The Past in the Present

When in New York City for longer than a plane change, I visit either the Lower East Side Tenement Museum or a Broadway play. On my last trip, I settled into my balcony aisle seat for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Allow me to gush. What’s not to love about a well-staged, well-acted, well-sung play when you know every-single-word of every-single-song? I smiled for the play’s too short two and one-half hours. I hummed under my breath on the way back to my hotel. In my morning shower I serenaded the towels with a wall-shaking rendition of “I Feel the Earth Move.” Click on the song link to hear Carole rocking it out. I’ll wait.

Back?  Good.

What struck me on the unending airplane flight home was that Beautiful was a retrospective play! Why, you wonder, would I spend one of the three exclamation points issued to every author on my mile-high epiphany? In my first semester at Pacific University’s MFA program, I considered using a retrospective format for my (now dormant) novel. The retrospective format is simple but powerful—like in a memoir, the narrator resides in the present and recalls their past.

Beautiful opens on a concert stage. Breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, Carole recalls how she grew up in Brooklyn. Boom! A few bits of deft stage magic later and we’re home with sixteen-year-old Carole and her mother. The play progresses through Carole’s career ending with her back on stage, except now we know it’s 1971 and she’s at Carnegie Hall performing her soon to be multiple Grammy award winning album: Tapestry. Present: 1971. Retrospective Past: Unproven youth to single mom success.

Below, I’ve listed several retrospective novels for your pleasure.

  • Sebastian Barry’s first retrospective was named Irish Novel of the Year: The Secret Scripture: A Novel. Nearing one-hundred-years-old, Roseanne McNulty records the religious persecution that led her to an insane asylum.
  • In Sebastian Barry’s award-winning novel, On Canaan’s Side. Lilly Bere promises to kill herself, but first she spends seventeen days recalling her eighty-nine years.
  • Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. In 2011, the contents of boxes in a elderly woman’s attic reveal her life starting with her 1929 orphan train trip to Minnesota.
  • In The Turk and My Mother, Mary Helen Stefaniak’s characters live in 2004 but travel back to recall the 1930s as well as Eastern Europe before and during World War I.
  • Margaret Atwood in The Blind Assassin places her character, Iris Chase, in the 1990s, writing a letter to her granddaughter sharing family secrets from the 1930s and 1940s.
  • As the twenty-first century begins, Evan Molloy wanders through his home recalling his life from 1950 through his suicide in 1992. Yep, David Long’s character in The Inhabited World is ten years a ghost.
  • Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat’s collection of linked short stories is set in the fictional Haitian town of Ville Rose. The first story, and indeed the entire collection, is a retrospective beginning and ending on Claire’s seventh birthday. The events of Claire’s birthday are told and retold through several perspectives. Although in agreement on the fundamental events, each person filters the day as unique individuals with personal regrets and desires.
  • The Aviator’s Wife, a first-person historical novel by Melanie Benjamin, opens and closes with Anne Morrow Lindbergh at Charles Lindbergh’s death in 1974. The past follows the couple through their 1927 meeting, marriage, her career as a pilot at his side, the kidnapping and death of their first child, and the following years of their continual estrangement.

And then there are short stories…Let’s start a new list!

  • “Child’s Play” by Alice Munro

Please let me know if you liked my suggestions and send me your favorite retrospectives to add to my list.

3 thoughts on “The Past in the Present

  1. Hi Jo:

    Wow, this is so powerful. I love how you intertwined the two pieces. Really superb. And, I want to see the play! (one exclamation point) Also, love the Tenement Museum. Thanks also for the list below of retrospective novels. I’ve read the Atwood.

    But what does dormant mean?

    We should get together at some point before my life changes forever.

    Fondly,

    S

    • My novel on Lady Ada Lovelace, the world’s first programmer, is resting quietly in a corner of my computer’s hard drive. Once New York in the 1920s is done with me, I’ll return to Lady Ada and London in the 19th century.

  2. Pingback: A Log of Monologues | Jo Haraf

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