As a fiction author, I understand that sometimes professional historians have little use for historical novels because they think these books often have no basis in truth. But if the author has done her job, fictional stories can surreptitiously teach readers some wonderful historical facts.
When I was teaching college English and Humanities classes, I attended a faculty meeting during which our department head mentioned he was reading a fascinating book about the flu epidemic of 1918. Everyone around me groaned, but I said, “Cool. What’s the title?” I’m always on the lookout for books that contain important information about the past. One day I might write a book about WWI, and that flu epidemic must not be overlooked. Needless to say, I’m very enthusiastic when it comes to historical details.
I fell in love with history when I was about ten years old and my family visited the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. There I learned about a few courageous men who stood against a vast army and inspired other Texans to fight for their independence.
At about that same age, I fell in love with fiction when I saw Mary Martin play Peter Pan on black and white television in the 1950s and learned the joys of make-believe. As a teenager, I loved historical novels such as Jane Eyre, The Robe, and Tale of Two Cities. Even the movies I watched were more often historical in nature rather than contemporary: Laurence Olivier’s Pride and Prejudice, Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, and Robert Stack in John Paul Jones.
When I was an English and humanities professor, I was often dismayed by the lack of interest in and knowledge of history among my students. David McCullough, the author of many popular histories, including John Adams and 1776, said, “If we raise generation after generation of young Americans who are historically illiterate, we run a great risk. You can have amnesia as a society, which is just as dangerous as amnesia for an individual.”
Author J. M. Hochstetler says: “The results of history tests taken as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Nation’s Report Card) show that our children aren’t learning some of the basics of our nation’s past. Historians, educators, and even lawmakers are very concerned. They’re afraid that our students are losing touch with the great ideals and principles that are the foundations of who we are. And they’re concerned about what the consequences of this will be for our future.”
But what can be done to remedy the problem?
We can agree that it’s vitally important to teach the truths contained in history so our children can grow up to be responsible, contributing citizens and to ensure that our nation doesn’t fall prey to the mistakes of the past. But in practical fact, how are we going to help students to realize that what happened in the past has everything to do with who they are and the life they’re living today? How can we teach them that history really belongs to them?
Everyone loves a story. When we listen to or read a story, we unconsciously lower our defenses and open our hearts to underlying universal themes such as love and hate, fear and hope, revenge and forgiveness. Well-written, carefully researched historical fiction allows readers to identify with the story’s characters and experience a world that is only outwardly different from their own—in other words, to really GET history on an intimate level and to CARE about it.
With this desire to teach history through my own fiction, my own novels, I have developed a strong conviction about presenting historical facts as accurately as I can.
Most of us have no objection to an author telling a story set against a backdrop of actual history for the purpose of entertaining readers. However, if an author or moviemaker decides to twist historical facts to suit some other agenda, those of us who love history are prone to take exception. Above I mentioned the movie John Paul Jones, a biopic of a great American naval patriot who helped the United States win its independence from Britain.
But I must hasten to add that Hollywood has always loved to mess with history. Why tell the fascinating truth about one of America’s first great heroes when you can tangle it up with all sorts of fictional intrigues? John Paul Jones had enough going on in his life without involving him in a love triangle with Patrick Henry and the woman Henry married. And since Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia in 1790, he couldn’t have been at Jones’s deathbed in Paris in 1792, as the film shows. Admittedly, John Paul Jones was filmed in 1959. But have the movie makers changed any over the years?
Consider this example of a more recent movie titled, The Aryan Couple, starring Martin Landau, one of my favorite actors. According to movie reviewer Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel, “The Aryan Couple is the worst Holocaust movie ever.” Moore reports that the film is riddled with impossibilities for its setting, Nazi-occupied Hungary in 1944. In the story, a wealthy Jewish man has been able not only to avoid being carted off to a concentration camp, but he also still lives a lavish lifestyle in his castle in the country—that late in the war. If a young person attending this movie is interested in learning about the way people lived in WWII, what a distorted and wrong picture they will see. As Moore says, “Hollywood is forever finding new ways to tinker with history.” Unfortunately, many young people learn about history and even great fiction of the past from such films as this one.
Another example of Hollywood gone wrong is a 1995 movie based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The heroine seemed to be taking her cues from the modern feminist movement. Someone said to me, “Well, this is just another telling of the story.” And one of my female students said, “If I’d lived back then, I’d stand up for my rights!” All I can say in response is that, in the time in which this story took place, women who acted out of line were shunned or drowned or hanged or burned as witches. That is history. Another one of my students wrote her assigned book report on The Scarlet Letter using the movie rather than actually reading the book. She had no clue that these two were substantially different, with the movie utterly distorting Hawthorne’s great story. And she was shocked to receive a failing grade. (At left, Hester Prynne, heroine of The Scarlet Letter.)
In producing a movie or writing a book, we should not change history. We shortchange our audiences, whether readers or moviegoers, students or adults, if we take today’s issues and place them in the past when such things were not possible. It’s so important to stick to historical fact. Each era of humankind has had enough issues of its own to teach succeeding generations what they need to know about the human condition. Let’s stick to reality. Let’s stick to truth about the past, as learned from trustworthy sources, so we can feel confident in the historical information we’re passing on to coming generations.
With that conviction in mind, when I set out to write any book, I commit myself to arduous and extensive research so to the best of my ability I would get it right historically. It’s always worth the journey.
So, what does a writer need to do to tell a good story? She must have characters with interesting internal and external conflicts and enough motivation to overcome them; a setting, which I define as time, place, and social environment; and of course, a plot, the storyline, the things that happen to and around the characters.
In order to turn history into fiction, I take three steps: first, develop those compelling characters my readers will identify with and care about; second, place them in real historical settings with actual events and real people, and third, start digging for the historical details that will flesh out my tale: the ideas our ancestors thought and the daily realities they dealt with. What were their philosophies, their struggles? How did they have fun? What did they eat? What kind of plumbing did they have. . .or not have? Digging out those details is like a treasure hunt to me.
I firmly believe we should use fiction to ignite interest in history and show students how interesting it can be. No one can ever know the absolute truth about every detail of history. In recent years, new information has come to light through documents and letters about the 1836 siege of the Alamo, where I got my first taste of delicious history. But nothing can change the fact that the courage of those who died that day in San Antonio inspired other Texans to fight for independence. In the April 2006 Smithsonian magazine, certainly a credible source, there are interesting questions raised about the recovery of John Paul Jones’s body. But nothing can diminish his heroic achievements in our American Revolution.
The unchangeable truth we can all agree on is that our children need to know American history and how it affects them, how their forefathers and foremothers pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to ensure the freedom of future generations.
If it takes a fictional story, based of course in reality and historical truths, to attract our children to the importance of the past, by all means, let those stories be told!
(All pictures are from Wiki Commons and are in the public domain.)