Taking Stock of Historical Fiction

I changed my topic for today’s blog post several times. In fact, I had it pretty much written and ready to go last Monday. Everything changed on Tuesday morning, when I checked for comments on my blog.

Last Tuesday, one of my blog readers who is Jewish left a heartfelt comment about what I had written about Pam Jenoff’s historical novel, The Woman with the Blue Star, in my July 12, 2021 blog post, 4 Other Books I Read in June 2021.

That reader has more intimate knowledge of the Holocaust than I have and, through an acquaintance who lived in the Krakow sewers, says that the premise of Ms. Jenoff’s book is impossible. I read Ms. Jenoff’s novel as a work of fiction, knowing the story was not true. I didn’t think about the possibility that some readers would be offended by the premise of the book. Prior to reading the novel, I wasn’t aware that some of the Jews in Poland had to hide for their lives in the nasty city sewers. For Ms. Jenoff’s bringing that fact to my attention, I am grateful.

This comment and my response to it served is a reminder about historical fiction – and it’s important to me as a fan of the genre and also a writer of it.

The Woman with the Blue Star, by Pam Jenoff

In fairness to Pam Jenoff, I heard her interviewed about her process in writing this novel. She did extensive research. It is a fact that some Jews took refuge in the sewers in Poland. There were many anti-Semitic people in Poland, but there were also sympathetic Poles who risked their lives to try to save Jews.

I heard Ms. Jenoff interviewed about this novel some weeks ago. I wish I’d taken some notes, so I could share them with you and with the reader who contacted me last week.


Admitting my own bias

I have lived my entire life in North Carolina. Two older ladies were friends of my family. By older, I mean older. Sisters, they were born in 1883 and 1888. Their father fought for the South in the American Civil War. Those sisters drilled it into me that it was “the War Between the States” and not “the Civil War.” That statement was always followed quickly with, “There was nothin’ civil about it.”

That really made an impression on me and even recently I’ve referred to the American Civil War as “the War Between the States.” I’ve written it that way in various things I’ve written and self-published.

I now see my bias. In the future, I will refer to it as “the American Civil War” or “the US Civil War.” It was a war between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America. For me to call it anything else is to twist history and reveal my bias.

I think it was Oprah Winfrey who said, “When you know better, you do better.” Those are words I try to live by. I hope I never get too old to learn new things and new ways to look at things.


The unwritten pact between fiction author and reader

A reader of historical fiction should always keep in mind that they’re reading fiction. Fiction is made up. It’s a story created in the author’s mind; however, there is an unwritten pact between the author and the reader. There should be enough factual information – whether in event or time and place – that the reader can trust that the story is plausible.

It is incumbent upon the writer of historical fiction to do due diligence in research. I heard author Sharyn McCrumb speak a few years ago about her research and writing methodology. As an aspiring historical fiction writer, I was impressed with all she said.

One thing Ms. McCrumb said, though, stood out and remains in the back of my head. I think about it as I’m doing my research, and I think about it every time I hear someone say they don’t read historical fiction. They often go on to say they only read history books.

Ms. McCrumb’s statement that stood out to me that evening was that (and I paraphrase) some historical fiction is better researched than some history books.


History books and their bias

We only need to stop and think about some of the history textbooks we had 50 or 60 years ago. (I can’t speak for the content of current school curriculum history textbooks.) Aside from the recitation of dates of birth and death of persons of alleged import and the dates of battles and the like, much of the way history was presented to students depended upon the author’s point-of-view. Textbooks are usually written from the winner’s perception.

For example, the textbooks I had as a student presented the white settlers’ “conquering” of the frontier as a positive thing. No time was spent trying to view the 1600s to the present through the eyes of a Native American. If the Cherokee Trail of Tears was even mentioned, it was only in passing.

Some Southerners still maintain that the American Civil War was fought over “states’ rights.” (Many of those same people still refer to that war as “the War of Northern Aggression.”)  I have relatives who still maintain that as the truth and will argue me down that it had nothing to do with slavery. Some people learned certain things about the Civil War and no facts today will change their minds.

If we are to be true students of history, I believe we should read both sides of the story. Both sides are tainted by the personal experience of the writer but, by the same token, both sides of the story probably contain some truth.

The antebellum American South has been romanticized to the hilt by such novels as Gone With the Wind. Confederate generals have been portrayed as dashing and religious Southern gentleman who fought for the honor of hearth and home. In some cases, that’s who they were. But they were basically fighting to maintain the status quo. Even if they didn’t own slaves, they didn’t have any quarrel with the institution of slavery. The economy was built upon it. What would happen if there were no slaves? They couldn’t imagine such a world.

Renowned historical novelist James Alexander Thom wrote a book called The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction. In it, he wrote the following: “History contains many errors because each person sees the same incident differently or remembers it differently. History textbooks are biased depending on the agenda of the writer, the publisher, the state, the school board.”


What James Alexander Thom wrote about historical fiction

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, by James Alexander Thom

Here are four quotes from The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, by James Alexander Thom:

But fiction is not the opposite of truth. Fiction means ‘created by imagination.’ And there is plenty of evidence everywhere in literature and art that imagination can get as close to truth as studious fact-finding can.”

“Most early American white men thought women should be seen but not heard. As a historical novelist, you might wish to make your hero ‘politically correct’ by today’s standards, but if you do that, you’ll be lying to your readers.”

To be really good historical novelists, though (and that’s what I want us to be), we have to take our obligation to historical truth just as seriously as the historians do theirs. But we don’t have to bear the burden of being the authority on every factual detail. Our disclaimer is right there on the cover: a novel.”

But here’s the key: Whether your historical story is ancient or recent history, what you want to do is re-create it in full – live, colorful, smelly, noisy, savory, painful, repugnant, scary, all the ways it actually was – and then set the reader down smack in the midst of it.”

I’ve referred to James Alexander Thom in a number of my blog posts over the years. One of them was my February 12, 2019 blog post, Two for Tuesday: Two Books that Helped Me Fall in Love with Reading.


Until my next blog post

Time will tell what my blog will be about next Monday. I hope you’ll come back next week to find out.

I’ll continue to read and write historical fiction. Mr. Thom says good historical novelists are respected by historians. That’s what I aspire to be.

Let me know what you like or don’t like about my blog. I’m especially trying to reach people who like reading historical fiction and have an interest in Early American history. I also enjoy exploring current events and discussing them with people from around the world. It amazes me every week to see that people from around the world have read my blog. In that respect alone, I think blogging and the internet are wondrous avenues for the sharing of ideas.

You never know. A comment you make about one of my blog posts might stop me in my tracks and force me to dig a little deeper into a subject or even admit I’ve been wrong.

Thank you for reading my blog. All comments, opinions, criticisms, and corrections are welcome.

Janet

Opportunities to Hear Author Interviews

It occurred to me that some of you might not be aware of the multitude of opportunities online to hear and see authors being interviewed live online. I have found so many this spring that I created a calendar on which to pencil in the events so I won’t miss one.

Photo Credit: visuals on Unsplash.com

SIBA’S Reader Meet Writer Author Series

The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) has many author interviews scheduled. In fact, they’re so prolific they’ve named the shows the Reader Meet Writer Author Series. They’re often publicized through the social media platforms of independent bookstores. They are free.

You just need to register through SIBA or your favorite independent bookstore’s website. Reminders are usually emailed to registrants the day of the interviews. Most are aired at 7pm on weeknights, but a few are during the day or on weekends.

Author Wiley Cash is the primary interviewer for the Reader Meet Writer Author Series. The SIBA Reader Meet Writer Author Series webpage is https://sibaweb.com/mpage/readermeetwriter, You can find past Reader Meet Writer Author Series interviews on YouTube.

Independent Bookstores’ Author Interviews

Look up the websites of various independent bookstores and check their events schedules. Then, sign up for their newsletters and/or their social media. You will then receive announcements of author interviews they’ve scheduled. As I write this, most of these are online-only events. It will be interesting to see how these events

Evolve as we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic. I hope even as in-store author events return, they will also be live-streamed so a greater audience can take advantage of them.

Friends and Fiction

I’ve mentioned this weekly Facebook Live group before, but it bears mentioning again. Friends and Fiction is a group of five authors (Mary Alice Monroe, Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, and Patti Callahan Henry) who meet virtually at 7:00 p.m. ET every Wednesday to discuss books and writing. They have a guest author almost every week.

You can find them on Facebook and join their page in order to get their occasional announcements. I look forward to this week’s segment because Pam Jenoff, one of my favorite authors, is the guest author.

You may recall that I blogged about Ms. Jenoff’s book The Orphan’s Tale on August 7, 2017 (Late July Reading)  and The Lost Girls of Paris on May 3, 2021 (5 Historical Novels I Read in April 2021.) I’m on the waitlist at the public library for her new historical novel, The Woman with the Blue Star.

Just announced: You can now find the Friends and Fiction interviews anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Author Websites and Their Social Media

Go to the websites of the authors that interest you, and click on “Events.” You’ll not only find information about any of their upcoming in-person appearances but also their virtual appearances. You can follow your favorite authors on social media and learn of their appearances that way, too.

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A Sampling of Authors I’m Hearing This Week

Yesterday I heard Dr. Jane Woodall in conversation with Peter Wohlleben (The Hidden Life of Trees and his new book, The Heartbeat of Trees) via Eventbrite, thanks to Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, Colorado. It was fantastic and inspiring! It was organized by the Miami Book Fair. I blogged about The Hidden Life of Trees on June 2, 2017 (You Need to Read These Books!) People all over the world took advantage of this event. They signed in from The Netherlands, Austria, South Africa, Germany, Canada, and the United States. (And those were just the comments I noticed in the chat sidebar.)

I signed up for a Virtual Lunch with Mary Adkins (Privilege) today at 12:30 p.m. ET through Hub City Books in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I haven’t read any of Ms. Adkins’ books, so I look forward to learning about her and hearing her speak. She’s an author and a book coach.

As I mentioned above, on Wednesday night I’ll get to hear Pam Jenoff thanks to Friends and Fiction on Facebook Live.

Thursday at 11:00 I’ve signed up to hear Susan Meissner. I blogged about The Last Year of the War in my March 8, 2021 blog (4 Books I Read in February 2021) and The Nature of Fragile Things in my May 3, 2021 blog (5 Historical Novels I Read in April 2021.) I thoroughly enjoyed both these historical novels and I look forward to hearing her speak for the first time. She’ll be live online at 11:00 a.m. ET thanks to the Warren County District Public Library in Ohio.

Mary Alice Monroe will be interviewed and live-streamed via Zoom on YouTube at 3:00 p.m. ET on Friday. I learned about this event through Tattered Cover Books in Denver, Colorado. I blogged about one of Ms. Monroe’s books, The Butterfly’s Daughter in my September 7, 2020 blog (Books Read in August 2020.) Her new novel is The Summer of Lost and Found.

Next week I’m signed up to listen to an event about diversity in books and the power of books via Zoom and sponsored by Room to Read.

My in-person social calendar is still sparse due to the pandemic, but my online social calendar is full. Some days I have to choose between two author events that are scheduled for the same time.

Since my last blog post

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta announced that those of us who are fortunate enough to have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 can safely go without face masks indoors and outdoors, except when visiting a business or facility that still requires masks. It was great to go to church yesterday and not wear a mask. It’s wonderful to see others’ smiling faces once again. It was great and strange all at the same time.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. As usual, I have several books going. I’m reading several, listening to one on CD, and yesterday started listening to one on Playaway so I can “read” while I walk or do yardwork. And yes, sometimes the story lines get confused. Or maybe I’m the one who gets confused.

Remember: This is Get Caught Reading Month, so try to get caught reading this week.

Janet

5 Historical Novels I Read in April 2021

April brought me a boatload of good historical novels! I’m not sure what next month holds, but it will be difficult for May to match what I got to read in April. If you know me, you know that historical fiction is my preference in literature. It’s a joy when so many good new historical novels are released (or reach the top of my waitlist at the public library) at the same time.


Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

You may recall that I read News of the World, by Paulette Jiles in October 2017 and blogged about it on November 6, 2017 in Some Good New Books. Also, I blogged about a favorite quote from that book on May 14, 2018 in The Lampasas County Asylum. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie that’s been made by the same name, News of the World, starring Tom Hanks. I haven’t seen it yet.

One of the things I like about Paulette Jiles’ writing is how she manages to sneak in bits of humor. Simon the Fiddler is by no means a comedy, yet Simon’s sense of humor comes through and makes him a very likeable fellow.

Simon the Fiddler, by Paulette Jiles

The story takes place at the end of the American Civil War. Simon has managed to escape being conscripted by the Confederate Army until a barroom brawl in Victoria, Texas in March 1865. His life of flitting around making somewhat of a living playing his fiddle is briefly interrupted by a stint in a Confederate regimental band.

After the war, Simon sets his sights on buying land in Texas, building a house, and settling down to create a family. Along the way he meets up with a variety of musicians and a beautiful young lady from Ireland whose life in America is so awful she wishes she’d never left her home country. She steals Simon’s heart.

Every time you think things can’t get worse for poor Simon, something worse happens. Such is the bedrock of fiction, and so goes this tale.

I invite you to come along for the ride with Simon, his companions, and the love of his life. Does he get what he’s been seeking all his life by the time you reach the last page of the book? You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out.

I enjoyed listening to Simon the Fiddler on CD. The professional reader is Grover Gardner.


Yellow Wife, by Sadeqa Johnson

Sadeqa Johnson was inspired to write this historical novel after learning about the life of Mary Lumpkin. Mary Lumpkin was a 12-year-old slave of Robert Lumpkin in Virginia. She bore him at least five children.

Ms. Johnson did extensive research into the lives of Robert Lumpkin and Mary Lumpkin and has woven a gripping novel that will keep you turning pages and yearning for something good to happen to Mary. The book contains many scenes of unthinkable beatings and the torture of slaves. Mr. Lumpkin owned a jail where slaves were sent for punishment, and Mr. Lumpkin delighted in inflicting that punishment. He absolutely delighted in it. I didn’t know that slave jails existed until I read this book.

Yellow Wife, by Sadeqa Johnson

Ms. Johnson put herself in the body of Mary Lumpkin and, thereby, puts the reader there, too. As much as is possible, Ms. Johnson helps us to put ourselves in the shoes of a slave woman who is at the mercy of her master and is put in an awkward position with her fellow slaves because she is seen as the favored one. All the while, her heart is broken because she can’t be with the man she truly loves and who truly loves her. For Mr. Lumpkin, Mary is a wife of convenience.

Yellow Wife is not a pleasant read, but it is based on a true story – one we as Americans should know about and not forget. It’s part of our history.


The Nature of Fragile Things, by Susan Meissner

I highly recommend this historical novel set in San Francisco in 1906 – the year of the Great San Francisco Earthquake.

Sophie lives in the north of Ireland and seeks a better life in America. She joins her brother in New York City, but he soon falls in love and moves to Canada. Sophie’s life as a single young female Irish immigrant in the big city leaves her desperate for a better life. She answers a mail-order bride ad and travels to San Francisco to marry a widower who has promised her a stable life and a ready-made family: a five-year-old daughter. Sophie’s dream has come true. She longs to be a mother, but she’s been told she can physically never have her own child.

From the beginning in San Francisco there are clues that her husband, Martin Hockings might not be all he’s cracked up to be on paper, but Sophie tries her best to adapt and be patient with him and his daughter, who won’t talk.

The Nature of Fragile Things, by Susan Meissner

From there, the book takes off in unexpected directions – and the earthquake hasn’t even occurred yet. Hold on for the ride as a pregnant stranger shows up at Sophie’s door one day asking for a Martin Hockings. Don’t jump to conclusions, though; it’s not what you’re thinking. Sophie’s life unravels quickly from this point. Her discoveries take her and Martin’s little girl through the harrowing earthquake and on a journey to Arizona see what they can find out about the girl’s dead mother.

I hope I haven’t told you too much. There are more secrets in this book than “all get out.”

(If the idiom, “all get out” leaves you scratching your head, please read my March 29, 2021 blog post for clarification: #Idiom: As All Get Out.)

If you are a fan of historical fiction, you’ll love The Nature of Fragile Things, by Susan Meissner!


The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff

I don’t know why it took me until now to read The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff. I added it to my To Be Read List after reading a good review of it on https://jennifertarheelreader.com/ way back in February 2019.

You might recall that I blogged about The Orphan’s Tale, by Pam Jenoff in my August 7, 2017 blog post, Late July Reading. I enjoyed that book, so that adds to the mystery of why I waited until last month to read The Lost Girls of Paris. Being historical fiction, Ms. Jenoff’s books are right down my alley.

The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff

The Lost Girls of Paris transports you to France in 1944. It’s about young women who volunteered to be radio operators behind enemy lines during World War II. Participants were carefully chosen and trained. They knew they were putting their lives on the line in the Allies’ attempt to defeat Nazi Germany.

A woman looks in an abandoned suitcase at Grand Central Station in New York City and discovers photographs of 12 women. She sets out on a mission to find the owner of the suitcase, and she wants to know something about the women in the photographs. Her research leads her to Washington, DC and on an on-the-ground search for the woman who trained and led the group.

There are twists, turns, courage, fear, loyalty, and betrayal in this novel that will keep you turning the pages.

By the way, Pam Jenoff has a new historical novel on the way: The Woman with the Blue Star is scheduled for release on May 4, 2021. I’m on the waitlist for it at the public library.


The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner

I listened to The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner on CD. I usually don’t enjoy novels that take two different timelines, but this one really held my interest. A secret apothecary in London in 1791 caters to women who need an herbal way to get rid of the oppressive men in their lives. An innocent mistake made by a 12-year-old girl who takes a serious interest in learning the apothecary trade turns the 18th century story on it’s head and threatens to be the end of the hidden business.

The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner

In comes a present-day young woman, Caroline, from the United States. She has a variety of personal issues to sort out and, early in her visit to London finds an intriguing medicine bottle on the bank of the Thames. This launches Caroline on a mission to find out all she can about the apothecary whose stamp in on the bottle.

The novel is well-researched and is sure to be of interest to anyone with a curiosity about herbal remedies and herbal poisons used in secret in 18th century England.


Since my last blog post

I’ve been dealing with an allergic reaction to poison oak. It hasn’t been fun, but the prednisone injection is helping. I’d forgotten just how intense the itching sensation is once one is exposed to the innocent-looking plant.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book or two to read this week. Maybe you’ll get to read one of the three books I wrote about today. Next Monday I’ll blog about the other books I read in April.

Make time to relax and enjoy a hobby.

Stay safe and well – and please wear a mask when necessary.

Note: May is Get Caught Reading Month! Have you been caught yet?

Janet