Thursday, August 21, 2014

Scenes Behind at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Thimble on a Spinning Wheel
Camden County (MO) Museum
Photo by Al Griffin

In Life after Life, Kate Atkinson, the author, considers the past lives lived by Ursula, reincarnated as herself again and again; each of her lives intersects with the same family, but detours onto different career or character possibilities. In Atkinson's debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1997), a Whitbred Book of the Year winner, Atkinson also explores the power the past has over the present and future through the life of Ruby Lennox.

An Early 20th-Century Dress on
Display at the Camden County (MO)
Museum, 2014
Photo by Al Griffin
From her conception to her mother’s death, Ruby seeks to know and understand Bunty, her mother, as flawed as the mother in D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” Bunty Lennox does not deprive or deny her children, but they are her burden, especially poor Ruby, labeled as the pariah in her family, a role that shapes her character and stunts her growth.

Ruby is one of four siblings, all girls. The oldest, Patricia, rebels and finally leaves home without telling her mother or her sisters where she is. In fact, by breaking free of her family and remaining apart, Patricia overcomes her need to strike out or against her circumstances, especially being the oldest daughter of Bunty. Patricia emigrates to Australia, becomes a veterinarian, marries a fine man, and raises a family of her own before she reveals her whereabouts; even then, Patricia contacts Ruby, not Bunty.

Another woman, Lillian, one of Patricia and Ruby's ancestors, also escapes and stays away from her family for the rest of her life, only once re-connecting to tell the family she left behind not to worry. Both Patricia and Lillian flee angry, bitter adults. Both seek more of themselves, for themselves, and of life, of the few days we’re granted on this earth.

After Bunty dies and the surviving sisters, Patricia and Ruby, oversee her burial, they part once more. Patricia hopes to find the daughter she gave up before emigrating; Ruby plans to return to the Shetlands, a place that calls to her, in part because of ancient family roots there, but more because her own daughters have grown and gone on to their own lives, granting Ruby the freedom at last to live apart, to contemplate, and to write.

Before the sisters separate, Patricia advises Ruby to leave the past in the past, but Ruby counters, saying, “The past’s what you take with you.” And she’s right, of course. All the lives and choices and sorrows and triumphs that precede our own shape and define us, limiting our own options and opening up paths unavailable to others. How these lives shape us is the enigma, one that Ruby resolves as writers do. She says, “words are the only things that can construct a world that makes sense.”

A 19th-Century Spinning Wheel
on Display at the
Camden County (MO) Museum
Photo by Al Griffin
That declaration is the basis for the novel as Atkinson switches from the present to the matriarchs and world events from previous generations. Flashbacks and antecedent action are given the status of extensive footnotes, intruding upon the present narrative to give us insight into the actions and reactions of those in the contemporary story. Thus Atkinson unravels the histories of a family. She invents dioramas through which we stroll in order to glimpse the past that has made them who and what they are today.

Reading Challenge:

Read Scenes Behind the Museum by Kate Atkinson.

Writing Challenge:

Tell a story imitating Atkinson’s technique. Use footnote chapters to reveal significant antecedent action and/or flashbacks.