On Halloween at a boarding house a group of fourteen sits around a table at a “dumb supper,” a tradition for which dinner guests eat without speaking in the hopes of inviting a spirit to occupy the 15th chair, which remains empty. We’re in Concord, Massachusetts, just after the conclusion of the Civil War, and ghosts — those of soldiers and slaves and women who die in childbirth — are everywhere.
Unexpectedly, twins, former slaves from the Turner plantation who are likely the daughters of the Master, arrive and cause a sensation. One twin speaks to spirits and stands while the other, completely veiled, remains in her wheelchair and functions as a vessel for spirits. Someone, or something, begins to haunt the boarders at night. The only way to eliminate the possible spirits and get the twins to leave is if the owner of the boarding house lets them hold a séance.
Sister Séance by Aimee Parkinson is a character-driven historical fiction novel. The author uses the real fascination with the occult after the Civil War as the lens through which she writes. If you’ve ever read about this time period, you may be aware of the tricks folks would use to suggest ghosts are real, such as ringing a bell under the table with one’s shoe. In Sister Séance, it’s less clear what’s real and imagined. Let’s start with some of the characters: twins are everywhere in the novel, and they come from the Turner Plantation, which is dubbed Twin Oaks. The plantation owner had twin daughters and twin sons, and when their mother abandoned the plantation, she took one girl and one boy with her, creating a rift. Her set of children grow up in the north and oppose slavery, while the father’s pair continue on at the plantation and torture slaves. I’ve also mentioned the spiritualist twins born of the owner and a slave woman.
The other set of characters come from the Hayden family tree, which has four daughters who are orphaned without husbands and taken in by the owner of the boarding house, who knew their mother and pities them. Viv is the main character out of the four sisters and is secretly pregnant by a slave from the Turner plantation. While she does not believe in slavery, Viv does believe in the power of photography, so she agreed to marry the Turner twin who stayed on the plantation and surreptitiously took photos of slaves to show how gruesome the practice was. Her husband is at the “dumb supper,” but he has agreed to let her separate from him quietly.
The last group of characters are soldiers of the Civil War. I found the most horror in their bodies, as Parkinson describes what happens to men who participated in a violent battle during a time when medical care was not so clean. She writes, “Every amputation was a story waiting to be told, a sort of mystery, he supposed, and wounded men bled riddles because a soldier’s body belonged to everyone.” When one soldier’s arm amputation is described, readers get graphic details of the bone protrusion, what fluids run out, how it continues to bleed. Each wounded soldier sees himself as useless man, one who couldn’t gain the favor of a woman because he’d be unable to support a family.
Each character, family group, and type of character has his or her own backstory, which doesn’t necessarily move the plot forward, but does create ambiance, a sort of “feel” as to what we’re supposed to understand in Parkinson’s novel, perhaps what sort of emotions were meant to experience. All the twins are purposely confusing, making readers wonder if the twin who is supposed to be dead really is, or if she escaped a life she hated. Are the spiritualist twins always the same person, or do they switch roles as voice and vessel of the dead? We can’t even see the veiled twin’s face. Since one half of the Turner twins owned slaves, the abolitionist half of the twins still haunt with their faces and presence the newly-freed slaves who gather at the boarding house.
I did struggle with the time frame of everything. In one scene it seems that Viv is going to give birth, but perhaps these are Braxton Hicks contractions. When she does give birth, it appears to happen in a matter of minutes. How much time passes in Sister Séance? Days? Hours? Perhaps that adds to the ghostly lost feeling readers may inhabit as they read, as if time itself is a spirit rather than the sun going up and down.
Sister Séance will be published October 31st of this year and will delight readers with all things occult, hay rides and bonfires, dancing and games, and terrifying memories of the worst period in American history. Thank you to Aimee Parkinson for sending me an ARC. Kernpunkt Press will be having a special pre-sale price until October 1st.