The Waking Spell

The Waking Spell

by Carol Dawson

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When Sarah Grissom is seven years old, her brother adn her cousins--the Northgates--play a trick on her. They pretend there's a ghost in the attic of their grandmother's big, rambling East Texas house, and they take Sarah up to meet it.It's just a game for the others, but Sarah senses a frightening thing there, a presence. Is it a ghost? Without a doubt there is

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When Sarah Grissom is seven years old, her brother adn her cousins--the Northgates--play a trick on her. They pretend there's a ghost in the attic of their grandmother's big, rambling East Texas house, and they take Sarah up to meet it.It's just a game for the others, but Sarah senses a frightening thing there, a presence. Is it a ghost? Without a doubt there is something--something cold, something deadly--lurking in the Northgate attic.Carol Dawson's "The Waking Spell" is a penetrating look at the specter that has haunted the women of this East Texas family since the late 1890s, when Sarah's vain, well-bred great-grandmother found herself plunged suddenly into a raw, rough-edged wilderness across the Red River from civilization. It was a place where no one understood manners, or proper sentiments, or refinement--where the only thing a proper lady could do was retreat into silence and secrets. Over the years, silnce and secrets have become an unspoken rule, an invisible bond of repression and frustration passed down from mother to daughter.In Carol Dawson's first novel, we follow Sarah's long journey hope through her family's history to confront the malignant silence that has haunted the lives of the Northgate women for nearly a century.Like Josephine Humphreys in "Dreams of Sleep," Carol Dawson writes of women struggling to find their own voices and identities in a male-dominated world of convention that punishes daring, stifles initiative, and encourages silence.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
East Texas is the setting of Dawson's finely crafted, atmospheric first novel; young Sarah Grissom is the engaging narrator who investigates the mystery surrounding her mother's family. When she is seven, Sarah, her older brother North and their mother are spending the summer months as usual, visiting Grandmother Northgate in her rambling old house, which she shares with her other daughter, her son-in-law and their two girls, Jane and Buntie. Founders of Northgate Memorial Hospital, the family represents all that is socially correct. Life with Grandmother Northgate has always been a seamless routine of muted pleasantry and order, but now Sarah senses strange, unspoken undercurrents beneath the Northgates' unbreachable reserve and gentility, and she realizes that the real language of the family is an unspoken one. Her seventh summer finds her initiated into a secret childhood legend by her brother and cousins; they take her to the crowded (and forbidden) attic to introduce her to the ghost of Northgate. Their ghost is only an ancient wedding gown hanging from cobwebbed rafters, but Sarah is aware of another, more foreboding presence--an anguished spirit discernible only to her, begging for help. Sarah's efforts over the years to decipher both her grandmother's code of decorum and the elusive presence in the attic result in a discovery that is as sad as it is enlightening. Dawson's evocative powers and poetic eye make the long, hot days and twilights of a Texas summer come alive in a book to be savered and shared. (Oct.)
Library Journal
The scene is East Texas in 1959. Sarah Grissom and her brother North are visiting their maternal grandmother, where they happily cavort with their cousins. In many respects, the setting is ideal; in others, it is highly repressed and restricted. Newly turned seven, Sarah is accepted by the older children, who introduce her to the ghost in the attic. The other children believe they are perpetrating a hoax, but Sarah really does see a ghost, who affects her life as it has the lives of the Northgate women who have come before her. In 1992, an adult Sarah, who has escaped ``the proper, acceptable structures'' of East Texas and become ``the one thumbing like a hobo through life,'' discovers the identity of the phantom that has conferred upon her the ``sudden talent to apprehend grace.'' In her first novel, Dawson has written an extended feminist history. While the concept is intriguing, the story is overlong.-- Kimberly G. Allen, National Assn. of Home Builders Lib., Washington, D.C.
Kirkus Reviews
First fiction that explores the simmering rage passed through four generations of emotionally stunted southern "ladies"—an unusually confident and original debut that unveils the spiritual anesthetization behind the gracious feminine smile. When Sarah Grissom was seven, her older cousins led her to the forbidden attic of Grandmother Northgate's old house in East Texas to introduce her to the scary ghost they claimed resided there. Frightened but excited, Sarah never expected that, while her cousins played at shrieks and catcalls, she herself would actually experience the presence of a bone-chilling, anguished, unearthly presence. Sarah's awareness of the phantom continues to haunt her into adulthood, and leads to an exploration of the life of her genteel foremother, Eugenia Princess Burnham, who emigrated to Texas from Mississippi after the Civil War, and whose human sensibilities had been as deliberately and systematically crippled as an aristocratic Chinese woman's feet. Brought up to deny her own passion, curiosity, and sexuality—forbidden even to speak the words that referred to their existence—Eugenia and her female progeny learned to communicate with silence and innuendo, to smile when their husbands praised their purity, lightly to change the subject when the tiniest uncomfortable element entered any conversation. Such artificiality (exaggerated here, perhaps, for effect) leads to increasingly neurotic practices: Grandmother Princess Laura Northgate has her virginity taken surgically on her wedding day and gives birth by Cesarean section in an attempt to control her body's functions. Eventually, though, change invades even East Texas: daughter GrovanaPrincess manages to flee, opening a door for her own daughter, Sarah, to outrun her heritage. Sarah does escape, but many years later—strengthened by education and travel and having weathered two suicides, a teenage pregnancy, and a mental breakdown in her own generation of females, she returns to free, in the face of her cousins' timid skepticism, the spirit of the Northgates from bondage. A nearly perfect first novel—courageous, revelatory, and, in the end, deeply moving.

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Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st ed
Product dimensions:
5.71(w) x 8.79(h) x 1.12(d)

Meet the Author

Carol Dawson was born and raised in Texas, and has since lived in a variety of places --California, England, Italy, New Zealand, New Mexico, and Washington. During that time, she published three novels (The Waking Spell, Body of Knowledge, and Meeting the Minotaur) and a volume of poetry (Job). Dawson recently returned to her home state, where she is currently writing a history on the Maori people of New Zealand and is at work on her fifth novel.

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