Moving reflections on the literal remembrance of acts too significant to forget.
In this riveting debut collection of lyric essays, Rafferty (Creative Writing/Univ. of Mary Washington) focuses on his “fascination with the scene of the crime, with the sites of history and what remains there,” and on “how concrete and steel and granite help us remember.” Blessed with a childhood unmarred by calamity, the author “did not believe” in his “own traumas,” so he “took on those of others” and traveled across America and Europe to explore the physical commemoration of historic acts—whether in the form of a monument, erected to celebrate a “triumph,” or a memorial, built to moor unspeakable tragedy. Though his subjects are often quite macabre, Rafferty’s empathetic analysis sheds light on topics many might find superfluous or an afterthought. In Whitefish Point, Michigan, at the site of a memorial to 29 men who drowned in November 1975 when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a storm on Lake Superior, Rafferty points to the intriguing fact that not only did divers later bring up the Fitzgerald’s bell, now a museum centerpiece, but they cast another bell engraved with the names of the dead and then lowered that and welded it in its place “535 feet underwater,” creating “a memorial that truly was, as the inscription says but never means, for the dead.” Viewing the boarded-up windows of Columbine High School or thousands of stone markers in the pastoral fields of present-day Treblinka, site of a lesser-known death camp in Poland where 800,000 Jews perished in World War II, the author delves deep into the heart of past atrocities while probing the motivations of the living to memorialize, and he comes to some provocative conclusions. Rafferty also interweaves his own personal longings in a way that brings an even greater immediacy to his observations of weighty events.
Though fixed on what remains of some of history’s darkest moments, Rafferty’s essays, both gripping and wonderfully reflective, illuminate.