The idea that one may have to understand her past in order to know her future seems a simple one. In our melting pot culture, Americans are sometimes confused, troubled, and even apathetic to the notion of personal history. However, even considering the trauma or heartache discovering one’s roots may bring, Americans are often fascinated by the notions of genealogy, pedigree, and rootedness. In her nearly epic novel The Night Journal, Elizabeth Crook explores this strange limbo that many of us experience as we consider our personal roles as individual links in a chain of continuity.
Grounded in the technologically complicated reality of the late twentieth century, Meg Mabry is a century removed from a heritage that has defined her family and infinitely blinded her to certain truths of history. Central to the task at hand—Meg’s gaining a sense of family, continuation, and connection to something greater—is a set of journals left by her great-grandmother Hannah. Hannah’s tale is a rich one, full of adventure, hope, despair, and—most importantly—risk. Seeking a life all her own after the death of her parents, Hannah moves West to serve as a Harvey girl in a lavish resort hotel, New Mexico’s famed Montezuma. As a Harvey girl, a hostess in one of Fred Harvey’s legendary restaurants along the Santa Fe rail line, Hannah seeks to find her own way through the world. Orphaned but hopeful, Hannah is prepared to live the sort of adventure that has built the American West to iconic proportions. Her past is a piece of her; but beyond dwelling on it or in it, Hannah steps onto what may be a train of opportunity to steam full throttle into her future.
While it is Hannah’s apparent fearlessness and her perseverance that most intimidate Meg, these are precisely the qualities from which Meg may learn the most. Through Meg’s spiritual journey, Crook focuses on the tenuous ties that bind each person to an immediate family and that bind each of us to others through the ages, ancestors and descendents alike. Indeed, Crook explores timely issues that prove that—while the landscape may change daily—the people who are connected to a place by life or affection and separated from each other by intermediaries such as time and perspective still may share relevant experiences that cannot be erased as easily as marks in sandy paths.
Setting her tale in the desert of New Mexico, Crook brings her message, as well as her heroine, home. Meg, an indispensable participant in her technological world, is absolutely alone emotionally as she cannot read the writings that would free her from the arid desert of her lonely heart. Leaving the concrete, artificial, industrious environment of Austin, Texas, to help solve a family problem and, subsequently, a family mystery, Meg realizes a few truths as soon as she steps out of the car that has brought her to the place of her family’s most significant origins. The century that has kept Meg separate from Hannah suddenly closes in a little, and the perspective that has been so unnatural to her before comes into focus as she peers out onto the land that Hannah chose to call home. Where once “[t]he pathways into history seemed closed off,” Meg finds “the pathways…open now.” Meg’s journey through the desert landscape converts her desert heart to a plain of possibility. Rather than following only clues obscured by shifting sands in wind-blown deserts, Meg follows the words of a journal that share the hopes, dreams, aspirations, and, ultimately, the sorrows of her maternal great-grandmother.
It is Crook’s ability to acknowledge each of the necessary pieces of this puzzle that allows Hannah’s tale—as well as the tales of her family and her society—to be told. Experiencing Hannah’s journals alongside Meg, readers of The Night Journal find themselves hopping trains to opportunity, walking hand-in-hand with dashing gentlemen through turn-of-the-century gardens, and discovering the joys and sorrows of life, love, and loss. While Hannah has once thought, “I hope there is no afterlife. I hope that it is all over,” what The Night Journal proves is that a story well-told will endure.