Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History?
Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults
Historical fiction is riding a crest of popularity, so much so that publishers are now promoting not only individual historical novels but entire series of historical fiction. Patty Campbell has noted this development with ironic humor: "[S]uddenly historical fiction is the magic phrase on every publisher's lips, beginning to replace . . . even- saints be praised!--horror" (September/October 1996). For many years, these same publishers shied away from the genre, viewing it as less in demand among readers than contemporary fiction or nonfiction. As Leon Garfield once observed, historical fiction was regarded "as being something of an embarrassment, like an elderly relative, to be tolerated out of a sense of duty and reluctantly supported in a condition of genteel poverty". Teachers scrambling to find historical novels for their social studies classes had only limited choices. Then, as multiculturalism has begun to sharpen our sensitivities and has begun to prompt us to reexamine our interpretations of history, a spate of YA novels has appeared, addressing previously neglected past events or offering revised perspectives of them. Given the growing popularity of the genre, and its value across the curriculum, YA historical fiction has enriched not only literature courses but social science and psychology ones as well. The problems associated with writing historical fiction are also our problems when we teach historical fiction, because they affect how we and our students respond to and interpret these novels. The problems involve matters of definition, the "truth" of historical fiction, the question of balance between historical details and fictional elements, the demand for authenticity and accuracy, and the issue of provenance.
The Problem of Definition
What exactly is historical fiction for young adults? Most definitions hinge on setting, which is always in the past. Yet just how "past" is "past" remains open to question. Books that are set in the Colonial period, or the Civil War, can be labeled "historical" without many problems. However, do books that are set in 1968 qualify as "historical" for today's adolescent readers? Often, teachers' purposes for having students read historical fiction will be more influential in determining how we define "historical" than the dates of a the temporal setting of a novel.
Another problem associated with defining "historical fiction" is related to the common practice in which writers present actual historical figures alongside fictitious characters. Some historical fiction for young adults includes historical persons who interact with the protagonist in some way, but novels need not include such characters to qualify for the genre. Althea (Charlie) Reed (1994) categorizes novels that include historic characters as "historic fiction," whose purpose, she says, is to "reveal history and the true character of historic figures." She differentiates these books from "historical fiction" that does not include historic characters and whose purpose is to "bring history to life". Reed's distinction is useful in designating not only the inclusion of actual persons as characters but the extra responsibility that the 'historic" category places on the author. In historical fiction for young adults, the protagonists are usually fictional adolescents. These adolescent characters are often rendered powerless, not only by their youth, but by gender, race, or class; they are frequently victimized by greed, hatred, or persecution. Nonetheless, they manage to triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.
Author Ann Schlee, discussing her own historical fiction, accounts for the prevalence of this pattern:
In a way, almost all children's books are legends of power and weakness. One has to develop a child character who is, in a sense, a hero with power over the action of the story. Yet, in reality children don't have power their situations. In the past children were far more exploited, but they were much more caught up in the web of adult existence. In writing about the past, the writer has the chance to depict their extraordinary adventures and seizures of power.
Frequently, these young characters oppose the prevailing mores of the period, or, as Katherine Paterson has said, "The characters in history or fiction that we remember are those who kicked against the walls of their societies" (1985). The result, a character of heroic proportions, is immensely satisfying to young readers. But there are risks in creating such characters: by inflating their valor and courage, an author may diminish or even sacrifice their humanity as well as challenge the reader's suspension of disbelief. Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle demonstrates this problem. Charlotte, a young woman raised in a sheltered, upper-class family headed by a domineering patriarch, finds herself the only female on a trading ship journeying across the Atlantic. The captain, whom she initially admires, reveals himself as a cruel lout, and Charlotte joins a mutiny, eventually becoming captain to a rough crew of sailors. Charlotte emerges by the end of the novel as so heroic that she seems hardly human, more mythic than mortal. Despite the story's compelling narrative, it strains the reader's credulity, and the reader's ability to take a figurative step into Charlotte's role.
Some writers have addressed this problem by writing what Kathryn Lasky calls "keyhole history," events rendered from the perspective of ordinary people during extraordinary times. "It's not just the great battles," she says. "It has as much to do with writing grocery lists, dealing with stomachs, feeling grumpy and scared to death and mad as hell" (1997).
The Problem of "Truth": Historical Fiction or Fictional History?
When we select historical fiction for classroom reading and studying, we often do so with the assumption that the fictitious work has a certain authenticity, or that it conveys the "truth" about a particular period. Yet we must realize that writers of historical fiction must also contend with another problem: the fine line between historicizing fiction and fictionalizing history. What is the "truth" of historical fiction? Most responses to this problem stress the interpretative nature of both history and fiction. Along this line, Jill Paton Walsh (1972) contends that more than careful research binds the two. She suggests that history is as fict (Latin for "something made") as fact ("something done"). She adds that while evidence of history exists, it is itself "a construct of the mind". Lasky points to the myriad interpretations of what she calls "plain history" by historians, arguing that they rarely do it "plain" and that no history, whether within a novel or history text, can be without bias (1997). In other words, for both the novelist and historian, meaning lies not in a chain of events themselves but in the writer's interpretation of what occurred. As teachers, we can use this view of historical texts to lead students into intriguing activities that require purposeful research, critical analysis, and synthesis of information. We can encourage students to explore the connections they establish with the settings, characters, and situations that they encounter in historical fiction. This focus is likely to encourage our students to think critically not only about the literary texts, but about their responses to the texts, and thus about their own attitudes and assumptions. Novelist Erik Christian Haugaard observes that the "truth" of historical fiction often lies in its relevance to the beliefs that a contemporary reader brings to the text:
When you write a story that takes place in times long past, you are more free. Your readers have less prejudice and will accept your tale with open minds. Your and your reader have less at stake, and thus you might get nearer to the truth, possibly even to reality. For it is amazing how often sensitive, intelligent people can excuse or even condone the most despicable acts if perpetrated in the name of the politics they believe in or by the nation they belong to.
As teachers, we need to be careful to help students recognize the sharp differences between the purposes of the historian and the novelist. The historian's approach is necessarily broader, examining historical complexities in greater depth and using digressions and footnotes to qualify and explain. Novelists, on the other hand, forego the expansive canvas that historians use in order to create clear characterizations and forward-moving plot lines that arrive, finally, at resolutions often denied to history. A danger, for the novelist, lies in achieving that objective at the expense of excluding significant nuances and complexities. The problem is exacerbated for writers whose readers are younger. As Sheila Egoff has pointed out, "The artistic problems inherent in the historical novel are increased in books for children. Here events must be more closely winnowed and sifted; character more clearly delineated, but without condescension or over-simplification. The [young reader] must be moved quickly into the consciousness of another time and his imagination stirred to it". A danger for teachers is that we might tend to select historical novels using one criterion: because they are historically accurate and full, or because they are aesthetically pleasing as works of art. To defend against this limitation, we need to learn to identify books in which the novelist skillfully blends historic information with literary art.
The Problem of Balance
Countering the need to engage young adults "quickly" in the historical narrative at hand is the genre's reliance on the accumulation of particulars that an author's research produces. Writers commonly invest enormous time and energy sifting through archives, reading books about the period, and visiting the sites where the action of the novel occurs. This research goes far beyond learning about particular events. A careful historical novelist conveys a sense of the period through minuscule details about such matters as clothing, food, transportation, and social customs. Thomas Mallon (1992) puts the case succinctly: "Only through tiny, literal accuracies can the historical novelist achieve the larger truth to which he aspiresÑ namely, an overall feeling of authenticity. It is just like Marianne Moore's famous prescription for the ideal poet. He must stock his imaginary garden with real toads".
Yet too many toads can overrun the garden. The very scope of an author's research poses a question of balance. How does an author keep a narrative moving but also communicate the information necessary to bring the period alive? Many writers admit that having done the research, there is a real temptation to use too much of it, and reviewers are sharply critical when they perceive the imaginative content of the story being submerged in historical facts, an imbalance, for example, that Hazel Rochman addresses in her review of Katherine Lasky's Beyond the Burning Time, saying, "The history overwhelms the fiction, although both are compelling".
The Problem of Accuracy
However an author chooses to balance her material between history and fiction, accuracy remains a primary obligation of all historical fiction. There is no margin for errors or anachronisms, each of which can reduce a novel's usefulness or interest. No successful writer of historical fiction takes this matter lightly. Writers who work in the genre tell stories of their own inadvertent lapses. Author Geoffrey Trease opened his Mist over Athelney, set in ninth-century England, with a scene in which the characters sit down for a dinner of rabbit stew. Only after the novel was published did an eleven-year-old reader spot a problem: There were no rabbits in England at that time (1972).
Usually a copy editor catches and corrects these kinds of errors, but not always. Kathryn Lasky was tripped up when she allowed a character in Beyond the Burning Time, her seventeenth-century novel about the Salem witchcraft trials, to carry a kerosene lantern. Kerosene lamps, though, were not used until the nineteenth century. She accounts for this slip with an autobiographical detail: "I was writing the novel up in our summer place in Maine," she says, "where we have kerosene lamps, and I'm always worried that the kids could set the house on fire. So, even though my characters used candles in other scenes, I had kerosene on the brain when I wrote" (telephone interview, August, 1997).
Strict adherence to historical accuracy can pose a problem if "accuracy" involves brutal or immoral behavior. What are the writer's option when the intended readers are young adults, an audience for whom some readers may desire a subdued version of historic events? Kathryn Lasky has encountered this problem with two historical novels of the old West. The first, Beyond the Divide, follows a wagon train West. In telling the story of Meribah Simon, who accompanies her father on the journey, the novel demonstrates how the pernicious greed for gold so corrupted many of the emigrants that they robbed and killed each other. The appalling toll of the Westward Movement not only on Native Americans but emigrants as well is clearly a major theme. Some reviewers, though, balked at the portrayal of mythic American pioneers as thieves and murderers. Dorothy Lettus wrote, inVoice of Youth Advocates, "It is not appealing to read about mean, sordid characters like those who people this book" (1983). In one novel, a young girl raped by outlaws is viewed as the guilty party and then shunned by most adults in the wagon train. When a reader protested such a response, wanting a more sympathetic reaction, Lasky defended the historical accuracy of the episode. "Hey," she said, "that's the way it was. There were no rape crisis centers back then" (personal interview, October, 1997, Cambridge, Massachusetts).
Lasky aroused similar criticism when she opened her novelThe Bone Wars, set in the nineteenth-century Old West, with a violent episode. Wrote Zena Sutherland, "Why the book begins with a scene in which five-year-old Thad is under a bed in which his mother, a prostitute, is being murdered by a brutal customer is not made clear". Lasky defended the scene in an article titled "The Fiction of History: Or, What Did Miss Kitty Really Do?" She writes, "It is a fact, verified through my extensive research, that a preponderance of women who went West alone were or became prostitutes. Despite this fact, we prefer to think of them as school marms. Isn't that the nice, innocuous profession of all women? Well, guess what? There weren't all that many schools out there, and, brace yourself, I discovered the existence of more than a few school marm/prostitutes" (1990).
The dynamic nature of language poses another problem of accuracy. Vocabularies change from one historical period to another as new words slip into common usage and others become archaic. These transformations impose certain restrictions on dialogue, and writers of historical fiction cannot give their imagination entirely free reign in creating it. The language must not only ring true to the character speaking it but must also correspond to the vocabulary of the period.
When a writer chooses a first-person narrator, the issue of language becomes even more critical. A narrator whose voice relies too heavily on outdated language, however historically correct, is sure to lose readers. On the other hand, a narrator's vocabulary, like the dialogue for all characters in historical fiction, must be restricted to language in use at the time of the story.
Writers John and Patricia Beatty tell of finishing their novel Campion Towers, set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1651, when they began to suspect that their young first-person narrator was using some language that didn't exist in the 1600s. Although they had carefully researched the period, they now edited their manuscript to trace the history of any questionable words. Their work validated their suspicions: they had to find substitutes for such terms as "mob," "aisle," "amazing," "bewildering," "chunk," "clunk," "carefree," and "complete".
If the first-person narration is cast as a diary, additional constraints are called into play, as author Joan Blos discovered when she decided to write, A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, in this form in 1979. She read several authentic diaries in preparation for writing the fictional one, learning that her choice imposed very particular limitations : "For example, dialogue would have to be used sparingly, as diarists tended to report the fact of a conversation, not its word-for-word content. Description would have to be limited to situations, objects, and persons of particular interest to the protagonists herself". Of course, dialogue and description are two key element in bringing any fiction alive, so the diary form was severely limiting. However, she stuck with it because, she says, it allowed her to be faithful to New England sensibilities that were conventionally suppressed by understatement without boring or disappointing twentieth-century readers accustomed to books whose protagonists announce their feelings clearly.
Closely related to language accuracy is the problem of narrative voice, shaped not only by word choice but by the narrator's opinions and attitudes. These, of course, are filtered through the author's contemporary sensibilities. Some critics have insisted that historical fiction reveals more about its author than its historical subject, or, as Henry Seidel Canby has said, historical fiction is "more likely to register an exact truth about the writer's present than the exact truth of the past". Katherine Paterson seems to agree when she says, "If you want to understand a period of history, don't read the contemporary fiction written during that period, but the historical fiction" (1994).
Joel Taxel (1983) makes a similar point in an analysis of Revolutionary War novels for young readers. More specifically, he compares novels published during World War II, when European fascism threatened the entire world, and those published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the conflict in Viet Nam had stirred considerable anti-war sentiment. His analysis demonstrates that novels published during the former era view the Revolution as a "defense of America's basic ideological values and beliefs," an emphasis "indicative of a confidence in the righteousness of American history and institutions and a perception of America as the defender of the 'free world'". The "good" characters in these novels are driven by an attachment to high ideals, whereas the villains--always aligned with the Crown or Tory perspectives--base and self-serving, seeking only to advance their narrow self-interest and oblivious to the merits of any cause. In contrast, novels published at the time when many Americans were disillusioned by the war in Viet Nam demonstrate an ambivalence in the characters toward Revolutionary ideology. In these novels, the characters are not portrayed as good or evil, based on their respective political convictions. In fact, some who reject Revolutionary ideology are, nonetheless, kind and good. And in contrast to the earlier novels, there is a breakdown in parental authority as sons begin to question their fathers' beliefs about the Revolution.
Portrayal of gender roles, too, reflect attitudes of the period in which historical fiction is written. The strong, active male heroes of the traditional historical novel are today joined by equally strong and active females who often resist the tyrannical dictates that define female behavior at the time of the story. Yet their actions and beliefs must reflect not the values of contemporary times but the period in which they are living. The differences between the two can pose a troublesome problem for writers. For example, Karen Cushman's protagonist, Birdie, of Catherine, Called Birdie (1994) records in her diary the outrages she suffers as a girl, especially because of her father's nearly successful efforts to marry her off to a repulsive nobleman. Her bawdy sense of humor and comic observations of events and people in her life combine to create a vivid, thoroughly likable character. One cheers her rebellion against what are clearly oppressive practices and is captivated by the engaging voice of the diary. However, as Roberta Trites has noted in Waking Sleeping Beauty (1997), an examination of feminist fiction for young readers, Birdie's literacy seems less than credible for a thirteenth-century girl, regardless of how much it contributes to the novel and satisfies readers.
Geoffrey Trease struggled with a similar problem when he was writing a novel set during the time of the Roman Empire. Part of the plot he imagined involved a friendship between the daughter of a Roman citizen and a young boy who is not a citizen. However, his research indicated that young women were secluded in their homes and never allowed contact with noncitizens. Trease solved his problem only through some inventive plotting.
The Problem of Provenance
With some unusual exceptions, authors of historical fiction have no first-hand knowledge of their characters' experiences, but they can roam widely in their imaginations, setting their stories in distant times and places accessible only through research. No one would propose that authors be restricted to the limitation of autobiographical material. Still, as we have gained a greater respect for both the historical and contemporary experiences of cultures that have been all but neglected or distorted in earlier fiction, we as readers and teachers have sometimes responded negatively to writers who cross cultural boundaries, racial ones in particular. Some writers who have done so have been chastised for perpetuating racial stereotypes in work that was initially acclaimed. William H. Armstrong's Sounder (1969) is a case in point. Armstrong, a white writer, won the Newbery Medal in 1970 for his story about a family of Southern black sharecroppers; more recently, this same novel has been roundly criticized for its portrayal of the father as weak, for submitting to racial abuse with little protest rather than fighting to protect his family. Critics have taken particular offense to Armstrong's failure to name the family members, a strategy originally interpreted as an attempt to portray its struggle as universal rather than personal.
Thelma Seto, a Japanese-American writer born and raised in the Middle East, has voiced strong opposition to writers appropriating material outside their own cultures. "I will not allow writers who do not have Asian ancestry to pretend to tell my story," she asserts, objecting mainly to European American writers "who subscribe to the belief that cultural thievery is quite acceptable". Violet J. Harris (1996), author of several articles on multiculturalism, has endorsed Seto's position. While recognizing the "authorial freedom" of authors to choose their own subjects, she castigates the "authorial arrogance" of some European American authors "who demand freedom to write about whatever they wish without subjecting their work to critical scrutiny". But others have challenged this position. Marc Aronson (1995), for example, argues for eliminating what he calls "ethnic essentialism,". YA novelist Kathryn Lasky believes that "this new insistence on certain rules for authorship and provenance of a story (or who writes what and where) is indeed threatening the very fabric of literature and literary criticism". She finds such strictures "not just verging on censorship; it is censorship. . . The first criteria (sic) for publication should always be that the book is good literature" (1996). As the strong language of the above debate indicates, this problem arouses powerful emotions and appears unlikely to resolve itself easily.
It is no easy task, then, for an author to undertake the writing of historical fiction, a peculiarly demanding and problematic genre. Any writer who tells a story set in the past must negotiate the fine line between history and fiction, between readers' contemporary sensibilities and historical accuracy. That writers continue to work in this genre, successfully engaging with the issues that define it, testifies to its value and viability. Reading these novels, we are reminded again and again that the issues of the past are inscribed on our own lives, that yesterday continues to impinge upon today.
Neither is it an easy task to teach historical fiction. As teachers, we can help our students question the interpretations of the past offered by any single historical novel. With our students, we can make connections between past and present issues to weigh the novel's historical perspective. Together we can discuss how a writer has represented a particular cultural or racial group. We can assess a story's accuracy by reading more than one novel on the period or researching the history itself. And as we and our students engage with the "problems" of historical fiction, we can come to understand how the genre provides us with a lens not only upon our collective past but also upon a "here and now" that defines our individual lives.
Young Adult Novels
Books, Essays and Reviews
Blos, Joan. "'I Catherine Hall': the Journal as Historical Fiction." In The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics, Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, eds. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Lasky, Katherine. "The Fiction of History: Or, What Did Miss Katy Really Do?" The New Advocate, Summer, 1990. -----. "Keyhole History." SIGNAL, Spring, 1997. -----. "To Stingo with Love." The New Advocate, Winter, 1996.
Joanne Brown is an Associate Professor of English at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. She is the author of Presenting Kathryn Lasky (in press), a volume in the Twayne series, Writers for Young Adults.
Reference Citation: Brown, Joanne. (1998). "Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.