I've written before about that strangely intimate experience of reading a book in its setting--and if you haven't tried it, you must--and that experience doesn't change much if you read something after you've been to the setting. Most of my memories of Grosse Ile right now are sensory and tactile, the absolute oppression of the sun, the way the wind picked up at a very specific moment (more on that in a moment), the movement of the ferry on the St. Lawrence River, the notes that Patrick pulled from his pipe, his flute. I have much to write about Patrick, our musician, and Grosse Ile, but that's for another time, another place.
Grosse Ile, from the ferry.
This is the Irish Memorial Cross, erected in 1909, to honor the nearly 5500 Irish who are buried on Grosse Ile. Here's the thing about Grosse Ile that stung me first: In the whole of the island's 105 year history, there are 7553 buried on the island (they are very deliberate about saying buried, not died--more on that later) and 5424 of those died in 1847 in a six-month period. These were overwhelmingly Irish, fleeing the worst of the Great Famine. Reread that. Three quarters of those who are buried on Grosse Ile died during six months, mostly of the typhus epidemic. Most years, Grosse Ile processed 20,000-30,000 immigrants--but in 1847, the number was closer to 100,000. There wasn't room for that many healthy people, let alone sick. This is intellectual knowledge, not knowledge in your bones. There's a difference.
We got a very brief history of the island from our tour guide, Pierre-Loup, and then we walked in the incredible heat, the umbrellas we'd brought against warnings of rain raised against the sun. Then the rise of the landscape changed and at first all we could see was a mowed expanse and a picket fence. And then the wooden crosses inside the fence came into focus, large white crosses placed at odd intervals. We followed Pierre-Loup up the hill until we could fix the entire expanse in our field of vision. What we were seeing was still not clear--I mean, I assumed it was a cemetery, but then Pierre-Loup told us what we were looking at.
And then, what Pierre-Loup was saying finally clicked: yes, this a the mass grave. That much I could understand. But I assumed that the people were buried on the raised portions of the cemetery--but that's not right. Everyone who died on the island got a coffin and they all got their own coffin. The coffins are buried three deep here. And when the coffins and the bodies began to decompose, the land collapsed. So the people are buried in those spaces where the land dips. For some reason, that froze my mind in place. I had no more thoughts, no more associations.
Memorial for the physicians who died tending the sick, 1847.
And then Patrick began to play a lament. Margaret read a poem. And some of our group began to weep. I did not. But I let Patrick's music grieve for me.
where ships carrying cholera docked, away from the main wharf
So, today's question: what works of literature have you read in its setting (or works whose setting you know intimately)--what is your experience of reading when you know the landscape the writer is writing about?