Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Author dove into history of Pecos Pueblo in 1890s
Web Posted: 02/08/2006 12:00 AM CST
Express-News Book Editor
After two epic historical novels — 1991's "The Raven's Bride" and 1994's "Promised Lands" — Elizabeth Crook struggled with her next book. She knew she didn't want to write about Texas again.
"Because I'd done that, you know?" the Austin author says. "And I basically didn't want to do all that research again."
She wanted to write a contemporary novel.
"I was looking at a lot of different things, searching for something to write about," Crook says.
Then, a long weekend to New Mexico with her husband resulted in an "aha" moment. Visiting the Pecos Pueblo, Crook was struck by "the power of the place."
"It was the same feeling I had about La Bahia in Goliad when I was writing 'Promised Lands' (about the Texas Revolution). I said, 'I want to write about this.'"
"The Night Journal" (Viking, $24.95) took more than a decade to write and probably required more research than her first two books combined. It is a complex novel about self-discovery and family myth, with two strong women characters at its core.
Well, actually three. Hannah Bass came west in the 1890s to work as a Harvey Girl at the Montezuma Resort in Las Vegas, N.M. She kept a meticulous and honest journal of her days, and eventually met the man she would marry, railroad builder Elliott Bass.
A generation later, Hannah's daughter Claudia Bass, a renowned historian, would secure the family legacy by editing and publishing the journals to national acclaim.
Hannah's journals — full of eyewitness accounts, vivid New Mexican landscapes, courageous characters, Victorian restrictions and medical marvels — made "Bassie's" reputation in the academic world and established the Bass family as a pillar of Southwestern history. But do they tell the full story?
Meg Mabry, Bassie's granddaughter, always chafed against family lore, eschewing history for engineering. Worse, Meg has refused to read even one word of the journals.
When the park service decides to excavate the old Bass family property at the Pecos Pueblo, grandmother and granddaughter, at loggerheads for years, begin an odyssey that takes them deep into their family history. What Meg eventually discovers stands the storied family legacy on its head.
"It's interesting to me, this sense of legacy and how far we can get from the truth," Crook says. "I find it really interesting what gets passed down, and how arbitrary that can be."
"At first," Crook says, "I didn't know which story was the main story. It's sort of a nightmare to write in two time periods." Eventually, Crook decided to make Meg the main character, but she does an admirable job of incorporating Hannah's journal entries into the narrative.
In the process, she researched everything from train wrecks to anthropological forensics for the book.
"I tried to avoid the research, but that's what I most enjoyed," Crook says. "It's like a treasure hunt doing research because one discovery leads to another. You find these moments when you realize that this would make good drama."
"She's a totally obsessive researcher," says Austin writer Stephen Harrigan, author of "The Gates of the Alamo." "In fact, she's obsessive about everything. Elizabeth is not a multitasker. When she's writing a book, she's totally focused on it."
Crook says the book took "forever" because she had trouble nailing the contemporary voice "without it being flat or overwritten."
"The Hannah/Elliot journal passages — that stuff just rolls out," she says.
"I had to rewrite this book so many times before it was any good. And if I was to start another book tomorrow, I'd probably make all the same mistakes."
"I think it's a tremendous success," says Harrigan. "It's got this geographical sweep and historical depth. There's a genuine understanding of these multiple generations of characters and what's driving them.
"It works on so many levels, as a mystery story, as historical fiction and as a contemporary love story. Elizabeth is able to piece them all together. I wouldn't want to take on this book."
Crook sounds pleased and relieved that "The Night Journal" is finally done. She's lived with Hannah and Bassie and Meg for 10 years, after all.
"Writing for me is a messy process," she says. "Theoretically, I should learn from my mistakes — I write too much, there's too much history. But I'm never going to start out knowing the story or having a plan."