Samantha Hunt’s intensely imaginative, intricately plotted Mr. Splitfoot pays homage to the knotty relationships between mothers and their children. When twenty-five-year-old Cora Sykes, one of the novel’s two protagonists, suddenly leaves home, she calls her mother, El, to reassure her that she’s fine, though she can’t say where she is or when she’s coming home. It’s both a cruel and kind act, and afterwards she thinks, “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.”
When El got pregnant with Cora, she, too, was adrift. Eighteen and homeless, she wound up returning to live with her mother, an abusive woman who gave up both El and her younger sister, Ruth, to foster care. Now Cora, pregnant and single, is following Ruth, a woman she hasn’t seen in thirteen years, on a mysterious journey by foot. Ruth can’t, or won’t, speak. Cora trails her if only because she has mythologized her aunt, who she met just once, and “[t]here’s a courageous way of living I want my own baby to know about.”
This way of living also involves unplugging, which sends Cora, very much a product of the Internet Age, into withdrawal. At first, Cora is lonely, without the steady hum of Internet searches, Facebook posts, and likes. Indeed, she confuses her fetus’s first quickening with the vibration of a phone. Eventually, though, a profound quiet fills Cora, and the book unexpectedly also becomes a meditation on the physical act of walking and observing the world.
The book alternates between Cora’s account of her quasi-pilgrimage with Ruth, and Ruth’s story of taking this same journey twelve years earlier. For a time, Ruth and El both lived at Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission, under the care of Father Arthur, a former hippie turned fire-and-brimstone preacher who profits from caring for children so damaged that no one else wants them. Father Arthur endlessly preaches about the end of the world, dresses his charges in Amish-inspired clothing, gives them farm chores, and occasionally constructs cruel punishments to break their wills. When El ages out at age 18, she never returns for her sister, Ruth, and Ruth winds up asking a boy her age named Nat to be her sister.
Nat has a special gift: he can talk to the dead. This is a boon at Love of Christ!, and another aspect of the book’s exploration of family ties. Even children abandoned and abused long to know that their abandoners and abusers love them and wish they could still be together, and Nat fulfills these desires. Mr. Bell, a shady but ultimately harmless con man, learns of Nat and Ruth’s gifts and offers to manage their careers. So Nat and Ruth take their show on the road, connecting the grieving living with the always-loving dead. Mr. Bell’s past—he’s the son of a former fundamentalist Mormon named Zeke who started a cult and is waiting for a comet to destroy the world and rid him of his followers—eventually catches up with him and imperils the trio. Soon they’re fleeing to upstate New York, just like Cora and Ruth twelve years later.
Because Mr. Splitfooot investigates the possibility of the supernatural existing in our world, Hunt’s prose often builds from the everyday and the concrete into the speculative realm before coming back to earth. Here’s Cora, for example, looking at the stars before she falls asleep:
Millions of stars overhead make the violence of the Big Bang clear. So much force that matter is still sprinting away from the center. I feel the velocity of the space pinning me to this platform. I’m tiny but I’m going to be someone’s mom, someone’s everything. I touch the baby. None of this is easy to believe. The stars leave streaks, we’re moving so fast…One small scintillation above — a gossamer thread of light — gathers oceans, every word ever spoken on the radio, each calorie of sunlight ever captured and stored in a kernel of corn. You know. Things like that. And the star besides it: the tongues of every lizard, spider, leopard. If spiders have tongues. One day the sun will suck us in. I’m not too angry about that. Lying in these stars, despite them, somehow I can imagine my child seat-belted in a minivan while I stress the importance of sharing chocolate Easter eggs or stuffed toy pandas or bags of corn chips with the other children.
Mr. Splitfoot is also a deeply humane and even feminist book. Despite its gothic and ghostly undertones, the female characters are not, in the usual fashion, punished for making mistakes. At every turn, bad things could happen—to the girls in the orphanage, to Cora and Ruth walking along the highway, hitchhiking, and sleeping in abandoned houses, to El, when she was homeless and pregnant—and while there are real threats (this is a page turner after all), the novel seems deliberately committed to offering new endings to strong, unconventional women.
When the two narrative strands finally converge in St. Eugene, a small town in the Adirondacks, the action explodes, and many of the novel’s mysteries are finally and satisfyingly illuminated. One thing must remain deliberately mysterious, though: the nature of the bond between mother and child. “Before I was pregnant, I thought carrying a baby meant knowing a baby,” Cora muses. “That’s not true. Pregnancy is a locked door in my stomach, all the weight of life and death and still no way to know it.”