Friday, May 29, 2015

Hidden Assets

By now, it should be obvious that I am both a historian and a total book geek. I’m married to an academic, too, so the house groans with books. They lie three rows deep on the bookcases that line most rooms; they dot coffee and side tables, they lie in piles on the floor and form makeshift shelves under the desks. They lurk in iPad apps and online, waiting for their moment to shine. They are, without a doubt, the most valuable things we own: old books, Russian books, books that have survived a fire and leave smudges on the fingers of would-be readers. Most of the time, I know where mine are, but try finding a specific title when it means shifting a row of DVDs and plowing past sideways stacks and double verticals and books plucked from their usual locations because I started looking for something and had to stop before I was done. Move one, and only divine providence can shine a light on where it ends up.

The piles are particularly noticeable this week. I’ve been on writing vacation, and thanks to the efforts of my dedicated critique partners, The Swan Princess now has two solid first chapters, two more rapidly solidifying ones, and an amorphous mass that still needs to congeal into something readable. Part of this process involved researching superstitions and folk medicine among the Russians and Tatars—most notably, belief in the evil eye, widespread in Russia and Inner Asia as elsewhere around the world.

I began, as usual, on the Internet, where I pulled up some superb sources on Google Books—encyclopedias of women and childbirth, women and Islam, etc., the kind of tomes that sell for $300 a pop but will let you read a page or two for free. Then I remembered that somewhere in my study I had Nora Chadwick’s Oral Epics of Central Asia. Surely it would contain a mention of ghosts or goblins specific to the Tatar world.

It didn’t, in fact. More accurately, it had a lot, but the index did not list the particular demon mentioned in the encyclopedias. The book is still sitting on my desk waiting for a thorough go-through. But in the process, I discovered a ton of other material in books I had read years ago, information I hadn’t needed at the time I read it and so skipped over. These are the hidden assets of my post’s title. Among other things, I found:

  • an article detailing herbal cures for a wide variety of diseases, as practiced by Siberian peasants;
  • a second article in the same book about midwifery in the Russian village;
  • Will Ryan’s amazing The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia (lots of information on the evil eye there, as well as the practice of “casting spells on the wind” against one’s enemies, from which comes the Russian word for “plague”);
  • George Lane’s Daily Life in the Mongol Empire, which discusses the overlap of Chinese, Islamic, and folk medicine among Nasan’s remote ancestors;
  • an article on childbirth customs in medieval Russia;
  • a translation of Alexander Afanasiev’s Russian Fairy Tales, which I had lost track of ever owning, because it was buried in row 3; and
  • Eve Levin’s Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900–1700, which I had definitely read and remembered but had forgotten contained quite so much fabulous information about attitudes toward everything from kissing to infanticide and the penalties for getting it wrong.

I could go on, but you get the point. There are many advantages—as well as a few disadvantages—of writing historical fiction from the perspective of a historian, but one of the best is the treasure trove of other people’s research decorating the bookshelves. Assuming, of course, that one can find the treasure map....

Image “Amulets against the Evil Eye” © 2006 FocalPoint, via Wikimedia Commons. Reused under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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