A Cozy Bit of Time Travel with Katharine Neville

It was a holiday season that seemed perfect for a little time travel. The weather was sloppy; real travel was limited. We searched for classic Christmas movies, and I found a treasure–a copy of The Gathering (circa 1977) on DVD. I’d watched The Gathering on television 40 years ago–loved the adaptation of the classic Scrooge tale: a grumbling, repentant Ed Asner. A wounded but lovingly loyal Maureen Stapleton. The reluctant but inevitable return, one by one, of their adult children, for a final family Christmas.

This time, I watched the film with a new ping of recognition–the town where The Gathering was filmed, Chagrin Falls, is an Ohio town, home to a favorite indie bookstore. Chagrin Falls was not a place I knew when first I watched the movie. And the clothes and the politics and the runaway draft-dodger son–all that took me back to the 1970’s.  With this comfortable 40-year perspective, the time travel was fun.

So I decided to open a book my friend Elinor, a wise and far-reaching reader, had recommended. It was The Eight, by Katharine Neville. Published in 1988, the book was set in 1972…and in the 1790’s. Elinor had recommended it, saying there was a sudden resurgence of interest. I had a scrap left on an Amazon gift card, and that shard was enough to bring me a nicely used hardcover copy.

Our classic movie fest over, we opened up the fireplace and cranked up the gas fire on a holiday break evening.  The dog eased herself over in front of the fire, and I pulled the old round ottoman close to my reading chair. I sank into the chair, and I sank in to the book. Snow fell outside; the firelight flickered and soothed. The dog snored. And I time-traveled once again.

Cat, Neville’s protagonist, is an early days computer expert. Her work took me back to days of registering for classes by gathering punch cards from tables–here was the English table, and, hallelujah, there was still a card left for the 10:00 section of Novels and Tales. A women’s history course at 11, right next door. The necessary though dreaded section of math. Some of the classes I wanted yielded empty boxes, and then I had to go searching for a suitable substitute–a needed but interesting class, with a reportedly tolerable professor. When I was done, I would take my  stack of four or five class cards to the table by the door, and fill in the pertinent info–name and major, address and phone. A student worker would sort through the cards and insure I hadn’t created any time conflicts for myself, and then she’d put them in a long, long box with thousands of other students’ punch cards. A staff member from the bursar’s office would take my check, and I would walk out into the sunlight of the quad.

A week or so later, my schedule for the next semester would arrive in the mail at my parents’ house. And I would marvel at the quickness of the process–a process that took a month in my freshman year because all was done by hand.

Those computers, we said; those are wonderful things.

That was the kind of work Cat was doing in The Eight–programming room-sized computers, navigating piles of punch cards to get her programs to work.

Here is another wonderful thing: realizing just how far we have come in what is not really a big chunk of time.

The Eight is anchored in chess, a game I have never been able to wrap my head around. Neville presents the play and the pursuit so alluringly, though, that I think perhaps I’ll get a book and read at least enough to understand the goals and the strategies.

But The Eight is as much about a particular chess set as it is about the game’s play. This chess set was a gift to Charlemagne, and its precious, finely crafted pieces carry an infamous, seductive curse.  The Eight winds back and forth between the emergence of the set from hiding in the late 1700’s–stowed in a nunnery in the mountains of France, endangered by the licentious anti-religious zealotry of the French Revolution, and then appearing again in modern times to embroil Cat in an international game of cat and mouse, a romance, and a mystery.

It’s a satisfying fireside read, The Eight is. The story is good, and the book explores relations between the United States and the USSR, and between the Middle East and the whole world. It’s a reminder that the struggles of today have deep, deep roots. The book is hefty at 550 pages, but it zips along.

I went to a newer, faster computer to find out more about Katharine Neville, and I discovered she maintains a webpage at http://www.katharineneville.com. She has four fat books in print; The Fire (2008) is the sequel to The Eight, and features the children of The Eight’s main characters as protagonists. I write that down in my note book, add it to my “Find These Books” list.

The other books are The Magic Circle (1998) and A Calculated Risk (1992).

Neville says quest is the theme of all her writing. “Whether our quest is an adventure of the mind or spirit, or a voyage by sea, air or land–it’s often the journey itself that changes us in surprising and alchemical ways,” she writes. Certainly, The Eight has a journey theme, with treacherous mountain hikes, and ships bounced about about stormy seas, airplane travel into dangerous lands…and travel from youth into maturity, from girl into deeply loving, boldly daring, woman.

I find, on the website, that Neville’s work was called, by Publishers’ Weekly, “a feminist answer to Indiana Jones.” I find, too, that the book is becoming a film, due out, I think, this spring–no doubt the reason for the resurgence of interest Elinor noted.

I’ll go see the film. I’ll track down The Fire. I may dabble in the play of chess and see if, forty years later, my mind has stretched to encompass the kind of thinking necessary to embark on that journey.

And I’ll shelve The Eight. It’s the kind of book to share with a friend, the kind of book that makes a good re-read a few years hence, when the wind howls and there is, again, a fire in the grate.

It’s been nice, this winter, to revisit the time of my youth, and to travel to exotic places I’ve never seen. I shelf The Eight and I turn to a little weightier reading, some history and some memoir; refreshed by adventure, I’m ready now to return to the present, and to read myself a challenge.


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