Trust Accounting, Not Accounts

All three of the books here deal with historical narratives. The statement that resonated most for me, and which applies in some ways to all three books, is from Josephine Tey: “Truth isn’t in accounts but in account-books.” It is another way of saying “trust but verify” when someone tells you what they remember.

The Body by Stephen King.

This novel about four twelve-year-old boys on a search for a dead body was made into the film “Stand By Me.” I saw the film many years ago and feel that, as good as it was, it didn’t do justice to all the complexities of the relationships and the imagery of the book. It is a great story, well told.

The principle character, Gordie, and his friends all have unhappy home environments so they spend a lot of time together outdoors. The story is set in 1960 but as Gordie tells it to us he is reflecting back on it from his adult point of view. He intersperses the narrative with various articles he has written over the years, beginning with stories he wrote as a child.

Essentially, it is the story of a long walk along a railroad track over two hot days and one terrifying night. They have lots of adventures and conversations along the way so that the reader gets to know them all well. They disagree a lot and help each other out when necessary, but they aren’t exactly a cohesive bunch. “Stand By Me” would not have been the title I would have chosen for the film.

What is intriguing about the whole story is that, in the end, none of the adults in their lives knew what had happened to them. They accepted the excuses the boys made for their dishevelment and injuries, and so the truth never fully came out.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner.

This is a story about a present-day American woman, Caroline, who finds herself alone in London, England on her wedding anniversary. She has chosen to take the trip alone because she has discovered her husband’s infidelity. In wandering around the city she comes across a man who invites her to join the mudlarkers who search for ancient artifacts in the mud left in the Thames at low tide. In doing this, she finds a small glass vial with the image of a bear etched into one side, and she sets out to find out its origins.

Caroline’s story is interspersed with the story of Nella, an apothecary in the eighteenth century. Nella’s shop began as a place providing for women’s maladies but after a man betrayed her, she began dispensing poisons to women for them to do away with cruel and/or faithless husbands.

Caroline finds out more about the vial by collaborating in research with Gaynor at the British Museum. Nella gets entangled in the nastiness of an aristocratic household through the involvement of a teenager, Eliza, who wants to learn about the work of the apothecary.

It is a great idea for a story but I had to suspend my disbelief a few times. For example, I very much doubt that an American tourist would find and get access to an undisturbed eighteenth-century apothecary that no-one else knew about. If you can overcome those obstacles, though, you will appreciate the parallel lives of the two principle characters who lived centuries apart. What brings the two worlds together in the end are the vial itself and a record-book of all of Nella’s transactions. The book tells a despicable tale.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.

What do you know about King Richard III? He was a hunchback who murdered the princes in the tower, right? Well, don’t be so sure.

This book takes a familiar historical narrative and turns it into a fast-paced murder mystery. Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is confined to bed with a broken leg, and one of his friends brings him various books and pictures to help him while away the time. One of the pictures is of Richard III, and Grant does not see in it an evil man. His sense of the man in the portrait is that he was not the man we were taught that he was, and so begins a search for more information.

He is introduced to an American graduate History student, Carradine, who does research at the British Museum. The two men look back on that period in history not by reading the accounts of people who remembered or were told about the events. Instead, they look at factual records about the movements of individuals and armies, dates of births, marriages, and deaths, and also the absence of contemporaneous references to the deaths of the two princes.

It is fascinating to read about each new revelation as it comes to light, and it made me have second thoughts about the history I was taught in school. Even Richard’s deformed spine is in doubt! He may, in one assessment, have had polio but whatever he had it didn’t stop him from being fit and strong in battle. In the end, he seems to have been a really decent fellow.

The title of the book comes from a quote from Francis Bacon: “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.” That is to say, even if some respected person claims to know the truth of an event, eventually time will prove them right or wrong.

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