Stories about reincarnation have both fascinated and terrified me ever since I read The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser in high school. Therefore, it was with equal parts trepidation and excitement that I picked up Cat Winter’s Yesternight, a book about a child psychologist investigating claims of reincarnation in post-WWI Oregon. The story is an effective and at times chilling look at how memories of a past life can impact the here and now; it simultaneously made me want to continue reading and stuff the book under my couch cushion. Yesternight will not win any awards for originality since it contains many elements we have seen before, but sometimes the tried-and-true formula is one that works.
In November 1925, child psychologist Alice Lind arrives in Gordon Bay, Oregon to administer intelligence tests to school children. No sooner has she stepped off the train than she is approached by Michael O’Daire, father of seven-year-old Janie. Janie believes herself to be the reincarnated soul of one Violet Sunday from Friendly, Kansas and will often talk about how she drowned in a lake at the age of nineteen. While Michael and his wife Rebecca initially dismissed Janie’s ramblings as a child’s overactive imagination, her inexplicable behavior – such as writing advanced mathematical proofs all over her bedroom walls – has become increasingly hard to ignore. Since Janie’s stories about her life as Violet Sunday have remained consistent over the years even as they became more elaborate, Michael is predisposed to believe Janie. However, he would like Alice to evaluate his daughter so that she can corroborate Janie’s story and help her deal with these past “memories”.
The first half of Yesternight chronicles Alice’s attempt to debunk Janie. Being a trained psychologist, Alice is understandably skeptical and seeks to explain Janie’s behavior through psychological science. The problem, though, is that Alice’s methods and theories, which include finding out if Friendly is a real town and asking Janie repeatedly if she has read L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, are no more insightful than what any layman would come up with. That makes her constant harping of her own professionalism very off-putting. One also wonders why Michael has not made more of an effort to verify the existence of Friendly and Violet Sunday in the five years since Janie first made references to a past life.
The second half of the book moves at a much brisker pace and is where the author really ratchets up the tension. With the help of her sister – a librarian – and the postmaster general from Friendly, Alice is able to verify both the existence of Friendly and Violet Sunday; and before long, Alice has arranged for the O’Daires to meet Violet’s sister Eleanor. This section is easily the high point of the book, as we find out the truth behind Violet’s death and all the puzzle pieces start to fall in place. The way Janie switches between her own persona and that of Violet is truly creepy, yet there is a tender moment shared between Janie and Eleanor that is both poignant and heartbreaking.
Alice is a complex heroine but one that is difficult to like. As a woman trying to succeed in a male-dominated field, she’s had to watch her less deserving male classmates get into prestigious PhD programs while she is stuck in a job for which she is over-qualified. I liked that she is unconventional for her time – she has a master’s degree and is not afraid of her own sexuality – but two ill-fated affairs in graduate school and the thwarting of her academic ambitions have made her rather dour. She’s also prone to uncontrollable bursts of violence and has an irrational fear of being spied on. Inevitably, as Alice becomes more deeply involved in the affairs of the O’Daires, she starts to see her own behavior mirrored in Janie’s actions. Maybe there is a more sinister reason for her rage and peeping Tom paranoia than something that can be ascribed to psychology?
Alice’s belief that she’s suffering from compulsions from a previous life eventually lead her to an inn called Yesternight in Nebraska where some horrific crimes happened decades ago. The setting – an inn without running water or electricity in the middle of nowhere – and the systematic revelation of what happened there combines to give the final chapters the feel of a classic ghost story. And the relationship between Alice and Yesternight, when it is finally revealed, is something I did not see coming at all. I expect that some readers are going to hate this “twist”, but I found it to be deliciously ironic. Then, even as I was marveling at the turn the story just took, there is yet another dénouement that sent a chill up my spine. I saw this one coming, but my reaction to it was no less visceral.
Yesternight is not a perfect book. There are sections I had to slog through and some will say that the characterization of the central character was compromised in service to the plot. But despite its flaws, it still provided me with hours of spine-tingling entertainment. I had to sleep with the lights on the night I finished reading it and for that, I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in historical fiction with a touch of the macabre.