"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Friday, February 9, 2018

Good historical fiction. A look at the genre by evaluating several books.

Historical fiction, like all genres of books, has rules or forms which writers should consider as they write to make their book worthy of the reader's time. But unlike other genres, historical fiction requires that an author do extensive research to get the historical details correct. Details about small things like food, language, and settings need to be accurate. In addition it is vital that big details about historical events be correct. Good historical fiction should also add information and details to a reader's knowledge base about the topic, events, or time period. One of my favorite things about reading good historical fiction is when I find myself curious enough that I continue my own research about the topic because I want to learn more.

Sometimes historical fiction seems more like narrative nonfiction than fiction because the book just breathes accuracy. An example of a fiction book that reads like nonfiction is Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally.   Oscar Schindler was a real person who really did make a list of Jewish workers that he "needed" for his jobs. His efforts saved 1300+ people from sure death. So why is the book fiction? Because the book includes conversations and dialogue between characters that no one can prove actually happened. The bones of the story are correct but the interesting little details are fictional.

Other times historical fiction books are clearly fictional, sometimes including magical or fantastical elements, but if the author has done the needed research the reader can still benefit by learning new information. Or the book may lead the reader to do their own research about the topic.

Recently I have read two historical fiction books and though I liked one of the books better than the other, I actually learned more from the book I liked the least. Let me tell you a little about each.

The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling is about a family caught up in the second Boer War in South Africa, around 1900.  The Boers were fighting the British military over gold and diamond rights. The Boers, descendants of Dutch sailors, refused to roll over in the face of a much mightier army. They used guerrilla-type tactics of hit and run and ambushing. The British became so frustrated that they started taking the families of the combatants into custody and imprisoned them in concentration camps. Over 22,000 women and children died during this imprisonment, often from diseases like measles which they had no or little immunity to. The world all gasped at the horrors of the holocaust during the Second World War but few knew the British did a similar thing a few decades before that time. The family in this fictional work was deeply and profoundly affected by this war.

What I liked about The Lost History of Stars was how the book opened my mind to find out more information about the Second Boer War. I had heard the term "Boer War" before but knew next to nothing about it.  Honestly the only thing I knew about it was Winston Churchill had fought in the Boer War and was considered a war hero. Learning new stuff is my favorite thing. I enjoyed that aspect of reading this book.

There were the a few weaknesses of The Lost History of Stars, however. When a book is set in an exotic or different setting the writing should be so descriptive that the reader can practically see or imagine what that setting looks and feels like. In one scene lions are roaring in the background. Another describes an incident with a snake. Otherwise there were few descriptions that allowed me to travel to South Africa in my mind. Another thing that seemed missing was authentic language. Boers (Afrikaners) speak a Dutch-hybrid language called Afrikaans yet few of these words were used to make the story seem accurate. Lastly, the story line was a very tragic one about the horrible things that happened to people in the concentration camps, yet I did not feel the outrage or anger that I should have when confronted with the details. And I wasn't alone with this thought. Everyone in my book club felt the same way. The writing didn't evoke strong feelings of empathy.

The second historical fiction book I recently finished was Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. I have read several of her previous works including her Pulitzer Prize winning novel March, so I was prepared for great writing. I wasn't disappointed on that point. Caleb's Crossing was set during Colonial times on an island near Nantucket, New England. A family had set up their own colony on this island feeling that many of the Puritan ideals were too strict especially about the treatment of the Indians. Bethia, the book's narrator, is a smart young girl who is thwarted in her attempts to attend classes, taught by her father, because she is a girl. So she has to learn by being stealthy. She also befriends an Indian boy and gets him interested in learning as well. Later the boy, renamed Caleb, is sent to attend school on the mainland where he does very well academically but is laid low as he has to shed his Indian traditions. In the end tragedy strikes and Bethia is left to ponder what would have happened to Caleb if she had just left him alone.

Unlike the previous book, Caleb's Crossing did use language which seemed like the language of the 1660s, very stilted and full of religious aphorisms. The descriptions of the island, the Indian villages, the local farms, and the town of Cambridge gave a full and complete picture of the setting. Though I liked this book better than The Lost History of Stars, it did not cause me to do any additional research on my own. Each of the books had their own strengths and weaknesses.

For my taste, I like historical fiction to also be educational. I like a story line which carries to plot along but I also want authentic details which will pique my interest and knowledge-base. Sometimes the least likely books can do the best job of that. One book that comes to mind is Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. In this book, set in modern times, the main character Andi goes to Paris. She finds a journal of a girl who lived two centuries before. As she reads it she actually time travels to that time period and learns about the French Revolution up close and personal.  Even though the book uses magical realism, I learned more about the French Revolution than I ever had from textbooks and I enjoyed the experience of reading it very much. 

One distinction I want to make about books assigned as historical fiction. They need to be written with a backward glance of at least twenty-five or fifty years, or more. That means that Pride and Prejudice isn't historical fiction, even though it sure seems like it to today's readers, because Austen wrote all of her books set in the same time period in which she lived. I used to book talk the book The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and would tell students that it will seem like you are reading historical fiction back to the late 1950s but the author didn't write it with a look to the past. Plath wrote the book in her present time. Authors of today writing about historical events will add modern sensibilities to their works often because they don't want to offend their readers. Caleb's Crossing is written in such a way as to make the reader feel outraged at the treatment of the Indians. If the book had really been written during the 1600s about the same events, I doubt we would have had that author assist. When my children were young I decided to read aloud The Little House On the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I think we only read two of the books. I couldn't stand them. They were so racist. I hadn't even noticed that when I was young and read them for the first time. 

Good historical fiction should help catapult the reader back in time to certain place or event and help the reader understand just a bit what it was like to live during that time. Great historical fiction will go one more step and cause the reader to do their own research to learn more just because they want to know more.

What are some of your favorite historical fiction books?


  1. I don't remember that about the Little House books, but I imagine they were! In real life, Pa was a terrible person. I agree with you completely on Lost History of Stars. It left me cold, and it shouldn't have.

  2. Revolution has been on my Goodreads to-read list for so very long. I'm glad to hear you liked it.

  3. I love historical fiction! I wish I would have had more options to read in this genre when I was growing up and I wish my teachers would have used it to teach history as opposed to just having us answer questions at the back of the chapters and memorize facts.

    I can't even begin to give you a list of historical fiction books I love, but the two most recent I've read/am reading are: The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard and As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner. After that it's Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton.

    I moved to middle school this year, and have been putting genre stickers on the spines of the library collection. Sometimes it is hard to decide if something is realistic fiction or historical fiction. Anything about 9/11 occurred prior to my students' births, so even though it seems so current to me, I have stickered it historical fiction.

    1. I am tagging the books you suggested. I often don't select historical fiction but when I do I usually love it. Thanks.

  4. I loved Revolution. It was my #1 book of the year, whenever it was written (seems like quite a while ago now.). But you’ve made me want to read it again. And one of my all-time favorites is Memoirs of a Geisha. And I love Barbara Kingsolver’s books. And The Dovekeepers by Hoffman. I could go on. Can you tell this is my favorite genre? Thanks for the suggestions.

    1. I loved the historical part of REVOLUTION but the modern part irritated me because Andi was so whiny! Ha! (Typical teenager probably.) I really like Kingsolver's books, too. I take it that you read Lacuna? Wow. That book is so well done. I am adding the Dovekeepers to my TBR. Thanks.

  5. I sometimes forget how much I love historical fiction. I always think of mysteries and fantasy as my go-to genres, but I've loved historical fiction my whole life too. I was a history major in college because I found history so fascinating after a lifetime of learning about it in stories! Some favorites off the top of my head are The Hired Girl, Witness (Karen Hesse), The War that Saved My Life (and sequel), A Night Divided, Stella by Starlight, and Burn Baby Burn. Also, anything by Ruta Sepetys or Marcus Sedgwick. As a kid, I loved Hans Brinker, Caddie Woodlawn, and every kind of pioneer/covered wagon story I could get my hands on. I agree that the Little House books are shockingly racist when read now (as are many of the Narnia books). Some adult historical fiction I've enjoyed are The Red Tent, Sula, Life after Life, and Year of Wonders.

    I also appreciate your point about historical fiction being different than fiction written in the past. I took a freshman class in college that considered whether novels written in the past could be seen as primary source documents for historians.

  6. Great examination of what makes good historical fiction! I also really like for historical fiction that is both educational and engaging. And I've loved several books by Geraldine Brooks, including The People of the Book, Year of Wonders, and The Secret Chord. The did all really bring the setting to life.


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