The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

9780385533508_p0_v3_s260x420Valerie Martin combines historical fact with a believable premise in her fictional tale – The Ghost of the Mary Celeste.  If you are not aware of the mystery surrounding the sinking of the nineteenth century ship or of Arthur Conan Doyle’s penchant for spiritualism, Martin’s complicated story can be hard to follow at first.

After I googled both the famous Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and his relationship to the Mary Celeste – and noted the dates on Martin’s sections – I started the book again and this time became immersed in the disjointed narrative.  The story is based on the discovery near the Azores of an abandoned ship, the Mary ­Celeste.  The  cargo and crew’s possessions were all intact, yet everyone was missing, creating speculation that ranged from insurance fraud to foul play.  The incident inspired one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s first published pieces of fiction, “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement,” printed anonymously in the British journal Cornhill.  In his short story, Conan Doyle fictitiously solves the mystery of the missing ship; some readers believe Doyle’s story to be true, forgetting it is fiction.   With this premise, Martin weaves a tale that seems real, and challenges the premise of the truthfulness of the printed word.

Martin’s story begins with a ship sinking – all hands lost – and appearance of the ghost of the Captain’s wife to her young cousin, who has a talent for hearing the voices of the dead.  Later, the young girl’s sister, Sallie, on board with her captain husband, is lost at sea on the Mary Celeste.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears briefly, at first, with references to his medical background, and cameo appearances of his writing contemporaries – Robert Louis Stevenson and James Barrie.  The story bounces around a series of seemingly unconnected stories, with deaths at sea, Doyle’s continued success as the author of Sherlock Holmes, and the reappearance of the young cousin, now a famous woman psychic, calling herself Violet Petra, who is described in a memoir written by Phoebe Grant, a female journalist who specializes in exposing frauds.

Eventually, Arthur Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism, the female journalist’s mission, and the aging Violet connect – and collide – to create a satisfying mystery that circles back to solving the mystery of the Mary Celeste.  Although Martin seems to be noting the gullibility of readers to believe whatever they read, her subtext never detracts from the adventure of solving the mystery.  During the intervening years, Doyle creates and kills off Sherlock Holmes, noting that he “really was never alive in the first place,” when ardent readers lobby for the sleuth’s return in story form.  How vested we readers become in the characters created for us – they may be as real as they are to their creators, the authors.  With this as a hook, Martin happily leads the reader through a series of twists, red herrings, and possible solutions in a story that requires attention until the final section, which reveals the log of the Mary Celeste itself, delivered into Conan Doyle’s own hands.

” ‘Was it simply another hoax,’ Conan Doyle asks himself,  ‘the desperate ploy of a poor, ambitious young writer, just as he had been, who schemed, just as he had schemed, to captivate the fickle attention of the public?’ “

If you are planning to read this book to lull you to sleep, you may lose one of the threads.  Stay with it and you will still wonder where it went in the end.  The questions – What happened on the Mary Celeste? Is Violet Petra a genuine psychic or a fraud? – can only be answered by the reader.   Valerie Martin is not revealing anything, but she does create a rewarding and suspenseful tale.

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When the Timing is Off

After downloading Nancy Horan’s historical fiction about the life of Robert Louis Stevenson – Under the Wide and Starry Sky – I stopped at chapter 2.  Having enjoyed her first book, Loving Frank, her version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s tumultuous affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, I decided the library book that had just arrived would offer a better approach than my iPhone. Maybe I needed real pages to turn.  Painstakingly, I persevered through fourteen chapters (of 90), and stopped again.

The not so well-known relationship of the frail R.L. Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne, a married woman with a free spirit and a penchant for being a painter, has been tapped by the Today Show for its Book Club.  Susan Cokal for the New York Times notes in her review that “the early chapters provide a stirring overture, with enough lyrical emotion and fervent aspiration to satisfy even a 19th-­century reader.”  

But Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post Dispatch says: “{the plot} sometimes plods, as Horan seemingly tries to work in every episode of the couple’s lives together over 20 years…”  As with Loving Frank, Horan manages to be the fly on the wall to hear all those fictional conversations.

I just can’t get into it. I’ll try again later – maybe.  Have you read it?

Salem Witches – Real and Imaginary

9781589791329_p0_v1_s260x420Mary Roach’s new book – The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege – offers a factual account of a riveting piece of history that has fostered fictional plays and novels.  Roach based her nonfiction book on twenty-seven years of original archival research, including the discovery of previously unknown documents, chronicling the real drama of Salem in 1692.  I usually prefer fiction to nonfiction, but having read Roach’s Packing for Mars, I look forward to her unbiased research mixed with her practical humor and cynical perspective.  That said, I still prefer imagining those lives from Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane or Deborah Harkness’ “All Souls Trilogy,” following the fictional modern trials of witch Diana Bishop (A Discovery of Witches).

How true to fact does historical fiction need to be? Do you get stuck on the details that don’t quite fit (if you know them), or let the author’s poetic license weave a story that has universal appeal? Traditionally, historical fiction uses incidents that happened at least a hundred years ago.  Authors expect the reader to make the connections to history, but also understand that the author is creating conversations and actions that probably did not really happen.  (Going back in time to lurk under the bed of all those Elizabethan queens to hear those conversations was not an option for Philippa Gregory).   The more realistic they seem, the better the book. Often a movie follows, with even more digression from the facts.

Authors may offer a disclaimer that their story was inspired by an incident, a person, a place that appears in the book as an anchor, with the rest from the imagination of the writer.  If the authors of historical fiction are not accurate – this is fiction, after all – do they risk misinforming the literal reader?  creating alternative history?  Were the reputations of Frank Lloyd Wright (Loving Frank), and, most recently, Robert Louis Stevenson (Under the Wide and Starry Sky), enhanced by Nancy Horan’s fictional imaginings to their life stories?  Or, do some readers want, like the Queen in Hamlet,  “More matter with less art” ?

What fiction have you read based on real history? How did that work out for you?

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Robert Louis Stevenson in Hawaii

2940015565362_p0_v1_s260x420 Isobel Field’s claim to fame evolves around her relationship with her step-father, Robert Louis Stevenson. In her memoir – This Life I’ve Loved – she includes references to Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) and her experiences as a white woman who graced the court of the Hawaiian king, Kalakaua. Born in Indiana, Field lived a charmed life with trips to Europe, Australia, Samoa, and Hawaii at a time when travel was not easy. Although long, wordy, and gossipy, the historical gems were worth finding – if only the septuagenarian writer (who lived to 94) had had an editor.

Field successfully conjures up life in Hawaii in the late 1800’s, and foreshadows the struggle for power that eventually overthrew the kingdom, but most of her thoughts are with her own daily issues of what dresses to wear and how many cards to leave when paying a formal call – trivia to fill the pages. Her influence on the Hawaiian King Kalakaua, as he tried to establish himself as a monarch equal to the European regents he admired, connected to her artwork. Field created water colors, one on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art, as well as sketches for royal dinner menus and the Royal Order of Oceania,

Joseph Strong, artist

Joseph Strong, artist

which she proudly wore as the first woman recipient. Her husband, Joseph Strong, connected to the wealthy Spreckels sugar baron, sailed with Isobel to Hawaii as the royal artist in residence, creating landscapes for his sponsor and the king.

RLS connects to Isobel only briefly when he visits Hawaii for four months with Fanny, Isobel’s mother, and later in Australia, when Isobel works as his amanuensis, offering glimpses into the famous writer’s poor

RLS with King Kalakaua

RLS with King Kalakaua

health and his well-known story telling ability. Inspired to discover more about the life of RLS, I’ve ordered his biography by Frank McLynn, published for the centenary of the author’s death in Samoa, and a few of his classics to reread. Field mentions The Master of Ballantrae and A Child’s Garden of Verses in her ramblings – might be good places to start.

What Robert Louis Stevenson books have you read?

The Subconscious Shelf

My old hometown had a restaurant with real books displayed on wall shelves around the small dining areas; the restaurant was appropriately named “The Library.”  I don’t remember the menu, but I remember the books – I dined with Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson looking over my shoulder.  When the new owner replaced the real books with a painted facade of books, I stopped going.  I could find better crab cakes somewhere else where the decor may not have books, but at least was real.

color-coded books

In her essay for the New York Times Book Review section – The Subconscious Shelf – Leah Price discusses the value of book displays and the deception of fakes.  Books can “serve as a utilitarian tool or a theatrical prop…”  – the interior designer’s selection of tomes that will enhance the decor, not necessarily the brain; the coffee table book that balances the artful display of ceramics.

Don’t be fooled by those worn and battered covers that seem to carry historic weight. Did you know the famous Strand bookstore in New York City will sell or rent leather-bound multivolume sets “to connote old money”?  And a company offers “book handling” for customers – selling books that has each volume “thoroughly handled”…

{Volumes will include} a suitable passage…to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet…to be inserted as a forgotten book-mark in each…the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impression that they have been carried around in pockets…volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter, or whiskey stains…

I have a few of those I can surrender – but I’ve actually read the books, which may reduce their value to buyers.   Avid readers who don’t have room for bookshelves are constantly gleaning their frugal space; others count on borrowing their books; and finally, the e-book precludes displays of content.

Price suggests that the books on display won’t tell as much about the reader as the reader’s references to the books…

“Shortly after the 2008 election, a bookstore in New York set out 50-odd books to which Barack Obama had alluded in memoirs, speeches, and interviews.  The resulting collection revealed more about {him} than did any number of other displays of books by and about him.”

It may be the books that are read but are not on the shelves that really expose the reader.  Are you among the many who are well-read – but with empty or sparse bookshelves?

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