Lost time

Surprising characters make for an engaging story in Donna Gordon’s debut novel.


Donna Gordon’s beautifully crafted “What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me” abounds with unusual characters and an engrossing story. We immediately are thrust into the mind of the protagonist Lee, a precocious adolescent suffering from progeria (a fatal premature aging disease) that has left him looking like the “102-year-old man trapped in a kid’s body … with false teeth, heart disease, arthritis, a defibrillator, and bald as the bird on the back of a dollar bill … In the whole history of modern times, there’d been only about a hundred freaks like him, with an average life expectancy of 12. Going on 13, he was an anomaly. Like the 50 Foot Woman, or Jesus Christ, or Frankenstein.” Right up front, we know Lee is playing against the odds in his yearning to make the trip of his dreams to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia because of his obsession with Early American history, particularly Ben Franklin, whose resilience has caught his fancy.

Gordon movingly describes the relationship between Lee and Cass, his devoted, overwhelmed mother with a demanding job as a Broadway makeup artist. While watching TV, she writes, “Lee took advantage of that time and leaned against her and knew exactly who he was, a deformed boy poised on the edge of time, loved for the simple shape his molecules took up in space, his blood’s arrangement of particles mimicking hers … And he knew someday he would break her heart.” 

Lee is devastated when Cass is unable to take him on the trip because of her job. But his new caretaker, Tomás — a 6-feet-5, Argentinian former journalist and survivor who “disappeared” during the Dirty War in the late ’70s and early ’80s under the dictatorship of Jorge Videla — offers to take him. But Tomás has an ulterior motive. He is actually searching for his wife, who was pregnant when she was taken at the same time. He has just learned from Margaret, a former colleague, that they might be in either of the two cities.

Eventually, the trip, which greatly taxes Lee’s health, proves not just one of detective adventure, but as a press release about the book states, one of moving bonding as “one flees memories of death and the other hurtles inevitably toward it, they each share unsettling truths and find themselves transformed in the process.”

During their trip, Margaret becomes intimately entwined in the pair’s search for the truth. Gordon explains in an interview that the character functions as a kind of witness and voice of reason. She’s enormously powerful and resourceful as a reporter for the Washington Post. But she also lost family to the Dirty War, and lived through atrocities until she had nothing left. Margaret doesn’t believe she’s capable of intimacy, but she has worked to reinstate her friendship with Tomás — after betraying him and his family in Argentina — and tries to do right by him and Lee in the end.

Gordon shared how her tale came about from two seemingly disparate experiences. She had volunteered at Camp Sunshine, which was for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. While there, Gordon met a boy who had progeria. Around the same time, she was working on a documentary photography project with Amnesty International. Gordon met two people who had been among the Disappeared when she was interviewing and photographing people on Amnesty’s speakers’ list for a project that was exhibited at Harvard’s Fogg Museum.

Gordon says, “I didn’t see connections right away between the characters I created. At first, Lee and Tomás seem to have nothing in common. But when I decided that Tomás would be Lee’s caretaker, I started to understand their relationship, how they needed one another — how their weaknesses became strengths. How they struggled with lost time and accelerated time, how they were working to overcome their brokenness. In the end, they give one another an overwhelming sense of purpose and the will to survive.”

Another important and endearing character is Lee’s silent but loving companion, a Vietnamese potbellied pig named Patrick, who Gordon shares “is there for comic relief. Having two characters with such serious issues would have been too heavy without some respite. My inspiration for Patrick actually came from visiting the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair one summer. I met a man who had a pig, and he explained how he was teaching her to climb stairs by putting a raisin on each step! That stayed with me.” In fact, Gordon, who has been coming to Chilmark every summer for 35 years, is very much in love with the Island. “I can’t imagine a summer without time spent on the Vineyard,” she says.

“What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me,” by Donna Gordon, $19.95. Donna Gordon is celebrating the launch of her debut novel on Wednesday, June 29, at 7 pm at Bunch of Grapes bookstore with a reading, conversation, and signing.