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Original Essays | February 4, 2014 1 comment
I was hiking a five-day loop — alone — in the Rocky Mountains when I rounded the switchback and saw a large body on the trail ahead. It... Continue »
Time Travelby Katherine Howe
Eventually he consents to exiting the porch door of our house and we venture forth, making for the marshy paths behind the pond on the western edge of town. We have lived here in this northerly New England village for about five years or so, the great span of my dog's life. Though we enjoy roaming the streets of Marblehead, we prefer the woods for our walks. In the woods, we do our best thinking.
I am often asked how I came to write historical fiction — did I always know that I wanted to write novels set in the past? It's a worthwhile question. I grew up in a huge, defiantly 20th-century city, with more square footage at its disposal than the two smallest states. Houston is a forward-looking place: it is shiny and dizzying, drunk on its own youth. Thick with cars, construction cranes, and blistering sun, Houston came into itself in the 20th century, and renews itself almost monthly. Texans love their past, but they love their present more. As cities go, it is not the most obvious choice for the birth of a historical novelist.
After a long stint in New York City, I arrived at last in New England as an adult, albeit a young one, thinking myself a city person, flush with future possibilities. I was beginning my PhD in American and New England Studies at Boston University, the reading so heavy that the past started nudging the present aside in my awareness. There is only so much room in one's brain at any one time, after all. I began to shed things that seemed unnecessary. Algebra, for instance. But the present, too. As I strolled the streets of Boston and Cambridge in those early years of graduate school, a new mental habit assembled itself in my head.
The sidewalks in Cambridge are brick in many places, and so require special care when walking in women's shoes. As I picked my way from brick to brick, looking at my feet, shoulder bag heavy with books, a thought would occur.
"What if," said the thought, "what if, when I look up from my feet, I am on this same street, with these same bricks that have been here forever, but it isn't 2004 anymore? What if it's... 1877?" How did this street look in 1877? How rank was its horsey smell? How would people react to the sudden appearance of a young woman in blue jeans and peacoat, a strange amalgamation of miner and sailor, striding along without so much as a bonnet on her head? Where would I go for help — to a scientist? Or to my family, still Bostonians then? And if to them, how would I persuade them that I was who I claimed to be? A driver's license would probably not do it, not with its eerie eagle hologram, looking like a badge of Satan. What would I do if I could never return to the present? Would I pawn my wedding ring, an "antique" that would not be made until 1906? Clutch my useless cell phone to my chest until the power finally died? And then...?
In a way, I credit my new-city trained eyes for this mental game, which I took to calling "time travel tourism." I was developing the mind of a historian, and yet I never stopped noticing the strangeness of the old in the New England world around me, never grew comfortable enough with antique spaces to take them for granted. And so, when we moved northwards to Marblehead, one town over from infamous Salem, and home to a completer assortment of 18th-century housing stock than I had ever known, my mental game persisted. Erase the power lines from overhead, peel up the asphalt in the street, blip the cars out of existence, and suddenly I found myself roaming the streets of an 18th-century city, the 10th largest in the country, in fact, in 1790, with cordwainers and shoremen and peddlers and goodwives, the sea air redolent with drying fish. Carts rattle by on loose spokes. A few chickens peck in the dust.
The dog and I stride along, each thinking our private thoughts. We pass a few doors with horseshoes nailed to them, uncommented upon. A scant few of Marblehead's houses date from the 17th, rather than the 18th, century. Our first apartment in town was a warren of rooms on the second floor of a fisherman's house from 1705, with wooden floor planks so wide that they seemed better suited to masts than houses. One evening we were huddled around the fireplace in my study, warming ourselves against the winter, when I pressed my hand to the flooring and reflected that someone who lived in that house, who had walked across that precise floor board, had been alive during the Salem trials in 1692. Had listened to gossip about it, maybe had known Marblehead's own witch, "Mamie" Redd. Maybe had even been in the bellowing throng at gallows hill.
Finally we reach the marsh path, and my dog runs on a scouting mission up ahead. In these woods, alone with my thoughts and undistracted, the present can fall completely away. Over time my imagination grew bolder. Those horseshoes all over town, so common that we don't even see them anymore — there is magic hiding here. "What if," the thought said, "what if magic were real? But not in the fairy tale sense, with pointy hats. What if it were real the way the Salem villagers thought it to be, all bound up in lost spoons and cows with stopped milk? Used to gain a modicum of control in an inexplicable world, where resources were scanty and social pressure was high? How would it work? Who would do it, and why?"
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is an evolution of the time travel tourism game, an exploration of the interconnected relationship between the present and the past. I have never been satisfied by the tendency to reduce people in history to symbols on the one hand, weighted down with the heavy task of nation building, or to crazy people on the other, somehow insane for failing to see beyond the limits of their own time. The people caught up in the Salem panic were neither maniacs nor "forefathers"; they were individuals trapped in a situation that they could neither solve nor understand. They were flawed. They were concerned with their relationships and their day-to-day well-being. In that sense, they were like us.
My dog and I make our way along the muddy side of the pond, with the red, 17th-century tavern still perched on its opposite shore. As we complete our circuit past the tavern and begin to head for home, I pause to listen. Through the silence in the present, I can just hear the sound of merrymaking, from far away.
÷ ÷ ÷
Katherine Howe is completing a PhD in American and New England Studies, and is a descendant of Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the Salem witch trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not. The idea for this novel developed while Howe was studying for her doctoral qualifying exams and walking her dog through the woods between Marblehead and Salem. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband.