Fact becomes fiction in Tracey Rombough’s Immortal Air
By intertwining history and fiction, Kingston, Ontario, writer Tracey Rombough joins the rank of authors Emma Donoghue and Hillary Mantel in contributing to the ongoing intellectual debate about the nature and efficacy of recently coined literary categories such as “historical fiction,” “fictional memoir” and “non-fiction novel,” among others. In fact her new book, Immortal Air, which tells the story of little-known Nova Scotia-born poet George Frederick Cameron is marketed as “biographical fiction.” And it all started with a ruby ring.
Rombough’s property was undergoing renovations when she found the ring, inscribed with “Ella Mae,” in her backyard. Intrigued, she began to search for its former owner. It didn’t take long. Among a number of uncatalogued photographs at the local archives, Rombough found a photo of Ella Mae Emigh, the former occupant of her home and wife of George Cameron. Rombough’s subsequent search for the couple led her on an international chase. “During the process I often sifted through the documents historians typically use: journals, letters, newspaper accounts, marriage and death records,” she commented in a recent email interview, “I compare this process to a detective who pieces together small clues that lead to other clues.”
When Rombough traced Cameron’s personal journals to the University of British Columbia things started to snap into place. “The more I learned about George, the more I realized that here was a poet struggling to share his raw emotions and his spin on the world. Of course a character does not exist in a vacuum. Therefore, research into the world of the nineteenth century provides the rich period detail and compelling historical events as a backdrop for these characters to come alive.”
For Rombough, who describes herself as “a storyteller by nature and a historian by curiosity,” the journey was fascinating but not without its doubts. “The blurring of biography and fiction raises the question: to what extent is the genre ‘truth’? I believe when the writer chooses events or edits life by selecting key moments to represent the character, he/she automatically fictionalizes the historical individual. For the most part all writers, historians included, edit the individual experience with their own biases; therefore, both become a form of distorted reality.” Her words focus upon the ongoing debate concerning the blurred boundaries of fact and fiction, brought so forcefully into the spotlight in 2003, along with allegations of literary forgery, with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, originally sold as a memoir and afterwards as a semi-fictional novel.
Canadian Emma Donoghue calls her books Frog Music and Astray “hybrid forms of historical fiction,” while Larissa MacFarquher, in a 2012 New Yorker article on Hillary Mantel, author of the wildly popular Wolf Hall, claims “historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws.” Rombough explains it this way: “I am drawn to the idea that biographical fiction takes its core from a historical context; then it opens characters and conflicts outwards into a world of imagination. But I am always cognizant that I have blended the facts with fiction to present a strong narrative with conflicts, character development, setting and themes. I have taken artistic licence to shine a light on specific moments, conversations and contemplations. The action therefore is historical as George moves through a timeline of events; however, his reaction to these events is garnered through his journals and poetry.”
Controversy aside, Immortal Air skillfully brings to our attention the life and times of a virtually unknown Confederation poet, and adds an important piece to the puzzle that is Canadian cultural and literary history.
by Tracey Rombough
$19.95, paperback, 272 pp.
Cape Breton University Press, 2015