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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, August 28, 2005

genesis of a historical novelist

When did I first realize I was interested in history?

Although I have never thought of myself as someone who was especially interested in history--the way I have always been interested in, say, science--I did feel a spark of fascination when I studied ancient history in grade 7 as part of the regular Social Studies curriculum. Our teacher, for history, was the school principal Mr. Thibodeau, a small, wiry, chain-smoking, velvet-voiced man who had what seemed to be a genuine passion for history, although it might have been just a passion for teaching. Either way, he got us--got me, anyway--thinking about history, and most especially about ancient history, for I have found that I am generally less excited by other kinds.

The grade 7 curriculum then (and I think still) introduces the student to history from the Stone Age all the way up to the Renaissance, which was the starting-point for grade 8. A lot of territory. We were taught social studies for most of the year by our home-room teacher Miss Wright, a six-foot-plus, barrel-shaped, no-nonsense woman from England. But when we got to the section on ancient Greece, Mr. Thibodeau took over.

I remember one class in which he was trying to get us to answer the question of who was the greatest enemy of the ancient Greeks. He made us guess. "Rome?" "Egypt?" "Mesopotamia?" No, no, no. At length, after surveying the class intently, expectantly, for a number of silent seconds, he blurted: "No! Their big enemy was the Persians!"

The Persians? I thought. I'd barely heard of the Persians, and I was the top-scoring student in that subject. What impressed me was that Mr. Thibodeau thought we would know this. He had paid the class this compliment, and also set the bar to a new place in my school experience up to that point: challenging us to think about and know things on our own account, beyond what we had learned in class.

Mr. Thibodeau lit the fire of enthusiasm in me for ancient history. He took a special interest in me, of course, as the top student, but what he really demonstrated was that it's ok to have passion for a subject that seems, to most people, obscure and useless. Learning and understanding are ends in themselves, apart from the subject-matter being examined.

By the end of that course, end of that year, I was reading the textbook The Ancient and Medieval World on my own account. As I looked at maps of the ancient world, and read about how people lived: the technologies they used, the dwellings they lived in, I saw the history unfolding before me as images, as narrative. I felt a kind of glow in my body as I visualized scenes, feeling almost like a superhuman, a ghost who could visit the different times, stopping to experience the richness of each world, each era, before moving on. I pictured movielike scenes of village life: the scrape of tools in dry soil, the flap of awnings in the breeze, the smell of woodsmoke. It was rich and intense. I wound up keeping the textbook at the end of grade 7 (theft) so that I could finish reading it, letting the movie of time roll on.

My passion for history subsided to a lower level in the following years, marginalized by all the other things in life and my other interests. It returned powerfully in 1984 when I conceived the idea of writing about Pythagoras, as I've described in an earlier post. It hasn't really left me since. It's one passion among others, for I'm still probably more future-oriented than past-oriented, in most ways, but it is still strong. My interest in origins, in root causes, takes me back, back: how did things start? Why, deep down, are things the way they are?

Ancient history is, for me, part of the answer. With The Mission I have resumed my old passion: unspooling the movie of the deep past.

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