Anyone who loves natural history museums knows that the first moment we enter one, particularly as children, we understand that the collections are not the main point; they are for soberer minds. The point is the dioramas, those magical windows opening on times and places we will never actually visit. And the best dioramas, for our purposes, include not just simulacra of animals and plants but also the human forms posed among them, as if delicately alluding to the human artifice that puts dioramas in natural history museums. We are looking to see not so much nature and its history as ourselves in nature and history, and the nearer the figures come to “life size” the better they please.
Natural History, which includes Maureen Howard’s reflections on dioramas and the American past, first shows us particular human figures in a particular time and place: Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1980s, though this “present” is deeply shaded by the past. Bridgeport is where Howard’s main characters, a brother and sister named James and Catherine Bray, happened to grow up. Much of the novel consists of their memories, of themselves when young and of their often difficult and now dead parents. But as it proceeds, the city itself moves more and more to the foreground, while the Brays, though still very much in the picture, seem less conspicuous individually.
The known history of James and Catherine begins during World War II. Their father, Billy Bray, short and balding, like Jiggs in the comic strip, is the “one and only” detective in the local state’s attorney’s office. A strict, moralistic Irish Catholic, Billy is puzzled and angered by his bright and rebellious son’s devotion not to “normal” pleasures like sports but to magic tricks and movies. Nell, their mother, the daughter of a prosperous cement manufacturer who built the fine house she and her family now live in, worries obsessively about James’s physical safety, takes Catherine less seriously, and admires but also fears her husband’s competence in his dangerous job. Catherine, the younger child, is devout, hard-working, not pretty, a Girl Scout soberly intent on acquiring merit badges.
In 1943 something happens that will deeply affect James and Catherine’s adult lives. Their father is called to investigate a death in North Stamford, where a young war bride from Texas, whose husband, an army major, is serving in Italy, has shot and killed a soldier in the kitchen of her mock-Tudor house. The circumstances are suspicious: Mrs. Poole claims that Private Litwak followed her home uninvited from a local tavern, prowled through the shrubbery, and abused her verbally and physically; yet she evidently had the time to fetch her husband’s gun from upstairs and shoot Litwak four times at close range. From her speech and manner, Billy Bray judges her to be a floozie, but there are no witnesses or evidence and her husband is from a socially prominent family. The press makes much of her …