Journey with the Devil?

Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 336 pages, release date 5 January, 2016

For much of the time I was reading Mr. Splitfoot, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the novel. The characters were interesting, but not necessarily likable, so time spent with them was uneasy. But this dis-ease is really what the novel is all about. The characters aren’t people I’d want to spend real-world time with, but they don’t seem to want to spend time with themselves either. And there’s no easy choice that would suddenly turn any of them into a companion one would enjoy.

This novel takes place along two timelines that slowly draw together. In the earlier one, Eleanor and Ruth are sisters placed in the Love of Christ! Foster Home. When Eleanor ages out, Ruth finds a new sister in Nat, a boy her own age. In their volatile surroundings, their cross-gender sistering provides a steady, if troubled, sort of anchor.

Nat claims to be able to speak with the dead, and Ruth plays along with him, not entirely sure herself whether his contact with spirits is real or a scam. First, the pair earn money from other children in the home, contacting their dead relatives to deliver comforting messages. Then a mysterious Mr. Bell appears, takes them under his wing, and helps them perfect what is now most decidedly a con.

The novel’s second timeline follows Cora, daughter of Ruth’s sister Eleanor. Cora has a dead-end job and a dead-end boyfriend, gives her life meaning by doing on-line shoe shopping—and wrestles with the question of how she’ll handle her unexpected pregnancy.

Ruth appears at the home shared by Cora and Eleanor, refusing to speak, but making it clear that she wants Cora to follow her. Cora leaves with Ruth, expecting a journey of a few hours at the most, but Ruth drives them further and further away—and when their car breaks down, she silently makes it clear that she expects Cora to follow her on foot.

Ruth and Cora’s journey takes the pair across much of the territory of Ruth’s vagrant days, when Ruth, Nat, and Mr. Bell set up seances in houses they’d break into while the owners were vacationing. Ruth remains silent; Cora continues to follow. Once the two arrive at a large, remote home on a snow-covered mountain, the reader finally comes to understand the intersection of their two stories.

As the title might suggest, the devil is a constant presence in the story, but his identity isn’t clear. At times the author suggests he’s Mr. Bell, at other times he may Ruth’s short-term husband Zeke, even Ruth and Nat seem to embody him at times.

Ruth, Cora, Nat, and Mr. Bell aren’t necessarily companions one might willingly choose, but once you find yourself traveling alongside them, you’ll want to finish the journey.

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