Learning about life through bits and pieces

“In the dry early summer of 1992, I am still nominally a physician, but I dig in dirt these days, instead of taking stock of my patients’ bodies, attending only to bones stripped of muscle, blood and brain. . .”

Sarah MacLeish says this because she can’t maintain her medical practice. She is a multiple sclerosis victim, no longer able to use her hands in diagnosis.

She is also the main character in Russell Martin’s novel, “The Sorrow of Archaeology,” recently released by the University of New Mexico Press.

The story is set in Southwest Colorado, and drawn from several of the author’s interests.

“When I started imagining the book, I knew I wanted to write about the Cortez area,” Martin explains quietly in a phone conversation from his Denver office. Martin is a former resident of Montezuma County.

“I also wanted to write about the ancient Puebolan culture that has had such an impact on the Four Corners. (It) had. . .a longer tenure (here) than ours has.”

Martin also finds archaeology, medicine, and disability, particularly multiple sclerosis, interesting to write about. For him, they become metaphors for life’s universal issues.

People “contract MS just at the time when lives are unfolding — at a time of meeting and marrying, child-bearing, and starting careers,” he explains.

“They can live a long life, but face a great challenge in making it productive.”

This idea solidifies in Sarah MacLeish. Knowing she will eventually use a wheelchair, and terrified of the idea, she determines to be normal as long as possible, before she must give in to her disease. She becomes a member of an archaeology dig team her husband, Harry, is supervising at an ancient pueblo site in a canyon near Cortez.

She worries about her relationship with Harry.

He jumps from project to project and adventure to adventure, seizing life with both hands and riding it like a wild horse. She lives carefully, avoiding surprises, and searching for security. She and Harry share a deep bond. Still, troubling moments have arisen between them, over their differences, and she senses his unhappiness with her.

“She knows he loves her, but he would like to rebuild different components of her,” says Martin.

Worse, as a physician who has treated patients with illnesses like hers, she knows she will probably face divorce, though Harry denies he will ever leave her.

To give Sarah the full range of emotions she needs as she struggles with her issues, Martin constructed her story in a series of short chapters. The book draws its title from one of these, in which Sarah laments the fact that archaeologists must try to learn about people’s lives from fragmented evidence.

Flashbacks written in the past tense interweave with current details, stated in the present. Martin also lets Sarah narrate the novel in the first person.

“It’s a personal story, and an intimate one, which fits the voice.”

He enjoyed the challenge of doing the book from a woman’s viewpoint.

“I think men and women are remarkably similar. Yet we are unquestionably different.”

To make sure he got “imagining through a woman’s eyes” right, he relied on help from friend and partner, Lydia Nibley. “She told me when I didn’t have it,” he says with a gentle laugh.

On the dig, Sarah discovers the remains of a pre-teenage girl with a severely deformed leg, which Sarah believes congenital. The girl also has a shattered skull. Immediately, Sarah connects with her, wondering how she lived, how she died, and above all, how she coped with disability. Harry says that Sarah will probably never know. Bone fragments and grave goods cannot possibly explain the girl’s emotional state at death, why she died, or how she lived with her crippled leg.

Sarah insists on trying to find out.

One of the dig-team members, the flamboyant Alice, agrees to send the remains to a friend in a forensics lab. The gesture both comforts and troubles Sarah, who suspects Alice and Harry have begun an affair. Harry must replace the sex that no longer interests Sarah.

Driven by her fear, Sarah struggles harder and harder to understand the child’s story, and through it, her own. The mosaic of personal and archaeological past and present interweave more and more tightly in her mind.

“I want to share with the readers (the idea) that we are all trying to make sense of our lives from fragmentary information. That’s the big challenge — to see clearly. Archaeology attempts to sort out ancient cultures and people. We try to figure out ourselves.”

What Sarah finally figures out about her life and illness, the people around her, the crippled pueblo child, and Harry and Alice, brings “The Sorrow of Archaeology” to a close. What sort, the author refuses to divulge.

“The bottom line is telling the story as richly as one can, in the most dramatic way possible,” says Martin, who has published many non-fiction books in a long writing career.

He spent 15 years writing “The Sorrow of Archaeology,” first trying Sarah’s voice. Once he felt comfortable with it, he began constructing plot. He used neither character sketches nor outlines, but “got to know” his heroine as he wrote.

The book’s slow development didn’t bother him. “I’ve been a typist a long time. Fiction is an imaginative process. You have the freedom to make things up.”

‘The Sorrow of Archaeology” is Martin’s second novel. He published his first, “Beautiful Islands,” in 1989.

From Arts & Entertainment, January 2006.