We Hear the Dead by Dianne K. Salerni

About once a year, sad-eyed teens wander into my library, sigh, and tell me that their teacher is making them read historical fiction.  Now most of the time I can send the boys away happy – here in my library the words “Walter Dean Myers” and “Vietnam War” work wonders – but a certain type of girl groans at everything I pull out and casts sad eyes towards the Twilight books and whatever PC Cast happens to be on the shelf that day.  They’re looking for a little bit of the supernatural and a whole lot of romance, but it’s got to be realistic fiction with a strong historical bent.  And Dianne Salerni has found a story that a history teacher and a teenage girl can get equally excited about.

Kate and Maggie Fox only meant to play a practical joke, but their ability to make loud rapping noises with their joints – combined with a few strange coincidences – have the whole town convinced that the young sisters can converse with the dead.  And when their shrewd Aunt Leah gets involved, the girls find themselves in the center of the newly formed Spiritualist movement, with their services highly desired for seances and sittings. 

A rift grows between Maggie, who struggles with her conscience as their growing fame and need for secrecy make her more and more uncomfortable, and Kate, who is either completely convinced that their talent is genuine or a frighteneningly good liar.  The narrative is split between the two girls with Maggie getting the majority of the chapters – which is a good choice, since Kate’s chapters are told from the perspective of someone who is either crazy or an incredible manipulator, neither of which make her easy to relate to as a narrator.  Maggie, on the other hand, is easy to sympathize with as she is swept up in a series of events that are often beyond her control.

It’s a compelling piece of history – the kind of history that just begs for the YA treatment.  And Salerni has clearly done her research, both on the Fox sisters and on the period.  Details are vivid, and the narrative touches on other important historical movements of the time in interesting ways, particularly women’s liberation.  In the second half of the book, Maggie’s relationship with a famous Arctic explorer provides some wonderful opportunities to explore issues of class, gender, and power in the late 19th Century. 

While Salerni’s historical accuracy and clear love for the period and the story are welcome, they do lead to one of my pet peeves for historical fiction based on a  true story – Salerni’s desire to tell every part of the Fox sisters’ story means that this book is loooooong.   We Hear the Dead is strongest in the beginning, when the sisters were first caught up in their deceptions, and in the second half, when Maggie’s love interest provides a firm plot arc for her character.  The central part of the book, which relates a  part of the Fox sisters’ story that does not have as natural a narrative arc, did not always hold my interest as a reader.  A tighter focus would have benefitted the book and made it a little bit more approachable in terms of length.  Despite that reservation, Salerni tells an engaging story that will appeal to many teens.

Reviewed from ARC provided by the publisher.