When I requested The Spirit Photographer, by Jon Michael Varese, I had no idea that the story of a man who claims to take pictures of spirits would take me into the hell of American slavery and the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Act. But now that I think about it, the opening scenes represent a moment in which the crimes of the past and the frauds of 1870 Boston come together into one damaging, disturbing photo, in which a senator and his wife appear to be shadowed by a young Black woman who should not be there.
Edward Moody is a celebrity in Boston’s Spiritualist community, but he’s not really happy about it. He’s grieving for the lost love of his life, who disappeared before the Civil War. Because he is numb with grief, it doesn’t really bother him to dupe people who come in for spirit photographs that will show their dead loved ones hovering around them. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it all comes crashing down when the Garretts sit for their portrait. Mrs. Garrett is expecting to see their son, who died at age three. They all recognized the Black woman who appears behind the Garretts. Isabelle is Moody’s lost love and the Garrett’s servant.
After the photo, the Garretts are so bothered by it—and what it might reveal about their own past—that they call in a family friend to arrest Moody for fraud. Meanwhile, Moody and his new assistant, Joseph Winter (who has ulterior motives of his own), are off on a quest to answer what they think is Isabelle’s call to find her. Moody and Winter head south, to New Orleans, where they think Isabelle was born. They are followed by shadowy men, one of whom wants to silence them both forever.
The Spirit Photographer moves back and forth between Moody and Winter’s journey into an American South that is being forcibly Reconstructed in spite of White efforts to reestablish something like slavery and the Garretts’ journey back into a past that they’ve been suppressing for almost twenty years. With each chapter, we learn more about the America of 1870. Even five years after the end of the Civil War, the nation has barely moved on. This isn’t really a surprise, considering the crimes that people committed against each other before, during, and after the war. Without saying too much about the ending of the novel, I can say that at least in this little corner of America, there is a little bit of justice.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 17 April 2018.