boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
HISTORICAL NOVELS

At the margins of history, struggles to survive

I may have missed it. Nowhere in the blanket coverage of the Reagan funeral did I read anything about the nurses who attended the patient over the past decade. No names, no fond anecdotes, no tributes to their sacrifice and dedication. They were definitely not in the front row at the state funeral. Perhaps there are confidentiality rules; perhaps they were generously rewarded in private. I suspect, however, that Reagan's nurses are -- in Leona Helmsley's memorable phrase -- ''only little people." As such they join the ranks of thousands who were considered less than important during his administration, but let's not get on to that.

If history occasionally corrects such omissions, historical novels often seem compelled to do so, and ''The Garden of Martyrs," by Michael C. White, is a perfect example of setting the record straight for the little guy. (Those who know Northampton as a groovy town, by the way, will find the novel quite a revelation.)

The historical facts are disturbing enough. On Nov. 9, 1805, Marcus Lyon, a young farmer riding along the Boston Post Road to Connecticut, was robbed and brutally murdered. Two Irish immigrants traveling the road at that time were immediately arrested and imprisoned in Northampton.

White's novel opens as a lawyer is appointed for Dominic Daley and James Halligan, just two days before the trial. The prosecution has five months to prepare its case and political expediency on its side. Republican attorney general James Sullivan is running for election as governor against the Federalist incumbent Caleb Strong, and ''having come from Catholic stock [is] the kind of man to turn his back on his past with the narrow-minded zeal of a convert." Sullivan personally prosecutes the case.

Daley, the innocent, and Halligan, the realist, can rely only on their dissipated lawyer, Francis Blake, and their Boston priest, Father Cheverus. Blake adds welcome subtlety to White's depiction of Northampton's inhabitants as a largely vicious, paranoid crew, a sort of Yankee Klan without the white sheets. But White concentrates mainly on Cheverus and his tormented conscience. Flashbacks to the priest's flight from the terror of the French Revolution are gripping, but they are a distraction from the main drama of the trial, which in itself provides plenty of suspense if not enough background intrigue.

''His life . . . had been much like that of a ship without a mast, drifting here and there across the ocean," Akira Yoshimura writes of his hero, Hikotaro, in ''Storm Rider," a novel set in 19th-century Japan and America. Another of history's little people, Hikotaro is a Japanese castaway who, like White's Irish immigrants, must throw himself on the mercy of strangers.

But these powerful Americans are benevolent. From the moment 13-year-old Hikotaro and his crewmates are rescued by an American ship and taken to San Francisco, fortune smiles. He meets three US presidents; witnesses the Civil War, the Taiping Rebellion (well, almost), and the conflict attending Japan's opening to the outside world; and starts Japan's first newspaper. All of which is reported in dry, repetitive language that deadens even the liveliest scene. Much perhaps is lost in translation.

Lily Tuck, by contrast, compresses the turbulence of 19th-century Paraguay under dictatorship into a tense, elegant novel that reveals the disparate fates of its characters in a series of scenes, diary entries, and letters.

''The News From Paraguay" is primarily the story of Ella Lynch, Irish beauty and mistress of Paraguay's ruler, Franco Lopez, a story that has been told before but never as well as it is here. ''At age ten, Eliza Alicia Lynch had left Ireland; at fifteen, Elisa Alice Lynch married a French army officer; at nineteen, divorced and living with a handsome but impecunious Russian count, Ella Lynch needed to reinvent herself."

Standard bodice-ripping fare, you might think, and Tuck certainly teases with her laconic descriptions of passion, greed, jewels, and horses. All the while, however, she gradually darkens the novel's tone as Franco the young lover turns into a megalomaniac and as the insulation protecting Ella's privileged world from chaotic reality is shredded by war. ''In the carriage, while Pancho bled to death on her lap, she was made to drive back to the banks of the Aquidaban, to where Franco lay on his back in the mud. Flies were buzzing around the wounds on Franco's stomach, a swarm were flying in and out of his open mouth."

Tuck allows Ella to be grand, even heroic, also silly and vain; the best kind of 19th-century heroine. In a few dry sentences or in a series of apparently disconnected scenes, she also distills the essence of a character like the frightful Dr. Kennedy: ''Holding his Bigg and Milliken saw in one hand and a manual entitled Necessity of Amputation, in the other, Dr. Henry Kennedy stood over Marie and read, mouthing the words to himself: 1. Cases where a limb is nearly or completely carried away."

Paraguay materializes as Tuck's characters do, imperceptibly, until the sounds, smells, and colors of the country saturate the pages, defying Ella's attempts to impose gentility and surviving the reign of yet another madman; much like ''the celestial jaguar who could cause an eclipse by gnawing on either the moon or the sun."

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached at ama1668@hotmail.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives