Books

In Gates of Evangeline, Fiction Spun from the Prescience of Dreams

Martin Joachim Schmidt, Johann Heinrich Füssli: A woman fast asleep with devil on stomach

Editor's Note:

Hester Young holds a master’s degree in English with a creative writing concentration from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The Gates of Evangeline is her debut novel. She joins us to talk about how her book rests upon the uncanny foresight of her and her grandmother’s dreams.

When I was seventeen, a dream analyst came to speak to my high school Psychology class. After his presentation on Freudian theory, he asked members of the class to share their dreams for interpretation. I’d always known that my dreams were strange — more vivid, more detailed than what others described, with shocking plot twists liable to occur at the end — but the analyst offered such elegant explanations for the dreams of my peers. Emboldened, I told the group about a nightmare I’d had a couple weeks earlier and waited eagerly for his psychological insight.

“I’ve never heard a dream like that before,” he said, giving me a look that seemed to imply I’d made it all up. “I have no idea what that means.”

I learned to keep my mouth shut after that. There’s nothing quite like a roomful of staring teenagers and an incredulous psychologist to drive home the point that you fall on the other side of normal. Yet even if my dreams went underground, so to speak, they have continued to shape my life in a variety of ways. Sometimes they provide a helpful window into my subconscious. Sometimes their complex and unexpected plotlines offer creative inspiration. And sometimes, though I don’t pretend to understand how or why, they are a preview of things to come.

My premonitions are infrequent and often forgettable: a room I dream of and later find myself entering, or someone whom I haven’t seen in ages appears in my sleep with news soon borne out in reality. Others are more striking, leaving images as solid as a memory in my mind. In my most chilling dream, I was brutally stabbed by a boyfriend and then rose up out of my body, choosing to leave behind the pain for peace. The following morning, I learned that a young woman in our neighborhood had been murdered by her boyfriend during the night — stabbed, repeatedly, until she bled to death.

It should be no surprise then that, when I decided to write a book, I turned to my dreams. The dream I chose, the one that now opens my novel, troubled me deeply from the beginning. A child in a boat, drifting through an eerie swampland. He told me his first name, his age. Let me tell you how I died, he said, and told me a story I found myself unable to forget.

I awoke, so convinced of the realness of this child that I began searching for him on Google. He never did materialize, and yet even now, when I’ve converted him to fiction, I still find myself wondering if he’s out there somewhere.

This book began, really, with the realization that my story was not about the boy in the boat but the search for this boy. Although I myself was unable to find him, I began to imagine the kind of woman who could. Someone fierce and skeptical and tenacious and wounded. Someone whose dreams had shown her terrible things.

I already knew such a woman, I realized.

Born in 1921, my grandmother was a beautiful and intelligent Irish Catholic girl from New York City who fell in love with a simple Protestant farmer from rural Long Island. When a priest refused to marry them, she renounced the Church entirely — an easy thing for her, as she didn’t really believe in God, anyway. Living in a village that still had party-line phones until the mid ’60s, my college-educated grandmother was ahead of her time. As a “secretary” (read: paralegal) to a local estate lawyer, she was the first working mother in town, but she wasn’t too much of a city girl to help harvest potatoes. Her motto was always “suck it up” and she conquered most challenges with gritted teeth and a flash of her acerbic wit.

My grandmother was never the kind to use words like “psychic” or “premonition.” In fact, she rather scoffed at such things. But the dreams she told me of were among the most compelling that I’ve ever heard.

In 1956, my grandmother began to have a recurring nightmare about her four-year-old son Bobby, a child whose cognitive functions had been impaired since birth by hydrocephalus. In the dream, she’d spot Bobby through a window, falling from the floor above. When she hurried outside to him, she found only a smashed melon in his place.

One day, troubled for weeks by this dream, my grandmother left Bobby with her parents. A window was left open; somehow, Bobby fell out. At the hospital, she learned that Bobby had not survived. His head was “crushed like a melon” from the fall, the doctor said.

After Bobby’s death, my grandmother never had the nightmare again. Weeks later, however, she woke up in the night and saw Bobby standing at the foot of her bed. Because of his mental handicap, he had never spoken in life, but at that moment she heard his voice for the first time. “It’s all right, Mommy,” he told her. “I’m okay.” She was filled with a sense of peace and went back to sleep.

Whenever she told me this story, I was always struck by the way this woman who doubted the existence of a higher power could believe so firmly in her son’s presence that night.

My grandmother’s dream, coupled with my own, provided me with the skeleton of a story I would spend years fleshing out. In the course of writing about a bereaved mother driven by haunting visions of children, I suffered a miscarriage and eventually became a mother myself. My relationship with the protagonist deepened through my own life experiences, as I came to understand the magnitude of her loss and the intensity of her search in more personal terms.

My grandmother died early in the writing process of this book, and her absence was a powerful motivator to complete my novel. Though she did not believe in God, she certainly believed in books, and mysteries were always her favorite. I know of no better tribute to this amazing woman than to keep her alive in the stories I tell.