Kate Morton and Layers of History

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As a child, I played a private game. I could pick it up wherever I went. As the school bus rumbled along the roads of our very average Florida subdivision, I’d dial back my vision to imagine what else had passed under these stately moss-lined oak trees. I could envision the contractors first rattling the canopy as they began construction twenty years before; I could imagine the Native Americans passing beneath the ancient live oaks in centuries past.

But the place I could always play the game best was, and still is, at church. In the Mass, I was not particularly well-catechized and no doubt misdated the parts of the liturgy wildly, not knowing the epiclesis from my epidermis (and I was probably wrong about the Native Americans, too), but that isn’t the point. What matters was, and is, this: the shivery conviction of the ancientness and universality of all this, a clue to its rightness.

I still play the game, sometimes, as an adult. As I climb the stairs of my eighty-year-old little cottage. As I walk the boulder-strewn pastures of my new home state. And of course, most often, as the Mass is celebrated in setting after setting, Sunday after Sunday, one more instance layered upon the weight of two millennia. Columnist Ross Douthat explains it this way:

Christianity really is a time machine: As a Catholic, as a Christian, you can step into those worlds, find your footing, and realize that you are not somewhere altogether alien; that the past is another country but also somehow yours. (x)

It is evident that novelist Kate Morton, too, played this game as a child. In her body of work is another place where I feel the translucence of time. Her novels are often dismissed as historical fiction or worse, women’s fiction, but her books point to the interconnectivity of human history and a landscape’s role in that history. In the opening pages of The Distant Hoursshe writes,

“Listen! The trees of the deep, dark wood, shivering and jittering their leaves like papery hulls of beaten silver; the sly wind, snaking through their tops, whispering that soon it will begin.

The trees know, for they are old and they have seen it all before.”

There is a sacramentality to the world she builds that pairs with the Mass’s ability to transcend the particularities of space and time. Her characters bear the weight of the past upon their shoulders, literally or figuratively haunted by those who walked these fields, these streets, these halls in days long dead.
The fleeting nature of human experience vein the novels. As one elderly character reflects in Morton’s most recent book, The Clockmaker’s Daughter,
“That intersection up there where the lanes meet is called the crossroads. A medieval cross used to stand at its center. It was lost during the Reformation, when Elizabeth’s men stormed through the region, destroying the trappings of Catholicism, the churches, and the religious art — the priests, too, when they could catch them. Now only the base of the cross remains. And its name, of course, passed through time. It is remarkable, is it not, Mr. Gilbert, that a name, a simple word, is all that remains of such traumatic historical events. Things that happened right here to real people at another point in time. I think about the past every time I walk through the crossroads. I think about the church, and the priests who hid, and the soldiers who came to find and kill them. I think about guilt and forgiveness. Do you ever concern yourself with such matters?”
While it’s a common modern literary device to divvy up the narration of your novel between multiple perspectives, Morton is more adroit than many at slipping between eras, threading her mystery through people linked by a place. Admittedly, Morton’s plots often end up a bit frayed by the end; with the exception of The Secret KeeperI always set down her novels for the last time with the spell — if not broken, then at least slightly fractured. But her strength in building an atmosphere, a tone, a wistful hush, is formidable.
By merit of their physical setting, Morton’s characters become dual citizens of their own eras and a broader vision. So, too, we, as Catholic Christians bound by the church universal, slip free of the restraints of our own particular place in space and time. United in the sacrifice of the Mass, we taste timelessness.
The way the plot weaves in and out of time follows the same slippery pattern of our worship as we slip from English to Greek, from a 19th-century hymn to a praise song on absurd guitar, as a priest born in a village halfway across the world lifts high the Host at the same moment as do priests miles away, wherever the light touches.
It is a delight to escape into the pages of these books, to realize all over again that “as it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”


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