There was a lot of unoccupied space in the bus. Not all that many kids had earned superior ratings at the science fair—only about twenty-five, grades six through eight. So we were spread out, with chaperones scattered among us. Up in front was Mr. Gisborne, near the driver, sitting with Mr. Ursine, the assistant principal.
In the middle rows—near Gil and me—were a couple of parents I didn’t know, two moms who were busily talking about whatever it is that moms talk about. They seemed to be friends. I didn’t look at them too long. I didn’t want to think about my own lost mother.
I turned to look behind me and could see Mrs. Bysshe back there, seated across the aisle from Mr. Leon, who’d somehow appeared in his seat without my noticing. I didn’t recall seeing him there before, and I know he didn’t walk past me after I was seated. Did he just materialize there? Of course not, but still …
Gil was lying back in his seat, resting—recovering from the effort of getting up this morning, dressing, riding to school, getting his luggage and himself aboard. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But for him, it was a marathon.
I reached down and pulled my pack up into my lap. Unzipped it. Pulled out a couple of books—Pierre Berton’s Niagara and Mary Shelley’s novel Lodore. Lots of people—maybe even most people—know that she wrote Frankenstein. She published that book on New Year’s Day 1818; she was not yet twenty-one years old. She had conceived the idea for that story in the summer of 1816 when she and Percy Bysshe Shelley were in Geneva, Switzerland, when she was just eighteen years old. They were not yet married, so she was still Mary Godwin.
It had been very stormy, that summer of 1816, and the weather had forced Mary, Bysshe, and their friends—among them, the very popular poet Lord Byron—to stay inside much of the time. It was Byron who suggested they each write a ghost story—something to pass the time, to entertain themselves. And—a few days into the competition—Mary said she experienced a “waking dream,” a dream that featured a creature, a dead creature, that returned to life.
Here’s what Mary wrote about that experience later on: I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.
She arose in terror from her own vision and began writing. At first, it was just a story; then Bysshe encouraged her to rewrite it—lengthen it, make it a novel. Which, of course, she did.
The year before Mary went to Geneva, on 15 April 1815, there had been an incredibly powerful volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Mt. Tambora—one of the greatest eruptions on record. The explosion sent so much volcanic ash into the sky that it altered weather patterns all over the world for a year. It became known as “the year without a summer.” And in Geneva, Switzerland, the days were often cold and stormy. Forcing people to stay indoors. And make up stories.
Anyway, what I was going to say was that Mary Shelley wrote a lot more than just Frankenstein. She wrote a couple of plays, some historical novels (Valperga, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck), a couple of traditional novels (Falkner, Lodore), travel books, many entries for an encyclopedia, a children’s book, and, in 1823, a novel of the future (the twenty-first century!) called The Last Man, a story about an illness that begins wiping out all of humanity.
I had read almost all of them by the time I was on that bus with Gil, and I had brought along Lodore because of its scene at Niagara Falls—a place that Mary Shelley had never seen. I wanted to show the book to Gil.