As 2019 dwindles to a close, I think a little about its opening days, when I stayed mostly in bed under extra-heavy covers, protecting myself from the steel-like cold that gripped our house while we’d been on vacation. Chasing it away was a weekend affair in which my son and I both violated the house rules against eating in our bedrooms. I had a pile of books nearby to keep me company but, truth be told, I didn’t touch them. I was wrecked from travel, but it was more than jetlag. I was severely burned out.
Eventually the house warmed up and the year marched forward, pulling me along as I ran to keep up. Part of how I managed to do this is that I didn’t pick up a book until March, spending the interim fighting illness. I dreamed a lot of ghosts, which brought my mind back to the days a few years before when some very odd occurrences visited our home, and this in turn led to my first read of the year, The Ghost Midwife by Annalisa Christensen, whose debut novel, The Popish Midwife, I’d previously read, loved and reviewed.
Musing over all these ghosts gave way to some thinking about the imprints of characters populating my own mind, whose initial sparks gave way or, in a couple of instances, sometimes persisted. One such was a young girl from twelfth-century East Anglia, a place that for reasons unknown, I feel some connection with. (I can’t explain it; I’ve never been there. It just is.) Once I was randomly surfing my way through a lazy and occasionally boring evening and came upon a hit that made me sit up straight, almost as if I’d been emotionally poked by someone trying to capture my attention. This young girl immediately appeared, as if I had “found” her – in that nanosecond I recognized and knew so much about her, and spent the following days getting to know her better.
She wasn’t an easy study, partly because she is young, reticent and inexperienced with strangers. She also is native to an era many centuries before our own, even a couple of hundred years preceding another medieval period I’ve studied. Still, I learned quickly about some of her passions, prejudices, fears, dreams, disappointments, even tragedies—her own and that of her grandparents, who survived William’s Harrying of the North. But those differences persisted and for awhile, she has hidden herself behind a veil—of time, of space? No matter, I sense she is still there, waiting, even wanting to be found again, and perhaps she will have greater confidence next time, as will I, I hope.
Part of why Adela, as I know her to be called, slipped away so easily could also be laid at my own feet, in that my attention was breathtakingly captured by another girl, slightly older and who also instantaneously, albeit unwittingly, revealed much of herself to me. With Perle, however, I felt almost as if we were playing a game, one involving puzzles that I have to piece together with information she seems to be leading me to—and let me tell you, it’s one of the biggest thrills of my life. Each set of two put together forms a more complete understanding in my mind and it’s not that I think to myself something like, “Oh, I have an idea for this story!” Rather, it is as if I have just realized something—realized—and draw in my breath with a gasp not just at that it pieces together, but how amazingly suitable all these details are with each other. And the conduit, whoever or whatever they might be, enthrall me as well as the tales they tell.
Some of my readers may recall that I am in love with the ordinary people of the world. With that, of course, comes the awareness, for better or worse, that the vast majority of them through history are out of my reach, owing to illiteracy and death rates, lack of recordkeeping, destruction or deterioration of materials, enforced and environmental silence, to name a few factors of time. Nevertheless, I do believe many of them were so dynamic and colorful, and life would have been more exciting, intriguing or joyful when living it with them. How do I know this? Well, I don’t, not really. But it is so that there are people in every era like this—the disappointing part is that most are not remembered past their own time. They didn’t come from a notable family, were never party to any litigation, had no inventions or famous successes to their names. Those who knew them before they died eventually also passed on without leaving anything—at least nothing that can be conclusively connected to them, written, spoken or created—and new generations grew up knowing nothing of these people or their influence.
At various periods in my own life, certain instances of forgetfulness have haunted me a little, such as that of Pompeii and Herculaneum. I used to marvel that entire, thriving cities of people who once were, and who died all at once and so tragically, could be forgotten—snap!—like that. How could it happen? Of course, Pliny the Younger wrote about Vesuvius a quarter of a century after its magnificent eruption, though these letters were only published long after Perle and Adela were living, by which time the cities weren’t even, as they say, “only a memory.”
I’m not entirely familiar with the chain of custody of Pliny’s writings, only that they were published in Italy in the fifteenth century. And so I wonder: Is something still a memory if no one alive knows about it? Does it make a difference that somewhere, in some vault or archival depository, rests someone’s written descriptions of people, places, events? I want to believe it does, because to be forgotten seems to me a fate worse than death. Perhaps there is a bit of hyperbole within that pronouncement, though I assure you it is not deliberate, only born of a thought that this is a truer death than any kind experienced by the physical body.
What if, in a realm in which beings could mentally connect with those alive who exert connections to the past, what if these beings could somehow tap into the realm inhabited by the living and act the muse? The muse, of course, is not an original idea, I just sometimes contemplate that inspirations on some occasions are in actuality real people communicating real events to those of us with the means to record them. I must also give credit for this idea, or at least the lead-in to it, to Dying to Meet You, a kid’s novel I read with my son some years ago for battle of the books. I’ve forgotten much of it, but the gist is that a writer looking for a comeback settles into a new project, advised by the resident ghost, who harangues and harasses him in ways that made us howl with laughter. The point being, of course, that perhaps some historical fiction characters are those who have recruited authors to tell their stories, the ones that never made it to history books but that many want to hear. I’m sure this also has been the more serious plot of some historical fiction already written, so even this is not so innovative. I suppose the difference here is my suggestion that it is much more common and real than we know.
So far, none of these shadowy beings have harassed or harangued me, though they do seem to be telling their stories, and did even when they were hovering in shadows while I slept through the first quarter of 2019. Those dreams: Some were fairly vivid, others were shadowy and vague, but all led to one of the largest book-buying binges I’ve experienced in my life. As I attempt interpreting the information the ghostly beings pass along in their leads and murmurs, I wonder if they whispered all those months ago not only for themselves, but for me too, to rise up from my bed and find what I love. And so I carry on like a literary, historical detective, a position I never imagined I’d occupy, given that I am by no means an historian. But the variables gathered in the way they did, and this is how I move forward into the next decade.
I’m looking forward to my massive amount of reading as well as telling about some of it, and hope you’ll stay tuned for this journey I have been quite willingly drawn into. I’ve got other ideas too, some of it from past new years, but also some new new, inspired by a bunch of gabbing and creative ideas I’ve been witnessing.
At this writing, it’s getting closer to midnight, which means it soon shall be 2020. I’ve had a peek outside, and it is snowing magically and quietly as worlds meet between the hours. It’s going to be glorious.