I’ve never been one for making resolutions at New Year’s. The combination of forced self-reflection and inevitable failure to follow through always made me wary. I now see this as far too cynical, and this year, I’m changing my ways. My change of heart is due to the politically distressing, negative, completely stupefying year that we just lived through, as well as a few specific occurrences in my own life.
Last year, my husband, who is much more proactive about self-reflection and goal-setting, asked me what my resolutions for the year would be. Instead of writing the question off, I decided to set a few realistic goals for myself. At the time, I was a new mom, I didn’t have a lot of friends in the Eau Claire area, and I hadn’t carved out time for myself since my daughter was born. I decided that I would join a book club so that I could make friends and take time for myself to read books and talk about them. The first meeting of the book club led to a conversation that launched Dotters Books - a lifelong dream. Score one for resolutions.
This year, many of my resolutions pertain to reading and bookstore goals, one of which is to diversify the genres I read. I usually gravitate to literary fiction so I want to read a lot more non-fiction, memoir, middle-grade/YA fiction, and poetry. My efforts have already paid off. The last two books I read, one non-fiction and one fiction, speak to each other in the most fascinating and unexpected way.
Kevin Young’s Bunk, longlisted for the National Book Award in Nonfiction, is an impressively exhaustive study of hoaxes throughout American history. Young lays out offense after offense, expertly and convincingly linking each hoax to prejudice against minorities. An unsettling book, Bunk portrays an American society set on repeating centuries of racist mistakes and backward thinking; our current government has moved beyond truth - post-facts and fake news reign.
One of the early hoaxes discussed in Young’s book is Spiritualism. Mary Todd Lincoln artfully sums up the beliefs of the movement in a letter to her friend after her son Willie’s death. She explains that “‘A very slight veil separates us, from the “loved & lost,”...and though unseen by us, they are very near.’” After defining Spiritualism, Young tells the story of Margaret and Kate Fox, fourteen and eleven-year-old sisters who:
“...claimed to have heard a series of knocks in their home - apparently from the spirit of a dead drifter buried in the house. Moreover, the sisters said they (and only they) could interpret these ‘rappings.’ Visitors flocked to and paid for séances held by the girls, and soon the Fox sisters began to take the show on the road...Spiritualism eventually fell victim to confession - or sabotage, if you were a follower. [Margaret] revealed publicly in 1888 that the rapping was merely the...two cracking their toes loudly.”
Young points out that grieving people were financially and emotionally exploited: “Spiritualism embodies the American paradox: democratic yet elite; accessible to all but reliant on a chosen few...Spirits may be all around us, but they require a - usually paid - meidum to see.”
This brings me to Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, the story of four young siblings whose lives are shaped by a fortune teller’s prophecy of their deaths. It is a wonderful book. The characters are rich, the plot is surprising, and the questions that it generates are valuable for anyone who hopes to live each of her days to the fullest.
Klara, the youngest daughter, is a magician taking inspiration from the same Fox sisters mentioned in Bunk: "Kate and Margaret Fox heard rapping sounds in the bedroom of their Hydesville farmhouse. Soon the Fox home was called the spook house, and the girls began a national tour...a larger team of investigators could find no earthly reason for the raps, nor the communication system - a code based on counting - that the sisters used to translate them." Klara doesn’t see the Fox sisters, or the fortune teller, as villains taking advantage of the grieving; she doesn’t think of her own magic act as a hoax. She thinks her work gives her audiences hope and faith - a larger sense of reality:
“‘Is it that reality is too much? Too painful, too limited, too restrictive of joy or opportunity? No,' [Klara] says. 'I think it's that reality is not enough...Some magicians say that magic shatters your worldview. But I think magic holds the world together. It's dark matter; it's the glue of reality, the putty that fills the holes between everything we know to be true. And it takes magic to reveal how inadequate' - she puts the cup down - 'reality' - she makes a fist - 'is.' When she opens her fist, the red ball isn't there. What's there is a full, perfect strawberry.”
Holding up Bunk and The Immortalists’ inverted interpretations of the Fox sisters to each other, I feel grateful for the multiple perspectives we receive from reading diverse genres and voices. We need magic just as much as we need reality.
Here’s to intentional reading lists in 2018.