DNA, Memory and Fiction as Magic: A True Story

Every fiction writer, it’s safe to say, has had the experience of writing something, then asking: “Where the hell did that come from?” Sometimes our next act is to delete it and try again, but on occasion we’re lucky, and that virgin-birthed, inexplicable concatenation of words—a sentence, paragraph, chapter, perhaps an entire novel—gives us a deep, abiding pleasure-—let’s call it “savoring rights”—whenever we think back on it, perhaps even years later. It’s as if we know, on some pre-rational, visceral level, that we’ve tapped into a hidden reservoir of creativity that we weren’t sure we possessed; or that we’ve written something true, something that needed to be written, something deeply rooted in, but larger than, ourselves. This is the way I felt sixteen years ago as I wrote my first novel, A Less Than Perfect Union (even if it was “a less than perfect creation,” still awaiting revision if I ever get the time). I felt that way about it without knowing why. But in the past year or so, to my great wonderment, I’ve finally learned why—and it’s made me believe again in something I’m sorely tempted to call magic.

I’m Boston Irish-Catholic by birth. My father, born in 1911, grew up the slums at the bottom of Bunker Hill in Charlestown, my mother on Mission Hill, Roxbury. I was raised very Catholic, so it may not come as a surprise that I “decided” to write a historical novel about the ethnic, religious and cultural fireworks that ensued in the mid-19th century, when thousands of poor, often illiterate, uncouth and disease-infested “Famine Irish” flooded into the blue-blood, Yankee, Protestant stronghold of Boston. The “less than perfect union” of my title referred not just to the national scene, but also the ill-advised marriage at the heart of my novel, between a radical Irish immigrant newspaper editor and the liberal activist daughter of a volatile, Irish-scorning, Transcendentalist preacher. So far, so normal, no?

The “twist” in my choice of subject matter, however, is that my prime (and primal?) impulse for inventing this story was not so much enthusiasm for celebrating or defending my “Irishness,” as it was my life-long fascination, beginning in childhood, with the 19th century Bostonian abolitionist and reform movements. I have, for example, a vivid memory of making, with my little friend John, at age eleven, a sort of pilgrimage on foot from my home in Roslindale to the banks of the Charles River in West Roxbury in search of Brook Farm, the failed Transcendentalist utopia (where Hawthorne lived till he tired of raking manure). We couldn’t find it, because it was mostly burned down by then; besides, if I’d had the gumption to ask an adult for directions, they wouldn’t have known what the hell I was talking about. Also, as a child I loved cemeteries—as long as the gravestones bore pre-20th century dates. Even today, I savor the anticipatory pleasure of knowing that when I die, I will sleep—close to my parents, in fact—in the soil of what was once Brook Farm, and now a cemetery. (This, thanks to a recent birthday gift of a pre-paid gravesite from my ever-thoughtful wife, who’s always known how to excite me.)

So, why this fascination with long-dead Yankee reformers? Good question. Well, within the past year or two, my sister Joan and my niece Caitlin, both avid genealogists, have, I’m convinced, uncovered the answer. See, there’s an asterisk in my father’s monolithic Irish-Catholic heritage: it’s next to his mother’s name—Emma Clark—a shadowy and somewhat (Sorry, Dad) daffy old lady with a checkered past, whom I met only a few times as a kid. The only thing, as a child, I knew for sure about her—and this was baffling and exotic—was that she wasn’t a Catholic. Even more scandalous was the rumor—which must have come from my mother, for my father would never have revealed it to us kids—that Emma had been married at least three times. (This could have been reason enough for my scrupulously devout Catholic father to want to keep his distance from her, but he was nothing if not a loyal son, and reverenced his “Ma” till her dying day—possibly in the psych ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital.)

It turns out that Emma’s mother, Alice, was the daughter (signs point to her being a wayward daughter, especially after she married an Irish Catholic farmer) of a Protestant churchman, Deacon Joshua T. Everett of Princeton, Massachusetts—my newly discovered great-great-grandfather. He lived—we’ve been slowly learning—a long (1806-1897) and distinguished life: town selectman, member of the Massachusetts legislature, long-time president of the Worcester County division of the Mass. Anti-Slavery Society, close friend and colleague of radical abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips of Boston. Frederick Douglass visited his Princeton home, which was a depot on the Underground Railroad. Of course, my father—who was surprisingly racially tolerant for a man of his time and place, never allowing a racial slur to be uttered in his house—died, sadly, without knowing any of this. Of that I’m sure, because if he had known, he wouldn’t have missed the chance, schoolteacher as he was, to set up his great-grandfather Joshua T. as a model to shame his five lackadaisical children into diligence.

How I wish my father was still here, so I could watch him react to this—for me—mind-boggling new information. Who knows how it would have changed him and the rest of his family—how we saw ourselves, how we acted? And now I come to find out, at this late date–and only because I write fiction–that on some subterranean level, I knew it all along. And that “less than perfect union” between Irish and Yankee that I “decided” to turn into my first novel? It was all true.


Leave a Reply to Belle Brett Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.