Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Readings: Bridging the Space Between


Since 2010, I have compiled my favorite books that I read each year. It allows me to trace the topics that have intrigued me over time. I often find recurring themes and this year was no exception. Many had two threads to the story, past and present which ultimately weave together, bridging time and deepening understanding of past to present. Others invoke that liminal space between life and death, often bridged through the suggestion of ghostlike presences. And one addresses a different kind of liminal space, that between sleep and wakefulness.  

Past and Present

One of my favorite authors is Geraldine Brooks. Her books are a rich exploration. Her newest book Horse (2022) is a story of a racehorse and of race. The racehorse is Lexington, one of the most famous racehorses of all time. Coupled with his story is a story of Jarrett, his black groom who raised him from a foal and accompanied him throughout his 25-year lifetime. While a highly recognized and rewarded slave because of his special skills, Jarrett still functioned within the boundaries of slavery. When he sought to buy his freedom, his owner reminded him that as his slave he couldn’t own anything so the money he offered should revert to his owner. A magnanimous owner, he did not impose that requirement, but reminded Jarrett that it was his choice, not Jarrett’s. Paintings were desired of these celebrity horses and were valuable in the horse business of racing and trading. A practitioner of equine art is introduced into the plot and his work reaches into a modern-day story tied to the horse in question. Even the horse’s skeleton becomes an element within the modern-day story. I found myself searching for the outlines of history and it was never far away. Set at the time of the Civil War it was told with accuracy. Jarrett is an imagined composite character as are the two modern-day protagonists, but everything else was clearly documented in history as the reader is given a front row seat. 

Once on a visit to Chicago, I stopped by the Holocaust Museum in Skokie. There I discovered a show composed of letters written by newly freed African Americans post-Civil War seeking their families from whom they had been separated. It was both touching and heart-rending. I was struck by how I had never contemplated the separation of families and the efforts to rejoin them after the Civil War, although I was certainly aware of the similar search of Holocaust survivors for remaining family after WWII. The Book of Lost Friends (2020) by Lisa Wingate takes this period and explores it through one of those past and present books with two layered story threads, one in 1875 Louisiana and the other over a century later in the same location. As a family historian, I often focus on the connection of past to present, a connection that allows us to make sense of today's world resting on the bones of the past. 

Sunjeev Sahota’s, China Room (2021), is another novel with two threads, past and present. Despite its perhaps misleading name, it is set in India and its reference to China is the crockery variety. The first and most compelling story dates to 1929 during a time of arranged marriages. Three Indian women are married to three Indian brothers. The conceit around which all revolves is that none can identify which is their husband in daylight -opaque marriage veils and only nighttime assignations create this circumstance. Mehar, a fifteen-year-old from a poor family, believes she has identified her husband only to be in error, leading her into a love affair with another brother. Seventy years later her great-grandson arrives from England and discovers the traces of her life and the story behind it.


Life and Death

The Sentence (2021)by Louis Erdrich was an especially intriguing book to me as it is set in the community in which I live during the time of Covid and the unrest after the George Floyd murder. To make matters even more interesting, it incorporates a ghost story with a permeable veil between this world and the world beyond. A former customer continues to haunt the bookstore and Tookie, our protagonist, must contend with her presence. Erdrich writes of what she knows, setting this story in a bookstore, no doubt modeled after Birchbark Books, the store she runs in real life. Through the guise of Tookie, we are also offered a variety of additional book recommendations. 


Ghosts seem to be a feature in Erdrich’s writing as the line between the living and the dead seems often quite permeable. In The Night Watchman(2020) a fictionalized story is based on Erdrich’s grandfather and the important role he played in fighting termination. Termination efforts began in 1953 and were designed to eliminate the role of the Federal government in controlling reservations, instead passing costs to the states and pushing Native Americans off the reservation and into the cities. The result often meant the loss of their reservation lands and the government support which was in fact to be compensation. This is one of several plot lines as the Native Americans organize to challenge this strategy. While the character who represents her grandfather drives this storyline, the broader community is interwoven with a cast of strong characters that we come to care about, both living and those who have passed on. Strong women rooted in Native American culture show the way to a future navigating two worlds successfully.


I loved Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet so was eager to read her new book The Marriage Portrait. But first I heard her do a reading where she was asked about her memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am (2018). Before I moved to her latest novel, I took a detour and read this most unusual memoir which explores the close calls with death or danger that she somehow evaded. Each chapter focuses on the physical point of vulnerability in her body. It culminates in the life-threatening situation which grips her most deeply as she watches her daughter’s life precariously perched on that thin line that separates life from death. I took away from that book a new appreciation of the opportunity to live each day of our life and the vulnerability which always hovers nearby.


I then moved to The Marriage Portrait (2022), based on an actual marriage in 1558 which similarly sits atop a deep sense of vulnerability between life and death. A young girl of 16 enters a marriage with a ruler who fluctuates between a heightened sensitivity and understanding of his bride and a cloud of threat which makes her fear for her life. It is underscored by the sense of vulnerability women of that time faced in a marriage should they not produce an heir while subject to the control and whims of a spouse. I thought back to Hamnet which also focuses on the thin line between life and death. This seems to be the theme that intrigues O’Farrell through these books, a thread in her own life which informs her choice of material.


Sleep and Wakefulness

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel Harlem Shuffle (2021) is quite different than his earlier books The Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys. It is a character study of both the people and the place, New York Harlem in 1959. I found myself especially intrigued with a concept that it frequently referenced dorvay, a derivation of Ray Carney, our protagonist, from the word dorveille. The word is formed from the French words, dormir and and veiller, to sleep and to be awake. It came from a time before electric lights when people split their sleep in two, waking in the middle to perform those tasks that somehow eluded them in daytime hours. Carney thought of himself as coming from a crooked beginning with a father who was, well, a crook. He however was just slightly bent and dorvay was when the straight world slept and the slightly bent got to work. Carney bridged the world between the straight and the crooked, living a life perched on a tightrope between the two. How he resolves this contradiction is the story.

Stay tuned for a few more topics on islands and remarkable women!