Love and struggle orbit ‘Planet’

By Julie Wittes Schlack
August 24, 2010

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One of the great delights in reading historical fiction is teasing out fact from invention, a pleasure accentuated by the central theme of Michael Byers’s latest novel, “Percival’s Planet.’’ In this quietly poignant book about the search for Planet X (eventually known as Pluto), all of the fictional characters orbiting Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, are in some way navigating that thin and shifting border between what’s literal and imagined, between what’s real and simply longed for.

At the start of the 20th century, wealthy Boston astronomer Percival Lowell, founder of Arizona’s Lowell Observatory, speculated that shifts in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus could be explained by the gravitational pull of an unseen planet in our solar system, so he searched the skies for it. The story opens in 1929, years after Lowell’s death, as the fictitious Alan Barber, a Harvard-educated astronomer, son of a widowed schoolteacher, continues Lowell’s pursuit, performing the nightly grunt work of photographing a small region of the sky, then comparing the configuration of visible objects with the same section of sky photographed two weeks later.

Meanwhile, in Burdett, Kan., Tombaugh, son of a tenant farmer, is engaged in a different sort of grind. When he’s not planting and sowing, Clyde spends his hours grinding and polishing telescopic lenses, studying the sky, and counting down the days until the next harvest comes in, which will finally pay his way to college. That dream is buried under a freak summer hail storm that destroys the crop, but on the strength of his astronomical drawings, resourcefulness, and a well-timed inquiry, Clyde is hired by the Lowell Observatory to join Alan in the search.

Crossing paths with these two focused men from humble backgrounds is Felix DuPrie. Born to affluence, fueled both by his father’s disapproval and his mother’s gentle tolerance, Felix has careened from one academic or spiritual pursuit to another, seeking meaning and mystery in religion, telepathy, ornithology. His quest finally ends in the hunt for dinosaur remains in Arizona.

The last and most affecting character to arrive in this landscape of big sky and arid earth is Mary Hempstead. Orphaned as a very young woman, Mary is sent to Boston to live with her brother Hollis. There she meets and attracts the enduring love of Alan Barber, whom she eventually marries. It is also where she begins to lose her mind for the first time, imagining that a tusk protrudes from the back of her head, “a dried-up man riding on it like a fireman on a pole, regarding her indifferently . . . With a great effort she could make it vanish; with a concentrated push of her mind she could stand unburdened and slip a dress on over her head without feeling the impossible strangeness of it. But finally she found she could not, with any amount of effort, make any of it go away no matter what she did, and she felt a growing panic. . . . Watch her come into a room and toss her head, she looked to everyone’s eyes like a regular pretty girl but she knew better.’’ In chronicling Mary’s descent into madness, Byers’s writing, always lyrical, shimmers and trembles and breaks our hearts.

Pluto, Percival Lowell’s planet, is more than an invisible force exerting gravitational pull. It’s a metaphor for loss and pursuit, for the irregular orbits that define our most meaningful relationships. And though Pluto’s planetary status was recently demoted, “Percival’s Planet’’ a story of earth, sky, and bones, of privilege and struggle, of grave and beautiful people, is still deserving of our admiration and awe.

Julie Wittes Schlack, a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities, can be reached at


Holt, 432 pp., $27