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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Ghost Talkers: Spiritualist Mediums in World War I

 This is the first time in 2017 that I am copying a review I wrote for Flying High Reviews and expanding on it a bit for this blog.  

My reviews dealing with Madame Presidentess  about Victoria Woodhull  and The Witch of Napoli  here , show my interest in spiritualist mediums.  This is why I wanted to read and review Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal.   The premise is that during WWI the British secretly utilized mediums to pass on information from recently dead soldiers to military authorities.  This is an extraordinary concept.  So I thought it would make for a highly unusual novel.


 Ghost Talkers reflects the world wide predominance of women among spirit mediums.  This doesn't mean that it's impossible for men to be mediums.   There actually are male mediums shown in this novel, but mediums are usually women.  The reasons are largely based on cultural traditions and gender stereotypes.   Mediums must be receptive to spirits. That ability to be receptive is a strength in the context of mediumship, not a weakness.  Gifted men must overcome the idea that receptivity is unmasculine in order to accept that they are mediums. 

Kowal presents mediumship as a way for women to play an important role in the war.   It was not the only role that women played in WWI. We know that women were nurses, ambulance drivers and espionage agents.  There were also woman pilots in WWI.   See  Inspirational Women of World War IGhost Talkers does include nurses, and Kowal prominently mentions ambulance drivers in her historical note.

The women in the British medium corps are presented  as strong individuals.  It's mentioned that some were Afro-Caribbean immigrants.  One Afro-Caribbean medium was a named minor character. Yet the main protagonist was Ginger Stuyvesant, an American whose mother was English.  I ended up respecting Ginger for her courage.   Her romance with British Captain Ben Hadford is very central to the plot, and her last scene with him was very moving.

There were some literary references in Ghost Talkers.  A number of them were due to the use of books as keys for coded letters.  There were a couple of others that I enjoyed.

One was a reference to a martial arts form that was mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes story.   Arthur Conan Doyle mistakenly called it "baritsu" in "The Adventure of the Empty House".   Sherlock Holmes was supposed to have survived his encounter with Moriarity at Reichenbach Falls by using this martial art.  It was actually bartitsu .  What interested me most about the Wikipedia article on bartitsu that I linked is that Edith Garrud, who trained women to guard suffragettes, studied it.   I discovered Edith Garrud when I researched the movie Suffragette which I reviewed here.  Another literary connection with bartitsu, according to its Wikipedia article, is Will Thomas' Barker & Llewellyn mysteries.  Since I've read a couple of them, I was tickled that Will Thomas based protagonist Cyrus Barker on the founder of bartitsu, E. W. Barton-Wright.

I also enjoyed finding out in the acknowledgements that the Lieutenant Tolkien who was briefly mentioned in Ghost Talkers really was J.R.R. Tolkien who did fight in WWI, and based The Battle of  Helm's Deep on his war experiences. 

 I give this book an A for originality.  It may be a candidate for my favorite read of 2017, but it's much too early in the year to know that for certain.  It would be wonderful if Mary Robinette Kowal wrote further about the women of the medium corps.


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