For 25 years, beginning with her National Book Award-winning story collection, Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett has devoted vast amounts of her creative energy to vividly imagining several generations of a family and their friends living in central New York. In Natural History, the publisher tells us, Barrett “completes and connects the lives of the family of scientists, teachers and innovators she has been weaving throughout her books.”
First, let’s hope that this isn’t truly our final opportunity to spend time with Barrett’s characters. Long may they prosper! Many of them are female naturalists leading deeply compelling lives in provincial places, corresponding fruitfully with each other and with renowned scientists. They’re not simply unmarried teachers or traveling lecturers concerned with the science lab and the beauty of nature. They’re also devoted family members, lonely visionaries and rivals for the attention and approval of others. Their relationships, professional and emotional, are the understory to the science that seems to so fascinate Barrett.
Second, you need not have read earlier stories to be informed and dazzled by Natural History. (I have read less than half of Barrett’s books and still found myself astounded.) While the larger narrative of Barrett’s collected works has not emerged chronologically but instead episodically, this collection of six stories does contain a basic chronology, following schoolteacher and citizen-scientist Henrietta Atkins (born in 1852) into the early 20th century. A helpful family tree at the end of the book illustrates the range and complexity of family relations as well as the ties “beyond blood or marriage” that link characters.
Third, Barrett is sometimes described as a historical fiction writer. There’s truth in that. Many of these stories are set in the 19th century and offer rich sensory glimpses of small-town American life of that era. At the same time, Barrett has a more modern view of the winnowing processes of history. In one of the collection’s best stories, “The Regimental History,” Henrietta is a bright child serving in the home of a prominent local family, and she reads horrific and confusing first-person accounts of Civil War battles from two brothers in the family. Later, an older Henrietta, now a teacher, helps one brother attempt to clarify and defend his unit’s sullied reputation by contributing to the regimental history. And later still, an even older Henrietta visits a historian who possesses all the soldiers’ testimonials and will now refine and generalize and make everything clear.
Or maybe not. In Natural History, Barrett demonstrates that while history organizes and distills events, fiction brings messy humanity gloriously to life.