ALAN v25n2 - Lyddie and Oliver: Instructional Framework for Linking Historical Fiction to the Classics

Volume 25, Number 2
Winter 1998
Lyddie and Oliver :
Instructional Framework for Linking Historical Fiction to the Classics

Janis Harmon

Helping students read widely and deeply is an important aspect of literature-based reading programs for young adolescents. Wide reading refers to the selection of challenging reading materials from a variety of narrative, expository, and persuasive texts. These works are written by authors who address cultural traditions as well as timely issues of interest to learners. Experts advocate wide reading as a necessary component in enhancing and promoting the continued development of students’ literary and literacy behaviors. If we follow this interpretation, then we see a need for offering learners diverse literary opportunities for using different genres in creative and resourceful ways.

One way to promote wide reading is to invite students to engage in literary experiences that draw from different genres. Huck , Hepler, and Hickman contend that literature selections should capture the interest and curiosity of the reader. In this way, reading becomes a natural, intrinsically motivated action that enables the reader to be open to new and exciting adventures through books. Two sources for these adventures are classical works and historical narratives. Classical works have given generations of readers countless experiences that are satisfying and memorable. They have invited readers to reflect upon basic human and societal behaviors through story patterns that represent one way of knowing for all of us. These stories focus on issues that transcend time, place, and cultures.

Nodelman believes that good literature, such as the classics, surpasses ordinary works because it has the "ability to engender new interpretations by its readers" (p. 107).

What keeps them [classics] alive and causes us to consider them great is our ability to keep reading them in new ways, to be continually attentive to the as yet unconsidered possibility of meaning within them. (pp. 107-108)

We can invite students to consider other interpretations of classic pieces by using parallel readings with different genres, such as historical fiction. Quality historical novels also have withstood the test of time and have proven to be a legitimate literary genre for young adults. Moreover, these stories help students value diversity, appreciate good literature, and learn from history and about history as they aesthetically experience the life and times of believable and dynamic characters.

Literary qualities of historical fiction and specific criteria unique to this genre are, in many ways, compatible with classical works. Huck, Hepler, and Hickman point out that historical novels

(1) help students "feel" the past through the emotional experiences of the characters in the story;

  1. encourage students to "think" and reflect about events and actions as they make connections with the present while critically analyzing how these events inform the present and ultimately shape the future;
  2. (3) enable us to understand human problems and relationships in light of the mistakes of the past;

  3. illustrate that, through the passage of time and even across cultures, our need for freedom, love, and security remains constant;

(5) create a deeper awareness of our need for others; and

(6) help us develop a deeper understanding and perspective of historical happenings as we seek to define our place in relation to other people and events. (pp. 600-601)

As we select historical fiction to use in the classroom, we must consider literary quality in general as well as specific criteria unique to historical fiction. Supported by Nilsen and Donelson , Huck , Hepler, and Hickman suggest that historical novels

(1) tell interesting stories;

(2) intersperse fact with fiction;

(3) accurately portray people, places, and events;

(4) mirror the values and attitudes of the past;

(5) depict appropriate language and figures of speech for the characters;

(6) avoid stereotypical characters and seek to present accurate representations of historical figures;

(7) help us understand today’s problems in light of those confronted by people long ago; and

(8) share common themes with other works, such as freedom and oppression, love and hate, tolerance and freedom, and good and evil. (pp. 603-606)

These criteria provide us with important standards by which to assess the value of this literary genre. Moreover, such features illuminate important aspects of classic literary works that support a compatible relationship with historical narratives. For example, classics also tell captivating stories, mirror values and attitudes of the past, depict authentic language use, and share common themes.

This paper presents an instructional framework for guiding different levels of engagement with historical fiction while considering intertextual links to other types of literature, especially classical works. Additionally, an illustration is provided using a parallel reading of Lyddie by Katherine Paterson with Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist .

An Instructional Framework for Historical Fiction

To design literary experiences pairing historical fiction with other genres, such as classical works, we must consider three important issues: (1) what we know about the reading process in terms of schema theory, reader response theory, and the sociocultural aspects of reading; (2) inherent characteristics and values of quality historical fiction novels; and (3) aesthetic dimensions students experience with literature as a basis for further exploration and clarification of historical events. A grid format can help us examine and justify our selection of probes and activities as we use a theoretically driven framework to design literary engagements for historical narratives. One suggested grid, which is featured in Figure l, highlights personal, social, and intertextual dimensions of reading along with specific criteria that inform quality historical narratives. The intersection of these components provides us with an underlying theoretical basis for formulating solid engagements with literature. What follows is an explanation for each instructional idea.

Current research, especially the works of Louise Rosenblatt , indicates that reader response to literature is an important aspect of meaning construction. Aesthetic stances, as outlined by Many , focus on lived-through experiences with texts and help readers understand content, themselves, and others. Furthermore, we know that reading occurs in social contexts, where young adolescents work together to explore new dimensions of the literary experience at different levels of engagement (Weaver 1185-1202). We create webs of meaning through books we read, people we relate to in our lives, and a multitude of experiences we have daily. These intertextual connections also have an important impact on a reader’s transactions with texts.

Historical novels for young adults enable readers to experience the past vicariously and to engage in historical drama. These experiences can evoke personal feelings of happiness, joy, pain, suffering, and despair as the reader enters the world of the characters and shares emotions felt by these characters. In this secondary world as described by Levstik , the reader is in the midst of the action and becomes part of the historical drama. Thus, to "feel" the experiences of characters is a value of historical fiction that intersects on the grid with reader involvement in personal and social dimensions. The intersection of feeling and personal dimension indicates the need for activities that help readers respond aesthetically in their own individual ways to events and circumstances in novels. Through journal writing and even quiet reflection, students can articulate their own feelings about a book or even experience the "unarticulated" response that may be difficult to express in overt ways. At the intersection of the social dimension of reading with feelings evoked from the readings, students can engage in rich discussions about these evocations or dramatize specific scenes as they come to terms with their personal feelings about the human side to historical events.

Knowledge of others
Sharing with others
Exploring new dimensions while working with others
Interconnections of meaning with other books and other people
Personal experience
Engagement in historical drama
Vicarious experiences with the past
Journal entry; freewrite
Quiet Reflection
Personal response to historical drama
Discuss in small groups
Emphasize personal feelings about the human side to historical events.
How are your responses to these similar? Different?
Critical analysis of issues in terms of the present
Interpretation of moral and ethical issues
Directed journal entries mediated by teacher
Why do you suppose...?
Research issues relevant to the time period
Debate pros and cons of issues; look at alternatives
How are these issues accepted today?
Compare and contrast how the issues are interpreted.
How do you feel about this?
University of themes
Continuity of life
Directed journal entries mediated by teacher
Would you feel the same way as...?
Have you ever wanted to be like...?
Reflect upon specific human values
Compare how this is the same or different from human values of today
How would a person today react to the this situation?
If the two characters met...
Historical contexts
Chronology of events
Directed journal entries mediated by teacher
Could these events happen today?
What have you learned about?
Chronicle major historical event in newpaper format; letters, ect.
Emphasize cause and effect; changes over time
Informational texts
What do we know about this time period?
How have we changed?

Figure l: Historical Fiction Planning Model: Semantic Connection Grid

Historical fiction invites students to think about the past. They need informed and disciplined engagement with moral and ethical issues evident in the story as they critically analyze these issues in terms of the present. Multiple perspectives about past events help them to interpret and judge past events in light of what we know today. As Huck et al. contend, they will develop a fuller understanding of the human condition and learn from the mistakes of the past. On a personal level, readers can explore their own reactions and interpretations concerning specific actions of the character through directed journal responses mediated by the teacher. On a social level they can explore related historical issues that have a direct or indirect impact upon the character’s situation. Again, these issues can be those highlighted with teacher facilitation. Through research projects, students can collaboratively work toward understanding conditions and conflicts evident in the time period of the novel.

Historical fiction illustrates that basic human needs of love, respect, freedom, security, and belonging transcend time and place. These needs are as important today as they were in centuries past. Such universal themes are the foundation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s statement about the invariability of human nature. She believes "most strongly that People don’t Change, that under the changing surface patterns of behavior, the fundamental qualities and emotions and relationships remain the same" (p. 308). To help students make connections and form relationships with events of the past, teachers can formulate provocative questions on a personal level that extend into group explorations. These efforts can provide opportunities for students to develop their own sense of history and an awareness of their place in it.

Levstik argues that historical understanding is shaped by literature and classroom environment. Because these two variables impact content learning, we can make necessary links to help young adolescents understand historical events in light of current social, political, and economic aspects of today. Again, this value of historical fiction can begin on a personal level where students look inward to define their own understandings before they experience social interactions through group discussions and collaborative efforts as they refine and expand their knowledge of history.

A critical look at these features of historical narratives reveals important parallels with classical works. These books have withstood the test of time and continue to offer readers opportunities to experience past events through memorable characters. By pairing a classic, such as Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens , with historical fiction, such as Lyddie by Katherine Paterson , we can create a unique literary experience for adolescents.

A Parallel Look at Lyddie and Oliver Twist

Lyddie and Oliver Twist deal with child labor and poverty during the same historical period (the 1840s) even though Oliver is in London and Lyddie in Lowell, Massachusetts. Dickens always had a great concern for social reform. Dunn as well as Strauss point out that his writings echo such issues as the wretched conditions of the poor and the plight of children. Similarly, Paterson addresses these concerns in her depiction of the life of a factory girl in the textile mills of early nineteenth century America. Although Dickens and Paterson wrote these books over different time periods and for different reasons, they both vividly and realistically portray the suffering, despair, and misery in the daily lives of people caught in the vicious cycle of poverty in two different countries during the same time frame.

An understanding of the social and historical context of both books is necessary in order to appreciate what Paterson and Dickens created in these characters. During the early 1800’s, both countries faced economic struggles caused by industrial progress and agrarian decline. In the midst of this chaotic transition, the English Parliament in l834 chose to revise the Poor Laws in an effort to stem the growing population of paupers. Before 1834, two systems were in operation for the relief of the destitute: the workhouse where criminals, lunatics, the sick, and the aged lived surrounded by untold horrors, oppression, and promiscuity; and outdoor relief which provided subsistence to the needy who lived in their own homes. According to Gissing , the Poor Law of l834 abolished the outdoor relief system for the able-bodied, thus forcing them to move to the workhouses. The workhouses in turn were made more deplorable to encourage the able-bodied paupers to look for work.

Oliver is born and raised in this environment where living conditions are deliberately harsh, diets are sparse, and family structures become nonexistent when workhouse officials separate husbands and wives. Miller describes the state of Oliver’s humanity at birth as one of solitude and one void of love and familial attachment. However, Oliver’s awareness of this state, which evolves strictly from within himself, forces him to demand that the outside world give him the love that is rightfully his as a human being. He finds a world where outcasts of society must continually fight for a meager existence. Yet, in spite of these conditions, Oliver still has a naturally growing desire to find a more humane life where love and security exist.

Lyddie, on the other hand, has known love and security of family life. However, when western railroads begin to transport cheaper wool to eastern factories ("Relief" p. 72), Lyddie’s father fails as a New England sheep farmer and then leaves his family. As a final measure to avoid the township’s poor farm, Lyddie’s mother and the two younger children move in with her sister and husband. Lyddie is hired out to a tavern owner and Charlie, her young brother, must work for the owner of a local mill.

Lyddie’s freedom and family are now gone and she, like Oliver, is controlled and manipulated by another. Oliver’s apprenticeship to Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker, seems like a step above the workhouse even though he sleeps under coffins and is fed dog scraps.

Lyddie’s apprenticeship to Mistress Cutler, the wife of the tavern owner, is just as demeaning because Lyddie must work hard and maintain a subservient attitude toward her superior.

How could a woman so obviously rich in the world’s goods be so mean in the use of them? Her eyes were narrow and close and always on the sharp for the least bit of spilt flour or the odd crumb on the lip. (pp. 23-24)

Paterson and Dickens depict oppression and exploitation of the less fortunate in the actions of the Sowerberry couple and Mistress Cutler. Lyddie is forced to give up her independence and freedom to help her family while Oliver, who has never known independence and freedom, moves from abject misery in the workhouse to the bonds of indenture with the Sowerberry’s. Neither character has control of the situation and must abide by rules set forth by those of a different social class. At this point, Lyddie has sunk to a level comparable with Oliver and feels that only a slave is lower. She struggles with this awareness and is frightened that her independence is lost forever. According to Wills , Oliver has never known freedom in the same sense as Lyddie; and his move from workhouse to indenture can be seen as part of his socialization process into the outside world. In fact, Oliver has never even known childhood and "is never allowed to be what he is, and when liberated he has to act the part" of how others perceive him (Gross and Pearson, p. 54).

Their stories continue to parallel when Oliver runs away to London to find safety and Lyddie leaves the Cutler tavern in search of independence and freedom as a factory girl in Lowell, Massachusetts. Oliver finds some measure of security in his forced relationship with Fagin and his gang of criminals, whereas Lyddie’s factory position is one of her own choosing. In one sense, they find what they are looking for within the parameters of the lower level of society where such basic human needs come at a high price. The stories have hopeful endings in that the future of both characters will be vastly different from their past. Although created over a hundred years apart, Lyddie and Oliver share many feelings and adventures that transcend time and place. They become unforgettable characters and will be remembered for their virtuous natures and for memorable episodes that mark similarities in their lives.

Knowledge of others
Sharing with others
Exploring new dimensions while working with others
Interconnections of meaning with other books and other people
Personal experience
Engagement in historical drama
Vicarious experiences with the past
Journal entry:
How does this story make you feel? Consider Lyddie's decision to work in the factory and Oliver's decision to run away.
Would you have made the same decisions?
Dramatize a scene in the mill where the feelings of the characters are evident.
Dramatize the scene when Oliver asks for more food.
How are your responses to Lyddie and Oliver Twist similiar? How are they different?
Critical analysis of issues in terms of the present
Interpretation of moral and ethical issues
Directed journal entries:
Have you ever had to perform a job yo didn't want to do? Can you identify with Lyddie's feelings when her mother hired her out to work at the inn? What about Oliver's feelings concerning the work he had to do?
Research child labor and working conditions of mills in the early 1800s. Do these conditions exist today? Why or why not? Compare and contrast:
Lyddie and Oliver
The importance of love and belonging
Social status of both characters
Ambition of both characters
Future possibilities
University of themes
Continuity of life
Directed Journal entries:
Lyddie loves her family. Oliver longs to be loved. Are their feelings believable? Does the time period affect these feelings about love and family? Are Lyddie's dreams to go to college realistic? Would you feel the same way about working in the mills?
Debate changes and similarities in family structure today and the early 1800s. How are they worse?
How important is the family unit?
What would happen if Lyddie met Oliver?
How would they react to one another?
Historical contexts
Chronology of events
Could Lyddie's Story happen today? Could Oliver's?
What have you learned about the factory mills of the 1840s? About London during this time?
What do you still want to know?
Reseach the Industrial Revolution.
Create a snapshot of life in the 1840s by making a newspaper reflecting political, social, and economic aspects of this time period.
Information texts:
Kids at Work by Russell Freedman
Cheap Raw Materials by Milton Meltzer

Figure 2: Historical Planning Model: Lyddie and Oliver Twist

Planning Model for Lyddie and Oliver Twist

Figure 2 illustrates how the instructional framework can be used in planning literary experiences with these parallel readings. Each dimension addresses important issues that can lead to a variety of engagements with both books. Intertextual links also include informational books about child labor, such as Kids at Work by Russell Freedman and Cheap Raw Material by Milton Meltzer . Suggested activities are geared to provide students with opportunities to respond to literature in aesthetic and efferent ways while connecting, extending, and reflecting upon new and familiar concepts.

As we invite readers to enter into the literary world of historical fiction and classical works, we can feel confident that this experience will enlighten their understanding of past events. It will also offer enjoyment and pleasure with quality literature while refining literacy behaviors. This end result is possible only if we broaden our understanding of historical fiction and the classics so that we can carefully select well-crafted stories to use in theoretically driven instructional designs.

In sum, the planning model offers a practical instructional framework for structuring important literary experiences with historical fiction. It highlights different reading stances as well as intertextual links with other genres in ways that encourage versatile planning. More importantly, it provides a measure of assurance that, as we plan these experiences, we give consideration to different levels of engagement. Perhaps in this way, we can help a broad specturm of diverse learners enjoy a meaningful literary experience with quality books.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist . Penguin Books, 1997.

Dickens and the Twentieth Century . Ed. J. Gross, and G. Pearson. University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Donelson, Kenneth, and Alleen Nilsen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults . 4th ed. HarperCollins, 1993.

Dunn, R. J. Oliver Twist: Whole Heart and Soul . Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work . Clarion, 1994.

Gissing, G. "Oliver Twist." In Oliver Twist . Ed. F. Kaplan. W. W. Norton & Company, 1993, no page number.

Huck, Charlotte, Susan Hepler, and Janet Hickman. Children’s Literature in the Elementary School. 5th ed. Harcourt Brace, 1993.

Levstik, Linda. "I Wanted To Be There: The Impact of Narrative on Children’s Historical Thinking." In The Story of Ourselves: Teaching History Through Children’s Literature. Eds. M. O. Tunnell and R. Ammon. Heinemann, 1992, pp. 65-77.

Many, Joyce. "The Effect of Reader Stance on Students’ Personal Understanding of Literature." In Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading . 4th ed. Eds. Robert Ruddell, Martha Ruddell, and Harry Singer. International Reading Association, 1994, pp. 653-667.

Meltzer, Milton. Cheap Raw Material . Viking, 1994.

Miller, J. Hillis. "Oliver Twist." In Oliver Twist . Ed. F. Kaplan. W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Nodelman, Perry. The Pleasures of Children’s Literature . Longman, 1992.

Paterson, Katherine. Lyddie . Lodestar Books, 1991.

"Relief." Dictionary of American History . Vol. 5. Charles Scribner’s Son, 1976.

Rosenblatt, Louise. "The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing." In Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading . 4th ed. Eds. Robert Ruddell, Martha Ruddell, and Harry Singer. International Reading Association, 1994, pp. 1057-1092.

Strauss, R. Dickens: The Man and the Book . Thomas Nelson and Sons LLD, 1936.

Sutcliff, Rosemary. "History Is People." In Children’s Literature: News and Reviews . Ed. V. Haviland. Scott Foresman, 1973, pp. 305-313.

Wills, Gary. "The Loves of Oliver Twist ." In Oliver Twist . Ed. F. Kaplan. W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Janis Harmon is an assistant professor in education at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Copyright 1998. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: . Harmon, Janis. (1998). " Lyddie and Oliver : Instructional Framework for Linking Historical Fiction to the Classics." The ALAN Review , Volume 25, Number 2, 16-20.

by TG