Family Secrets

The Night Journal

Standing amidst the ruins of family tragedy, a sorrowful Albany concludes King Lear: “The oldest hath borne most: we that are young, / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” The closing note rings with pity, but also with admiration. If Lear is a tale of filial betrayal, it also describes a kind of generational watering down; Lear suffers, we know, in proportion to his pride, to his greatness. Albany, the old king’s lesser successor, seems to sense the loss that accompanies our dilution.

Elizabeth Crook, who painted such a lively portrait of greatness in the figure of Sam Houston in her best-selling The Raven’s Bride, is similarly sensitive to the way in which our predecessors can seem to loom larger than life. Her latest novel, The Night Journal, climbs back and forth between several generations of Bass women. At the bottom of the pile is modern-day Meg, drawn very much against her will into an examination of her family’s past. Meg’s great-grandmother, Hannah, is an American icon, a kind of Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Southwest, immortalized through the posthumous publication of her personal journals, in which she recorded the minutia and emotions of life in New Mexico at the turn of the 19th century. The journals were published by Hannah’s daughter, Bassie (Meg’s grandmother), turning her into an academic star. Meanwhile, Meg has become a stressed out, lonely scientist who, in a fit of rebellion and legacy avoidance, has refused to even open the famous journals.

Until now. As the novel unfolds, we follow Meg and Bassie to Hannah’s old homestead in Pecos, New Mexico, where Native American ruins rise up out of a mesa in the sharp, barren landscape. The naturally belligerent Bassie has dragged Meg here as her unwilling companion in a fight with the superintendent of the historic site. He wants to build a new visitor’s center; she wants to retrieve the remains of the family’s dogs, buried in the prime location, and generally thwart his plans whenever possible. However, digging too close to home has its risks, and more than one skeleton pops out of the family closet. Reluctantly, Meg is pulled deeper into the journals and Hannah’s vivid story. The more she reads, the more she finds that her own life rather dims in comparison:

…the present was the paler image. The present was deprived of color, compared to the past. Meg […] felt displaced, dissatisfied with her life. She had somehow found a connection with Hannah, the pathways were open now, but she was not sure that she would ever be the better for it. She had spent her life under Bassie’s shadow, and now Hannah’s shadow was creeping over her also.

Like Albany, she feels diminished by the comparison to her more-suffering elders, “with a life that seemed inconsequential when compared to these others, without the texture and fame, without the force of tragedy.” Her story does, to the book’s detriment, shrink into the shadows of Hannah’s brighter and darker one. The novel skips back and forth between Meg’s story and Hannah’s journals as Meg reads them, and we can’t help but notice how flat the former is in the face of the latter. Crook’s writing in the modern parts of The Night Journal is blandly conventional, drawing attention to the risks inherent in creating a recognizable, contemporary character with a familiar voice. The writing grabs too quickly at the readily available: Bassie’s “glasses magnified her eyes so they looked as if they floated in a fishbowl”; Meg finds an early boyfriend’s caresses “as nurturing as the warm night air”; leaving her structured life for New Mexico, she feels she is entering “a different realm”; once there, she finds that the main square reminds her of “something out of an Old West movie,” with “an air of grandeur that was slightly decayed but all the more authentic for it.” Judging by the example of such overused metaphors, we doubt that much authenticity is added.

Nor is the flatness much relieved by the plot, generally. We know from the first phone call in chapter one that Meg will fall for the sensitive, haunted archeologist. And surely we’ve met that flighty, self-obsessed, drama queen of a mother somewhere before, not to mention that tough old bird with the cane? Not one of these characters is interesting or assertive enough to control the modern half of the book. “The problem with reading the journals,” Meg reflects, “and with coming here to Pecos and this mesa and this hole in the earth, was that people who had lived and died here had not left any room for the newcomers. […] It was one thing to be in conflict with the living. Another to battle the dead.” We see her point. She’s a decidedly flimsy foil to her great-grandmother.

In a 2004 essay in Texas Monthly, Crook wrote of the pressures of familial legacy. Like Meg, she has plenty of “ancestors to reckon with.” She comes from an old and venerable line of Texans: Her father served in the Johnson administration, eventually as the U.S. ambassador to Australia; her mother’s family was a marriage of the Holdsworths (a grand, old, uncompromising clan) and the Butts (her grandfather, H. E. Butt, founded the hugely successful grocery empire HEB). Crook has clearly learned from personal experience how firm a grip the past can have, “how inescapably,” as she writes in the essay, “the generations segue into one another, how strong the ties can be.”

The Holdsworth women in particular were a tough bunch, strong of jaw and unforgiving, who managed to be both “disapproving and loving.” (Her grandmother once gave her a copy of Wilde’s Dorian Gray inscribed with the disclaimer “I did not care for this story, I doubt you will enjoy it.”) That these venerable ladies, and the example they set, were a driving force behind The Night Journal is clear. Crook’s Aunt Sister—”sharp-tongued, opinionated, generous if she liked you, scornful if she didn’t”—is an obvious model for Bassie (“it is a fine line,” Crook writes, describing Bassie to a T, “between being forthright and being mean as a snake, and Aunt Sister walked it with no particular grace, plunking her black cane along and hoisting herself behind it”). Here, however, the figures diverge. Far from being a Bassie-like ballast, dragging her backward, Aunt Sister instead offered Crook the “comforting […] memory of an odd old woman who refused to be anyone other than who she was,” a memory that “liberates me from the burden of good breeding.”

This divergence between fiction and fact suggests an interesting paradox. What is it that draws an author who, by her own account, was in her forties before she felt free of the yoke of family expectations, to the ancestry-laden genre of historical fiction and to a novel whose current drags so strongly backward? The Night Journal is about Meg’s attempt to escape the past, but like her leading lady, Crook as an author is inescapably entangled in it. Her mind, as she has complained, “cluttered constantly with the details of living in the wrong era.” Could it be that historical fiction is a king of Aunt Sister in its own right—that it offers both the Venerable Example and the individualistic escape from that example? If Meg’s voice is forced towards the mundane by its familiarity, Hannah’s is liberated by its strangeness. For the writer, the great appeal of historical fiction is the opportunity it presents to escape the bind of everyday language, of the proverbial. It allows the author to originate a language, a new voice, with which to discuss old stories. Like a new toy, the genre presents her with a chance at some fresh fun. A good historical novel doesn’t so much reproduce the past as reinvent it. Meg, and to a certain extent Bassie, are reproductions. Hannah is pure invention.

In the end, it’s not so much Hannah’s story—the tragedies she must endure—that outshines Meg’s as the language in which she tells it. Her voice, in fact, is the great strength of this novel. While Meg’s modern language can be stale, Hannah’s—pleasantly terse and clean, with the appealing slight stiffness of invented age—is paradoxically fresh. Her goals as a diarist are modest, but tellingly forward-looking:

[to] record everything and someday … publish the account, so it will be of use. I am going to a new place and eventually a new century and am going to write about it, and about the people. Brother would insist I am only here and owe my occupation to the fact that I was not chewing on gum in the interview at the Harvey office, as was the applicant before me, but it is not so. I have more purpose than that. Brother never had a thought he doubted.

Such passages exhibit a charm that is entirely lacking from Meg’s story. This makes it all the more a pity when, toward the end of the novel, Crook inexplicably opts to abandon the diary mode in favor of a kind of omnisciently narrated summary of the entries (presumably recorded as Meg reads them). In this way, she manages to skulk around the most personal moments of the historical plotline (the betrayal of a marriage, the birth of a child, the revelation of a crucial truth) without Hannah’s winning intimacy. Meg comes, eventually, to the realization that though “the pathways of the past had been opened and she had been drawn in … they would not, even if she pursued them, lead her very far. … She needed to turn around and get on with her life again.”

Perhaps in the final chapters, the author responded to a similar urge; but like Albany’s, this new beginning is inevitably tinged with loss.

Rebecca Markovits lives in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST