Cover image for Mr. Splitfoot
Title:
Mr. Splitfoot
ISBN:
9780544526709
Physical Description:
322 pages ; 22 cm
Summary:
Ruth and Nat are orphans, packed into a house full of abandoned children run by a religious fanatic. To entertain their siblings, they channel the dead. Decades later, Ruth's niece, Cora, finds herself accidentally pregnant. After years of absence, Aunt Ruth appears, mute and full of intention. She is on a mysterious mission, leading Cora on an odyssey across the entire state of New York on foot. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who -- or what -- has she hidden in the woods at the end of the road? In an ingeniously structured dual narrative, two separate timelines move toward the same point of crisis. Their merging will upend and reinvent the whole.
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Summary

Summary

A contemporary gothic from an author in the company of Kelly Link and Aimee Bender,  Mr. Splitfoot  tracks two women in two times as they march toward a mysterious reckoning.

Ruth and Nat are orphans, packed into a house full of abandoned children run by a religious fanatic. To entertain their siblings, they channel the dead. Decades later, Ruth's niece, Cora, finds herself accidentally pregnant. After years of absence, Aunt Ruth appears, mute and full of intention. She is on a mysterious mission, leading Cora on an odyssey across the entire state of New York on foot. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who -- or what -- has she hidden in the woods at the end of the road?     In an ingeniously structured dual narrative, two separate timelines move toward the same point of crisis. Their merging will upend and reinvent the whole. A subversive ghost story that is carefully plotted and elegantly constructed,  Mr. Splitfoot  will set your heart racing and your brain churning. Mysteries abound, criminals roam free, utopian communities show their age, the mundane world intrudes on the supernatural and vice versa.     Making good on the extraordinary acclaim for her previous books, Samantha Hunt continues to be "dazzling" ( Vanity Fair ) and to deliver fiction that is "daring and delicious" ( Chicago Tribune ).


Author Notes

Samantha Hunt's novel about Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else was a finalist for the Orange Prize and winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. Her first novel, The Seas , a twisted tale of mermaids, won the National Book Foundation's Five under Thirty-five prize. She lives in upstate New York.


Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Hunt's ethereal third novel (after Orange Prize-finalist The Invention of Everything Else) is a nod to the mid-19th-century legend of the Fox sisters, mediums who conjured up a devilish spirit they called Mr. Splitfoot in order to separate the gullible from their money. The book deftly straddles the slippery line between fantasy and reality in a story that's both gripping and wonderfully mystifying. Hailing from the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission-a halfway house filled with damaged souls and run by a conniving religious kook-Ruth and Nat occupy their turbulent adolescent years pretending they can talk to dead people. When they reach 18, the two latch on to a mysterious benefactor who convinces them to use their skill for cash. Decades later, a newly pregnant Cora-Ruth's niece-awakens to find the long-absent Ruth standing by her bedside and is whisked off on a wild goose chase across New York. Where they're going and why, the mute Ruth won't say. Hunt's use of a split narrative to measuredly disclose snippets of Ruth's past and Cora's present in alternating, interconnected chapters builds suspense while keeping readers guessing about what crazy turn might happen next. Hints of what's in store for readers include a cult of Etherists, a noseless man, a pile of lost money, and a scar-like pattern of meteorite landings. This spellbinder is storytelling at its best. Agent: P.J. Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* As with her last novel, The Invention of Everything Else (2007), Hunt shows her skill in transforming the trappings of a factual story into a fantastical one more compelling and richer than the original. Mr. Splitfoot, loosely based on the Fox sisters, mediums from New York, revolves around Nat and Ruth, inseparable charges at the Love of Christ foster home. Revolting against the draconian and darkly whimsical Father Arthur, Nat and Ruth stage séances for the other orphans. When a traveling salesman, Mr. Bell, overhears them at one of the séances and offers to act as their agent, Nat and Ruth leave the orphanage, though they find new perils on the outside in particular, a zealot who becomes infatuated with Ruth. Hunt moves between Nat and Ruth's story and events set 20 years later, when Cora, Ruth's niece, discovers she's pregnant, and Ruth, now mysteriously mute, silently leads Cora away from her home without saying where or why they are going. The narratives collide in a haunting finish. Nat and Ruth's seeming helplessness imbues the story with an eerie sense of danger, though Hunt expertly juxtaposes this against moments of tenderness and love. Motherhood, religious zeal, poverty, predation, and the frailty yet relentlessness of life are among the rich themes that Hunt explores here. Liberally deconstructed sentences, which to some readers may prove taxing, will for others be just the thing to activate the book's fantastical qualities.--Grant, Sarah Copyright 2016 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

THE ABUNDANCE: Narrative Essays Old and New, by Annie Dillard. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $15.99.) Dillard selects 22 of her best pieces from the past four decades, including dispatches from coastal Maine and a New Age Catholic church. Across these essays, "her preferred method is to transform, through the alchemy of metaphor, natural phenomena into spiritual ones," Donovan Hohn said here. EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. (Broadway, $17.) In this wrenching account, one of the Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2016, Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, chronicles eight impoverished families around Milwaukee for whom eviction is a near-constant fear. While these tenants live in squalor, their landlords and others profit from their misfortune; the book casts light on how the poor are regularly exploited. NOT IN GOD'S NAME: Confronting Religious Violence, by Jonathan Sacks. (Schocken, $16.95.) Sacks, a rabbi, argues that religion must be part of the solution to combating what he sees as politicized religious extremism. Drawing on Genesis for guidance, he outlines an argument that justice and decency should prevail over loyalty toward one's own group. THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS, by Edna O'Brien. (Back Bay/Little, Brown, $15.99.) A mysterious outsider arrives in a small Irish town, leaving residents at turns curious and skeptical. There's reason for concern: He's a Balkan War criminal, but succeeds in transfixing the locals, who view him as a healer or holy man, until his secret comes out. His relationship with a young woman, her naïveté dispelled, threatens to upend her life, but she gains strength and confidence from the ordeal. O'Brien's "unsettling fabulist vision" recalls "Nabokov in his darker, less playful mode," our reviewer, Joyce Carol Oates, wrote here. MR. SPLITFOOT, by Samantha Hunt. (Mariner, $14.95.) Ruth and Nat, two orphans in a foster home headed by a religious fanatic, discover an ability to speak to the dead; when a con man learns of their talent, he's eager to profit from it. In alternating chapters, the story jumps to the present day, when Ruth - who has become eerily mute - lures her pregnant niece on a journey by foot across New York State. SUDDEN DEATH, byÁIvaro Enrigue. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. (Riverhead, $16.) In a novel bursting with historical figures - Galileo, Anne Boleyn, Caravaggio - 16th-century monks imbue tennis matches with spiritual import; a French executioner is himself executed; and Spanish conquistadors carry out their bloody siege of Mexico, a merger of civilizations with "planetary aftershocks."D


School Library Journal Review

At 17, orphans Ruth and Nat are on the brink of aging out of the religious cult they live in. Nat, who claims to talk with the dead, shares his visions with the other children, while Ruth helps him set the stage. When con man Mr. Bell comes to the home, he discovers in them a perfect scam, and he recruits them to join him in his travels. Years later, Ruth arrives at her sister's home and entices her niece Cora to join her on a walking journey. Cora, practical, hardworking, pregnant by a married man, is unconnected to her own life and willingly goes with Ruth. The walking is hard, but Cora is fascinated by her silent aunt and is certain that Ruth is taking her somewhere important. In alternating chapters, readers follow teenage Ruth and Nat as they travel, while Cora and Ruth's present-day walking journey bridges the past into a ghostly present that provides a way for Cora to connect not only with Nat but with the baby who is inching its way into her life. It is perplexing why Cora follows the silent Ruth, but Ruth's story demands to be told, and Hunt delivers it in a prose style that dwells within another realm, allowing disbelief to be easily suspended. Much like Cora, who blindly follows Ruth into the wilds beyond her home, readers will wonder where they are going and by joining the protagonists' journey will discover that what they imagine they know about someone is often quite different from the reality. VERDICT Hunt's lyrical writing and compelling tale are perfect for well-read teens.-Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Guardian Review

Orphan siblings, religious fanatics, spirit guides... but this novel of two journeys from the Orange prize-shortlisted author is short on suspense I want a good gothic. A novel that smells of blood and old Bibles and sex, ripe as a walled-up corpse, but stays the right side of self-parody by sheer commitment. Sadly, Mr Splitfoot is not that book. Although Samantha Hunt turns out the creepy imagery and Christianity, suspense runs short and horror is too often undercut by an infuriating structure that serves symbolism over story. It starts off in New York State some decades ago, in a children's home of intense and idiosyncratic religiosity called Love of Christ! ("exclamation mark included like screaming a curse every time you say it") run by a man called the Father. Here, two children -- Nat and Ruth, a boy and a girl -- turn their orphan isolation into an intimate bond. Through the intercession of spirit guide Mr Splitfoot, they contact (for a fee) the lost relations of the home's other residents; it's never fully clear even to themselves whether they're natural scammers with a knack for cold reading, or devilish truthtellers with a direct line to the other side. Half the book is their journey out from the home and into the world. The other half is also a pilgrimage, this one undertaken in the present day by Ruth and her pregnant niece, Cora. The chapters are interlaced, with Ruth and Nat's told third-person, and Cora and Ruth's told first-person by Cora. The two journeys head to the same destination, both geographically and in story terms. Rather than reflecting and refracting each other (think how the twin stories of Ali Smith's How to Be Both twine around each other, barely touching but flaming with life and insight every time they do; or the sharp mirror fragments of Nabokov's Pale Fire, where the fictions of the poem and the commentary slice into each other), the two stories simply duplicate. First we learn that something happened in the past. Then we learn that Cora learned it. There are other things that just don't come off. The writing seems to aim for a Cormac McCarthy-ish American gothic spareness, but the simplicity it attains is only superficial: Hunt still writes nested and dependent clauses, she just doesn't punctuate for them. For example: "His [Nat's] beauty sharpened like a vampire's, and while the Father was distracted by meditations on his messiah-hood, fantasising his interview with Rolling Stone magazine and Oprah, some dewy bridge, a bundled corpus callosum, metastasised between the person of Nat and the person of Ruth." It took me three passes to work out that "some dewy bridge" isn't a description of Oprah or a property of the Father, but something that pertains to Nat and Ruth, and then a fourth pass to wonder why we couldn't just have some brackets. Cora's brutish, controlling boyfriend and the father of her baby is called Lord, and she must escape him, as her aunt must earlier escape the Father; there's a kind of maternal theology being groped towards, in which the controlling patriarchs must be left behind, but it's all laid on a bit too thick to matter. And where does Mr Splitfoot come into it? Is he Satan? Ruth doesn't believe so: "She doesn't name it Mr Splitfoot in front of strangers who might imagine the devil... For her, Mr Splitfoot is a two that is sometimes a one, mothers and their children, Nat and Ruth, life and death." And of course, Cora and Ruth: the structure of the book makes it dyadic, cloven. But conceptual consistency isn't much compensation for all the things here that don't work. "There isn't any point to it," complains Cora, mid-journey. "I'm not getting anywhere. No start, middle, or end." * To order Mr Splitfoot for [pound]12.99 (RRP [pound]14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over [pound]10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of [pound]1.99. - Sarah Ditum.


Kirkus Review

Foster children, abandoned houses, and craters left by meteorites weave together a strange and frightening ghost story. In Hunt's surreal third novel (The Invention of Everything Else, 2008, etc.), 17-year-olds Nat and Ruth cleave to each other at The Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission in upstate New York. Nat's "ability" to talk to the dead catches the attention of Mr. Bell, a con man, who convinces them to take their show on the road. A strange man offers to buy Ruth from her fanatical foster father, but Ruth gets Mr. Bell to marry her instead, creating a series of fraught and unsettling triangular relationships. Fourteen years later, Cora, Ruth's heavily pregnant niece, stumbles through woods and along highways, following her now mute and enigmatic aunt without understanding why. Wry, absurd, and occasionally silly humor punctures the weighty themes of motherhood, aging, and loss. "We're the Society for Confusing Literature and the Real Lies," a woman explains to Cora at an event on the Erie Canal in which Captain Ahab and Huck Finn compete with Lord Nelson and a German U-boat. Apparent non sequiturs pepper the dialogue throughout, and while at first they give the story a stilted quality, the seemingly random details soon stitch together into a larger meaning. Cora's pregnancy is a natural metaphor for bridging the tiny with the universal, and the novel is rife with chewy metaphors and similes that require careful parsing. At times, the novel's murky obscurity may be vexinga passage featuring a tight-lipped runaway nun is particularly gnomicbut the drip of information and layers of potent imagery keep the pages turning. A truly fantastic novel in which the blurring of natural and supernatural creates a stirring, visceral conclusion. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Far from here, there's a church. Inside the church, there's a box. Inside the box is Judas's hand." Nat is slight and striking as a birch branch. "Who cut it off?" Ruth asks. "How?" But Nat's a preacher in a fever. His lesson continues with a new topic. "Baby deer have no scent when they are born." Nat conducts the air. "Keeps those babies safe as long as their stinking mothers stay far away." This is how Nat loves Ruth. He fills her head with his wisdom. "My mom doesn't stink." "You don't even know who your mom is, Ru." "Of course I do. She's a veterinarian. She already had too many animals when I was born." "I don't believe you." Ruth looks left, then right. "OK. She's a bank robber. When you're asleep, she brings me money." "Where's all the cash, then? Are you hiding it in some big cardboard box?" So Ruth swerves again, returning to the version of a mother she uses most often. "I mean my mom's a bird, a red cardinal." "A male? Your mom's a boy?" "Yeah." "No, she isn't. She's a stone. Bones. I spit on her." Nat steals confidence from thin air. Ruth pulls her long dress tight across bent knees. She doesn't even know enough about mothers to fabricate a good one. Her idea of a mother is like a non-dead person's idea of heaven. It must be great. It must be huge. It must be better than what she's got now. "I'm just saying, wherever she is, she doesn't stink." Nat flips the feathers of his hair. "Wherever she is. Exactly." He holds his hand in a ray of sunlight. "I'm here now." He lifts the hand that touched light up to her ear, squeezing the lobe, an odd, familiar affection between their bodies. Nat touches the scar on her face, tangled knots of tissue, keloids dots on her nose and cheeks. "Do you know how they deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon?" "No." "I taught you this before. Please." Nat is cruel or Nat is gentle. Nat hates/loves Ruth as much as he hates/loves himself. He'll say, "Sleep on the floor tonight" or "I'm taking your blue coat. I like it" or "Stop crying right now." But he'll also say, "Eat this" and "You can dance, girl" and "Stay the fuck away from Ruth, or I'll slice your ear cartilage off and give it to a dog to chew on." When the Father raises a switch, Nat gives his back. "Are you just someone who wants to stay stupid?" "No. Tell me." "Mules." She wrinkles her nose. "Don't believe me? You're welcome to shop elsewhere." "I believe you. You're the only shop in town." They are alone in Love of Christ!'s bright living room. They are happiest when they are alone together. "Tell me what you know about light." "Not much." "It's the fastest thing in the world." "Faster than Jesus?" "Way faster than Jesus." Dust turns before her eyes. "OK. I believe you." Nat looks right at her, smiles. "What killed Uncle Sam?" She imagines a forgotten relative, an inheritance, a home. "Who's that?" "Samuel Wilson, the meatpacking man once called Uncle Sam. Symbol of our nation? He's buried just down the road apiece. You didn't even know Uncle Sam was dead." "I didn't know Uncle Sam was a real person. What killed him?" "Stupidity, girl. Stupidity." His, she wonders, or mine?   Nothing is near here, upstate New York. The scope of the galaxy seems reasonable. Light, traveling ten thousand years to reach Earth, makes sense because from here even the city of Troy, three miles away, is as distant as Venus. What difference could ten thousand light years make? Nat and Ruth have never been to Manhattan. The Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission is a brick bear spotted with mange. Handiwork from days past? -- ?ledge and brace doors, finger-joint chair rails, and hardwood floors? -- ?is being terrorized by state-provided, institutional, indestructible furniture common to dormitories and religious organizations. The house's wooden floors are smooth as a gun butt. In summer Drosophila melanogaster breed in the compost pile. Each snaggletooth of a homestead constructed during the Civil War pleases Father Arthur, lord of the domain, founder of Love of Christ! "Hand of the creator," he says. Clapboards that keep out only some of the wind; sills that have slipped off square; splinters as long as fingers. The house is always cold with a useless hearth since the State frowns on foster home fireplaces. "Meddlers!" Father Arthur unleashed his rage against bureaucracy, using a sledge on the innocent, elderly chimney. Now once a day when the sun reaches alignment, a sliver of light shines into the house through the busted-up flue, a precise astronomical calendar if anyone knew how to read it. At Love of Christ! children feel the Lord, and the Lord is often furious and unpredictable, so Father Arthur cowers from corrupting influences. No Walt Disney, soda pop, or women's slacks pass his threshold. The children milk goats, candle and collect eggs, preserve produce, and make yogurt from cultures they've kept alive for years. Blessed be the bacteria. The children remain ignorant of the bountiful mysteries filling the nearby Price Chopper. Boys at Love of Christ! wear black cotton pants and solid tops from a limited palette of white, tan, or brown. The girls wear plain dresses last seen on Little House on the Prairie reruns. Simple fabric, a few pale flowers, a modest length for working. Fingernails are clean and rounded. Teeth are scrubbed with baking soda. The old ways survive, and seasonal orders dictate. But? -- ?like the olivine-bronzite chondrite meteor that surprised a Tomhannock Creek farmer back in 1863? -- ?corruption has a way of breaking through. New charges arrive with words from the outside: mad cow disease, La-Z-Boy recliner, Barbie doll. "You know what Myst is?" Ruth asks Nat. "M.I.S.T. Yes. A secretive branch of the Marines. Surprised you've heard of it." He works with more confidence than facts. "I thought it was a video game." "Video game? What's that?"   When they had mothers, Nat's read him books and fed him vitamins until a bad man bit off the tip of her right breast and told her he'd be back for the left one. She didn't stop driving until she reached New York State. She left Nat at a babysitter's house, disappearing with a hero from the personal ads, a man who appreciated firm thighs more than tiny kids and perfect breasts. Nat set fire to his first group home. No one died. Ruth never knew her mom, but when she was young, her sister, Eleanor, lived at Love of Christ! El was like a mom. She petted Ruth at night, told Ruth she was beautiful despite the messed-up scar on her face. "When you were a baby," El said, "you used to point at birds." Then Eleanor turned eighteen. "Real sorry." The Father woke them with a fist on the door. "Time to go." El jumped up. Ruth froze cold. She was only five. El stalled her departure in the driveway, but Ruth didn't appear. "Bye," El spoke to the house. No sign of Ruth. No blood vow to find one another once El got settled. It would be a long time before El would be able to come for her, if El, an unemployed eighteen-year-old, would ever be able to come for her five-year-old sister. Ruth breathed into the window upstairs, looked down on the driveway scene, a surgery in some anatomy theater removing the only familiar thing she'd ever known. El was leaving in the truck. Ruth had no idea where it would take her. A bus station? The YWCA? Some mall parking lot in the capital with eighty bucks and a crucifix from the Father in her bag? Ruth pushed harder into the pane. A black thread, lashed around the chrome bumper, yanked an organ from Ruth's chest, dragged it in the dirt behind the Father's truck like a couple of gory beer cans. Ruth said nothing for two weeks. No one noticed. Eventually the State brought the Father a replacement, a boy named Nat who'd had trouble with matches and kerosene. The Word became flesh and lived among them. The Word became flesh and lived among them. "You can be my sister now," Ruth told him. That was the Word. Excerpted from Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.