Night comes down and her breath deepens. Millions of stars overhead make the violence of the Big Bang clear. So much force that matter is still sprinting away from the center. I feel the velocity of space pinning me to this platform. I’m tiny but I’m going to be someone’s mom, someone’s everything. I touch the baby. None of this is easy to believe. The stars leave streaks, we’re moving so fast. Ruth breathes heavily. One small scintillation above – a gossamer thread of light – gathers oceans, every word ever spoken on the radio, each calorie of sunlight ever captured and stored in a kernel of corn. You know. Things like that. And the star beside it: the tongues of every lizard, spider, leopard. If spiders have tongues. One day the sun will suck us in. I’m not too angry about that. Lying in these stars, despite them, somehow I can imagine my child seat-belted in a minivan while I stress the importance ofsharing chocolate Easter eggs or stuffed toy pandas or bags of corn chips with the other children. And I’ll mean that being alive matters, even being alive in the smallest, smallest way. And aren’t you lucky to be here.
The first book I’ve read so far this year that was published in 2016 is a DOOZY. Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot defies easy description, but I’m going to do my best to tell you why I loved it so much and why you should give it a try. What I’m not going to do is tell you too much about it. I didn’t know much about this novel besides the fast that Andi Miller (of Estella’s Revenge) had chosen it for her pick as the best book she read in January for Book Riot. Reading it is such a thrilling and moving journey that to spoil it would truly be a crime.
The novel begins in the recent past in a home for older, physically and/or mentally “damaged” kids in Upstate New York, named the Love of Christ! (intentional exclamation mark) Foster Home. It’s run by a religious, deranged, but not altogether cruel man named Father Arthur, whom the kids simply call Father. He makes the kids dress in old-time plain clothing and work on the farm. There’s no TV, no internet, no electric heat and air. Our story initially centers on Ruth and Nat, two 17 year olds who are not biologically related but have become so close over the years that they privately call each other “sisters.” (Nat is a boy.) Ruth has a large scar on her face from when her biological mother poured bleach on her. Her much older sister El aged out of the house at 18. She never returned for Ruth. This all sounds really grim, and initially I wondered if the story of the foster kids would take a too-depressing turn, but Hunt somehow manages to weave a streak of hope into the narrative.
We next flash-forward to the present day, and we meet Cora, a twenty-something woman in a dead end (and soul deadening) insurance job. She spends her breaks buying shoes online and surfing the internet. Cora is having an affair with an older married man, named Lord (!) and she finds out she’s pregnant. Lord is not happy about this situation, to say the least. We quickly learn that Cora is Ruth’s niece – the daughter of El, the sister who left her behind. Ruth shows up at Cora’s door unexpectedly – Cora’s not seen her aunt since she was 17. And now Ruth won’t or can’t talk. But with a lot of nodding and pointing she somehow convinces Cora to come with her on a journey. It’s not like Cora has a lot going for her anyway.
Meanwhile, back at the Love of Christ!, Nat and Ruth start offering seances to the kids at the home, with a mysterious entity named Mr. Splitfoot apparently inhabiting Nat’s body. He tells the kids what they want to hear – that their parents would be with them if they could. They get hooked up with a con man named Mr. Bell who wants to take their talents on the road, for a profit.
So we flip back and forth between two time periods, and the propulsive, mesmerizing quality of the writing casts its spell. I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, but what starts as a weird, sad story about orphans morphs into a thrilling page-turner. And then it takes this beautiful, haunting turn into something even more magical and meaningful.
I was not able to cobble together much reading time when I first began reading this, but every time I had to put it down, it was with great reluctance. And then last night I read the entire second half in one breathless gulp. I ended up with a face streaming with tears. I didn’t expect to be so moved by this book. If you like creepy, gothic, mysterious page-turners, put Mr. Splitfoot on your TBR. It’s a work of speculative fiction (fantasy? magical realism?) with a great big beating heart.