(Illustrator Jacqueline Tam in The Atavist Magazine.)
My friend Kathy Butler shared a story with me, knowing how I feel about the quest of excavating people in history and using those dusty found bits as a starting point for fiction. She was right. I was transfixed by Castles in the Sky by San Francisco historian Christina LaLanne, who tells the story of buying and renovating a 1910 home in San Francisco’s Sunset District. All the steps she and her husband take, the stripping away of paint to reveal original finishes, would have been fascinating all by themselves. But then they discover two diaries hidden above their ceiling and that ignites a long journey of research and connection.
After describing the loss of her own parents in childhood, LaLanne explains, “I am desperate to communicate with the past, but so much of it is elusive, scattered, unknowable. I’m all too familiar with the frustration of sifting through fragments of truth and possibility for answers to my questions. I understand now that searching and listening and following are vital, but not always enough. I reconstruct what I can and use imagination to bring the rest into being. To set the world as it should be. To set it as I need it to be. What else can I—or anyone—do?”
This reminds me of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who said in a five minute film that his work to “wake” Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and so many of the other historical figures of his films, really connects back to his boyhood desire to wake his own mother who passed in his childhood.
People who create things are often trying to retell painful stories in meaningful ways. To make things right. I look forward to following LaLanne’s journey of exploration, discovery and creation.
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