Friday, December 15, 2023

The Making of History

As Teaching Authors end our year exploring our favorite books, I am focusing on historical fiction, and on the making of history. History often carries the stigma of being dry and irrelevant, says Y.S. Lee (The Agency 1: Spy in the House, 2010), but “the freedom of fiction is one way of exploring a subject that may seem intimating or remote. After all, it’s a kind of fantasy, a parallel world in which people act with recognizable human impulses and ideals but abide by very different rules.”

The genre of historical fiction is very broad, one that Mary Burns (1995) labels a “hybrid and a shape-shifter,” combining history with fiction.  Or, as Trevor Cairney (2009) suggests, historical fiction is where “literature meets history.” Avi, an award-winning master of the genre, offers that some historical fiction stays close to the known facts, while others are little more than costume drama. “Ultimately, what is most important is the story, and the characters.” Facts, according to Avi, do not make a story. “Believable people do…Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction makes truth less a stranger.”

Remember that historical fiction is the coming together of two opposing elements: fact and fiction. History tends to be written by those who survived it. The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

I’m often asked how I go about researching my own historical fiction. Because I tend to write stories of forgotten heroes, even as I reveal familiar events, in new, unexpected ways my initial research focuses on titles that explore this other side of history, allowing me to experience those perspectives that were not allowed their own stories. History is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over their situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate. 

Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself (first published in 1861 by Thayer & Eldridge; L. Barsky, ed., The Townsend Library, 2004.) is a heart wrenching autobiography. Jacobs is addressing White Northern women who cannot comprehend the evils of slavery. Her story reveals in excruciating detail her journey from slave girl to free woman, how she navigates the horrors of her life in her fight to preserve her human dignity. Writing her story is Jacobs’ ultimate act of self-assertion.

The Autobiography of Solomon Northup: Twelve Years a Slave (first published in 1853 by Derby & Miller; S. Eakin, Eakin Films & Publishing, 2013.) is another gut punch of a read. Northup is a free man, a skilled carpenter and violinist. Offered a high-paying job as a musician, he traveled to Washington, D.C. Too late he discovered he had been tricked. Drugged and bound, he was sold as a slave, and sent to New Orleans. In her article, The Cultural Significance of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave , Mollie Lieblich explains:

Created as propaganda for abolitionism, slave narratives often conformed to reoccurring narrative structures and literary conventions. Authenticity was considered essential. Most pre-emancipation slave narratives include phrases such as “written by himself” or “herself” on title pages, as well as numerous testimonials, prefaces, and letters of endorsement by white abolitionists and supporters. The narratives usually began, “I was born,” identifying a specific birthplace but no date of birth, since slaves often did not have that knowledge. … Slave narratives proved that, despite the odds, many slaves managed to escape their degradation and learned how to read and write. After escaping their bondage and making contacts with abolitionists, they were able to tell their tale to others.”

Ashes: The Seeds of America Trilogy, by Laurie Halse Anderson (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016) is a modern classic (in my opinion), a thumping good read as noted by the New York Times, that illustrates this process of blending fact and fiction. She weaves these experiences of Jacobs and Northup into a new life in this story of enslaved Isabel as she continues her search for her sister, Ruth (began in Anderson’s award-winning, Chains, another of my favorite reads), and their flight to freedom.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, another master writer of historical fiction. Reading a blend of history and historical fiction helps me envision how I might bring my own characters to life.

Just a note, Teaching Authors is taking a winter break and our posts will resume on January 19.

Until then, I wish you a historical happy holiday!

--Bobbi Miller






Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for sharing these intriguing titles, Bobbi! Have a great break.

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, Carmela! Wishing you a restful, but creative break! Bobbi