“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” ~ George Santayana.
I recently had the honor of moderating a Historical Fiction panel of four authors, Julie Berry, Rachel DeWoskin, Stacey Lee, and Ruta Sepetys. I have this to report: if you love Historical Fiction, rest easy that the genre is in excellent hands. And if you especially love to hear the untold stories from history, start the kettle and get an afghan, because you’ve got some reading to do!
So let’s talk about what Historical Fiction is and is not. First of all, Historical Fiction is set in the past, at least 25 years before the author’s lifetime. (I’ve seen varying years given, but this one comes up most often.) The historical fiction author needs to pay respect to accuracy and detail, depicting the era and its inhabitants faithfully. When one reads a historical fiction novel, one should leave that story having an enhanced knowledge of the era(s) written about - what people wore, what they ate, what they read at the time, how they greeted each other, what kind of toilets they used. (Come on, everyone wants to know that one.) You should feel as if “you are there” and have experienced life with the characters.
By those rules, there are a lot of books aren’t historical fiction. (Sorry Austen fans, nope. Jane was writing about what was happening during her lifetime.) In other words, just because a book is old doesn’t mean it meets the guidelines for Historical Fiction. Classic examples are Roots by Alex Haley and The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough.
Also, Historical Fiction can have subgenres - Romance and Mystery especially - but even speculative fiction novels can have roots in an accurately drawn historical time period. Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon is a good example, set during the Napoleonic Wars… with dragons.
The most important appeal factors in Historical Fiction are that the stage is set appropriately and that the players fit the scene accurately - the details must be impeccable, and for many readers, the more details the better! BRING ON THE WEIGHTY TOMES!
All that being said, let me address some Historical Fiction controversy. There are those in the world who, because they can’t imagine it so, will claim that any marginalized character in history who is strong, bold, self-possessed, feminist, progressive, or all of the above is “unrealistic”. In fact, Rachel DeWoskin shared that a historian took her to task for having a Jewish refugee character in Shanghai falling in love with a Chinese boy. As DeWoskin incredulously pointed out - people living in close proximity to each other for a number of years will engage in all sorts of relationships with each other. That’s just a fact. Why is love exempt from that, she asks? All four authors indicated that, indeed, this is the very work of Historical Fiction - telling an individual's story woven into a rich historical tapestry and, well, WHY IN THE HECK WOULD YOU ASSUME YOU KNOW EVERY INDIVIDUAL STORY? Apparently, some historians don’t have a problem with that sort of generalization, but this librarian does! If there are people who go against the grain now, there have been for all of history.
To me, the beauty of Historical Fiction is that it offers the chance to right untold (literally) wrongs. The silencing of marginalized people, the rewriting of history books by the oppressors, the selective memory of the majority, the sins of omission, the narrowing of the lens - all crimes against history. By centering and amplifying voices that had been lost to time, it creates the chance for history to become a multi-dimensional experience that can inform fully and demand that the present and the future speak to our past. (Oh my goodness, how we need to speak to it, right Santayana?)
In Sepetys newest book, The Fountains of Silence, she tells the story of the Franco regime directly after the Spanish Civil war, a dictatorship that lasted 36 years and resulted in many atrocities, including the kidnapping and illegal adoption of the children of those who opposed Franco during the war. When he died, and the regime ended, Spain decided to take up the “Pact of Forgetting”, an effort by both parties in Spain to avoid dealing with the legacy of Francoism. The question Sepetys asked herself, which became the central question of this novel, “Does silence truly heal pain, or does it just prolong it?” Sepetys answers: it prolongs it, every time. And it never benefits the marginalized among us.
These four novelists (and so many more) are using their considerable research skills to suss out stories that have been swept into corners and lost in cracks and hidden behind the dominant narrative and buried in unmarked graves for years. We see a lens turned on life for Chinese people brought to the South to replace those who had been freed from Slavery (wait, that happened?) Or how Japanese-occupied Shanghai ended up as a safe haven for European Jews fleeing Nazi violence, all this while Jews were turned away from the United States during WWII (and sent back to their death). Or how a regiment of black soldiers, filled with jazz musicians, went on to start the ragtime craze in France and win military distinction as the Harlem Hellfighters.
But the best thing about Historical Fiction is how authors can speak life into one gifted Harlem Hellfighter who might have found love with one courageous Belgian girl, and made a life in the liminal space allowed them by the world at the time, with mettle and grace and music. (And a little help from Aphrodite.) Or any number of individuals who, though not given the chance to have their histories celebrated, did live, did love, did toil, did prevail and who deserve to move from margin to center after all this time.
-Polli Kenn is the Readers' Services Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library.