The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead
by Paul Elwork
Penguin Publishing, 2011
When I was compiling my list of books to read for 2012, I relied heavily on NPR’s list of the best books of 2011 (plus a few others). When this book kept coming up, it piqued my interest. When I read a little more about it and saw that it was very loosely based on the Fox sisters and spiritualism in the early 1900s, I wanted to know more.
It’s not that I’m “into” spiritualism or “spirit knocking” or any of that stuff, but it does intrigue me, especially how so many people who would consider themselves Christians—or at least very religious—got caught up in trying to reach spirits and make contact with the dead at the end of the 1800s and the turn of the century. I’ve also become a big fan of a podcast called “Stuff You Missed in History Class” and not long ago listened to a podcast on the Fox sisters who rose to fame in the late 1800s because of their supposed ability to communicate with spirits through rappings. One of the sisters later publicly admitted it had all been a hoax and demonstrated their method, but many still believed them. You can read more about that here or just find the “Stuff You Missed in History Class” episode and listen to it.
Now, all that said, The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead is loosely based on that story from history. The novel deals with a set of fraternal twins, Michael and Emily, who are born into a rich family. Their father has passed away in World War I and they are whiling away their summer in the family home with their mother. And it just so happens that their mother and their home and even their family history is full of secrets, some of which are unraveled throughout the book.
At some point, Emily realizes she can make a weird rapping noise using the tendons and bones in her foot. Michael, ever enterprising, realizes it could lead to some fun and they set up a “show” for some local kids in which they “contact” a departed relative, Regina Ward. News of their supposedly ability to speak with the dead grows and before long, Michael and Emily find themselves trapped. Do they continue the show? Do they quit? Are they somehow helping people by allowing them to finally think they are at peace with dead relatives and friends they never got to settle things with in life?
The 13-year-old protagonists deal with all of that. The plot also has a few side mysteries, namely the background of their mother’s family, family secrets, and their parents’ relationship. In a way, uncovering these facts and long-hidden stories are a little like communicating with the dead, since they’ve been secrets so long—and since the kids never really knew their father that well. The Girl Who Would Speak to the Dead is also a coming-of-age story, in which both kids lose their sense of innocence and realize that all actions have consequences, even if they start as a game.
All that said, the book was good, not great. I kept reading because I had to know what happened, if they gave up the game, took it to the world, or if the family completely fell apart. I won’t tell you what happened, but will say that I felt like the first 3/4’s of the book was very well done and suspenseful, but the climax seemed rushed and the ending, well, strange. Suddenly, you and the protagonist are 15 years older looking back at the events of that summer and everything is kind of recapped and tied up in a sloppy bow with lots of plot holes that never quite got resolved.
In the end, The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead was a good first read of 2012 and suspenseful for the most part. But I’m kind of glad I just bought it through the Kindle app on the iPad and didn’t spend the money on an actual ink-on-paper book—because I won’t be rereading it or counting it among my favorites!