Reading is dangerous

Posted on January 5, 2011


One day last week Writer’s Almanac tucked in a tidbit from Rudyard Kipling:  “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”  I think that’s right, as far as it goes. 

The problem, of course, is that the unforgettable stories do not all say the same things, do they! And people make new stories about old lives, and try to change the unforgettable narrative. It happens all the time.  It’s only human.  I don’t object to human nature.  Waste of breath.  I do, however, object to outright lies about our communal stories.  As we enter the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the lies are piling up like autumn leaves. 

My Civil War veterans are cackling about it.  They’ve been dead long enough to think it’s funny.  Unless the lies are about them, and then they get testy and send me back to work.  You start out trying to find out a little bit about 21 guys who started a GAR post back in 1884 and you end up wading through blood and fire in Missouri and shaking your head over a 19th century vendetta in the Free Press.  Clearly time for a break.

I went on a reading binge.  Three mysteries with local connections: Aaron Stander’s Summer People, Bryan Gruley’s Starvation Lake, and Murder at the PTA by “Laura Allen” who is really the estimable Janet Koch.  Enjoyed ’em all.  Took my mind entirely off work.  Except for this.  In each one, the solution to the mystery depends on unearthing a past everyone thought was buried.  Nothing ever stays buried, does it?

Then I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna.  I’ve hated doing book reports ever since I was a child, and I’m not going to do one now.  You can find all kinds of reviews of this excellent novel online.  But I recommend it, indeed I do.  My head is filled with images of Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, baking lessons, a tunnel between the ocean and a hidden pool – I don’t see how you can go wrong.  It was so good that it shamed me into getting back to work. 

So I just spent the entire treats budget for January ordering a soldier’s pension records from the National Archives.  I just can’t resist a puzzle.  Besides, I want to tell some true stories that you will never be able to forget.

A Costa Rican guide had an answer to all historical mysteries: The truth is in the bottom of the well.  I had to think about it, but I decided it means that we throw everything we don’t want to confront into the deepest well we can find.  The only way a person ever really knows the whole truth, then, is to be thrown into the well for being a Person We Do Not Wish to Hear. 

Ah well.  I also believe that to know all is to forgive all.  In that last moment, as the full horror of the situation registers, the person who has just splashed into the well must surely see everything, even the bones of those who have gone before, and, comprehending, must forgive everything in a blinding flash of insight.  It would be almost worth it, you know?

But then, I’m a pretty good swimmer, and I am reliably informed that the tunnels between Torch Lake and the Bay may not be mythical after all . . .