Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Links to the Past

You might have come across a mind-boggling trivium that began getting renewed attention around the web late last week: President John Tyler- a man who was born 222 years ago (we’re talking the 1700s), the man who became only the 10th president of the United States, and who died over 150 years ago- still has two living grandchildren!

This kind of thing absolutely floors me. Kottke.org posted some other similar examples here: An eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination who appeared on a 1956 gameshow, and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had the honor of shaking hands with both John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy in his lifetime. These present-day threads to the long-forgotten past absolutely blow my mind.

But I’ve noticed that this same thing, played out in fiction, can be equally compelling: a mysterious or long-forgotten backstory whose ties to the present are assumed to have been lost or severed ages ago, is suddenly discovered to have some tangible thread, some real, yet unexpected connection to the story that we are reading. It could just be the history major in me, but I think it makes for a fascinating, edge-of-your-seat reading experience. I don’t even know what to call this literary device- it’s not in any list I’ve seen. A backstory epiphany? A hidden thread? A long-lost MacGuffin? I have no clue what to call it, but I know it when I see it.

In H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines Alan Quartermain runs into a man named Evans who tells him about a distant mountain range and a tale he’d heard from an old witch doctoress about a magnificent, ancient diamond mine that is said to exist there. Evans is gored by an animal shortly thereafter and Quartermain soon puts the whole exchange out of mind and continues his rough and tumble life as an elephant hunter for the next twenty years.

At some point his work takes him to a piece of country where one can see the mountains in question across 130 miles of ruthless desert, though the forgotten legend is the furthest thing from his mind. He falls ill and happens to meet an old “Portugee” with whom he trades a few innocent words. As the old man takes his leave he nonchalantly says “Good-bye, senor, if we ever meet again I shall be the richest man in the world,” and he strikes out across the desert. Quartermain doesn’t put two and two together until a week later, when that same old man comes crawling back across the desert, feverish, starved, and close to death. Before he kicks the bucket, he leaves Quartermain with a crude, old map, drawn with blood on ancient linen, which had been passed down from an ancestor who had himself died trying to reach the mine three hundred years prior.

These are not really spoilers, by the way.  All of this happens within the first few pages of the book. But let’s look at what Haggard has done here: He planted the seed of mystery, he teases us with the possibility that there might be some truth lurking behind the legend, and when that tangible link to the past ends up in Quartermain’s hands, the legend of King Solomon’s Mines and the promise of untold riches become living, breathing entities in the story. What can you do but read on, right?

Another example is Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Having traveled to search for gold that is rumored to be hidden near the old family farm, the main character “Milkman” stops at the decaying mansion that was home to the family who killed his ancestors and took control of their land. By chance, he meets an impossibly old ex-slave who reveals some surprising family history and points him to a town called Shalimar. It’s there that an ancient family legend interweaves with the book’s theme of magical flight. I won’t spoil this one for you, but the result is intense and beautiful and unexpected. The African folklore of Milkman’s ancestors is brought to life right before your eyes. Absolutely love that book.

But the threads don’t have to stretch over hundreds of years to pack a punch. Just look at Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. In running away from her abusive father, Lily Owens seizes on a mysterious picture of a black Virgin Mary that she finds among her deceased mother’s things. Scratched on the back is the name of a remote South Carolina town. Once she makes her way there, she and her African American nanny move in with three beekeeping sisters who sell their honey under the Black Madonna brand. She realizes her mother’s picture was just one of their honey labels, and thinks she’s solved the mystery of the Black Madonna and what it means. But her own family history and her relationship with her dead mother is tied up that place in ways she doesn’t yet understand. More backstory epiphanies, and threads to the past bring the story to a very satisfying close.

David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, my favorite non-fiction read from last year, plays on the same themes. I could go on and on. It’s the same thing that makes movies like Indiana Jones or the DaVinci Code compelling...

I’d like to read more books like this. Are there any others I should check out that bring the long-lost past to life? Let me know in the comments.


  1. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is a great one. I too was a history major and love to read books that connect the past and present. While People of the Book is a bit different than the ones you've described above, I love how it traces the history of one artifact backwards (not forwards... makes all the difference) through time, until finally revealing how it was made. Beautifully written of course and completely engrossing.

    1. Thanks, Jillian.

      From what I can tell, that recommendation looks like it will fit the bill nicely.

  2. You are very welcome. Let us know how you like it. One that seems to fit your "genre" above (how do we classify books like that anyway?) but is a disappointment is Sarah's Key. I just reviewed it on my blog; it was very promising but fell flat. Definitely not in the same category of any of the other books you describe.

  3. Glad to have a read of it, it really looked like very much great to me. Thanks for sharing this post.