Magical Realism in the Real World

Currently, magical realism seems to be the darling of the writing community. It certainly adds elements of interest to what could otherwise be a boring reiteration of the real world. And it can be a most convenient way to explain things such as time travel, levitation, spirits, zombies, vampires, etc. I prefer to think I can sprinkle in some elements of the magic in our real and substantial world rather than hoping for a suspension of my reader’s belief to accept the occurrence of magical events as a normal part of everyday life.

When one looks into the realities of living in the not so distant past it becomes understandable how even down-to-earth type people could come to accept the existence of magical or paranormal phenomena. Interestingly enough, at times during my search for historical facts to support my plots, I find quirky but true details that seem to outnumber the predictable vagaries of real life. Last summer’s tour of Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul produced some thought-provoking particulars:

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  • In 1819, following orders to build the frontier fort at the convergence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, 200 soldiers were assigned construction duties. Because they ate primarily meat for sustenance, 40 of them died of scurvy. I could see sailors at sea for months with no fresh fruits and vegetables to consume dying of this affliction – but these Army troops were stationed on dry land with edible plants flourishing right under their collective noses. Weird.

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  • Dysentery was a big problem. Unfortunately the cures for this digestive disease were a bigger problem. Sufferers were purged, bled with leeches, starved by forced fasting, and often given a lengthy administration of “Dr. Rush’s Pills” a mixture of chlorine and mercury, and affectionately referred to as “Thunderclappers.” Weird.

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  • Each fort, army camp, or barracks licensed a merchant called a Sutler or Victualer who sold commodities such as sugar, coffee, tobacco, and tools not provided by the military. Alcohol was the biggest seller. And stopping to pick up the incoming mail provided an opportunity for socializing and a quick round of poker. Weird (or at least, interesting).
  • Floorboards in buildings were intentionally installed with visible cracks between each piece of lumber. At the end of the day, to clean the floor of manure, or straw, or mud tracked in on boots, a bucket of sand from the street was dumped on the floor, pushed into all corners and then swept through the cracks, carrying with each grain of sand the “dirt” accumulated during the day. Unfortunately, items such as coins, rings, and hairpins were swept away, gone forever, or until some archeologist unearthed them. Weird.

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  • Soldiers had no choice about living in harsh conditions, especially the brutally cold and long winters. But the commanding officers did have some control over their destinies. One such leader, “Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor, soon to run for President of the US, was unimpressed by the glories of his surroundings and dubbed them a “most miserable and uninteresting country.” Weird.

If any of those residents of Fort Snelling could, for one day, live our lives complicated by smart phones, GPS guides, and air travel to name a few contemporary marvels, I have little doubt they would pronounce them “Weird.”


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