Sunday, July 15, 2012

We See Archives Everywhere - A Northern Light

    I am always thrilled when I find more stories that highlight the value of archives. I think my last post along these lines was the wonderful book "A Secret Gift." I posted about it last December. I am overdue for sharing another book with a connection to primary sources. Today, I'd like to share "A Northern Light." The story has a strong sense of place and time. I fits within a genre of writing that discusses women's rights and roles. While the book is recommended reading for teens by YALSA, I did not find it to be an outstanding example of this genre. What I most appreciated about it is its connection to archives.

I often end my basic preservation workshop / presentation by passing around books that use archives (or the idea of archives) to illustrate their story. My demonstration books include the following:

    Mr. and Mrs. Prince

     Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How and Extraordinary Eighteenth Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend. 

     Anne Frank: Her Life in Words and Pictures

    Hellen Keller: Courage in Darkness William Shakespeare: His Life and TimesWilliam Shakespeare: His Life and Times   Fairyopolis: A Flower Fairies JournalFairyopolis: A Flower Fairies JournalPrincess Alyss of Wonderland Cover Princess Alyss of Wonderland
      I found most of these examples during bookstore wanderings. The first four show how the use of archives as book illustrations can make non-fiction more immediate and real. The Anne Frank book, for example, caught my eye because it includes images of Anne's diary, including the a very colorful image of the diary cover. I had never seen the diary cover before I saw the book and I found it powerfully moving. The book also included pages handwritten by Anne. While the diary is profoundly touching and while we are all familiar with the story, seeing images from the diary itself is much more moving than reading the transcript.
      The Fairyopolis book and Princess Allys also have the power to move a person's heart and mind. Aimed at children, these fictional accounts can bring a child (and an adult with a childlike mind or imagination) into a fantasy world. The books use made up "archives" to illustrate imaginary places, relying on a basic understanding that ephemera, correspondence, maps and more can be used as supporting evidence of "reality." Made up documents tell the imaginative child that these books provide documentation of lost or secret stories.

      A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly is a nice new addition to my list. This book  is fiction based on a true story. While many authors use reality as inspiration for their writing, this one caught me by surprise because the story seems so unreal and too storybook soap opera perfect. It is not until the end of the book that the author reveals its basis in truth.
      The author's note states: "On July 12, 1906, the body of a young woman named Grace Brown was pulled from the waters of Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. The boat she'd been in had been found capsized and floating in a secluded bay..." It was later determined that Grace had been killed by her lover. "Instrumental to [the] case were Grace's own letters." A Northern Light is based on this real event and the author includes a bibliography of resources that relate to the case. I wish that she had included some handwritten pages to illustrate her novel or to further explain the connection between the event and how she developed her writing based on it.
      Despite the seemingly far-fetched nature of the story, I think of my diary project and the 1882 diary I found in an antique shop, which includes a train crash and a botched abortion in the opening pages. I am reminded again that we see archives everywhere. In them, we read about the absurdity of real life. When we examine archives, we realize the accuracy of the saying "Truth is stranger than fiction." How many good "stories" are buried in the collections of our cultural heritage institutions and the personal papers of families?  How many are in plain sight - overlooked or undervalued?

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