Thanks to ModPodge Blog Tours and Janet Fox for inviting us to be today’s stop on the official Sirens Blog Tour.
Janet is here with Post #8. Calling All Ghosts: Ouija Boards, Spiritualism, and Harry Houdini
“One of the central images of SIRENS is that of ghosts and spirits and magic. I found this facet of the 1920s by accident, but it fit so perfectly into the novel I couldn’t ignore it. Cue the spooky music…
Maybe it was the war, maybe it was the influenza outbreak, but people in the 1920s became obsessed with life after death.
There were (well, yeah, there still are) two camps: those who believed in life after, and those who didn’t. Harry Houdini didn’t. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Howard Thurston did.
Houdini and Thurston were both magicians, so they knew how to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. Doyle – Mr. Sherlock Holmes – knew how to uncover secrets. These three were all good friends, and they argued this point excessively. Were there spirits? Ghosts? Was there life after death? Who could prove the point?
Two of the popular parlor games of the 1920s were séances and Ouija boards. Both of these purported to channel the dead through a medium, in the case of a séance, or through the group emotions, in the case of a Ouija board (if you’ve never played with the latter, it’s kind of fun. But you have to suspend your disbelief. That makes it spooky.) The dead would send, through these media, obscure messages back to the living.
Magic shows were a public phenomenon of the 1920s, and two of the greatest magicians were Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston. Houdini was a skeptic: he knew how to make people think one thing, but “it was all a trick. Fakery.” Thurston, too, was an excellent magician, but he actually believed that there was something guiding him, a kind of spirit life. The two engaged in a friendly competition, culminating with a wager that the one who died first would haunt the other.
Thurston’s shows were all about spiritualism. He would make a girl float magically in the air; he would make a girl vanish altogether; he would call forth floating apparitions to “speak.” His illusions were some of the best and his popularity high. But Houdini’s renown was greater, due to his amazing performances in escaping dire circumstances. And Houdini’s premature death of peritonitis gave a legendary aspect to his name, since the secrets of his magic act – ironically – went with him to the grave.
Thurston lived on but his magic shows were supplanted by a new public fixation: the moving picture.
As the decade progressed and Americans forgot their heartbreak over the war and their losses during the flu pandemic, and became more and more obsessed with the “new” things – cosmetics, automobiles, wealth, and glamour – preoccupation with spirits slipped away. They didn’t know it, but at the end of the 1920s Americans would bump up against a whole different kind of haunting experience: the Depression.”
Sirens book summary: When Jo Winter’s parents send her off to live with her rich cousin on the glittering island of Manhattan, it’s to find a husband and forget about her brother Teddy’s death. But all that glitters is not gold..
Caught up in the swirl of her cousin’s bobbed-hair set—and the men that court them— Jo soon realizes that the talk of marriage never stops, and behind the seemingly boundless gains are illicit business endeavors, gangsters, and their molls. Jo would much rather spend time the handsome but quiet Charles, a waiter at the Algonquin Hotel, than drape herself over a bootlegger. But when she befriends a moll to one of the most powerful men in town, Jo begins to uncover secrets—secrets that threaten an empire and could secure Jo’s freedom from her family.
Can her newfound power buy her love? Or will it to ruin Jo, and everyone around her?
About the author:
Janet Fox is the author of award-winning books for children and young adults. FAITHFUL (Speak/Penguin Young Readers 2010), set in Yellowstone National Park in 1904, is a YALSA Best Fiction for YA nominee and an Amelia Bloomer List pick, 2011. FORGIVEN (Speak 2011), set in 1906 San Francisco during the great earthquake, is a Junior Library Guild selection 2011, and a 2012 WILLA Literary Awards Finalist. Her most recent novel, SIRENS (Speak 2012) is set in 1925 New York. Janet has numerous MG and YA projects underway. She is a former high school English teacher and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2010 (Vermont College of Fine Arts). Janet lives in Bozeman, Montana.
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