Samantha Hunt’s haunting novel “Mr. Splitfoot” tells the story of 17-year-olds Ruth and Nat, orphans raised at the “Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission” in Upstate New York. Ruth and Nat have been Heathcliff-and-Cathy close for almost their whole lives, ever since Ruth’s older sister aged out of the home and disappeared. Led by an abusive man who calls himself Father Arthur, the “Love of Christ!” is a back-to-the-earth endeavor without the bounty, a neo-evangelical commune without the love. When the enigmatic con man Mr. Bell appears on the home’s doorstep with a proposition for Nat and Ruth, the teenagers see a potential way out.
What follows is an upstate gothic complete with anguished ghosts and a haunted mansion. Chapters alternate between two narratives: In the first, the teenaged Ruth and Nat are led into a beautiful but hazardous outside world by the charming Mr. Bell, who teaches them the powers and pitfalls of belief but who has ulterior motives for befriending them. In the second narrative—set 14 years after Nat and Ruth leave “The Love of Christ!”—Ruth visits her niece Cora. With a compelling urgency, Ruth (now mysteriously mute) leads Cora away from the life she knows and onto a strange and difficult journey. Pragmatic Cora struggles with her own crises while traversing New York state on foot, toward a destination known only to Ruth (and of course, the adult Ruth isn’t talking). In shifting between these two perspectives, the reader gradually uncovers mysteries—both natural and supernatural—that have defined the trajectory of these characters’ lives.
Though set between the early aughts and our present time, the novel has a decidedly 60s and 70s feel. In one scene, characters dance to records by the Bee Gees, Francoise Hardy, and Linda Thompson. And like the open-mindedness of that time, the universe of “Mr. Splitfoot” is a magnet for self-appointed prophets. Father Arthur espouses a quasi-evangelical doctrine of hard work and self-discipline while indulging in his own alcoholism and his wife’s drug habits. Along her journey Cora meets Sheresa, a self-described “ghost activist,” who explains that the dead are “a totally underrepresented population.” Then there’s Mardellion, a shadowy cult leader whose obsession with the scar covering half of Ruth’s face provides the most compelling reason for flight into the mountains.
Nat and Ruth attract their own share of followers: During basement seances, the other foster children pay five dollars for Nat to summon the spirit of Mr. Splitfoot, who brings word from both dead and absent mothers. Nat channels banal details—“I see your mom roasting a chicken in her pajamas,” or “She’s brushing her teeth while talking on the phone,”—and always ends with the magic words: “She says she’d be with you if she could.” When the past and memory can’t supply meaning for the children’s present, belief wells up to provide an alternate map to the future. Belief in Mr. Splitfoot means believing that a mother would return if she could, that a mother didn’t desert her child willingly, as Nat knows his own mother did.
While Hunt spins a haunting tale, “Mr. Splitfoot” isn’t without its flaws: Too many ghosts and ghost stories are introduced, to the point that the road is littered with portent. A slightly clunky climactic scene slots major puzzle pieces into place while leaving lesser mysteries unresolved. But like Cora, readers will care less about the end of the road than about keeping company with Ruth, who is the story’s luminous heart. And that is plenty.