The year is 1870 and spiritualism has taken America by storm. In the shadow of the Civil War, the carnage and enormous death toll has made many grief-stricken Americans into believers. Photographer Edward Moody, who has been said to produce images of spirits, has been running from his own ghosts. Equal parts Southern Gothic, ghost story, and political drama, The Spirit Photographer reveals the past for what it is: loud, unrelenting, and inescapable.
Hudson-based literary historian Jon Michael Varese's debut novel weaves the fictional and the real; history imprints on the novel like a spirit on Moody's photographs. Though Moody, who is based on America's first spirit photographer, William Mumler, may or may not be a fraud. The Boston-based photographer had been gaining celebrity status until a portrait session with abolitionist Senator James Garrett and his wife Elizabeth. Instead of revealing the late son they were seeking, Moody's photograph showed a young, beautiful black woman. The spirit on the negative is Isabelle, and everyone present recognizes her for different and profound reasons. The true significance of this moment, which sets the novel into motion, threatens to swallow up everyone in its wake. When the police come to arrest Moody for fraud, he escapes down a secret passageway—a relic of the Underground Railroad—with the Garretts' negative and his companion Joseph Winter, a wanted runaway slave and Union Army veteran.
Drawn by their memories of Isabelle and perhaps something more mystical, the two men travel to New Orleans. They are seeking answers to questions they're too afraid to ask and unearthing secrets they spent years trying to bury. With a dangerous fugitive hunter named Wilcox on their heels, their journey leads them to a voodoo healer in the Louisiana swamps. The humid, mysterious bayou scenes reveal Varese's keen eye: The land was "reduced to a graying string of broken cobwebs" and "a heavy gloom hung upon the trees, and the arms of the giant cypress, dripping with delicate curtains of moss."
At the heart of the novel, politics beat wildly. Popular Senator Garrett fights passionately for the rights of black Americans—even at the expense of his own relationships. At one point, he tells Dovehouse, his less "radical" friend of 40 years, that "we have been committing crimes against the people of our country for our two centuries. It is time that we take responsibility for our sins." As the novel goes on, Garrett's motives become blurred. Is he fighting for the freedman because he's a righteous person with deeply held convictions? Or is it something more sinister?
The novel dwells on the idea of wanting to do good versus actually doing good. Many of the characters engage in morally complicated actions (or inactions) despite believing they have good intentions. During a conversation between the wives of Boston's elite, the Northern women wonder how Southern women can live with the barbarism of lynching and fugitive hunters. To which, Elizabeth Garrett replies, "And just who do you think is sewing the hoods?" Elizabeth's blunt insight encapsulates the hypocrisy and brutality of Reconstruction-era America, where black Americans are free only in name (even in the North).
With a few unnecessary, false endings, the novel languishes a little too long. If the otherwise thrilling pace falters near the end, Varese's deft and melodic writing endures: "The name traveled through time to find him" and "a place that moaned with shadows, where even the dead would have been afraid." Teeming with spirits, secrets, and trauma, The Spirit Photographer is a sprawling, ambitious, and uncomfortable debut.