Wednesday, June 16, 2010

CAPTIVITY by Deborah Noyes

Captivity is one of those books that you find maybe once, or if you are lucky, twice a year. A haunting story, exquisite writing, compelling characters, and a really interesting plot question. In this case, did the Fox sisters have a gift, or was it a hoax?

The story centers around a true incident in western New York in 1848: two sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox claimed that the dead were trying to communicate with them through poltergeist activity and “rapping”. A dig in their basement turns up the body of a peddler who had died years before, as predicted by the girls. A move to Rochester, to their older sister Leah’s home (and management) soon turns them into a sensation, and creates the birth of the American Spiritualist movement. Despite a number of grueling and humiliating tests, the sisters are never revealed as frauds.

The middle sister, Maggie, is bold, fresh, and extremely likable. She strikes up a friendship of sorts with a local recluse, Clara Gill, and through their friendship the story unfolds. The sister’s story is told going forward, Clara’s is told in flashbacks.

Clara was living in London some twenty-odd years ago, illustrating a naturalist catalog with sketches of animals when she fell deeply in love with the “beast keeper” of the London Tower’s Menagerie. Will Cross is absolutely charming, and irresistible for a carefully brought up young Victorian lady: unsuitable, of course, full of poetry, life, and laughter. He is self-educated, and as exotic as the animals he loves. Their love story is as tender and awkward as every first love and every bit as moving. Anyone who has ever loved and lost can understand Clara’s withdrawal from the world when in ends terribly.

Captivity is very much the theme here. The animals of the menagerie are captives, of course. Will is a “beast keeper” and she a naturalist. She asks him “does it pain you? To see them here?” “Here with me” he says cheerily, “They might be here anyway. They might be here without me”……”They’re going to be shut up anyway” he explains. the world runs it’s course.” But it is her uncle and his naturalist friends who serve the exotic animals at a dinner designed to raise money to study and collect them. They gobble up the very thing they claim to prize. A point that is not missed by Clara. The freedom of birds too, echoes throughout the book: Maggie’s love gives her a canary in a golden cage when he asks her to give up her “rapping” to marry him. She frees it, and he sends it back, saying that he had caught it again. An interesting touch of metaphor in that this bird is a bit of a fraud. Clara sketches birds repeatedly. Maggie gives Clara a nest with a girls hair ribbon in it. Will’s mentor is a gypsy seller of “nesties”.

Clara is a captive of her love, and her past. She has barely left her room in 22 years despite her father’s quiet appeals to do so. She only starts going out when Maggie enters her life and she becomes curious again. Maggie is a captive of her “gift”, her mercenary family, and her need to better herself. And of her own love when he comes along.

Woven throughout the story is the question of the Fox sisters “gifts”. Do they really communicate with spirits? Is it a hoax? Noyes slyly teases and provokes without giving too much away. Maggie loves to drop hints, and Katie seems to actually be a mystic, while Leah is openly mercenary. And if they are fraudulent, are they giving hope or doing harm? And how to they make the rapping/poltergeist activity happen? These are questions the reader must answer for him/herself. It’s a fascinating puzzle.

I highly recommend Captivity. I knew any book about the Fox sisters would be interesting. To this day the controversy continues as to whether they were fact or fraud. I did not expect the tender love story at the heart of the book. Clara is such a wonderful combination of fragile and strong that you just can’t help caring deeply for her. Deborah Noyes has the ability to make all of this very real with a delicate, ethereal beauty. She perfectly captures mood, description and the poetry of love. A marvelous writer. A marvelous book.

To Buy This Book

Publisher: Unbridled Books; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)

ISBN-13: 978-1936071630

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