Friday, May 8, 2009
The Fictional Kin to Microhistories
In nonfiction, when a writer focuses on one thing: salt, cod or pencils, etc., we call their books microhistories. What is this called in fiction? I love novels where something is passed along: a doll, a house, a musical instrument, what have you. Sometimes it is as if the "thing" could speak, telling us about the many hands that have held it. A favorite children's novel that does this is Hitty: Her First 100 Years, by Rachel Field, about a peg-jointed antique wooden doll that goes from one owner to the next. Starting in Maine, traveling afar to the South Seas, to India, to New York, Hitty has as many adventures as owners, including time spent with a Quaker family during the Civil War. Hitty tells her story in first person with a tone of warmth and down-to-earth wisdom. First published in 1929, Hitty (a nickname of Mehitabel) is still so popular she has her own website at http://www.hitty.org/. I would like to read Hitty again real soon; its appeal is ageless.
Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx is a dark, masterful novel following the fate of an Italian-made green button accordion come to America with its maker. Be the subsequent owner Cajun, German or Polish, they none of them made their way easily through the nineteenth or twentieth century American landscape, meeting death and catastrophe at every turn. But then there's the music made by the accordion, deteriorating with time, but still up to the challenge of livening the days and nights with polka or zydeco music. The passed-along musical object here plays the perfect accompaniment to the brawling story of immigrant America.
Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman narrates two hundred years of stories about the families who live in a Cape Cod farmhouse. The house itself is the main character, somewhat haunted since its first family of fishermen encountered trouble at sea. Their blackbird turned white (a family pet) lingers ghostlike through the centuries. Hoffman zeroes in on life-defining moments of love, loss and redemption, and as in any Hoffman book, we feel our senses heightened by her magical mix of sensory and visual details: the salt air, the beach bramble and sweet peas. Again, much as it does in Accordion Crimes, the course of American history comes alive through the layered effect of successive chapters.
Louise Erdrich uses a ceremonial Ojibwe drum as her story vehicle in The Painted Drum: a Novel. The history of the drum is traced backwards to its creation. Faye Travers, the woman who finds the drum while dealing with the estate of an Indian reservation agent, feels compelled to return it to the Ojibwe people. Indeed, the drum was once traded for booze. The painted drum has such powerful resonance, readers will feel the drumbeats and ancient rhythms rise up off the page.
I haven't yet read Keeping the World Away by Margaret Forster, but it is another title that fits in this category. It tells the story of a small painting done by a woman who had an affair with the sculptor Rodin, what the painting means to her, and how that painting affects the lives of its successive owners.
If anyone reading this post knows of other novels using this kind of story structure, I'd love to hear about them. And what should we call them? Lineage lit? Micro Fictional Histories? Please leave a comment or send me an email. One more week to go and I'm retired! Until then, as always, happy reading.