‘A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth’ is compassionate, wise

A new collection of short historical fiction stories is characterized by its beautiful prose and its author’s gentle curiosity and sense of wonder.

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth” by Daniel Mason, Little, Brown and Company, 240 pp.

In his first book of short stories, novelist and physician Daniel Mason delivers a collection of nine stories that capture extraordinary life experiences. With a range of characters and locales, each tale describes an achievement, an insight, or simply the ability to endure beyond what might have been thought possible. 

A master of descriptive prose, Mason structures many of the stories to complement the content. In an epistolary story, Celeste, an aéronaute (hot air balloonist) describes the mysterious phenomena she has observed in the upper atmosphere, which she calls “a tear in the very fabric of the heavens.” But Celeste also chronicles the ridicule she receives from the men of the Académie when she attempts to share her observations. They do not deign to consider the scientific work of a woman.

She pens the letter as she takes flight and, rising higher into the skies, she drops it over the edge of the basket, allowing the wind to handle the delivery like a message in a bottle tossed into the sea. Perhaps she trusts her scientific knowledge of the elements and is sure it will be delivered –  or perhaps it’s her last act before choosing to leave solid ground forever. Such choices, she admits, are beyond the scope of human consideration, suggesting the purview of the divine. “Alas, the one who knows the answer has kept it hidden.”

In “Death of the Pugilist, or The Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman McGraw,” Mason writes of a bare-knuckle boxing match between two fighters at pivotal points in their careers. He divides the story into brief chapters that evoke the quick rounds of the match. McGraw, the champion, is a Goliath of a man, though some speculate he is nearing the twilight of his career. Burke, the challenger, is a scrappy 21-year-old who has made a name for himself among the dockworkers of Bristol.

Promotional posters plastered around town depict the event as a faceoff between two men, but in the imaginations of the townsfolk, the match has taken on gladiatorial proportions. As Burke enters the ring, he realizes he’s been offered up as a sacrifice. Even his trainer is in on the charade. With searing familiarity, he experiences the pain of the world once again telling him his life is inconsequential. Mason uses the ring as a metaphor for life, cycling through Burke’s thoughts about freedom and joy, sin and humiliation, each emotion landing with the speed and the blow of a well-placed punch. 

During one round, Burke recalls the philosophy of a former priest, who once asked him “How are you going to win? Think, my boy. You want to win or you want to hurt him? Those are different things. ... [A]nger only takes a man so far.”

Many of the stories are set in the 19th century, and Mason includes a few real-life historical figures. But many of the tales are imagined accounts of the anonymous figures who occupied the backgrounds of famous historical events.

A thread that runs through most of the stories is Mason’s fascination with science – not surprising, given his day job as a practicing doctor. But while his scientific training clearly informs his writing, it’s apparent that Mason has also never relinquished his sense of wonder. Mason demonstrates tremendous respect for his characters, even though his stories are set in times when the world often did not leave room for such considerations.

“The Ecstasy of Alfred Russel Wallace” explores the inner life of a real naturalist who  corresponded with Charles Darwin. Wallace independently arrived at the theory of evolution, but was eventually overshadowed by Darwin. “There were hours when he thought: I know nothing,” writes Mason. “And there were other hours, chiefly at night, waking from dreams he didn’t remember, when a different thought came: that idea, that beautiful burning idea, that recasting and refiguring and resculpting of the world, that idea burst forth from me, and me alone.”

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