'Sweet By and By': Beware thumps in the night

March 25, 2001|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Sweet By and By," by Jeanne Mackin. St. Martin's Press. 293 pages. $24.95

Jeanne Mackin's fourth novel, "The Sweet By and By," tells the strange and strangely compelling tale of one Maggie Fox, the fiercely original child who managed to turn a mischievous April Fools Day trick into a lifelong career of staged spiritualism and guided ghosts. Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was one of Fox's clients. P.T. Barnum was one of her backers. Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane was - informally, eternally tragically - her husband. And her whole life was a hoax.

It's the sort of story that would be hard to make up, and Mackin clearly delights in its wacky, sad, perverse dimensions, relating the narrative with a gossiper's passion and putting meat on the bones of the facts. The dialogue here is snappy, persuasive. Wickedness is palpable. Scenes unfold like so much vaudeville. One feels a little guilty as one quickly turns the pages, never quite deciding whether this is literature or camp.

Maggie and her younger sister, Katie, are the emotionally abused children of an alcoholic, failed father and a weak-willed mother. They survive as survivors of abuse often do - by the sheer force of will lit by the steady flame of anger.

On March 31, 1848, while their parents sleep beside them in their poor, purportedly haunted home in Hydesville, N.Y., the girls drop apples onto the bare wood floor and convince their parents that a "Mr. Splitfoot" has come knocking. In no time at all, the town has come knocking, too, and it isn't long before their older sister, Leah, has spirited them away, turning their freak show into the steady kerplunk of profit.

Maggie, alas, is not always eager to go along for the ride, and Leah -or at least the Leah Mackin imagines - curtails the fussing by introducing Maggie to what will become a deadly opium habit.

"Leah hesitates a moment," writes Mackin, "then takes from her mahogany cosmetic chest a small glass vial with ruby-red contents. She pours three drops into a glass of water. 'Drink,' she orders. 'It will make the headache go away.'"

The resurrected story of the resurrectionists would be stuff enough for a winning novel in an era - our own - that finds itself increasingly obsessed with angels, telepathy, coincidences that cannot merely be coincidental - or can they?

But "The Sweet By and By" is not simply a romp through history; it is a novel that places the Maggie Fox story into the hands of a forlorn journalist, Helen West, whose ramshackle house is falling down around her and whose married lover Jude is three years dead.

Commissioned to write the definitive biography of Maggie Fox, West finds herself increasingly confused on matters of fact and fiction, truth and circumstance, as her research proceeds: Is that an animal between the walls she hears or her dead lover come knocking? Is that the sun blearing the window or a ghost waving to her? Did Fox have at least some supernatural powers? What is West to think?

Unfortunately, by juxtaposing Fox's tale with that of West's, Mackin veers off into dangerous terrain - producing far more than one too many modern-day coincidences, going a little heavy on all that pining for the lost beloved and reaching for a deeper meaning that this particular story does not seem likely to give up. Still, "The Sweet By and By" is great fun for a stormy evening when the wind is howling and the trees scrape their naked nubs across the window glass.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of "A Slant of Sun" and "Into the Tangle of Friendship." She is at work on a new memoir about a coffee farm in El Salvador.

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