Wonewoc, in Sauk County, appears as the fictional "Wocanaga" in Spring Green author Sara Rath's new novel, Night Sisters (UW Press). The setting is based on the real-life Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp (the subject of a 7/13/07 cover story in Isthmus).
The more direct inspiration for Night Sisters came from a visit Rath made to the Lily Dale Assembly in western New York state, the nation's largest remaining 19th-century spiritualist camp. Rath visited there with her daughter over a decade ago: "I just fell in love with the place; it was so different, archaic, a living relic" of a different age.
The mediums, she found, were "not zoned out, but more relaxed about everything" - as if not having to worry about death and dying freed them somehow. Rath wanted to sit in on a class about personal mediumship, but in order to take the class, "I had to participate." She found herself fascinated by all aspects of spiritualism, an organized religion that believes in the possibility of communicating with the dead. (Interest in the paranormal must run in the family; Rath's son Jay, also a Madison-area writer, has published several books about unexplained phenomena in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota.)
Does Rath count herself, then, a spiritualist? "I don't discount it completely. I leave a little leeway. It doesn't hurt anything to have the sense that those that have gone on are watching over us."
Good mediums, she notes, when they are "really doing their thing," can relay messages that ring eerily true. On the other hand, there are mediums who "are limping along - like my heroine."
Rath's heroine is the somewhat hapless travel writer Nell Grendon, who starts out wanting to write an article about the Wocanaga Spiritualist Camp, but soon finds herself channeling the spirit of an actress from the 1920s. She's no match for Angella Wing, the rambunctious spirit she's channeling. Nell attempts to give Angella space to communicate by having her start a blog - a true meetup of the 19th and 21st centuries. Ultimately, Nell's involvement with spiritualism leads to an unfolding of a mystery from her childhood.
The novel began as a short story called "Trespass," and as Rath's first novel with the UW Press, Star Lake Saloon and Housekeeping Cottages (2005) was selling well, her editors were eager for another manuscript. Rath had a lot of material on hand about spiritualism, because she's also working on a biography of a 19th-century medium from Vermont.
Perhaps the biggest difference for Rath between Night Sisters and Star Lake Saloon was the use, in the new novel, of the first person. In first person, it seemed to her, "my voice is my voice. I'm not a good enough writer to disguise that. It's a real stretch." It was harder for her to "trust what I wrote in the first person." But as with Star Lake, the plucky heroine, and Rath's sense of humor, carry the day.
At a loss when it came to the final chapter of the new book, Rath found herself driving to the cemetery to visit the grave of Sauk Prairie author August Derleth, whom she counts among her mentors. "I went there and said, 'I'm having a really hard time with this chapter,' and by the time I was driving home, I knew how the book was going to end." It seems like this could be a real spiritualist-style encounter - or maybe, "when you have a good teacher, they do leave remnants of themselves with you," as Rath puts it.
Currently riding a high from having received a strong review in Publishers Weekly ("a witty blend of the occult, suspense, mystery and a dash of romance"), Rath will be reading from Night Sisters at Borders West Oct. 1, appearing on a panel at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Oct. 15 and signing books at Walden-West Towne on Nov. 1.
Additionally, "I'd like the book to be able to give the Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp more visitors," she says. Although the camp is currently closed for the season, "Their chapel really needs to be rebuilt. It's just such a dear place, and they are very nice people. It's a real piece of Wisconsin history."