Gerry here, with a report from my neck of the Maine woods, where this year’s pre-Thanksgiving treat was snowshoeing on the back 40 and beyond. Ten inches of snow on Nov. 23. Maine, the way life should be, indeed.
Yes, we warmed up for the holiday feast by tromping through fields and forest, hill and dale, over the river (actually it’s more of a stream) and through the woods. The route takes us across corn fields (shorn for sileage), into woods with hemlock and birches and stands of good-sized cedar. We followed fresh deer tracks (yes, we were wearing blaze orange) until we found their bedding areas. We saw snowshoe hare tracks and what we were almost convinced were bobcat tracks, until the less fanciful among us pointed out that they should have been walking single file.
We navigated by the setting sun (no GPS here, baby!) and managed to get bogged down in some heavy brambles that the deer had navigated easily. And there, in the thick woods, was a tree hung with junk.
Someone at some point had been digging around and had unearthed metal bowls, plates, rusty utensils, even a small coffee pot. Each item had been hung on the dead spiky branches of a big pine, like it was a Christmas tree, the decorations blue and green and rusted. I was wondering who had been camping back in the woods when I noticed a length of rusted wire against the tree, the vestige of a fence. The woods had been pasture, a half-century back. Where we were weaving between tree trunks, cows had grazed.
This got me thinking about how quickly the past become just that. The past. Gone. Forgotten. Buried. It also got me thinking about historical novels and the respect I have for writers who can bring the past to life in a vivid and arresting way. I know how hard it can be to work with the present, stuff I can see and hear and smell and feel. But what of stuff that’s long gone?
I’m reading a historical novel called The Secret River by the Australian writer Kate Grenville. My son brought it back from Sydney with him when he arrived home for Thankgiving. (We traded: I gave him the new Ken Bruen, Headstone. The books are like night and day.). I’d read The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, about the settling of Australia by transported English and Irish convicts. That was a big, broad history book. Grenville’s novel is a piece of the same story, about an English guy sentenced to life in Sydney for theft. His wife and child accompany him, and try to start a new life in the muck and mud and squalor.
They prevail, ultimately, though I won’t give away the details. But the book is well written, very period without lapsing into too much detail. The characters seem very real, desperately human. I feel like I know them like I know the characters in my own books.
The point of this musing, I suppose, is that good fiction has that common denominator. After a few pages, you’re transported. You forget you’re reading. You forget that the characters aren’t real. When you’re roused out of that world, you’re startled. And you can’t wait to get back in, through that door to a place the writer has created.
Maybe this is all obvious but, hey, I’ll say it anyway because I think it bears repeating. And it’s been on my mind, wondering who ate and drank in the pasture that’s now woods. A father and his sons, taking a break from haying? Or was it a farm dump, kids sent to toss stuff over the fence? They grew up, left Maine maybe, going off to serve in World War II. One stayed to work the farm for his mother, who stayed on after his father died, killed after he was kicked by a horse and an infection set in. And she always wondered whether he regretted being the one who stayed, when the others built lives in Connecticut and California and other exotic places and he stayed in the family house, slept in the same room he’d had since he was six. Where, before he went to sleep, he sometimes wondered what would have happened to him if that horse hadn’t kicked, if his father had lived.
And there we go again, down the rabbit hole of the imagination.