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.
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?