BOOKS & THE CULTURE Family Secrets BY REBECCA MARKOVITS The Night Journal By Elizabeth Crook Viking 464 pages, $24.95 5 tanding 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 greatgrandmother, 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 demic 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, uncomher grandfather, H. E. Butt, founded the 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 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 21, 2006
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