Author: Tatiana De Rosnay
Title: Sarah’s Key
What Interested me in the Author:
I found it interesting that this author was French herself. It adds a lot more impact to her novel because she is writing about events that would have happened to her ancestors, so it makes the novel much more personal. I found this very interesting. Also, when reading the first few pages of the novel, I really enjoyed De Rosnay’s style of writing. It is very well worded and captivating. After taking a brief look at the novel, I knew that I would enjoy reading it.
Background on Tatiana De Rosnay:
She was born in the suburbs of Paris in September 28, 1961. She is of English, French, and Russian descent. De Rosnay was raised in Paris and then they moved to Boston in the 70’s. In the early 80’s she moved to England where she obtained a Bachelor’s degree at the University of East Anglia in English literature. In 1984 she returned to Paris and became the editor of Vanity Fair in France until 1993. She has published a total of 8 novels since 1992. Sarah’s Key is the first English novel that De Rosnay wrote. Currently she is a journalist for French ELLE and continues to live in Paris along with her husband and their two children.
Other Novels by Tatiana De Rosnay:
- A Secret Kept
- Le Voisin
- Le coeur d’une autre
- L’appartement temoin
Influences on the Author:
It seems to me that De Rosnay enjoys writing about Europe. It is where she grew up and she seems to enjoy writing about events that happened in Europe, specifically France, before or during her time. Writing about these things would most likely come more naturally to her and she could paint a vivid mental picture of the scenery into the reader’s mind as she knows the setting personally.
Themes Favoured by the Author:
I have found that De Rosnay enjoys writing about family, secrets from the past, curiosity, relationships, and childhood. The novels, Sarah’s Key, A Secret Kept, and Boomerang all involve a family hiding some kind of secret from the past and someone tries to dig it up and find out what happened. Often her novels include some kind of relationship conflict, usually occurring between a husband and wife.
Other Authors Compared to…
De Rosnay’s work can be compared to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” by John Boyne, “Those Who Save Us” by Jenna Blum, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery, and “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout. These authors and their novels share very similar topics and writing styles. Most of these being about the war and the various challenges the characters faced during this time.
These are the best three critical articles I was able to find. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any directly about the novel, so I found some on Historical Fiction. They are all from eLibrary.
Jo Beverley, July 2005
WRITING A HISTORICAL NOVEL violates that old rule, “Write what you know.” The writer of contemporary fiction can attempt to stick close to her own reality, but no matter how much research the historical novelist does, she writes about a foreign, even alien world. That’s one reason I do it and why so many readers enjoy it: It’s a form of time travel.
I’m working on my 27th historical novel, and I only write in three periods, all in England: early Anglo-Norman, Regency and mid-18th century. Therefore, when I start a book now, I build on a strong foundation of knowledge that includes a degree in British history and 30 years of research.
To assist writers who may be starting from ground zero, here are some of the steps that have helped me find the information I need to make my stories authentic.
1 Read up on the basic history of the time and place and make a chronology Note events that you think would be important to your characters. These may not be what history considers important. For example, minor incidents that fed the fire of the American Revolution, such as unequal treatment among military men, were mostly considered of little consequence at the time.
This is easy research. There are general histories and chronologies giving varying degrees of detail. A couple oi broad ones include Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events by Bernard Grun and The Chronology of British History by Alan Warwick Palmer. You’ll also find excellent time lines online. just search online for “history chronologies.”
2 Discover an era through the writings of the time Newspapers are an excellent resource to find out what was going on during the time frame of your story. Old issues are often available on microfiche or microfilm in large public or university libraries. Local newspapers generally are available in the area where they were published and often provide the most interesting details.
Magazines, some going back a few centuries, can be found bound into annual collections. These are harder to come by, but rewarding. Almanacs and similar annual publications are useful. I own a number of volumes of the British Annual Register; each gives details of a year’s events, including climate and acts of Parliament.
Diaries and travel records offer a surprising range of information. For example, in the early 176Os Horace Walpole was writing letters about the fashionable world; James Boswell was recording his arrival in London, including his meeting with Samuel Johnson; and John Macdonald, a footman, was writing his memoirs.
3 Make a day-by-day chronology for the precise period of your book You can print out daily calendars ior most years at http://www.calendarhome. com. These go as far back as the 176Os, but I can’t guarantee they work back into the Middle Ages. I begin by writing in historical information and dates that might be particularly significant to my characters or plot. I also use the calendar to track events in my own story.
The calendar provides my foundation. I won’t directly use a hundredth of what I learn from all this, but flimsy knowledge is dangerous. Even in a quiet hamlet, the wider world has its effect. How embarrassing to discover later that while my characters were enjoying a peaceful summer, there was a riot or a hurricane or a scandal that everyone, absolutely everyone, would have been talking about.
4 Find out how people lived It is possible to write a good historical novel without much detail of big historical events, but you must know all you can about everyday living.
Diarists and letter writers can be a help here, but too many write about the unusual, not what they ate for breakfast or what fastenings held their clothes together. For example, I found many details about the daily life of a governess in A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen: The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter, edited by Joanna Martin.
There are books on everyday life, and they’re a good start, but they shouldn’t be relied on too much. To begin with, most of them cover too long a period. For example, a book on life in the Middle Ages would be a stretch, since the Middle Ages covers 500 years, at least. Life in Regency England would be more reasonable, since that is roughly a 10-year period.
Even after researching how people lived, I use only what serves the book. I tell my stories from the point of view of the protagonists, so I show only what they observe, feel and think; emphasize only what they find important. How often do you think about how you make that morning cup of coffee, or the details of how you drive your car? On the other hand, the modem reader may need to be told how the characters make breakfast or operate their transportation in order to understand the story. It’s that delicate balance of translation.
Details often are crucial to the story. In most of my books, menstruation isn’t mentioned, but in some, it-or its absence-becomes important. In Forbidden the fact that Serena isn’t washing her monthly cloths tells her friend that she’s pregnant.
In Skylark, I wanted the protagonists to use an ear trumpet to listen through walls, but when I researched what was available in 1816,1 discovered that this instrument would have been new technology. Therefore, I couldn’t just have the characters use one but had to show how the hero discovered one.
The many layers of clothing and how they go on and come off are always important. We may only want to say “he undressed/’ but we still need to know how long that’s likely to take and whether he needs help. A Regency gentleman in fashionable boots might need help or a bootjack. An 11th-century man of fashion would probably be wearing fancy cross-gartering around the loose hose on his lower legs. He’d need time to unwind them, and even longer to wind on again if he wants to look stylish.
Where do you find such details?
Any good history or biography lias a bibliography or footnotes, and that’s where you strike gold. These enable you to check the source of information, because you can’t always believe what’s in print, especially when something seems unlikely. (Research using primary sources helps you develop a nose for inaccuracies.)
For example, if a writer claims that 18th-century ladies frequently defecated in the streets, I’d want to see the source. If it turned out to be a satirical cartoon representing Britannia shaming herself somewhere, I’d know it wasn’t literal. I’d also know the writer of the book was after sensation rather than truth, and so the whole book would become dubious.
The chief value of footnotes and bibliographies, however, is that they point us to other resourcesmore diaries, bound letters and reference books. These might be general sources, such as Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England or narrower, such as Norah Waugh s Corsets and Crinolines; or extremely fine, such as Candle Lighting by David Rveteigh, published by Shire Publications. Shire’s line of books is marvelous for details, which keep your story on a solid footing, and also add clarity, texture and depth. Such details enhance the time-travel experience and add spice.
So, for example, the food of the time can be shared with a reader through a scene like the following from my novel Wmfer Fire:
Aa soon as Lady Calliope was carried in and settled at the table, they all set to, starting with oxtail soup.
Genova put down a chicken fricassee, then a dish of stewed peas.
She added a platter of fried potatoes to the table and sat.
Thus the reader has a sketch of a simple inn meal, but it doesn’t intrude on the story. The food details are from The Compleat Housewife by Eliza Smith and six volumes of The British Housewife by Martha Bradley. These books are crammed with detail, and, yes, after reading through them, it’s tempting to include whole meals, recipes or even a mini-treatise on the food of the period. You must resist and only use what serves the story.
Because my characters are aristocratic, clothes are important, but when I choose to detail them, it’s because they convey more than costume. So, in a long scene in my novel Devilish, the hero, the Marquess of Rothgar, who has just returned from killing a man in a duel, prepares to attend the royal court. I wanted it to be clear that he’s preparing for a different kind of challenge, but the description is also framed by a heated discussion with his brother-a verbal duel over Rothgar’s intention not to marry.
Rothgar rose to put on the shirt and breeches offered by junior valets. “Perhaps one day high rank and power will be your son’s delight.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“He will, I assume, be trained to do his duty anyway.” The exquisitely embroidered gray silk waistcoat came next, and a valet set to fastening the long line of chased silver buttons.
Rothgar eased into his precisely cut jacket. The dull steel-gray silk fit without a ripple and was lavishly embroidered with black and silver six inches deep down the front. Pettier smoothed the silk across his shoulders and down the back, chasing nonexistent Haws. … He looked, doubtless by design, like an ornamental steel blade himself.
5 Do spot research as you go along As the story progresses, it will demand unexpected detail. I’m what I call a “Hy-into-the-mist” writer, which means that I don’t pre-plot my books. I develop my characters and their situation, but then I let them tell their story. Most books surprise me, not in the romantic story line, but in the details that emerge as important to the supporting plot.
In my book Forbidden Magic, for example, the heroine owns a risque ancient statue that grants wishes at a price. It s a sheelaghma-gig or sheelagh-na-gig. (In my research, I first came across the former spelling and used it. The latter is more common.) This plot device popped into my mind because I’d come across a discussion of the fertility goddess statues years before. Having decided to use it, I had to find out details.
In Tempting Fortune, I wanted my hero to be involved in some risky but worthwhile investments. Because I write linked books, the time frame was fixed. What was going on in 1761? The Duke of Bridgewater was building his first canal. Bingo! I was familiar with that from my English education, but again, I needed research, espedaily since Bridgewater was going to be a secondary character.
For Skylark, I found I needed an explanation for an English gentleman having disappeared for 10 years. A look at the news of autumn 1816 took me straight to the battle of Algiers, when the British navy under Lord Exmouth liberated Christian slaves from the Barbary States of North Africa, especially Algeria. Perhaps my character could have been one of the liberated slaves.
As is sometimes the case, though, further research showed that my initial plot idea wouldn’t work. Certainly there were slaves, but they were nearly all peasants or lowly seamen. Any captive who could pay ransom was released soon after capture. I worked with the truth, however, and developed what I think is a deeper, more interesting story.
In A Most Unsuitable Man, the plot hinges on the Stuart bloodline and the rules of succession to the throne. I knew the basics but needed to know the fine details. I also had to stop at one point to research water mills, just for a tiny detail.
Spot research rarely results in many words in the novel, but it adds depth and texture that is invaluable. For my current book, I’m researching Toronto in 1816 and the Indian tribes of Upper Canada, even though this only will contribute small details for the beginning.
The Internet is a wonder for details like these. There are Web pages, bulletin boards and mailings lists for every group and interest all around the world, and I’ve generally found people delighted to help.
In Forbidden Magic, I discovered that the hero had a parrot. This was a complete surprise to me, especially as I’d almost finished the book! I knew nothing about parrots, so I did my research but then joined a mailing list for parrot lovers and pleaded for help. They were wonderful, especially in their stories about the characters and abilities of their birds. What I learned made it clear that the parrot had been there all along, and I’d simply overlooked it. The heroine was surprised at how warm Lord Saxonhurst kept his house, no easy matter in December in England. Of course, if the parrot escaped, a drafty corridor could kill it.
So, I build my fictional world with basic research, first-person accounts, precise details from the period covered in the novel and as much information as possible about everyday living. Then I add spot research as necessary.
All historical fact, however, is fiction of a sort. Thomas Carlyle described history as a “distillation of rumour,” and Ceorge Orwell said, “History is written by the winners.” We come closest to truth in the words of the people of the time-in their letters, diaries and memoirs, and in plays, novels and political speeches. Even there, however, we are interpreting the words of another time and place, and will often misunderstand.
The best we can do is to gather as many threads as we can and weave our own honest cloth. There will never be enough sturdy direads from the past, so we have to add the floss of our own speculation and even invention in order to create for our readers that delightful tapestry called historical fiction.
Truth or fiction?
Historical novelists are interpreters of the past for readers in the present, and as such we need to remember that just the facts may not get across the truth we are trying to convey.
Consider the French phrase comme deux gouttes d’eau. It literally means “like two drops of water,” but an interpreter would render it “like two peas in a pod.” So we should use language that best conveys truth to the modern reader.
Just for fun, look at this dialogue. The setting is England, 1816, a gentleman’s study.
Fashionable young buck: Those accounts are wrong, Dad. I haven’t spent so much.
Angry father: Then set the computer to check them, but you ‘re not using the car again until I’m satisfied.
if I wrote that, most readers would think me an idiot, hearing “Dad” as modern, “computer” as a PC or Mac, and “car” as an automobile. However, they are all correct. I found in Pierce Egan’s Life in London that some young men did, indeed, call their father “Dad.” A “computer” was a clerk who specialized in calculations. “Car” was a common term for a carriage and is where our meaning of car comes from. Even though accurate, however, I wouldn’t use these terms because they would perplex a reader.
Historical Fiction: Get more than just the facts right
John Edward Ames, November 2004
WHEN I WAS younger, I wasn’t all that keen on history, and even in college I absorbed it more by accident than design. By age 30, however, I was hooked, and by 40 I was starting to add historical novels (beginning with Westerns) to my overall writing output. By now, I’ve written novels in five genres, and the historical has emerged as my clear favorite, both as reader and writer.
For most of us who don’t start our careers as eager young history majors, it takes time to learn a respectable body of history, and more time still to learn how best to incorporate it into the service of good fiction. But the effort to learn is well worth it because, judging from our popular culture, it seems Americans very much like something that’s at least akin to history. And for writers in search of markets, one key to the future may lie in the past.
The demand is impressive when it’s toted up. Historical and period movies are well represented at the Oscar ceremonies and are staples in TV Guide listings, including a wide variety of Westerns. Most of the major fiction publishers release historical novels, and several paperback houses also have a line of Westerns. Check out a typical issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and you’ll find at least two historical mysteries. In fact, a wide range of magazines and other venues-ranging from Boys’ Life to the Lands’ End clothing catalog-pay professional rates for good historical fiction.
If any genre can be said to offer freelancers a favorable supply-and-demand balance, I’d say it’s the historical. In part, that’s because not all that many writers, especially younger writers, are willing-or interested enough in history-to develop a few specialized techniques required for writing salable historical fiction.
Yet editorial interest in it remains high, and I bet I know one reason why. It’s called a welcome change of perspective. I used to interview fiction editors for the Horror Writers Association newsletter. One common complaint, voiced in some form by many of them, was that they see far too many fiction submissions from writers whose only frame of reference seems to be contemporary TV and movies. From an editor’s point of view, perhaps a well-written historical can break up the repetitive, mind-numbing monotony.
It’s true that writing historical fiction places some unique demands on the writer, including the need to keep reading history. But once you’ve got the knack, you can expand your repertoire, because period research “recycles” nicely. Once you’ve amassed useful details from reliable sources, all genres are fair game, and details used in a historical mystery will stand duty in, say, a historical romance, too.
The following pointers are arbitrary and incomplete, but stem directly from my experience as a writer, and avid reader, of historical novels and Westerns.
Remember that fiction trumps facts In the phrase “historical fiction,” fiction is the substantive, essential element and historical only the modifier. Accuracy is fine, to a point, but “the facts should never get in the way of the truth,” as one screenwriter puts it. More than once, I’ve tossed a book aside when the dialogue becomes a mere excuse for a Facts on File historical report.
Fiction writers are entertainers, not scholars. The kind of truths creative writers convey is an adjunct to the work of professional historians, not a replication of their efforts. It’s our job to evoke the feel of an era, to vitalize dry facts and link the living to the dead through insight, through pity-and-fear catharsis. History should not dominate or overshadow the story, but provide a fascinating backdrop for proving Matthew Arnold right: “The same heart beats in every human breast.”
Or put another way: History tells, but good historical fiction shows. Professional historians, for example, have filled thousands of book and journal pages with research on vigilantism in America. But no list of statistics on lynchings can ever equal the dramatic, gut-wrenching power of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s classic novel The Ox-Bow Incident.
This lynch-law parable (which also became an Oscar-nominated film starring Henry Fonda) puts a powerfully human face on all those anonymous victims of “rope justice.” After learning that the three drifters they’ve just hanged are innocent, the “good citizens” who did it are forced to listen as a heart-rending farewell letter, written by one of the victims to his wife, is read aloud. The tragedy is compounded when the leader of the lynch mob, unable to bear his shame, commits suicide. The author used the emotional power of fiction, not a flood of facts and footnotes, to breathe life into a dark chapter of American history.
A contemporary writer who excels at providing fascinating period details, while also creating strong reader identification with characters from “days of yore,” is Igoren D. Estleman, prolific author of Westerns, historicals and mysteries. In his end-of-an-era Western MMer St. John, a celebrated, hard-boiled lawman experiences a moment of dark self-insight after infiltrating a criminal gang. “It wasn’t so much fear for his own safety as an irrational dread that he wouldn’t be able to cross back over to his own side when the time came. Association with criminals awakened something in him that he never felt while actually upholding the law, and it frightened him.”
I immediately felt a link to St. John because of my own guilty pleasure at enjoying mob stories like The Sopranos, and because Estleman reminded me that our modern fascination with criminals is perhaps nothing new or alarmingly decadent. In fact, good historical fiction universalizes and humanizes persons and events in a way “pure history” seldom achieves.
Nothing beats learning directly from the best writers and works of historical tales. Some of my personal favorites include Deadwood by Pete Dexter; Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner; Libbie by Judy Alter; Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell; Estleman’s Aces & Eights; Cuba Libre by Elmore Leonard; and Red, White, and Blue Murder by Jeanne M. Dams.
Master idiolect, not dialect Trying to play professional linguist and master past dialects and diction will only tax most readers’ patience and distract from your story. Instead, I recommend a focus on idiolect-speech patterns specific to individuals, not groups. Make a core list of authentic period words and phrases to draw from as you compose, assigning some to each major and major-minor character as repetitive traits. That way you can showcase some historical language while also personalizing and distinguishing characters in the reader’s mind.
I found making idiolect charts especially helpful when I wrote Taos Death Cry, a novel about the celebrated Taos Trappers, a group of intrepid mountain men who explored the American Southwest in the early 19th century. In frontier fiction, it’s all too easy for one buckskin-clad “colorful character” to blend in with the others. But in truth, few individuals speak alike.
So during the prewriting phase, I consulted a reliable lexicon of words and phrases widely spoken in the early 19th century. I especially looked for high-frequency words and expressions that characters would logically repeat often, such as “I snore I” (a euphemism for the more blasphemous “I swear!”) or “Not by a jugful!” (which roughly translates to “No way, buddy!”). It’s easy to work such common expressions into almost any remark, and if the writer makes sure only one character tends to repeat “I snore!” it won’t take the reader long to identify that speaker from the others.
To further distinguish the half-dozen or so rustic types in Taos Death Cry, I gave one character, and only one, some distinctive speech traits of Appalachia. Again I consulted a reliable lexicon, and again 1 did not try to play linguist and replicate this regional dialect perfectly. I created a pattern based on just a few high-frequency words such as “nary” for never, “nigh” for near, “Law” or “Laws” for Lord.
It holds for any genre: The best way to forgo all those he saids/she saids is to make it clear, from idiolect clues, just who’s speaking.
Period details are more useful than abstract history The best historical fiction I’ve read spends very little time on the Big Ideas and is instead anchored to mundane details of everyday life which, taken collectively, evoke a strong sense of time and place. I mean such little touches as the truly tiresome nuisance of having to use buttonhooks to remove shoes in the days before they laced, or the bothersome winter ritual of using a bed warmer (a pot of hot coals on a long handle) before one could crawl between ice-cold sheets.
I once showed a character muttering curses in the dark because the wick in the coal-oil lamp had just burned out and he had to cut a new wick off his last pair of long Johns. A female character in one of my historical romances is reduced to tears because of one of the greatest nuisances of early railroad travel: hot cinders flying out of the smokestack and igniting clothing, in this case ruining her only “going to town” dress. Writers can also have some fun exploiting controversial social issues of the era. One of my flippant male characters is soundly slapped after asking a lady a hotly debated question of the 1860s: “Is it true that tight corset lacings kindle impure desires?”
No matter what era interests them, writers need to become collectors of period data, with special attention to vocabulary, clothing, hairstyles, money and prices (see Web sidebar), culinary matters, medicine, housing, pastimes and fads. The possible sources, especially with the Internet, are nearly limitless, the research fascinating and informative.
One enjoyable source that’s home-delivered is cable TV’s History Channel-I often watch it with notepad on knee. That’s where I first learned, for example, that James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok didn’t wear a holster, but instead shoved his guns into a red sash to gain a fractional second in the “quick draw.” (Sadly, I had already written several Wild Bill novels in which he’s wearing holsters, so three cheers for pen names.)
Minimize anachronisms in language and worldview
Anachronisms, of course, are errors that place persons or things in the wrong period. More than other genres, historical fiction demands careful editing to avoid embarrassing yourself. And you can’t count on the overworked copy editor to always save your credibility.
Some errors seem as obvious as clown makeup-after you spot them in print. I sermonize from vast and rueful experience here. I once wrote, describing a battle scene in the 1860s: “The acrid stink of cordite stained the air.” Flashy sentence, maybe, but cordite wasn’t added to gunpowder until decades later. But then, what would you expect from an old pro who once referred to “Oklahoma” when it was still called the Indian Territory?
Another pitfall, related to anachronisms, is generally known as historical chauvinism: imposing contemporary values and worldview on an earlier era. To some extent this pitfall can’t be avoided, because we’re all children of our time. But we should be especially vigilant to at least monitor our language so the ideas don’t sound so contemporary.
Consider, for example, blasphemy or “irreverence toward something considered sacred.” A blasphemer nowadays can start a popular Web site; a few hundred years ago, however, he might well have had a hole bored through his tongue. Remember that language carried greater power (and consequences) during more religious and superstitious ages, especially curses with references to God, Jesus, hell or damnation. Even as late as 1939, in MGM’s production of Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable’s famous, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” was considered daring for its use of the word “damn.” Which leads nicely to my final suggestion.
Try hard to convey the ‘grand sweep’ of an era What good is a kind of Facts on File, dull-and-thudding historical accuracy if a writer fails to create the Zeitgeist, or “spirit of the age”?
Each period in history has its “organizing metaphor.” One of my favorite periods, the 1870s and ’80s, is called the “Gilded Age,” Mark Twain’s way of describing that period’s wealth and sense of boundless optimism, as well as its glittering superficiality. Your readers should “feel the age in miniature” when they read your story, and the feeling should start early and be periodically reinforced.
My historical novel The Golden Circle is set in the heady, intrigue-filled days just before the start of the Civil War. Now and then, I tried to encapsulate the chaos and uncertainty of that time as it was felt by various characters in California. In the epilogue, the final “grand sweep” passage-meant to sound a hopeful note at the dawn of war-occurs in a Chinese servant’s mind as he observes the book’s main players assembled for the last time:
When he saw all of them there in the yard, almost like a painting, Hai Li felt it whole in his heart more than he did as separate words in his mind: Back East in this great hut tortured country the terrible trouble had already started. As in his own homeland, blood would beget blood, men would test the limits of depravity and goodness, an entire nation would eventually send its anguished cry to the heavens.
But looking at these faces, he was reminded of the hope that would eventually save mankind from itself: Truth, courage, honor, strength, and from those great virtues would come, after the bloodbath and barbarism and darkness, a great Union with truly free men to match it.
Writing historical fiction isn’t for everybody, so those who do develop a skill for it will definitely find receptive markets. Readers still want to feel the past as an immediate, living experience. Writers who satisfy that desire have every right to feel proud, for they are keepers of humanity’s collective memory.
Writing backward: Modern models in historical fiction
Anne Scott MacLeod, January 1998
I expect we can all agree that historical fiction should be good fiction and good history. If we leap over the first briar patch by calling good fiction an “interesting narrative with well-developed characters,” we are still left with the question of what is good history. Alas, there are nearly as many thorns here as among the briars. The German historian Leopold von Ranke said that writing history was saying “what really happened”-but according to whom? Writers of history select, describe, and explain historical evidence-and thereby interpret. Not only will the loser’s version of the war never match the winner’s, but historical interpretations of what happened, and why, are subject to endless revision over time. A transforming event of the past-say, the American Revolution-can be understood as a social, economic, or intellectual movement; as avoidable or inevitable; as a tragedy of misunderstanding or a triumph of liberty.
Historical revisionism makes its way into historical fiction, of course, including that written for children, usually in response to changing social climates. Esther Forbes wrote Johnny Tremain, her famous novel of the American Revolution, in the early 1940s, when the US had recently entered the maelstrom of World War II. Forbes’s story took the traditional, Whig view that the Revolution was a struggle for political freedom, fought, as one of her characters said, so that “a man can stand up.” The parallel Forbes saw with a contemporary war against political tyranny was implied, but clear. A generation later, James and Christopher Collier’s My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974) and Robert Newton Peck’s Hang for Treason (1976) saw the same history through a different lens. Writing in a time of passionate division over a modern war, these authors looked back to the American Revolution and saw, not idealism, but the coercion, hypocrisy, cruelty, and betrayal that are part of any war, in any country. In the Colliers’ story, the success of the Revolution had to be weighed against the suffering it inflicted on ordinary people: “I keep thinking that there might have been another way, beside war, to achieve the same end.” Peck looked behind the heroic legend of Ethan Allen and his band of Green Mountain Boys and found more greed for land than hunger for liberty, and renegade tactics as barbarous as any tyrant’s. In Peck’s telling, Allen’s brand of irregular warfare was terrorism, not a noble struggle for liberty.
Revisionist history is still history, subject to normal standards of demonstrable historical evidence and sound reasoning. While the novels I’ve named approach the American Revolution from different points of view, they are firmly grounded in documented evidence. Different as they are in emphasis and attitude, all three stay within the bounds of eighteenth-century American social history. None ignores known historical realities to accommodate political ideology.
A good many recent historical novels for children do. Children’s literature, historical as well as contemporary, has been politicized over the past thirty years; new social sensibilities have changed the way Americans view the past. Feminist re-readings of history and insistence by minorities on the importance-and the difference-of their experience have made authors and publishers sensitive to how their books portray people often overlooked or patronized in earlier literature. The traditional concentration on boys and men has modified; more minorities are included, and the experience of ordinary people-as opposed to movers and shakersgets more attention. American historical literature, including children’s, takes a less chauvinistic approach to American history than it once did, revising the traditional chronicle of unbroken upward progress.
However, amid the cheers for this enlightenment are occasional murmurs of doubt-and there ought to be more. Too much historical fiction for children is stepping around large slabs of known reality to tell pleasant but historically doubtful stories. Even highly respected authors snip away the less attractive pieces of the past to make their narratives meet current social and political preferences. Many of these novels have been given high marks: “an authentic story,” “fine historical fiction,” say the reviews. Many are on recommended lists, and some have won awards. As fiction, the accolades may be earned; as history, they raise some questions.
Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall won the Newbery Medal in 1985. It is a simple, warm-hearted tale, as popular with children as with adults, which cannot be said of every Newbery winner. The setting is a nineteenth-century farm on the American prairie, though exactly where and when is unspecified. Since there is no mention of farm machinery, and since there is a reference to plowing a new field in the prairie, the period would seem to be the 1870s or 1880s. Sarah, an unmarried young woman, answers a newspaper ad and travels from Maine to the Midwest to stay with a widowed man and his two children for a month. The understanding is that if all goes well, she and the father will marry. If not, she will return to Maine. She comes alone and stays in the house with no other woman there.
The realities of nineteenth-century social mores are at odds with practically all of this. It was unusual (though not impossible) for a woman to travel such distances alone, and much more than unusual for her to stay with a man not related to her without another woman in the house. Had she done so, however, it is unlikely that she could return home afterward with her reputation intact. MacLachlan has said that her story is based on a family experience a couple of generations ago, and I have no reason to question that. Even so, the story as told is highly uncharacteristic of its time and place.
Besides bypassing the usual social strictures of the time, the novel also glides lightly over a basic reality of farm life in the last century: work. More than work, in fact-toil, a word that has all but disappeared from modern vocabularies. Hamlin Garland, who grew up on farms in Wisconsin and Iowa in the 1860s and 1870s, wrote about his experience in A Son of the Middle Border. Again and again, Garland describes the constant labor of a farm family’s life. A farm asked a great deal of boys and men, yet women’s work, Garland thought, was even more relentless. “Being a farmer’s wife in those days meant laboring outside any regulation of the hours of toil . . . a slavish round with never a full day of leisure, with scarcely an hour of escape from the tugging hands of children and the need of mending and washing clothes. . . from the churn to the stove, from the stove to the bedchamber, and from the bedchamber back to the kitchen, day after day, year after year, rising at daylight or before, and going to her bed only after the evening dishes were washed and the stockings and clothing mended for the night.” Even when machinery began to lighten the men’s work, “the drudgery of the housewife’s dish-washing and cooking did not correspondingly lessen.”
While no one expects a child’s book to be a litany of toil, work was so central to daily life on a farm that one does expect to see it treated as more than incidental. As Laura Ingalls Wilder tells her Little House stories, the work people did are events in a child’s life, as indeed they were; the cheese-making and the building of a new door were as memorable for Laura as Pa’s fiddling. In Sarah, Plain and Tall, on the other hand, work is named but not described; somehow it is manageable enough to give Sarah leisure to lie in the fields admiring nature or making daisy chains for the children. And there is an interchange of jobs between Sarah and the farmer-father that is more New Age than nineteenth century. Papa bakes bread; Sarah helps to reshingle a roof and learns, under Papa’s tutelage, to plow. While none of this was impossible, neither was it typical. Division of labor on a farm was a matter of practicality as well as custom. Papa would not often have been in the house enough to tend bread, and Sarah would have plenty to do without taking up plowing. As for farm children, their work was essential and by no means light. As one woman wrote, “Sometimes I would lie down on my sack and want to die…. [But] it was instilled in us that work was necessary. Everybody worked; it was a part of life, for there was no life without it.”
Avi’s True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle was a Newbery Honor Book in 1991, praised enthusiastically in many reviews. A “thrilling tale,” one said, and that’s true-it’s a fine vicarious adventure story. It is also preposterous. The reader is asked to believe that in 1832, a thirteen-year-old girl boards a sailing ship to go from England to America, joins the crew of hardbitten sailors (all with hearts more or less of gold), performs surpassingly difficult feats of physical strength and daring under the eye of a villainous captain who hates her, and not only survives (sexually unsullied, of course) but becomes captain of the ship. Home at last, she tries out conventional life with her parents for a week or so and finds it restrictiveunsurprisingly-so she climbs out of the window and returns to her old ship as crew.
This is great fun, if you are twelve or thirteen, or if you read it as fantasy, but I have to wonder about the reviewers. Kirkus called the book “well researched”-on ships, perhaps, but not, I think, on probability theory, or even human development. Unless she falls off a mast or a spar or a bowsprit, Charlotte will be fourteen, then fifteen. . . and then what?
Catherine, Called Birdie (a 1995 Newbery Honor Book), by Karen Cushman, is a brave excursion into medieval social history through the diary of a fourteen-yearold who questions nearly everything that governed the lives of medieval people in general and of women in particular. Birdie’s world seems real enough-it is rough and dirty and uncomfortable most of the time, even among the privileged classes. Her feisty independence is perhaps believable, as is her objection to being “sold like a parcel” in marriage to add to her father’s status or land. However, those were the usual considerations in marriage among the land-holding classes, for sons as well as daughters, and Birdie’s repeated resistance might have drawn much harsher punishment than she got. The fifteenth-century Paston letters record what happened to a daughter who opposed her mother about a proposed match: “She has since Easter [three months before this letter] been beaten once in the week or twice, sometimes twice in one day, and her head broken in two or three places.” As the historian of the Paston papers points out, “The idea that children. . . had any natural rights was almost impossible to a medieval mind. Children were just chattels,… entirely at the direction and disposal of their fathers.” If this attitude applied to sons, it applied even more to daughters.
Cushman sticks to historical reality while Birdie considers and discards the few alternatives to marriage she can think of-running away, becoming a goatkeeper, joining a monastery. But once her heroine agrees (for altruistic reasons) to her father’s final, awful choice for her, Cushman quickly supplies an exit. The intended husband dies, so Birdie can marry his son, who, fortunately, is heir to the land and thereby meets her father’s purposes. The son is, of course, young and educated where his father was old, ugly, and illiterate. Even granting that life is unpredictable, so fortuitous an escape strains the framework. In fairness, I think Cushman knew this; she just flinched at consigning her likable character to her likely fate.
And therein lies the difficulty I find with these-and many other-historical novels of the last twenty years. They evade the common realities of the societies they write about. In the case of novels about girls or women, authors want to give their heroines freer choices than their cultures would in fact have offered. To do that, they set aside the social mores of the past as though they were minor afflictions, small obstacles, easy-and painless-for an independent mind to overcome.
To see authors vaulting blithely over the barriers women lived with for so long brings to mind Anna Karenina. Anna’s is the story these contemporary writers don’t want to tell. When she left her husband and child for Vronsky, Anna suffered all the sanctions her society imposed on women who defied its rules. Whether the reader, or for that matter, Tolstoy, believed that the rules were unfair or the sanctions too harsh is irrelevant. Tolstoy was telling the story of a woman who lived when and where she lived, who made the choices she made and who was destroyed by the consequences.
It isn’t that contemporary writers of historical fiction do not research the topics and the times they have chosen. They do, and they often include information about those facts and about the sources they have used. Yet many narratives play to modern sensibilities. Their protagonists experience their own societies as though they were time-travelers, noting racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and outmoded belief as outsiders, not as people of and in their cultures. So Birdie, though she approaches her first experience of Jews with all the outlandish prejudices of her society, overcomes them instantly. So Sarah insists on wearing overalls when it suits her, and her future husband accepts not only this, but all her nonconformities, without question, let alone objection. A ship crew’s acquiescence to a thirteen-year-old girl’s decision to join them as a working sailor-in 1832-hardly needs comment.
And so, too, Ann Rinaldi’s novel of the 1692 Salem witch hysteria (A Break with Charity ), in which all the significant characters are outsiders, one way or another, and all hold views closer to twentieth- than to seventeenth-century norms. No sympathetic character in this novel really believes in witches, though many seventeenth-century people did. Cotton Mather-who indeed took witchcraft seriously-appears once, wrapped in a black cloak, an onlooker at one of the hangings and the embodiment of evil. Puritanism was, and is, an ambiguous, complex, enduring influence on American culture; to picture it as simply evil or alien is ahistorical.
Didacticism dies hard in children’s literature. Today’s publishers, authors, and reviewers often approach historical fiction for children as the early nineteenth century did-as an opportunity to deliver messages to the young. Bending historical narrative to modern models of social behavior, however, makes for bad history, and the more specific the model, the harder it is to avoid distorting historical reality. The current pressure to change old stereotypes into “positive images” for young readers is not only insistent, but highly specific about what is the desirable image, and often untenable. If the only way a female protagonist can be portrayed is as strong, independent, and outspoken, or, to take a different example, if slaves must always be shown as resistant to authority, and if these qualities have to be overt, distortion becomes inevitable. Betty Sue Cummings’s novel about the American Civil War, Hew against the Grain (1977), establishes her heroine’s strength as a credible result of wartime conditions. Her picture of slavery, however, is less easily reconciled with history. How many slaves this Virginia family owns is not clear, but the four described in any detail are all free-thinking and outspoken”Elijah neither looked nor acted like a slave”-and the two younger ones, at least, can read. The odds against such a situation in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War were considerable. More important, however politically acceptable it is, this kind of idealization glosses over the real price slaves paid for slavery.
What is at stake here is truth. It can’t, of course, be true, and wasn’t, that all or even most slaves and women rebelled openly, let alone successfully, against the legal and social limitations put upon them. Moreover, resistance takes a variety of forms, not all of them straightforward, some of them not even conscious. A literature about the past that makes overt rebellion seem nearly painless and nearly always successful indicts all those who didn’t rebel: it implies, subtly but effectively, that they were responsible for their own oppression.
Strength, too, has more than one face. As Louisa May Alcott judged it when she wrote Little Women, Mrs. March was a powerful figure, well in control of herself and what the nineteenth century called the “woman’s sphere.” Today’s feminism understandably disparages Marmee’s kind of power, but that doesn’t change the fact that it existed. For writers to impose twentiethcentury formula feminism on narratives set in the 1860s only ensures that their readers will not learn what readers of Little Women learn about the structures and strategies of nineteenth-century society.
Formulas deny the complexity of human experience and often the reality of it as well. Most people in most societies are not rebels; in part because the cost of nonconformity is more than they want to pay, but also because as members of the society they share its convictions. Most people are, by definition, not exceptional. Historical fiction writers who want their protagonists to reflect twentieth-century ideologies, however, end by making them exceptions to their cultures, so that in many a historical novel the reader learns nearly nothing-or at least nothing sympathetic-of how the people of a past society saw their world. Characters are divided into right-those who believe as we do-and wrong; that is, those who believe something that we now disavow. Such stories suggest that people of another time either did understand or should have understood the world as we do now, an outlook that quickly devolves into the belief that people are the same everywhere and in every time, draining human history of its nuance and variety.
But people of the past were not just us in odd clothing. They were people who saw the world differently; approached human relationships differently; people for whom night and day, heat and cold, seasons and work and play had meanings lost to an industrialized world. Even if human nature is much the same over time, human experience, perhaps especially everyday experience, is not. To wash these differences out of historical fictions is not only a denial of historical truth, but a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past.
Beverly, Jo. “Historical Fiction.” The Writer (Boston) 118.7 (2005): 36. eLibrary. Web. 28 Feb. 2011. <http://literature.proquestlearning.com/quick/displayItem.do?QueryName=criticism&ResultsID=12DD4984FD3&forAuthor=0&ItemNumber=52>.
MacLeod, Anne S. “Writing Backward: modern models in historical fiction.” The Horn Book Magazine (Boston) 74.1 (1998): 26. eLibrary. Web. 28 Feb. 2011. <http://literature.proquestlearning.com/quick/displayItem.do?QueryName=criticism&ResultsID=12DD4984FD3&forAuthor=0&ItemNumber=79>.
Ames, John E. “Historical Fiction: Get more than just the facts right.” The Writer (Boston) 117.11 (2004): 34. eLibrary. Web. 28 Feb. 2011. <http://literature.proquestlearning.com/quick/displayItem.do?QueryName=criticism&ResultsID=12DD4984FD3&forAuthor=0&ItemNumber=79>.