In the recent film Notes on a Scandal, one of the characters remarks that "we are bound by the secrets that we keep." That sentiment is tailor-made for the women of Elizabeth Crook's THE NIGHT JOURNAL. Each generation of the Bass family has their secrets and passes them on to the next generation. Claudia "Bassie" Bass, headstrong writer and historian, is the daughter of Hannah Bass, known for her seminal journals of a young woman's life in the Southwest that have become classics worldwide. Since Hannah died when Bassie was a child, these journals were the only way she came to know her mother.
Meg Mabry, Bassie's 37-year-old granddaughter, has always cringed under the spotlight of her family's famous heritage and has never read the journals themselves: "Bassie had built her life around them [the journals], and founded her career on them as a professor of southwestern history, transforming them into these six published volumes that had become, through the years, a kind of cult literature for lovers of the American West and the Victorian era. Bassie worshiped her mother and the journals. But for Meg they were a source of embarrassment, documenting the story of an ancestor whose life had been more dramatic and interesting than Meg could ever hope hers would be."
When Bassie learns of a new addition being built on the land of her mother's home in New Mexico, which has now become a museum, she insists that the family dogs are buried there and they must be exhumed and moved before the building can begin. Bassie is determined to travel to the family homestead to oversee the operation, and Meg reluctantly decides to accompany her. Upon their arrival in New Mexico, they meet up with Jim Layton, an archeologist who runs the museum and is in charge of the exhumation of the bones. Jim has known Bassie for years and knows just how to finesse her prickly personality; he soon finds that he has a great deal in common with the more reticent Meg.
Perhaps it's because she finds herself surrounded by her family's history that Meg relents and begins reading Hannah's journals. Meg learns of her great-grandmother's journey from Chicago to the Southwest, her work as a Harvey girl, her marriage to railroad worker Elliot Bass, and the establishment of the homestead at Pecos. But when the excavation turns up human bones, everything that was known about the family is called into question.
Elizabeth Crook, author of THE RAVEN'S BRIDE and PROMISED LANDS, deftly blends historical fiction and mystery as she tells the story of four generations of women in the American Southwest. The passages from Hannah's journals illuminate the experience of a young woman in untamed country, trying to carve out a new life for herself and feeling conflicted over two important men in her life. The modern-day story of Meg, her indomitable grandmother and their "push-me, pull-you" relationship, as well as Meg's flirtation with the married but troubled Jim, is endearing and realistic. Both Meg and Jim have something to prove to Bassie and try not to buckle under her strong hand: "Some of us are living the lives she wanted us to, and some of us are living the lives we chose in defiance of her wishes. But her influence is still there." Add to this potent brew the element of mystery in the form of the unearthed body on Dog Hill, which calls all of Hannah's and Bassie's accounts into question.
With rich characters, a lush landscape, an intriguing mystery and a possible romance, THE NIGHT JOURNAL grips the reader from the start. As the story alternates from the 1800s to the modern day, it paints an accurate and entertaining picture of life as the Bass women lived it.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 13, 2011
The Night Journal