Historical Fiction: Discover New Truths in the Past

From Writers Digest:

We have lost the anchor of our history. Our past has become almost unrecognizable in the public forum as it constantly gets reshaped to fit new political paradigms. In many contexts, history seems more of a marketing tool than a truth. But even before it became a ball tossed between ideologues, history had suffered a slow suffocation in our classrooms.

Our texts had turned it into an arid wasteland of charts, statistics, and timelines, a world populated with stick figures and scarecrows as if we had commissioned a team of accountants to reduce our amazing story to a handful of PowerPoint slides. Students lost interest. Schools dropped history from their curricula.

As a result, today’s graduates have far less knowledge of history than their counterparts a generation ago. History has become just a distant, hazy backdrop to most of us. We can do better, and our ancestors deserve better. Historical novels are the antidote to our historical apathy.

. . . .

If you want to truly grasp our history, you have to understand that, as David McCullough succinctly put it, “nobody lived in the past”—because everyone always lived in their present. That is the first step in engaging with our past on a human level.

Modern history texts give us the impression that the lives of humans were driven by social and political movements, by macro trends, as if individuals consulted some master plan at each step in their lives, structured according to captions such as “Industrialization,” “Western expansion,” or “Great Depression.” But history doesn’t happen at that macro level; it is the result of millions of individual humans acting at the micro-level, living in their present.

I feel a meaningful connection with my great grandmother not because the texts tell me she came of age in the period characterized as Reconstruction, but because I know she was the valedictorian of her high school class, had an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile, and later in life lost a four-year-old son to diphtheria.

Knowing the labels applied to their respective spans on earth does nothing to bring me close to my eight great grandparents. What breathes life into them is my knowledge of their personal journeys, their achievements, and tragedies, experiencing them in their human dimensions. The great strength of historical fiction is that it offers us this human connection to the past.

. . . .

Historical fiction helps us to understand the past as a mosaic of individual lives, and ultimately brings us to the realization that these past lives are separated from our own not so much by aspirations, appetites, and ambitions as by technology and time. We all swim in the same ocean of humanity, and before long, we ourselves will be in someone’s past. If we truly want to engage in that human journey, we need to digest its facts but then sink our teeth into its truths.

Nowhere is the difference between fact and truth more aptly reflected than in comparing the study of the past as offered by historical technicians and historical novelists. Historical novels can provide a profoundly deeper bond with the participants of our past than that offered by classroom texts. The text starts and stops with facts. The well-done historical novel builds upon facts to lead us to truths.

These novels quickly teach us that the people of the past should not be treated as strangers. They experienced the same joys and tragedies, they laughed, and they cried for the same reasons we do today. Many of them engaged in staggering adventures and endured adversities we would consider unspeakable today.

Link to the rest at Writers Digest

One of Mrs. PG’s graduate school professors told her the best introduction to the study of a particular historical era was often a historical novel set in that period.

9 thoughts on “Historical Fiction: Discover New Truths in the Past”

  1. The text starts and stops with facts. The well-done historical novel builds upon facts to lead us to truths.

    Thank God we are limited to neither texts nor fiction in studying history. There are lots of history books that do not fall in the category of texts.

  2. I’ve always thought that the best introduction to any particular time or place is a well-written novel accurately set there. Then you can build & expand upon that with non-fiction material to give context to the human lives you’ve already met.

    There are just too many discrete times and places — you can’t rely on the student knowing what came just before, or what the neighboring places are doing. Nothing beats a local context as a starting place.

    • Most well-written historic fiction also tends to immerse you in the time and place in a way that is less common in nonfiction.

  3. I prefer to read novels written in the time I am curious about. Historical novels always seem to me to be written about the time in which the book was written, not the time the novel is set in. The author emphasizes what they understand to be important, but the importance is defined by their current experience, not the experience of the time they are writing about.

    Reading old books sometimes is hard, but you learn something about the time the novel was written and something about the current time by seeing how it is different, and similar.

    I’m not saying that historical novels can’t be good; I’ve found some fascinating, but when I compare them to the books I read written in the time of the novel’s setting, I see different worlds.

    • You raise an interesting point, Marv. But it is, of course, very restrictive in that the novel was not invented until the late-14th century or so. Consequently, no novels written in the time of the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, et al. And, naturally, nothing during the time of Neanderthals (my current interest), as there was no writing in any form, much less a “book.”

      Historical fiction, when done right, provides a wonderful portal to the past.

      • The ancient world had prose fiction. I don’t know if they’re officially called novels by whomever said “Robinson Crusoe” or “Pamela” was the first, but Lucian of Samosota and Heliodorus — the one who wrote “The Aethiopica” — both wrote long-form stories that weren’t in poem form. As opposed to the epic poetry of the Argonautica or Homer. Lucian’s “True History” is counted as science fiction (the characters visit the moon). Lucian was 1st century AD, Heliodorus of Emesa was 2nd or 3rd. Rome was definitely still a thing in either case 🙂

        I like a combination of stories from the era in question — and I’ll accept epic poetry, because why not? And fiction set in the era by those who have studied it, and also straight up history in narrative form (Xenophon’s Anabasis would count in that case). Humans are primed to go with stories, and to me the best histories are written that way.

  4. I misspoke when I limited myself to novels. Like Jamie, I read a lot of old literature that is not strictly novels. In my miss-spent youth, I studied classic Chinese literature and history and learned to read classical Chinese a little. I still enjoy reading books like the Tso Chuan, a chronicle of the 8th through the 5th century BCE, probably written in the 4th century BCE. Also classical Chinese novels from the 14th and 15th centuries. I found it all so strange, so different and yet so similar to my childhood on a farm homesteaded by my grandfather. I’ve never lost my taste for the sense of disorientation when I notice something that is completely different from what I am used to. For example, the Chinese concept of T’ien, usually translated as Heaven, was so different from the Lutheran and Calvinist tradition I was raised in, it caused me to rethink many things.

    I get the same kind of kick out of reading much more accessible stuff. An online reading group I participate in is reading Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm, written in about 1860. Basically, a novel about a disputed will, which is raising all sorts of questions in my head about how justice was determined in 19th century Britain.

    It’s not that historical novels and books about history are bad, but reading them is a different experience from reading old books from unfamiliar places.

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