Like every good heroine these days, Cadence “Cady” Archer in Francesca Serritella’s Ghosts of Harvard is on a social mission, one driven, in her case, by the desire to understand why her brother Eric committed suicide. True, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but Cady feels sure that there were other forces in play—people who might have pushed him, literally or figuratively, over the edge. Like her parents, Cady is guilt-ridden, tormented by the thought that her brother’s suicide could have been prevented. Newly arrived at Harvard as a freshman, she begins her detective work, piecing together the story of her brother’s death in an effort to begin the process of healing, for herself and for her parents.
Cady has her own demons, and they manifest themselves as a trio of disembodied voices from Harvard’s past: J. Robert Oppenheimer, who graduated from Harvard in 1925 and went on to become the “father” of the atomic bomb; Bilhah, an enslaved woman who died in 1765 while “in service” at the residence of Harvard’s president; and finally an undergraduate named “Whit,” who longs to participate in the war effort as an aviator. Deftly woven into the narrative arc of Cady’s search for answers about her brother, these three figures take on a life of their own, reminding us that every tragic event in the history of institutions like Harvard is entangled in a web of narratives, some known, some forgotten, and some calling out to be told for the first time.
At a service commemorating the lives of Bilhah and three other enslaved people who had labored at Harvard, President Drew Faust noted that “the past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore.” And John Lewis reminded those present for the affixing of a plaque on Harvard’s Wadsworth House in honor of Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba that, as a nation, we have tried to “wipe out every trace of slavery from America’s memory, hoping that the legacy of a great moral wrong will be lost forever in a sea of forgetfulness.”
Heroines from times past used words and stories to repair the fraying edges of the social fabric as well as to mend, heal, and make whole. The auditory hallucinations that haunt Cady are both a disturbing sign of possible derangement but also a genius way of channeling voices from the past, retrieving their stories from Lewis’s sea of forgetfulness. In her poem, “i am accused of tending to the past . . . ,” Lucille Clifton told us how “the past was waiting for me / when I came” and how “the faces, names, and dates” of History, once nurtured, become “strong enough to travel” on their own. In Ghosts of Harvard, they do just that, waking us up and reminding us that there is value in tending to the past.