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

4 Other Books I Read in June 2021

My blog post last Monday was about three historical novels I read in June, so today’s post is about the other four novels I read last month. I was amazed at how many good books I got to read or listen to.


The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

As an aspiring novelist, I really enjoyed this book. The premise of The Plot is that a wannabe writer teaches writing one summer at a failing college in Vermont. One of his students is a real pain in the neck but a good writer.

The student shared with the instructor his idea for a novel. The instructor thought it was a brilliant idea. When the instructor found out the student had died and supposedly left no living relatives, the instructor writes a novel based on the student’s plot. He becomes famous and is much sought after. Just as his second novel is to be released, though, he receives a scary message: “You’re a thief.”

I think I’ll stop there and let you read the book to find out what happens. Is the writing instructor really a thief? And are the messages coming from his student’s long-lost niece or someone else? The ending surprised me.


The Warsaw Orphan, by Kelly Rimmer

The Warsaw Orphan, by Kelly Rimmer

After liking Kelly Rimmer’s earlier historical novels, The Things We Cannot Say (See my September 9, 2019 blog post: #BringBackOurGirls) and Before I Let Her Go (See my October 7, 2019 blog post: Thrillers and a Dark Novel I Read Last Month) I got on the waitlist at the public library for her new novel, The Warsaw Orphan, as soon as it showed up on the library’s catalog as having been order. I was able to check out the book on CD a couple of weeks ago, and it did not disappoint.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading novels set in World War II Europe. This story grabbed my attention immediately and never lagged. Sometimes plots lag in the middle of a book, but not this one.

As you might surmise from the title, this novel is set in Warsaw, Poland beginning in the spring of 1942. Elzbieta Rabinek is a teen girl who grows more and more afraid of the German police patrolling the city streets and ever more aware of and concerned for the Jews who were confined in the ghetto behind the city wall.

You’ll find that Elzbieta is not necessarily who she passes as, and this is the case for more than one major character in the book. She befriends a young man who lives in the ghetto while she volunteers with a nurse who is secretly smuggling children out of the ghetto. There is danger, terror, and courage at every turn. This book will keep you turning the pages or wanting to listen to “just one more CD” before you turn the light off at night.


The Woman with the Blue Star, by Pam Jenoff

The Woman with the Blue Star, by Pam Jenoff

I’ll start by saying this novel is not a pleasant read, but it’s an important historical novel. It opened my eyes to the horrors of the Jews who escaped capture by the Nazis by hiding in the sewers. This is unimaginable to me, but it is true.

The book brings out the stench and filth in which these people lived for more than a year. In that respect, the sewer itself becomes a character in the book. The protagonist, Sadie, is a teen girl who looks up through a sewer grate one day and sees a girl, Ella, about her age. Sadie and Ella make eye contact and Ella returns to the grate to look down into the sewer to talk to Sadie. Ella’s family is not Jewish and they enjoy a comfortable life. Both girls must keep their friendship secret.

The Jews hiding in the sewer are at the mercy of a young man who brings them scraps of food. It is barely enough to keep them alive. To compound the situation, Sadie’s mother is pregnant.

This story is filled with suspense. The ending was bittersweet, but I loved the epilogue.

I’ve read and enjoyed two of Pam Jenoff’s other novels, The Orphan’s Tale (See my August 7, 2017 blog post, Late July Reading) and The Lost Girls of Paris (See my May 3, 2021 blog post, 5 Historical Novels I Read in April 2021.)


Local Woman Missing, by Mary Kubica

Local Woman Missing, by Mary Kubica

I’d heard and read good things about this novel and looked forward to listening to it. I had trouble keeping up with whose point-of-view I was hearing, though, so I returned the book on CD to the public library.

Reading the printed book might be easier, when I get a chance to do that. I think the problem was mine and not the writer’s. With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I sometimes have concentration difficulties.

One thing in the book made me laugh out loud. You may recall that on March 29, 2021, my blog post title was #Idiom: As All Get Out. Several of you responded to let me know you’d never heard that expression before, while others said that you had but not in a long time. I was absolutely delighted that one of the characters in Local Woman Missing used “as all get out” several times.

I’ll probably give this book another chance when I can read it on my Kindle and adjust the font size.

Since my last blog post

I’ve worked on my historical novel manuscript. It feels great to be back on it! I’ve arranged for a professional editor to evaluate the first 50 pages of my 303-page manuscript. I’ll let you know what she has to say about it in a future blog post.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have at least one good book to read. I’m reading several.

I hope you’ve been able to get your Covid-19 vaccination, if you’re health allows you to take it. Variants of the virus will continue to develop until a greater percentage of us receive the vaccine. How fortunate we are to live in the 21st century when such vaccines are possible!

Enjoy your week, whatever you’re doing.

Janet