three raps mean yes." Kate's voice rings like a rifle shot, and Ma might be a mouse caught in the fl our barrel for all her astonishment. Even dour Father has been reeled in now, the hand scarred with old burns from the forge supporting his weight in the doorway, his eyes unreadable behind a candle-glare of spectacles. Yes, our ghost is still here. Did you really think he'd go so easily?
Maggie can't but take a certain pride in having disarmed the man who's so cheerlessly charted their collective course. Until tonight.
Rap rap rap.
They are all wild-eyed for lack of rest. Should Maggie scold Kate or applaud her-treacherous girl-for taking it this far? Too far. Her sister won't meet her gaze. They have no plans. They know no allegiance in this game, if indeed it is a game, and now for once Maggie's unwilling to say that it is or isn't, to ask it, to know. But it's theirs, whatever it is, and Kate's sport is catching.
"Now do as I do!" Maggie waves her arms, signaling three times like a mighty hawk flapping phantom wings or a hell-bent angel. Her winged shadow swells, shivering inside the black dance of branches on walls and wardrobe and the graying old quilt Ma spent a whole season of evenings squinting over by the hearth, stitching and squinting.
Rap rap rap, replies the ghost.
"It can see as well as hear!" she exults, but Ma hears only their visitor now. Maggie looks to Kate, smiling with her eyes like Mona Lisa. Kate does not look back, but Maggie smiles anyway. Their ghost commands what they cannot.
"Are you a disembodied spirit?" Ma sways in the balance. "Speak now! I'm so broken of my rest I'm almost sick."
Rap rap rap.
"Tell me my eldest child's age."
A torrent of rapping, on and on till Maggie loses the will to count. First for Leah, and then Elizabeth, Marie, David. Her mind wanders through the storm of noise, a steady thumping as of some giant come to tread their roof, but Ma is breathless, vigilant, counting along. Fifteen raps for Maggie. Eleven for Kate.
"My youngest now," Ma demands mysteriously, and Maggie thinks, It's one patient ghost to weather such a taskmaster. Besides which Kate is their youngest. But the visitor raps thrice, faintly, and Ma swoons. So there was another child once. Did Kate know? Why not Maggie? Father's lips flap in prayer, and Maggie wonders at the secret, mortifying world of adults. What more unspoken? What else?
"Will you continue to rap if I call my neighbors in?" Ma trembles. It's a terror to see her this way. And a thrill beyond reckoning. Pity and fear catch like a bone in Maggie's throat, but she has no shame, evidently. It's too late for that.
"That they might hear it also?" Ma pleads.
Maggie imagines the men and boys out night fishing by Mud Creek. They'll mill and murmur with eyes full of moonshine. They'll listen intently, blow into strong hands with icy breath. She will have them in thrall.
Rap rap rap.
Ma stamps out into the darkness of the hall, clutching her shift close round a spacious bosom, Pa stumbling at her heels.
Kate leads their visitor up and back in a hypnotic square, the walls resounding. Doesn't she see there's no one left to impress now? Where has she gone to in mind? Her eyes shine like ice.
Rap. Rap. Rap.
Had the river burst its banks and come swirling in under their roof this night, Maggie understands, the Fox sisters could not have seen their way clear.
We were born for this, she thinks.
** The first to arrive is candid Mrs. Redfield, meaning to have a laugh at their expense. Indulged city children (the Fox family has only just relocated from Rochester) scared silly in their beds.
But when Ma enlists the clever spirit to rap out her neighbor's age, Mrs. Redfield promptly fetches Mr. Redfield. His ripe old age is likewise disclosed. He, in turn, sends for Mr. and Mrs. Duesler, who summon the Hydes. Before the girls know it (always "the girls," as if deprived at birth of Christian names), the house swarms with eager Methodists in various degrees of undress demanding audience with the spirit. For shame! Ankles on view every where, even the ladies', and this is something. This is grandeur.
"Is it a human being that answers us?" prompts Duesler in his righteous baritone. His morning beard shadows a doughy jaw. His bare feet with their revolting horny nails-he alone politely removed snow-crusted boots at the door, woolens or no-rivet Maggie. The only sound in the now overheated room is squeaking-wet soles. The occasional dry cough. "Is it a spirit? If it is, make three raps please."
Excerpted from Captivity by DEBORAH NOYES Copyright © 2009 by Deborah Noyes. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 17, 2010
I received an e-galley of Captivity from the publisher months ago and just got around to reading it in recent weeks in anticipation of it's upcoming release. As many of you know, I am a huge proponent/supporter of small presses and independent booksellers, so I was very excited about digging into this book.
Captivity represents all that is good in literary fiction and small press publishers. It is original, creative and beautifully written. I love the premise. real-life meets fiction with the story of the real Fox sisters intertwined with the fictional character of Clara Gill. The story alternates between the early- and mid-nineteenth century as it simultaneously tells of the coming of age of Maggie Fox while revisiting the past of the now-reclusive Clara. While Clara does not believe in the spiritualist movement, it is Maggie, through friendship alone who draws her from her seclusion. The historical setting, descriptions of religious fervor (on both sides of the spiritualist debate) and period detail are all vividly realized throughout the story. Clara Gill is by far the most interesting character. We learn that she is a woman with a past. and the nature of that past is gradually doled out to the reader in a slow, almost tantalizing way. The Fox sisters' story centers on Maggie Fox, the middle Fox sister who unwittingly begins an entire spiritual movement with her dubious ability to conjure spirits with her younger sister, Kate. While Maggie's story is clearly integral to this novel, I must admit that I found it far less engaging than Clara's. I confess that I occasionally found myself simply enduring "Maggie chapters" as a necessary interruption to the "Clara chapters". Regardless, Maggie's coming-of-age is masterfully depicted and one can't help but follow it with interest.
Captivity poses questions - some answered, some not - and the most central of those questions is simply this. what is real? And perhaps more importantly, "what is the difference between the real and the unreal when people react precisely the same to each?" This is a story to be taken in small bites and slowly digested, and consequently takes quite a while to read. I had to revisit early passages from to time to re-think their content. I would do well to read the whole thing again with the advantage of hindsight. In other words, this is not a book for the literary faint of heart. But those who read it will be richly rewarded for the experience.
The Bottom Line: A beautifully written and deeply insightful work of historical fiction.