Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
The strange present-day timeline of Samantha Hunt’s ghostly novel Mr. Splitfoot feels almost like a dystopian fantasy from a bygone era, the inconceivable future of smartphones and disconnection into which we all actually evolved. Cora Sykes is a bored office worker and the daughter of a single mother who was dragged through years of religious foster care as a teenager. She’s the product of a vanishing faith and an increased dependence on technology, and an unexpected pregnancy prompts a silent concern over what kind of world this now is for a newborn. When Cora’s aunt Ruth suddenly appears one day in her bedroom, they set off together on an enigmatic journey through underdeveloped rural America. Ruth doesn’t speak, and they travel by foot, and these limitations are devastatingly illuminating. “The first time I feel the baby move,” Cora explains, “I think it’s my phone on vibrate until I remember I don’t have a phone anymore.”
The motivations and destination of their sojourn is kept a mystery for most of the novel, but Hunt attempts to illuminate their plans by way of a second thread of plot, one set during Ruth and her soulmate Nat’s teenage years at the Love of Christ! foster home for orphaned kids (yes, with a Swamplandia!-style exclamation point). Ruth and Nat, motherless, sought family in each other and considered their relationship like a deep-rooted sisterhood (despite Nat being, in fact, a boy). To Ruth, the “idea of a mother is like a non-dead person’s idea of heaven. It must be great. It must be huge. It must be better than what she’s got now.” Nat, her “sister”, was a similar kind of improvement: they were inseparable, and over the years formed a spiritual, almost mystical bond.
To entertain themselves and the other children, Ruth and Nat held seances. Ruth would host and Nat would act as medium. But perhaps he wasn’t acting: Nat claimed to converse with a “Mr. Splitfoot,” who would facilitate these discussions beyond the cosmic plane. While in their late teens, Ruth and Nat meet an olde outsider named Mr. Bell who expresses a peculiarly-intentioned interest in their games. With some shady planning and sneaking around the foster home, Bell coordinates seances for the children with desperate, paying adults.
It is a sly and particularly brilliant decision of Hunt to have these orphans reconnect people with their lost family members, when all they want is a family of their own. While Bell’s intentions are suspicious, Ruth sees a more complex meaning in their sessions: “She doesn’t name it Mr. Splitfoot in front of strangers who might imagine the devil…. For her, Mr. Splitfoot is a two that is sometimes a one, mothers and their children, Nat and Ruth, life and death.”
Hunt jumps between timelines with episodic vignettes, some of which could have been pared down. The two threads are fugue-like in their composition: when Nat and Ruth’s teenage years pick up pace and excitement, Ruth and Cora slow down and plod through relatively uneventful motel stopovers and interactions with locals. Alternatively, Ruth and Nat phase at times into a more explanatory plot as a backstory emerges about a cult some of the novel’s characters may have been involved in, the Eternal Ether House of Mardellion: “Etherism. Meteors and multiple wives. A mashup of Mormons and Carl Sagan.”
Hunt fills Mr. Splitfoot with eerie, fanciful ideas, but does so in a way that does not distract from the novel’s central investigation of motherhood:
“There’s sacrifice, antagonism, rebellion, obsession, and adoration, but no properly complex word for what’s between a mother and a daughter, roots so twisted, a relationship so deep, people suffocated it in kitsch and comfort words to pretend it’s easy.”
Ruth’s silence and the unspoken reason behind her and Cora’s trek may be confounding, but when a character suggests to Cora that “maybe she’s hardening you up into the warrior you’d better be before that baby arrives,” things seem to clear up. It doesn’t matter where they’re going, or how. When Cora thinks “pregnancy is a locked door in [her] stomach, all the weight of life and death and still no way to know it,” one can look past Mardellion, meteors, Mr. Splitfoot, ghosts and Love of Christ! and see the hazy, beautiful complexity of a mother and her daughter.