As many regular readers of the site will know I have been campaigning for some time (along with colleagues) to see greater recognition in Ireland of the cost of the American Civil War to the Irish community. It was the second biggest conflict in terms of numbers in which Irishmen served in uniform, yet we have no memorial. Despite repeated efforts the State has failed to take any steps to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of this important event in Irish history.
How do you tell a story true? This is the dilemma of anyone attempting to write about history. It is stone upon stone.
I pulled Thomas Flanagan’s fine book, Tenants of Time, off the shelf a few days ago – it has been fifteen years since I first read it. His historical fiction – an Irish trilogy – is masterful, poetic and sharp. And there, at the end of the opening paragraph, as if addressed to me (save for the gender of his principal character): “He had fallen in love with the past, a profitless love.”
But profitless or no, I am captive. And ironically, there’s no going back. Trying to decipher the past is a minefield of challenge.
Lately I’ve been intrigued by the ways in which other writers and researchers address the issue of discerning what was the truth of what happened in an event, a time, a life in which you were not present. What is the truth – in fiction and non-fiction? How do you find it?
Mr. Flanagan’s historical fiction, Tenants of Time, covers an ineffectual rising in Ireland in 1867 through the time of Parnell, by telling the story through the voice and lens of an assortment of characters, one of whom is the historian who is trying to get at the truth of what happened. Positions in society, clashes of culture and politics all color the event, each character a witness with partial vision: “He had come to believe that what had happened…had a shape, a design, a theme which worked itself out in the variations of a dozen lives.”
Timothy Egan’s recent Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is an insightful history/bio, telling the story of Edward Curtis, the great American photographer of the west. Curtis became obsessed with capturing the truth of the lives of native tribes that were systematically being destroyed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His medium was photography, working in close proximity and great respect with his subjects. Curtis lived for months with native tribes whose existence and way of life was threatened, particularly those along the west coast. In many cases, his photographs are the only evidence that these people lived and of their culture. He kept voluminous notes and wrote down languages that are now lost. Curtis risked his marriage, his family and his life to do this, so important did he feel it to be. He was trying to capture the truth of the past that America was daily eradicating.
Two lyrical works of fiction stand out for me in addressing the quest for truth through what is revealed and what is hidden. Both are very personal stories.
The first, Irish writer Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, takes the reader on an emerging path, where assumptions that have held the authority of ‘truth’ are the briars that must be cut away. Roseanne McNulty is a 99-year-old inmate of a crumbling mental hospital in Roscommon; Dr. Grene, the psychiatrist who must decide what to do with her as the building is closed down. The story is told alternately from the point of view of each of them. Barry’s own statement speaks of the tension inherent in sorting out what we think we know from what it true, “History, as far as I can see, is not the arrangement of what happens,” he writes, “but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.”
The second is a small and perfect story, The All of It, one of only two novels by American writer Jeannette Haien. Written in 1986 and set in Ireland, it was reprinted in 2011 with a beautiful forward by Ann Patchett. A good priest, Fr. Declan, struggles with the story/confession of a female parishioner – what is hidden, what is revealed, what is true in the deepest way of the telling. Haien died in 2008, but she left us most generously with this almost mythic story – those I know who have read it are the better for the reading. Again, the tension between assumption and truth sit together uncomfortably at the center of the story. Yet revelation has the power to be an act of redemption.
Anyone who has tried to understand their own story or the story of their family will know the struggle to find the truth – “the all of it.” There are no quick and easy answers. You will trip over your roots frequently. No list of dates and names and places will tell you a life. If you want to know the marrow of a life or a time, you must put one foot in front of the other and start down the road. Along the way beware of false signs, cut away the briars of assumption and follow the path that seems most true. And always be ready for redemption.
Thanks to my rootsystems visitors through this past year – I’m very grateful for your encouragement, interest and comments and am looking forward to more frequent writing in 2013! Happy New Year, everyone!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.
Potatoes. They’re the reason I’m here in North America.
I was born one hundred years after An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger) began. I live in a world of material abundance, secularity, instant – and constant – communication, automobiles and airplanes. I can pick up a phone and reach friends across the sea as quickly as those down the street. It would be as impossible for my Irish great-grandparents to comprehend my world today as it is for me to understand the world they knew as children when the blight hit.
But I try anyway. I read and wonder and struggle to peel back the years to catch a glimpse of what they might have seen or heard or felt. I imagine there is an echo of their memory somewhere in mine.
The story of the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845 – 1851 is not a story about potato blight. It’s a story about poverty, about the role of government and about a chasm between socio-economic classes so great that those at the top and those at the bottom may as well have been living on different planets. Continue reading
In the south end of Evanston, Lee Street comes to an abrupt dead-end at Sherman Avenue. Appropriately, it was Sherman whose scorched earth “March to the Sea” was the beginning of the dead-end of any hope for General Lee’s confederate army in the U.S. Civil War. Not to be forgotten up on the north end of town, General Grant and President Lincoln are duly honored with dignified tree-lined streets.
Our city’s original street names – in addition to the customary Main and Central – commemorate war heroes, local founders of the city, landowners and several varieties of trees. Some American cities and suburbs get more creative: I used to live in University City, (the location of Washington University) just west of St. Louis. University City’s founder had big dreams of creating a utopian place of learning and named every street after an American college or university.
What goes into naming a place? Who gets to decide? What was the original meaning and what does it mean now? Continue reading
Awards for me? Really?
I’m honored, especially as these are two of my favorite blogs.
The nice thing about blog awards, is that they give you an opportunity to nominate blogs that you admire and that others might not be aware of. (A side note: if you have already received awards, or would rather not, my apologies – feel free to accept or ignore)
So here are my nominations for the Versatile Blogger Award and the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.
These are all great blogs – I hope you’ll check them out!
Maps. I can get lost in them.
My first encounter with maps was through TripTiks – Triple A’s wonderful little travel guides that our family always took along on road trips. From age 8 – 12 or so, being the only kid at home, I got the role of navigator. Or at least I assumed that role. For the uninitiated, the TripTik was a vertical spiral bound booklet that followed your road plan – address to address – with tips along the way, places to stop for dinner or lodging. They are still available from AAA, online and interactive of course. (and you can find the old ones on eBay.)
I loved following the road, flipping the page, looking for the town signs coming up, watching for the rivers, train tracks, any sites of historical importance along the way. We should have had a bumper sticker that said, “this car stops for historical markers.”
Flat maps, globes (spin it and you’ll go where your finger lands) and huge atlases you could only read on the floor – all promising adventure for the taking. They were the stuff of imagination and the inspiration for travel-lust. Continue reading