Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On Reading Historical Fiction

Yesterday I posted about my friend Ariel's new novel, THE WIFE, THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, a historical novel set in the late 20's in New York City. The novel is absorbing and gritty and spot-on in its portrayal of the world of gangsters and speakeasies and dancers and corrupt politicians. But it's also a look at something deeper-- a look at what drives us to do the things we do-- even things we never thought we'd do. This involves keeping secrets and making concessions and hiding things and keeping our chin held high when what we really want to do is crumple on the floor.

And who among us hasn't felt all those things at one point or another? When I was teaching ninth graders the other day I challenged them to take the things they feel-- whatever they are-- and use those feelings in their writing. It doesn't have to be the same situation as long as you're tapping into the feelings involved. Feelings will always resonate. I can attest that Ariel has never been a political figure on the take or a showgirl making concessions or a bitter wife who's become something of a recluse because of her bad choices. But she's felt feelings akin to what those characters feel. And she used them in this novel.

I used to never-- and I do mean never-- read historical fiction. Because here's what I told myself: "I don't like history. I never did. So when I get a chance to read for pleasure, I'm not going to read history, for crying out loud. BOR-ing."

But Ariel wasn't satisfied with that answer. She pointed out that there is some good stuff to be taken from history, something satisfying about seeing that, no matter how much time passes and how much the situations change, people still make mistakes and hurt each other and cry and doubt and want and all the things we feel. Somehow in looking back, we get a better take on how to go forward.

I started out by reading dual historical and contemporary novels, easing myself into a historical novel by balancing it with a healthy dose of contemporary action. But what I found was I really wanted to get back to the historical part. In the history I could get swept away, but in the contemporary it was more of the same. I gave history a chance, and as I did I started remembering the parts of history I did like. I loved the French Revolution. And World War II. The Pioneer Days will always interest me thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder. And certain people and legends rooted in historical events have always fascinated and intrigued me. All of history, I realized, is not boring. In fact, some of it is more interesting than current day ever thought about being.

What I'm trying to say is... I grew up. And I realized that a lot about history got lost in the boring lectures I equated it with. There is much to be gained from reading historical fiction, most of all a chance to see it anew, and to see people who once were mere figureheads on a timeline take on depth and dimension so that they are living and breathing and so hauntingly familiar. You might find, as I did, that they look a lot like you.

Want to take a look at some historical fiction that's coming out this year? I like this list over at Goodreads.
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Carol Baldwin said...

I didn't like history as a kid, but have found that historical fiction is such a great way of learning history--I am hooked! Thanks for this post and the last. It was great to hear you celebrating Ariel's story!

Michelle James said...

History was always on my "dislikes list" when growing up. It was my most hated course in school. What I've always loved though, was historical fiction. I could dive in and not come up for air until I'd finished a book. I haven't read this one yet, but it is definitely on my ever growing wish list.
This was a terrific post.