The stories of Ruth’s teen years in and out of a cult and her current journey along the Erie Canal with her niece, Cora alternate in this contemporary Gothic novel. An undercurrent of suspense permeates the creepy and enigmatic story. Ruth and her adopted “sister,” Nat cling to each other throughout their childhood spent in a religious cult led by a psychopath with a messianic complex. Although the Father’s life is lived in relative luxury funded by state money, his foster children often go hungry and are home-schooled and living in isolation. When 17 year-old Ruth has an appendicitis and requires hospitalization, she meets Zeke who offers the Father money in exchange for taking Ruth as his wife. While the Father is tempted, Ruth and Nat choose to follow a strangely charismatic salesman who appears at their door and later in house’s basement. Nat has been performing a con on his fellow foster siblings; in exchange for money, he contacts dead parents who give reassurances of their love for their abandoned children. Mr. Bell sees that this con can be a useful money maker for the three of them, and co-opts Ruth as his own bride. All goes well as Nat and Ruth move into their own apartment and revel in small luxuries like a toilet brush and enough food, but when Nat arranges a meeting with a couple that Mr. Bell hasn’t vetted, he and Ruth become involved with members of another cult whose leader is dangerous and clearly insane.
Meanwhile, Cora is working as an insurance adjuster with little enthusiasm for her work. She’s been having an affair with a married man, ironically named Lord, who tries to force her to have an abortion. One night, Ruth appears and whisks her niece away on a seemingly endless walking journey. Cora has no idea where they are going because Ruth will not speak but communicates in gestures, and Cora is compelled to follow her as her pregnancy progresses. They two women travel a route along the Erie canal, in a pattern that resembles the scar on Ruth’s face. The tenderness between the travelers, the odd encounters with others, and the culmination of the journey bring surprises as the lives of the Ruth and Cora intertwine in unexpected ways.
Samantha Hunt is a gorgeous writer and in Mr. Splitfoot she has created a unique, absorbing odyssey.