Research Notes · 08/03/2012

A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands, & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Josh Russell writes about A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands, & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag (Dzanc Books).

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Unlike my first two novels, Yellow Jack, which is set in the 1840s, and My Bright Midnight, which is set mostly during the last days of World War II, my third, A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands, & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag, didn’t require I go to the library and look at newspapers on a microfilm reader to find out how much a house in New Orleans rented for in 1945, or that I study the history of photography and 19th-Century responses to infectious tropical disease in New Orleans. A True History takes place when the protagonist is in graduate school in 1990. I was in graduate school in 1990. She spends time in Nashville, Tennessee, Ithaca, New York, and Lincoln, Nebraska — places I’ve spent at least a little time. I checked to make sure I remembered correctly when I was listening to The Pixies and The Smiths and when the college radio station in Baton Rouge seemed to be playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ten times an hour, and I asked a friend who went to Cornell where people went skinny dipping, and another friend who lives in Ithaca where in town there are generic office buildings that would’ve been there in 1990. Beyond that, I relied mostly on my memories of the places and my experiences of being in my early 20s.

One element of the novel that benefited from research beyond asking someone where people swam naked in Ithaca in the ’90s was reading and re-reading examples of Puritan-era women’s Indian captivity narratives, including those by Mary Rowlandson and Hanna Dustan. These narratives of women kidnapped by “savages” combine true-life adventure stories, anti-Native American (and sometimes anti-French and anti-Catholic) propaganda, and strong moral messages about keeping one’s faith in times of trial (Increase Mather, Cotton’s dad, wrote the introduction to Rowlandson’s book). I’m a fan of these kinds of narratives, and A True History is my riff on the form, a riff that has Hannah Guttentag willingly go off to grad school in the woods rather than getting kidnapped. There she, like Mary Rowlandson before her, eats strange food and witnesses heathens dancing oddly… and keeps her faith (albeit a secular variety), even when terrible and terrifying things happen to her.

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Josh Russell’s previous novels are Yellow Jack and My Bright Midnight. An Illinois native — born in Carbondale, raised in Normal — he now lives in Decatur, Georgia with his wife and daughter.