Every Past Thing

Written by Pamela Thompson
Review by Helene Williams

When Pamela Thompson saw Edwin Romanzo Elmer’s painting, Mourning Picture, she saw “worlds that want telling.” This book is her vision of those worlds, based on the picture and further research on the Elmer family, and it provides fascinating insights into the lives of a family dealing with love, loss, disillusion, and hope.

Effie Elmer, beloved daughter of Edwin and Mary Elmer, died in 1890 at nine years of age in rural Massachusetts. Nine years later, the parents have yet to recover from their grief, so they travel to New York City to visit Edwin’s brother Samuel and his new wife, Alice. Samuel is paying for Edwin, a renowned but currently unproductive painter, to study at the Academy, in an effort to renew his career and to tighten the family bond which has loosened over the years. Mary, an avid reader of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, finds herself in the center of New York at a time of great change for both women and the disenfranchised. Unbeknownst to Edwin, she spends her days at Justus Schwab’s saloon, a gathering place for rabble-rousers like Emma Goldman. She hopes to meet Jimmy Roberts, a young man she met when she and Edwin let rooms in their house to summer guests; Jimmy captured a part of her heart, and Mary aches for the kind of emotional connection Edwin simply cannot provide. Instead, she is befriended by the young journalist Frank Tannenbaum and his sister Susana. For his part, Edwin is not interested in auditioning for the Academy, but his painting is unexpectedly jump-started when he begins to paint Alice’s portrait.

Thompson interweaves thoughts and stories from the past as the narrative unfolds, creating a haunting story of a family, and a nation, undergoing great change.