Thursday, April 17, 2008

IAG Featured Writer: Dianne Salerni

High Spirits: A Tale of Ghostly Rapping and Romance
by Dianne K. Salerni
Buy it at

or Barnes and Noble

ISBN-10: 0595423507
ISBN-13: 978-0595423507

In mid-nineteenth century America, spirits knock and tables tip for Maggie and Kate Fox, two teenage sisters who convince people they can talk to the dead with their mysterious rapping noises. Before long, neighbors are begging Maggie and Katie for the chance to receive messages from dead relatives and older sister Leah realizes that their "prank" has real money-making potential.

Soon, the sisters hit the road to bamboozle newspaper editors, politicians, and the public at large and start a national craze for spirits and ghosts. Their fame grows--but could their powers actually be real? See the good and the bad that can happen when three sisters land in the limelight and come to their own conclusions about what’s true, what’s right and what’s important.

The neat thing about this book is that it's based on the true story of the Fox sisters, who more or less started the entire Spiritualist craze in the 1850s. But more than just showing this thin slice of the times, the book is a fully realized description of pre-Civil War life on the east coast of the US. This isn't a period heavily covered in fiction. The focus on mid-nineteenth century America is mostly toward the Civil War and the antebellum South.

In the first few chapters, I was worried. They seemed kind of repetitive, going through all of the Fox sisters various rapping techniques, but then Ms. Salerni gets rolling and turns the book into a can't-put-it-down page turner. High praise for High Spirits? Yes, but I'm praising it in the context of what it is: a personal story of a young woman caught up in a lie that lasts for years, a lie she can't get out of even if it means losing the love of her life.

We want to yell at Maggie to grab her guy and head off to the arctic with him, but that "just was not done." We learn of the social mores that require Maggie to defer virtually every decision about her life to her overbearing older sister, Leah.

Her younger sister, Kate, isn't any help since she not only enjoys the deceptions the girls put over on a naive public, but begins to believe that the rapping she performs by cracking the joints of her toes is actually a message from the spirits.

Ms. Salerni is a teacher in "real life" so I'm not surprised the book ends with a page or two of discussion questions. Interestingly, this list made me think a little harder about the book. Darn, I hate when a book does that! Seriously, the book is educational in a highly entertaining way. Ms. Salerni asks: "How did the common view of females in the nineteenth century work in the favor of the Fox sisters?" and "Is it possible that good can be accomplished through deception?" and "How was it that people could be so easily fooled by what, in hindsight, seems an obvious fraud?" Yes, indeed, the subject matter of the book is a perfect vehicle for making kids think about such weighty matters. . .and have fun doing it.

My overall assessment of "High Spirits" is that it's certainly worth reading. Unfortunately, it is a POD, which makes it a pricey paperback. I hope Ms. Salerni tries for an agent and commercial publisher. It seems to me this book should be a good seller for a wide variety of readers. Those that like historicals will find plenty of good detail to keep them interested, romance readers will shed a tear over poor Maggie's lovelife, folks interested in spiritualism will find a fascinating history of a pair of the original spirit rappers.

I certainly recommend the book to anybody who is interested in the subject matter, but also to the general reader looking for a darn good tale.

1 comment:

  1. "Kick, jab, shuffle, kick, lunge, jab."

    Uh... Marva? Are you writing the next "Fight Club?" Cause if you are, that totally rocks! lol

    Glad to see you jumping in the fray in Nathan's contest.