Carousels are magic; they always have been. The wild glass eyes of beautiful, anatomically impossible horses reflect all the agony or ecstasy you have the courage to perceive. A Wurlitzer wind of eerily familiar music to which no one alive knows the words, can and will, if only briefly, blow fragments of myth behind your eyes and remind you of who you are.
The horses, those eyes, carry the experience forever, but they do not carry it alone. Sometimes menagerie animals leap at their sides, sometimes farm animals, sometimes beasts of fantasy. A flower-bedecked pig, a dragon with gilt scales or a strangely professorial ostrich may also carry human souls around and around in the music. But even in the absence of those support animals, there are strange paintings on the panels, the shields and rounding boards. Mermaids beside George Washington followed by Niagara Falls and then a buxom lady in Victorian underwear holding a banner that says something in German. Heads of jesters, queens and pirates, unicorns, alligators and local celebrities may adorn the shields. And the mirrors, usually oval and rimmed in lights, mathematically spaced along the boards, showing nothing but a photographic blur of color. That would be us, that blur.
Every child should ride a carousel at least once, encoding in her or his still-perceptive brain complex images that may never consciously make “sense,” but will remain when all other images are at last seen as sham. Adults quite responsibly take children to carousels, and adults invariably elect the literary conceit of childhood memory when speaking of carousels. But in truth, carousels are profoundly the realm of souls sufficiently old to understand what they’re about. Watch a carousel late at night, just before closing when the kiddies have all been taken home. There will be a handful of people with mysterious, inward-seeing eyes, circling and circling in the music.
Step on a carousel and risk an enlightenment belonging only to our time, and that, barely. Of the seven thousand carousels that once adorned American parks, fairs and resorts, only three hundred remain. And many of these have been rescued from oblivion by local groups of people who are not young, desperate to preserve a particular magic before it vanishes forever. I am one of those, at least in theory. I love carousels and would probably join a church devoted to their meaning. So I wasn’t surprised when, while writing a novel about grown-up people to whom childhood’s magical perception suddenly returns, I realized that they had to ride a carousel.
It should have been easy, but there’s a quirkiness to this stuff. A quirkiness set in stone. The characters were all in Boston, meeting in a house on Beacon Hill. There’s a carousel on Boston Common; they could have walked to it! But no. I don’t know why that carousel wouldn’t do, but it wouldn’t. I sensed another carousel nearby. A better carousel. It had to be that one, and after hours of research I found it. The Paragon Carousel in Hull, Massachusetts. http://www.paragoncarousel.com/story.html
So I wrote the scene and the book without ever actually seeing the Paragon Carousel. I never do this and it was driving me crazy. What if I got something wrong? (I did.) What if I described an experience impossible there? (I didn’t.) So during this Boston sojourn I enlisted a friend and my son, rented a car and took off for Hull.
It was 92 degrees and a Sunday in July, the worst possible time to drive along an East Coast peninsula so narrow anyone with a good arm can throw a rock from the Atlantic on one side to the bay on the other. Hull was hellishly crowded. In my life I’ve never paid twenty dollars to park, but I was happy to do it, only a half a mile from the carousel that by now was like a siren song. I would have crawled to it over broken crystal and the blowing pages of a Shakespeare First Folio. No 9th century pilgrim dragging herself through most of France and half of Spain to Santiago de Compostela was more determined. Or hotter.
My son immediately dived into the Atlantic, leaving my friend to follow my headlong rush to see a merry-go-round. (How many friends have followed me on these obsessive little journeys over a lifetime? I am humbled to think.) And there it was! The setting for a significant event in my book.
There the two gorgeous Gustav Dentzel horses that drew one of my characters to Hull, the others following, as of course they had to. But I didn’t know about the elaborately carved Dentzel “chariot,” those benches meant for elders and proper Victorian ladies who couldn’t be seen straddling wooden animals. I would have to go back and rewrite that scene. And I knew but failed to include the fact that the Paragon Carousel is enclosed in a building, necessitating a few changes for the moment when it flies!
Later I took photos and met James Hardison, whose workshop is visible through a glass wall in the carousel gift shop. Gepetto’s shop pales in comparison, as James Hardison is a professional restorer of carousel animals. If I could, I would move to Hull tomorrow just to be an apprentice in that workshop! As it is, I can only write about those horses and boards, those panels and shields and faces and mirrors that still hold, if perilously, all the fading magic of Western culture.