21st century spiritualism
Suzanne Harper, The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney
Wendy Corsi Staub, Lily Dale: Awakening
Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that talks to the Dead
Lily Dale, a small town in Western New York, is possibly the last remaining spiritualist outpost–not (necessarily) New Age-y spiritualist, but practitioners of Swedenborgian spirtualist religion like it was 1879, which was, in fact, when the town was founded. Two young adult novels set in Lily Dale just recently came out, and while there has been a resurgence of YA supernatural fiction in the last few years (Twilight, etc.), two books set in a small town near Buffalo seemed like more than coincidence. After reading Suzanne Harper’s charming Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney (as well as Rob McDougall’s recent posts on spiritualism), I set out to read all the recent books on Lily Dale.
Sparrow Delaney has a problem. She lives in Lily Dale, and her mom, grandma, and all six sisters are mediums, and they want her to be one too. As the seventh child, she’s supposed to have special gifts, but she hates the attention and she doesn’t tell them that she sees and talks to ghosts all the time–and they’re extremely irritating. They won’t stop talking to her and asking her to do trivial, boring things for them, like tell someone’s granddaughter she’s putting too much garlic in the soup! Sparrow is starting at a new school where no one knows she’s from “Spookyville” and she wants to pass as a ‘normal teenager,’ but one spirit proves unexpectedly persistent and involves her in the life of a boy at the new school. I won’t run the down the plot, but Sparrow ends up accepting her gifts, learning to be true to herself, finding happiness and so on, and there will hopefully be a sequel. Lily Dale in this book is like the Delaney family’s ramshackle Victorian, sprawling, charming, a little chaotic, filled with people and spirits who may be persistent or inconvenient, but they’re family. Harper also gets points for putting a funny set piece in the local history museum, which is filled with old spirit trumpets and spirit photography. Sparrow Delaney comes closest to how I think of spiritualism in the nineteenth century, full of earnest enthusiasm.
Lily Dale: Awakening is a pretty straightforward teen horror story. Calla Delaney (I don’t know how she got the same last name as Sparrow) grew up in Florida, but when her mother dies unexpectedly and horribly she is sent up to Lily Dale to stay with her grandmother, who she barely knows, who turns out to be a medium. There are various waverings about whether or not ghosts exist, whether Calla is going crazy or not, and then she ends up saving the day but putting herself in danger. There are various teenager things included, such as going to WalMart and worrying about how to get email access. It reminded me of Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You? books, plot-driven scary paranormal mysteries. Lily Dale in LD:A is more modern than in Sparrow Delaney, like a contemporary small town.
The only non-fiction I’ve found on Lily Dale is the religion journalist Christine Wicker’s Lily Dale: the Town that Speaks to the Dead, which is very interesting as a book about how Lily Dale has changed through the years as well as as a memoir of Wicker’s time there. Now as in the late nineteenth century, during the summer season the town is filled with visitors, seekers after all sorts of things. Wicker explores spiritualism as a religion, as its residents and founders described it, rather than as a cultural popular science movement, as I’ve always considered it. Recommended for the stories, the journalistic style, and the depth of Wicker’s research (though she starts the story with the Fox sisters, rather than in Europe). You can still visit Lily Dale to see a medium, attend a “message service,” or, as I might do, visit their library and museum, which has excellent collections around spiritualism, metaphysics, and local history, including suffrage and pacifist history. I’m still on a mission to put marginalized stuff, “pseudoscience,” “quackery” and so on, back into the history of science and medicine: historians should pay attention to Lily Dale.