Study Guide

I Know This Much is True Memories and the Past

By Wally Lamb

Memories and the Past

A minute or so later, Ma emerged from the burning house, sobbing, clutching [her photo album] against her chest. (2.18)

Looking at photos is one of the best ways to jog your memory. They're like memory in paper form. And before photos were in the cloud (ready to be hacked), they had to be stored in albums. Ma is willing to risk her life to save her album from a burning building; it's like her memories themselves are at stake.

As for me, my memories are fragments—sounds and sensations that may have more to do with my mother's retelling of the story than with any electrical firings in my own brain. (2.299)

Which memories are yours and which are just other people's memories, memories where you're just remembering the story and not the actual event itself?

Thomas and I are going to the movies with Ma (5.1)

Chapter 5 shifts into a present-tense point of view, an interesting choice for a chapter set thirty years in the past. By talking about his memories in this way, Dominick makes them seem a lot more immediate, as though he's reliving them, not just retelling them.

[Ma] told us that when we ride on the Staten Island ferry, we'll see the exact same view her father saw when he first came to this country in 1901: the harbor, the Statue of Liberty, the New York skyline. Ma's always talking about her father. Papa, Papa, blah blah blah. (10.7)

Dominick is resistant to connecting with his past, but he's twelve at this point. What twelve-year-old wants to hear about things dusty old people did in the past?

The History of Domenico Onofrio Tempesta, a Great Man from Humble Beginnings (31.1)

These sections of the novel are like memories within memories as Dominick's grandfather writes about his own past. They show Dominick that he can learn from the past, but they also show us how a person can put his own spin on the past and change it to show himself in a positive light.

As a boy, I grew up in the fearful shadow of Mount Etna, the great and terrible vulcano [sic] that brought my grandparents to ruin. (31.4)

Domenico is a man who feels defined by his past, born from fire, so he starts his life story from the very beginning, before he was born.

You want to go forward? Go back. (32.52)

This is perhaps the most succinct way of saying that you should study the past to avoid making the same mistakes. Dr. Patel encourages Dominick to read his grandfather's memoirs and learn from those past mistakes in order to become a better person in the present.

Trouble with my bowels since Tuesday. Arthritis afflicts my joints. My body fails me, but not my memory! (35.72)

Some old people have the reverse problem: They're still physically able, but their memory fails them. Domenico is lucky his memory stayed strong, because he procrastinated so much writing his memoirs.

That was the night the Monkey told me her story…the night my enemy drank my wine and revealed to me the truth of what she was—what they both were. (39.1)

There are quite a few revelations of the past in this book, and Prosperine's story is a revelation within a revelation, and her past, too, can explain a lot of Dominick's family history to him. It's a good thing Domenico includes her story.

We leafed through the book together. (42.307)

Dominick and Dessa sit down to look at Ma's photo book. After they're dead, all that's left of Ma and Thomas now are their memories.