Through the Past, Smartly

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.





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5 Responses to Through the Past, Smartly

  1. VIcki Doudera says:

    Wonderful post, Gerry! Growing up, I lived near a place where there had been a button factory during the Civil War. We were always finding little remnants of the past and I remember feeling as if I were standng in the stream of human history. It’s so easy to think we are the only ones who’ve ever loved, worried about children, laughed, or pondered our mortality.

  2. Barb Ross says:

    Great post. I loved The Fatal Shore and will look into Kate Grenville’s book.

    I completely agree with your point about the common denominator of good fiction. That’s exactly how I think about it, but I’ve never expressed it quite that way.

    I know at least two if our fellow Maine Crime Writers, Kaitlyn and Lea, write historical fiction. Maybe each of us has at least one historical rattling inside our brains. I know I do.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Loved the post! I often wonder about those who lived in my home before I did — whose home it was, in 1774 or 1815 or 1860. I know their names, and the names of their (many, in some cases) children. I know who was born here, and who died. I know, to some degree, how they configured the rooms then. I’ve written a couple of them into my books. But on cold windy nights, with winds blowing across the river and, even today with the recent addition of a furnace, the house shaking with fierce cold, I wonder how they managed. And those are just the folks in one house … Tomorrow (fingers crossed) I’ll be sending my latest historical, set in 1861 Wiscasset and based on many “real people” there, to try its luck in NYC. I’ve been living with those people for quite a while now. I’ll wish them well on their journey. But they’ll never really leave me.
    Thanks for the post, Gerry. A tree in the woods, hung with what once was discarded. Hmmmm …..

    • Gerry Boyle says:

      Good to be in the company of writers who love history and historical writers. I’d love to read a post on your research. How DO you make these people come alive?
      Good luck, Lea, with the new one. Can’t wait to hear more about it. 1861 was an interesting time in this country, to say the least. How many brothers, sons, fathers, were about to march off, never to return. Just read a biography of Joseph Holt called Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally. He was the guy who prosecuted the John Wilkes Booth conspirators. Fascinating!

  4. MCWriTers says:

    I think Gerry’s musings really bring home one of the differences between living in a place that’s all concrete and buildings, and living somewhere where you can connect to the land.

    Maine’s first poet-laureate, Kate Barnes has a poem about the road which captures the flavor of living in a place where you’re neighborly. Part of having lived in a small town and driven our road so often to reach our 1811 farmhouse was knowing the history of our house, and the string of houses next to us on the way to the village. All built, and the land farmed, by the same family. I used to know which house belonged to which member of the Hills family. Of course, we had Ben Ames Williams’ book, Come Spring, to tell us, through his fictional characters, about the settling of our area.

    Like the terrain of Gerry’s walk, our woods are bisected by old stone walls and old, now-fallen, barbed-wire fences. Part of childhood, perhaps because my dad loved to dig for old bottles, involved finding bits from other times and considering them treasure. Old piece of tools, old bottles, sometimes with the labels intact. old pieces of broken crockery. Sometimes a horseshoe or a hand-forged nail. And trying not to fall in one of the many lurking old wells.

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