(2016), a contemporary gothic novel by Samantha Hunt, follows a young girl who unearths long-hidden family secrets when she channels her dead aunt. The book has been praised for its careful plotting and narrative structure, its intelligent characterization, and its atmosphere. An award-winning novelist, Hunt received the National Book Foundation Award for authors under 35 and the 2010 Bard Fiction Prize. Before writing full-time, she studied for an MFA at Warren Wilson College and worked in an envelope factory.
Two interlinked narratives in Mr. Splitfoot
take place in different time periods. The first thread takes place about fifteen years ago, when two young orphans, Ruth and Nat, are growing up together in a foster home called Love of Christ. The second thread takes place in the present day; Ruth’s niece, Cora, finds out she is pregnant with her first child. The connection between these relatives becomes clearer as the novel progresses.
In the Love of Christ, the preacher, religious fanatic Father Arthur, rules the children with an iron fist, not letting the children leave the compound. They don’t receive a typical academic education; instead, they spend all day studying religion and tending to Father Arthur’s farmland. Father Arthur believes that God speaks through him and that all other religions are false.
The children are too afraid of Father Arthur to question his zealotry. Ruth, an orphan, wants is a stable home. She doesn’t want Father Arthur to throw her out the way he once chucked out her sister, Eleanor. She clings to Nat, a young boy around the same age, because he is like the brother she never had.
Back in the present day, Cora, Eleanor’s daughter, hates her life. She has been sleeping with Lord, a married man; although she loves him, she worries that he will never leave his wife. Unhappy at work, she doesn’t know how she will support a baby on her own. When Lord finds out about the baby, he begs her to get rid of it, but Cora refuses. She thinks that a baby might convince Lord to choose her over his wife. She is wrong; Lord leaves her for good.
The narrative jumps back to the past. At Love of Christ, Ruth and Nat dabble in mediumship. One night, they meet a spirit, Mr. Splitfoot. He promises to help them communicate with the other side, but only if they let him stick around. Ruth and Nat think it’s cool to hang out with a ghost and so they invite Mr. Splitfoot into their lives. He helps them talk to the dead and they make money selling séances.
A salesman comes along one day, making them a proposal they can’t refuse. He will free them from the orphanage if they come to work for him. He doesn’t care if they are real mediums or not; all he cares about is putting in a show and making money from them. Ruth and Nat travel to New York with him to start a new life.
In New York, Ruth reunites with Eleanor. She finds out that Eleanor is pregnant and sleeping with random guys in exchange for a bed and breakfast every morning. Eleanor has no idea who the baby’s father is. She hates her life. Not knowing how to help her, Ruth feels more helpless now than ever. Worried that she will end up homeless and alone like Eleanor, she marries the salesman and lets Nat move in with them.
The narrative returns to the present day. While Cora frets over her pregnancy, Ruth appears. Cora reminds Ruth of Eleanor and she desperately wants to help her. She invites Cora to join her on a trip around New York where they will explore their family history together. Cora finds it weird that Ruth appeared seemingly out of nowhere, but she doesn’t have any other family and she trusts that a trip with Aunt Ruth will do her good.
Ruth takes Cora along a stretch of waterway called the Erie Canal. She tells Cora all about Eleanor and their childhood, about how their mother abused them, and Eleanor, as the eldest sibling, decided to report the abuse to the authorities. She didn’t know how else to protect Ruth from further violence. What she didn’t expect was to end up in a fanatical foster home and for the state to separate her from her sister.
This is no ordinary journey along the waterway. It takes a full nine months to complete. Cora gives birth at the end of the road, symbolizing her own rebirth. She plans to pull herself together and get her life on track. She realizes that, just like Ruth, she can channel the dead, and she’s been talking to Ruth’s ghost the whole time. Now that Cora is ready to face motherhood on her own, Ruth vanishes, returning to the other side.