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Review of Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead by Christine Wicker, HarperSanFrancisco. [First Published in Rain Taxi.]

About 60 miles south of Buffalo, New York, lies the little town of Lily Dale, established in 1879. The stately Victorian homes clustered around a placid lake speak of a quieter time. But unlike similar small towns across America, Lily Dale is the largest remaining stronghold of the once-vibrant populist religion of Spiritualism. The town boasts some 450 mediums who regularly contact the dear departed, while locals swear that the ghosts of 19th-century residents can still be seen strolling the tree-lined streets.

Journalist Christine Wicker is the first reporter to write a book about the reclusive Lily Dale, whose residents had refused to speak with newspapers at all until a few years ago. A long-time religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News, Wicker approached Lily Dale with an open mind, neither believing nor disbelieving. Her book combines social history with personal experience as she traces the community's singular past and profiles some of its present-day inhabitants.

Lily Dale began as a summer camp for Spiritualists before growing into a full-fledged town where the faithful could gather. During the winter the town is virtually empty, but each summer, the faithful reopen their businesses in expectation of a flock of tourists. Over the years, such distinguished visitors as Sinclair Lewis, Harry Houdini, and Mae West have stopped in, either as skeptical observers or true believers. Thousands of people still visit the town every year seeking messages from their deceased loved ones, or just to see what goes on in this eccentric burg. These visitors, Wicker explains, are "cheerful, easygoing people and not at all fools . . . . Many Lily Dale visitors take in what the town has to offer with easy shrugs that accept and dismiss in equal measure."

While the old-time Spiritualists used seances and spirit cabinets to contact the other world, today's mediums simply receive and pass on messages without going into trance states or foggy, darkened rooms. Martie Hughes, for example, uses just her mind's eye to see spirits, candidly explaining to Wicker that to see them with her regular eye "would scare the poop out of me." Most messages received are quite banal; the most common one is a simple "I love you," directed from the deceased to the surviving spouse. But, Wicker, argues, what else would one expect? On September 11th, those in the World Trade Center who managed to phone their families said much the same thing. What else, when you come right down to it, is there to say?

Lily Dale residents not involved in the spirit trade rent out rooms or sell food to tourists. Others hold classes in which you can learn to contact the spirits yourself, or bend spoons. So prevalent is the obsession with all things Spiritualist that one hotel has a sign in its lobby which requests: "No Readings, Healings, Circles or Seances in This Area, Please."

While Lily Dale has earned the derogatory nicknames of "Silly Dale" and "Spooksville," Wicker finds something of great value in the religious community. "Lily Dale can be completely silly, banal, and simpleminded," she admits, "but . . . the people there are engaged in something vital and true." This may or may not be the case, depending on the observer's own faith in such matters. But the idea that something strangely important, or at least entertaining, is going on in Lily Dale keeps the town alive and thriving--and makes it one of the oddest tourist destinations in the country.

?Thomas Wiloch


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