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.