Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings: Historical Fiction

I have long had a love affair with children's historical fiction. It probably began with The Little House in the Big Woods, which I first read when I was what? maybe 6 or 7 years old? Looking back at it, nothing much happens in the book, but it didn't matter, because everything the Ingalls family did was strange and exciting to me. In the years since, I have read children's books set in periods from ancient Greece to the 1970s (anything since then hardly feels "historical" to me!). The vast majority of these books were interesting, apparently well-researched, and added something to my random pool of knowledge. Of course, you do need to bring some critical judgement to it--the Little House books, for example, are rife with the racial prejudices of the author's time  (something that more contemporary writers do a better job of addressing, since they are usually conscious, at the least, that such prejudices aren't acceptable. When Laura asks awkward questions about how the Indians might feel about the settlers in Indian Territory, she is told to be quiet, suggesting Wilder had her own concerns about justice, if not racism).

I have also read a somewhat smaller selection of adult fiction set in historical periods, and had a much more varied experience of the books. Of course, all those Louis L'Amour westerns I read in middle and high school are historical fiction, and probably could be used as a textbook example of the ways the genre (historical fiction, not "westerns," which is a sub-genre and plays by different rules) can go wrong. Hastily-written and often poorly edited, rife with stereotypes and misconceptions about the time and place (though L'Amour claimed that his books were, if nothing else, geographically correct--he wrote about real places and said that "if [he] wrote about a spring, that spring is there." I've never tested that claim), those westerns did little to increase either knowledge or understanding.

I've had better success with a few writers of mysteries with historical settings. Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs) researched the dickens out of the between-the-wars period in England, and her books match up to the best of the children's books: they entertain and educate in one go. Gretel Ehrlich's Heart Mountain was both good history (and more nuanced than most) and a good read, and the works of Ivan Doig rank among the best books I've read.

But you may have read my review of Goodbye Picadilly last week. This was historical fiction erring on the side of trying too hard with the history, at the expense of story and character both. Other books (think romances) play fast and loose with history for the sake of a thrilling setting for a story. And many others, the more serious "literary" works, may do the history well, but I often find heavy going.

The result of all this is, though there are undoubtedly many high-quality works of (non-genre) historical fiction in the library's adult section, I approach a new author with caution and a lot of doubt, while I continue to read my way through any I find in the kids' room (some of which are definitely better than others). It makes me sad that apparently historical fiction is out of fashion with kids right now, with the result that little of it is being published. Too few kids (sadly, my own included) seem to understand that you can learn so much without having to sweat for it, just by reading a good story.

I've spent years researching to write a book based on my Grandmother's childhood, and in fact have drafted it a couple of times. It's still not what I want, but the research has been fascinating (involving, in part, reading all the women's and children's accounts of the Oregon Trail I can find), and I still want to publish that story. I hope that someday the market will swing back toward an appreciation of these glimpses of our history.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2018
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  1. I loved the Little House books when I was a kid. I grew up in a city, so for me it was not only a different time but also a very different place. :)

    1. As a tomboy from the sticks, I could relate to her. And my own Grandmother had a childhood not that different in some ways--even unto the awful bad luck that plagued the Ingalls family with their farming!


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