Time Stamp chronicles the lives of a father and a daughter over many decades, but thrumming beneath the surface are the frustrations of the family matriarch—frustrations that are indelibly captured in a pastoral scene where she rides a spirited horse that ends in a grim, cruel moment. Could you comment on how you view this character and her circumstances as a privileged, but unfulfilled, woman of a particular generation?
—Julia Hunter, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Julia, I was first caught by the word matriarch in this question because people often just think of a matriach as a woman who presides with a particular authority and age over a large family. Grace Harrison, the minor background character in Time Stamp, who is Maddie’s former mother-in-law, is exactly that kind of matriarch. But I’m actually more interested in another of the dictionary meanings—a matriarch as a woman who holds a position of dominance. I’m in luck as that’s clearly what you’re drawing on here.
The really tantalizing thing for me is the nature of that dominance in Reeve, Will Wheelock’s wife. In essence, it’s an emotional power Reeve holds and, as you suggest, much of it derives from the fact she chafes at her role as a wife to a person whose position gives her no real outlet for her independence and innate curiosity and gifts. Even her beliefs. In the period after her death, Will and Maddie, who is Reeve and Will’s daughter, have a long conversation in which they circle around this power and its hold on them—both trying to understand it, both suggesting in different ways that it was based on a certain instability in Reeve, what Will refers to at one point as her “inner drive to rashness in the face of enormity.” Really, it feels like the power a stick of dynamite holds.
Another key here is that word “enormity.” Reeve is the character in the book who has an unequivocal reaction to what she feels is political outrage whether it is war of any stripe or racism. She gives no quarter. Yet her husband, whom we suspect she loves though we’re not certain—we never enter her consciousness—is, almost by profession, an equivocator, someone whose apparent beliefs rarely involve commensurate actions. Given the timeframe of their lives and long marriage—they marry in 1925 and Reeve dies in 1967—it would be pretty simple to assume that the marriage itself was a trap for Reeve and that if she’d simply had a good job and a meaningful way to make her political views count, she would have been just fine. Or, if she wasn’t, she would have gotten a divorce.
On the other hand, this sort of projection of today’s options on a woman whose adulthood spanned a different time period may ignore the larger existential questions at the heart of Reeve’s life: what is a meaningful way for a woman to express her sense of self when, as the center of a family, she carries clear obligations of nurturing and love? If a woman loves a man, can she be happy if they are at odds over fundamental principles and should that difference be crucial to her? Regardless of the period in which she lives, should a woman find a way to express her deepest beliefs regardless of her circumstances? Should she be Joan of Arc? If she just “acts out” on occasion is that enough or, in not changing the fundamental dynamics of her “privileged life,” is she an equivocator as well?
I don’t actually have the answers to those questions. I may have created Reeve, but that doesn’t mean that I fully understand her and her situation though I find its tension compelling. She is one of my characters, much like Julian in The Second Magician’s Tale, whose attraction and powder-keg unpredictability are a continuing mystery and draw for me, just as they are for Will and Maddie. As Will says early in their relationship: who is she? Yet there is a more general way, beyond her particular station and circumstances in the mid-20th century, in which I do feel I understand Reeve. When it comes to Maddie as a child, and perhaps more significantly as a woman (and this is important in the book), Reeve carries the power any mother has. She can say no.
And she can give permission.