Last week I spent a day in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress doing research for Children of Eden. I used to go there all the time, but I haven’t been for a couple of years since I started the actual writing of the book in earnest. But I keep finding more sources that I need to delve into so I am immensely grateful to have this amazing library just a short Metro ride away. There is no way I could have researched the lives of the Salmons, Branders, and Atwaters without it. Every time I go, I discover more snippets and perspectives that add depth to the story.
As I walked into the Reading Room last Thursday, it felt good to be back under that magnificent roof. With its half-moon windows high up in the dome barely giving a hint of whether the weather outside is bright or dull, the Reading Room is a world unto itself, a humming, cushioned womb of intellectual life. An array of 16 bronze statues of such intimidating luminaries as Moses, Homer, Plato, and Shakespeare (all men) look down on the semi-circular desks and the carpet with its book motif. Intimidating company for me and the other solitary readers dotted around the vast room, each wrapped up in his or her own inner world.
The previous day at home I’d gone online and found the call numbers of the books I wanted to consult on the Library’s online catalog. So as soon as I sat myself down at a desk (I always choose one close to the photocopying room) I was able to start filling out the order forms, probably about 30 in all. It wasn’t long before the books began to be delivered to me, armful by armful, by the Reading Room’s efficient staff.
I’ve been accused more than once of being addicted to research. If getting an excited feeling in the pit of your stomach when a towering stack of books is plonked on your desk is a symptom of addiction, then I plead guilty.
Among the books in my stack that day were:
· Fatu Hiva by Thor Heyerdahl - In 1936 the Norwegian explorer and his new wife spent a year on the remote Marquesan island of Fatu-Hiva living off the land. The ship’s captain who took them there was Captain Winnie Brander, Titaua’s younger son, by now a jovial white-haired, red-nosed 67 year old. Heyerdahl confirmed Brander’s reputation as a drinker of legendary proportions when on land but as sober as a judge whenever he was at sea.
· The Mystery of Easter Island by Mrs. Katherine Scoresby Routledge – After her 17 months surveying Easter Island, Routledge, the British archaeologist, and her husband sailed home via Tahiti in August 1915. In Papeete, they met Queen Marau and her daughter Takau, and Jack Brander who had run the family’s cattle and sheep ranch on Easter Island in the 1880s.
· A biography (in Swedish) of Prince Oscar Bernadotte of Sweden who visited Tahiti in 1884 and is supposed to have been smitten with Titaua.
· The Invention of Paradise – a beautifully produced album of the photographs taken in Tahiti in 1869/70 by Paul-Émile Miot which includes these very lovely portraits of Titaua and her sister Moetia.
· Tuimata, a memoir (in French) by a Norwegian wine merchant, Bjarne Kroepelien, who travelled to Tahiti towards the end of the First World War where he befriended Tati Salmon and fell in love with a young Tahitian woman, only to lose both to the devastating Spanish flu epidemic of 1918/19.
I went through these and at least 25 other books on that day, noting the relevant pages and then photocopying them to be read in detail later. To a greater or lesser degree, all had something new or extra to tell me about the lives of the extraordinary extended family whose story I am committed to telling to the world - with the invaluable assistance of that wonderful resource, the Library of Congress.