Book Review: Andrea Barrett’s Magical “Natural History”
By Roberta Silman
Although science is Andrea Barrett’s springboard, she is writing fiction about the people who do scientific research and teach it: memorable people who have hearts and secrets and feelings and hopes and dreams and goals.
Natural History by Andrea Barrett, W.W. Norton, 192 pages, $26.95.
Andrea Barrett is a writer of immense talent who has proved in her last six books that she can create a world inhabited by characters so compelling that they seem to have been real people in the real world. As a matter of fact, in this book she has actually included family trees of many of her characters which she calls, simply, The Families. But before I get to Natural History, we need to know how we got here.
Barrett was born in 1954, started writing young, and had some success with four early novels that were set in contemporary times. But it was when she created the novella “Ship Fever” in her book of stories Ship Fever, which was published in 1996 and won the National Book Award, that it became clear that she had veered in a different direction. In that novella she explores the heartbreaking story of a young Irish immigrant named Nora Kynd fleeing the Great Famine in 1847. She ends up on Grosse Isle in Canada. There, a young doctor plucks her — barely alive — from one of the coffin ships and cares for her and her compatriots while plumbing the enigma of the deadly typhus and also battling the bureaucracy and political chicanery that seem to confront him at every turn. It is one of the best novellas I have ever read; its point of view moves from Nora to the doctor to his wealthy friends in Quebec, even to the maid who works in that upper-class household, and finally back to Nora, who will venture into a new life in America, hoping to find the two brothers from whom she was separated after her arrival in Canada. In that work Barrett began a family tree that became so compelling to her that she wrote about Nora and her descendants again and again; my favorite is the fabulous story called “The Cure” in Servants of the Map about the people who were patients and caregivers in the cure cottages for tuberculosis in the Adirondacks.
With each book of interconnected stories and also two novels — The Voyage of the Narwhal and The Air We Breathe — Barrett has shown herself to be that rare writer in the American canon interested in the scientists and their disciples who became prominent throughout the 19th century. People like Darwin and Agassiz and Wallace and Linnaeus and Mendel posed questions about genes, evolution, the role of miasma and contagion in the transference of disease, X-rays, the classification of plants and animals, the mapping of the world, the habits of birds and lichen and mosses close to home and in faraway places like the Himalayas and the Amazon, even how grapes become wine. Some, like Agassiz and Linnaeus, actually appear beside Barrett’s fictional characters, others stay more in the background. All wondered about how the natural world works and searched for answers. We now blithely take their discoveries for granted. But how did these enormous strides in understanding nature come about? And, perhaps, more important, how (and by whom) were they handed down from generation to generation? What happened on those often perilous journeys, not only in terms of accumulating knowledge, but also in terms of the human cost of transmission?
Although science is Barrett’s springboard, she is writing fiction inspired by the people who do scientific research and teach it. Her memorable characters have hearts and secrets and feelings and hopes and dreams and goals. As well as burdens and hardships. She portrays, with great compassion, people who are boxed into their lives by geography or their sex or poverty or ill-health or tragedy or war (the effects of both the Civil War and World War I hover over several of the stories) or even by their own obsessions.
Barrett writes especially well about the women: marvelously brainy and ambitious women who were confined to their households or their classrooms because of social norms. Women like Henrietta Atkins, the lynchpin of this latest collection of stories, who taught science in a high school in upstate New York, and also helped raise her invalid sister’s five daughters. She made her choices for reasons known only to her, and she was never entirely understood, even by the people who admired and loved her. Or the luckier women in the 20th century who were allowed to pursue their dreams but who began to question the value of their achievements: the long hours, the sacrifices, the toll of the travel and the conferences, the political maneuvering, and, not least, the energy required to compete with the men in what was still, really, “a man’s world.” And, finally, the communities in which these amazing people existed, proving as Justin Taylor said in the New York Times, “that there is no such thing in nature as self-containment; everything is part of something bigger than itself.”
At the end of Natural History Barrett writes:
In 1994, when I set a story called “the Marburg Sisters” in the central New York village of Hammondsport, I had no idea that I’d write more stories about those young women, nor that I’d spend several decades imagining generations of their family and friends. I took as a given, when I started, that Rose and Bianca were interested in science. Only much later, as the sisters’ forebears came into focus, did I see the roots of their deep curiosity about the natural world.
In this revealing passage we get a glimpse of how really good fiction is made — that these characters took over Barrett’s life and led her to places she could not anticipate. Her years of seeing what she could make fiction do have led to stories that are not only extraordinary, but often magical because they unfold with such unusual ease. In this she resembles her American forebear Willa Cather, who is apparently a favorite of hers (and mine) and who penned the wonderful epigraph to this book: “There were some advantages about being a writer of histories. The desk was a shelter one could hide behind. It was a hole one could creep into.” From The Professor’s House.
Natural History is, finally, the historical jigsaw of Henrietta’s life. We learn that she made the devious choice not to marry and why. But we also learn how the power of memory can sustain a long life. We see her as a precocious 10-year-old writing letters to neighbors, brothers Izzy and Vic, who have gone off to fight in the Civil War, and how she reacts to their responses. In that story, “Regimental Histories,” we are plunged into a vision of the Civil War that is uniquely moving. Years later, when Henrietta and her student Bernard, who is also the nephew of the two brothers, seek answers, they end up in the home of a widow of a man who fought with those boys. Here is an example of Barrett’s method when that widow is thinking about what her husband tasked her do:
Before Savery died, he’d once said that even a person like him who’d been in the war, part of the war, would after a few years no longer be sure which events he actually remembered and which he’d been told about by someone else — Izzy, for example — who’d also been there. They saw the same thing, but not the same thing. They felt the same things, but not the same things — and in talking to each other, both right after the various battles and movements and then as they retold those events, sometimes in the company of others and always with liquor involved, all the stories tangled together. Which strand came from him, which from someone else? Even if he had not been able to remember sometimes — and if that was true for Savery, then she could do no worse and might even do better. Exactly because she hadn’t been there, she thought, she had the chance to separate out from the strands of evidence what was legend and what was not. Maybe she could see, as those who’d been present sometimes couldn’t, how one place had been conflated with another, two wings of battle fused into one, how time had been compressed or expanded.
In another story we see Henrietta’s enthusiasm for moths leading — almost — to tragedy. And in “The Accident” we learn not only about the people who fell in love with the early airplanes, and the tremendous risks they took, but also about how class conflicts can lead to tragic outcomes. We see Henrietta interacting with her single friend Daphne, their differences sometimes leading to resentments, but always propelled by the knowledge that they care for each other deeply. And, finally, we end up with the valedictory story of Rose Marburg, one of the sisters who was part of Barrett’s original conception.
The twists and turns, the layers and mysteries woven into these most recent stories make them a pleasure to read. They also make them impossible to summarize. Instead, I will give you two more examples of Barrett’s prose. In an earlier story about Rose from Servants of the Map, we see how Rose began:
Trudging back up the hill to the house, Rose believed she might become an entomologist herself . Her mother dabbled at botany, specializing in the mosses; Grandpa Leo and her father were both chemists of a sort. The grandmother she’d never known — Eudora, Grandpa Leo’s wife, who’d died before Rose could meet her — had left behind a cache of letters from her own grandfather, a surveyor who’d studied plants from giant mountains on the other side of the world. Rose had seen how Suky [her mother] cherished those, savoring their connection to her own work and sometimes speaking wistfully of her desire to travel. Holding those letters in her hand, sniffing the yellowing, earth-smelling pages and trying to imagine that ancient figure, Rose had sworn she’d never vegetate in one place as her mother had.
And here is Rose writing about her newest project, Henrietta’s life:
Sometimes, when you’ve been consumed by a scientific problem for a while, a fresh idea can rise up from what appears to be nothing and sweep through your head like a wave. It’s winter, now: snow on the ground, tracks in the snow, coyote scat solid with rabbit skin near the tracks. Henrietta, as she had since I’d left our village and moved into the cabin full-time, accompanied me through the rest of the summer and the fall, although I said nothing about the project and hid my papers when Deirdre [Rosa’s friend, almost a parallel of Daphne, Henrietta’s friend] came by for lunch…. As soon as she left I went back to my work, seeing more clearly than before what might be hiding in my pages. Often I don’t know what I mean; when I try to say what I mean, I lie; it seems I only tell the truth when I’m talking about someone else. In those sketches of Henrietta’s world, my own experiences had metamorphosed. Soon, I thought, when I finished writing about her, I might try something new … a sketch of us that was but also wasn’t us … but kept the feelings.
So now, in the guise of a character named Rosalind, brilliant Rose tells us her own story: how, to everyone’s consternation, she chose, at the prime of her career, to make a fateful decision that lands her back in the world of her beloved ancestor Henrietta. Thus closing the circle.
Barrett is clearly telling us she is done with the Marburg sisters. But there are all those strands in her map of her fictional family trees. Or are “fresh ideas” coming in a wave from another direction? We can only wait impatiently and see.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her latest novel, Summer Lightning, has been released as a paperback, an ebook, and an audio book. Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus and it is now available as an audio book from Alison Larkin Presents. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at email@example.com.