First off, I must apologize for my sporadic posts. I really don’t follow a set schedule or topic pattern, which means that I write when an idea hits me. I’ll be sitting in the living room and suddenly think of a topic, or I’ll be reading a book and a thought will cross my mind, and I’ll think “that would make an interesting post.” So since my last post nothing’s really hit me. My week has been really uneventful….as usual. I think it’s important to point out that I am so bored that even my brain can’t think of a blog post topic I could write to take up my time. (Okay, so this post has been in my drafts for four years. I’m not quite sure exactly when I began it. But I thought I’d finish it now!)
Tonight, however, I read 300 something pages of An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon, finally finishing it after starting it August of last year. Yes, a year ago. I’m never like that, I assure you. It’s just that it’s really hard to read in college! I don’t have any time for it, and so I had three books (One Day and two Gabaldon books) sitting on my adorable yellow Martha Stewart bookshelf in my dorm room all year long. For an avid reader, it made me very sad. But I finally finished it! Even though it’s really hard sometimes to start up on page 457 and expect to remember every little detail, character, and plot written in the previous pages.
This post will simply be a reflection of myself and my tastes in books and history (because I just thought of it and felt like writing about it).
Did any of you read Ann Rinaldi’s historical fiction novels when you were a teenager? I believe she published the majority of them in the 80’s and/0r 90’s, but I found the re-printed Harcourt collection at Barnes and Noble when I was in middle school. She wrote stories that centered on the Salem trials, the American Revolution, and the Civil War, among others. Young females were always the protagonist. Her books made a huge impression on me as a young person. She didn’t start my obsession with history; I’m convinced I was born with that. But she wrote about the topics I was totally in love with. I wrote an essay about Rinaldi’s novels for an English class and had it posted on the hall bulletin board for everyone to see (I felt awkward).
I believe every reader has an experience like that– where you you find an author or book and it either transforms you or enhances a specific characteristic in yourself. For my mother, it was Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. For me, it was Ann Rinaldi (and I say it was her and not Jane Austen because early 19th century literature just didn’t affect me as a 14 year old as a contemporary Rinaldi book did…I’ll say it did later, and does, but not when I was 12, 13, 14). In fact, her novels so made an impression on me that I found myself using antiquated terms spoken by the protagonists in her novels (I didn’t do it on purpose, I promise! At least my friends found it amusing and not creepy….thank goodness for small favors). I’ve never once looked up Rinaldi. I’m not quite sure if she’s still alive or not (is it odd I don’t want to know?). I did, however, print out nearly 100 pages of my mother’s nice printing paper with transcripts of the Salem witch trials for me to read through… I also kept a college-ruled notebook in which I painstakingly copied quotes or passages I found meaningful from Rinaldi’s books. Some of them, if they offered advice, I tried to apply in my own life (that’s sort of difficult for a young teenager, btw).
Anyway. As I was wrapping up An Echo in the Bone and verbally mourning the fact that I don’t have the next book in the series yet, I discovered just how acutely I was feeling for the characters and their present roles in the American Revolution. It’s one of my absolute favorite wars to study and so I naturally flock to any literature which takes place during that time (Rinaldi’s The Fifth of March was my favorite of hers. It takes place in Boston just before the official start of the Revolution). Picking up the Outlander series is like a veritable treasure chest of history since it spans the ’45 Jacobite Rising to the French Revolution to the American Revolution. Whoo!
But I realized tonight (and, sadly, not for the first time) that I longed for the chance to time travel backwards to those times I loved to study about in the present. I would think it’s every history major’s/lover’s dream to experience first hand the events or locations they study. I will be the first to admit it– I live in the past. I hold people accountable based on historic standards. A lot of my sense of morality comes from long established ways. I am in many ways a complete traditionalist, and that is because I live in the past.
It’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Wishing so fervently for a chance to live in Charleston during the Revolution or Civil War will only break my heart in the end. I romanticize the past sometimes, and I know that is silly. I nearly attended graduate school to study the 18th-century British-Atlantic world so that I could force myself to fully understand the realities people lived through 300 years ago. Romanticizing and idealizing how people (strangers) lived is not only unfair to their realities but unfair to ourselves. No one should want to live in Charleston in the 18th and 19th centuries. The weather was hideous, life sucked if you weren’t wealthy and accepted in society, and there weren’t many opportunities for women (duh). Wearing pretty dresses would get old after the third day of forcing my stomach into a corset and placing the fourth layering of clothing on my sweating body before stepping out into Charleston’s sweltering, miserable heat (I live here, so I can say that).
Understanding the past allows us to place our own lives and experiences on a continuum. Once we grasp the economic forces that enabled 17th century Holland and its artists like Johannes Vermeer to establish the Dutch Golden Age of painting and trade; once we accept the sociology of post-war American architects who created new and startling architectural styles in houses and high rises as a way of coping with the effects of WWII; once we acknowledge the enormity of the decision for our great-great-grandparents to leave Ireland in the middle of the night with a note to their parents, jump on a ship, and travel the Atlantic to make a new life in New York City (my great-great-grandparents, if you haven’t picked up on that)–only then, do we appreciate our own place in time.
So, I loved Ann Rinaldi’s books as a teenager because I could fantasize living on a plantation in the midst of the Revolutionary War in Camden, South Carolina. Her books pushed me to study the war on my own time, reading chapters of textbooks we never got to in class and secreting away my mother’s research books to my room to memorize. Now, though, about a decade after first picking up one of her stories, I’ve graduated to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Her books are so detailed, descriptive, real, that they served as the perfect outlet for me to both fantasize and realize “life back then.” Until time travel really exists, it is only through extensive research and immersion into history that we can feel the past as tangible as the reality in front of us.
Have any of you had a meaningful experience with a book/author, whether you were young or old? What or who was it?