Rochester Knockings: a review

A City historian takes a look at this novel set in Rochester's past



Open Letter

Historical fiction is a tricky thing. The art of delicately balancing factual detail with the need to tell an engaging story can trip up even the most gifted writer. Rochester Knockings, Hubert Haddad’s fictional account of the Fox sisters, takes a “let’s see what sticks” approach to storytelling. Translated from the original French, the novel’s overwrought, uneven plot doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of where it’s going much less how to get there. 

The novel’s language tends toward the impenetrable with short bursts of lucidity, and the abrupt shifts in tense (sometimes on the same page) disrupt the narrative and take the reader out of the story. There are some moments of success, however: “There comes a day when siblings replace the buried memory of the elders, since in them alone are found now the inflections of voice and the attitudes populating one’s intimate background.” Other attempts are more obtuse, as in this description of a character’s opium visions: “There where a member of the Temperance Society or of the Anti-Saloon League might discern a face or shape in the background, between other inept rebuses, there universes opening up for him, bringing their demonic engineering to the surface, pulled from unfathomable equations.” Awkwardly expressed ideas like “The bottled-up negative energies that they had released without the crowd’s knowledge had accumulated to their own loss” may be a byproduct of the translation process. However, Haddad’s description of Kate’s nightmares featuring “a demon’s long, hardened fingers, or mice brains smacking down on you through holes” is just plain baffling.

Frequently, it seems as though Haddad tries too hard to incorporate Rochester-related names and places into the story, giving the impression of slapdash name-dropping with little regard for narrative context. The devil, as always, is in the details. Mention of a performance at the Eastman Theatre is made all the more impressive by the fact that construction of the glorious hall was still seventy years away. Quaker and early champion of spiritualism Isaac Post is inexplicably portrayed as an alcoholic. At Horace Greeley’s swanky New York City party, Victoria Woodhull drops into the plot long enough to fangirl over Kate, while Frederick Douglass’s entrance causes an uproar, after which “a lively exchange was heard where words like liberty, rights, and equality rang out.” Even Harriet Tubman gets a name-check. 

Haddad does a nice job illuminating Kate’s struggle with the ghosts that haunt her, though, and her journey from naïve country girl to homeless alcoholic at the book’s end is poignantly drawn. Several chapters offer middle sister Maggie’s point of view, facilitating a connection between story and reader. For the most part, however, the novel’s secondary characters are superficially—and rather cartoonishly—realized. Curiously, a subplot involving the love story of two secondary characters, William and Pearl, over time proves more engaging than the main plot and would have made for a compelling novel on its own. Although their story has little in the way of relevance to the main plot, Haddad devotes entire chapters to their escapades, most memorably when Pearl runs away from her strict reverend father, is taken in by the free-love community in Oneida, and becomes a favorite concubine of leader John Humphrey Noyes. These flights of fancy are entertaining, but they also seem to be part of an entirely different book—one that I’d like to read.  

 

Cheri Crist is a librarian, certified archivist, and fur mama to two extremely bratty dogs.

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