Putting the History in historical fiction

Blame it all on Laura Ingalls Wilder.

My addiction to historical fiction, that is. Blame it on Little House on the Prairie and all the books that followed it. My mom read me the books as I learned to read and they were the first chapter books I read on my own. I still have the same copies as I did when I was little, because well-worn books are well-loved books. Obviously. In any case, I spent some lovely early childhood years wishing I lived on the prairie. Mostly. I don’t like bugs and playing catch with pigs’ bladders filled air just seemed… no. I do admit to being a tv fiend as well, so I was definitely influenced by the reruns of Little House on the Prairie that I watched whenever I was allowed.

Huh. Now that I think about it, that was my first book-to-screen adaptation experience. I like that.

Anyway, the thing that naturally happens after when finishes being a child is that one is an adult who understands things just a little bit better. Sometimes not much at all, but a little bit. This happened to me.

It turned out that I don’t just love little girls on prairies in the second half of the 19th century, especially ones who grow up to marry the man they love. Possibly Almanzo Wilder was my first book boyfriend before I knew what a book boyfriend was, even though he’d been dead for forty-plus years. I was too young to know that, or care! Oh but for that simpler time…

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But I digress. It turned out that I love all history. Just the word history makes me happy. I have a degree in it, for pete’s sake. And I (still) love to read. So, finding myself an adult in need of something to read, I feel page over spine in love with the genre of Historical Fiction. Though, in retrospect, I realized I’d already read a lot of the stuff – Little House and Anne of Green Gables (Gilbert Blythe was definitely my true first book boyfriend, and he was fictional!) to name just two. But Historical Fiction is definitely my addiction and I am not sorry about it. Show me a cover with a castle or some bygone era fashion and I’ll read the jacket, or jacket equivalent if I’m online. If the jacket and summary make it fairly clear there will be no iPhones or Teslas in the story, I’ll probably give the book a try. If it so much as looks like World War II, the American West, or Tudor England… count me in!

Totally addicted.

But this particular genre is not without it’s drawbacks, as I’m sure anyone who has a favorite genre will say. You see, when you love something, you tend to know a lot about it. And when you know a lot about something, you tend to get annoyed when someone gets it wrong. And when someone gets it wrong in a book you want to love, you tend to want to throw the book out the window.

I love history. So I know things like the fact that the Union Pacific Railroad was completed, thus making the first transcontinental railroad, in 1869. It’s an important part of American history, you see. So when I recently found myself reading a novel about the Japanese internment camps in America during World War II that, apparently for the simple sake of making on character able to have worked on said railroad because… reasons, moved the date to 1895, or later. That’s a twenty-six year difference, or more, because the character says in 1942 that he came to America, then got a job with the Union Pacific as a cook, and was there when the two lines met. And the author wrote him as in his early 20s when he came to America so… he would literally not have have been born when the lines met!

(Incidentally, I do admit that pretty much the only time I’m willing to do math is when I’m figuring out history. Sorry not sorry.)

The author of that book did preface the book by saying that she shortened distances between places (thankfully not between Japan and the United States… just towns in Wyoming) and moved dates around. A little. She said it was just a little. Twenty-six years is not a little!

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This is an example of the problem with the genre I love. I used this example because that book and it’s inaccuracies are still on my mind. Because I wanted to read that book. Badly. I didn’t, and that’s on me and my… issues with the genre I love so much it ends up being a love-hate relationship. I don’t think I’m the only one with this book lover problem. I hope.

I do get that these books are meant to be fiction, that drowning a book in facts and details and minutiae is not going to make for a compelling novel. There has to be some adherence to actual history, though. Doesn’t there?

Every article on writing advice and tips says to write what you know. That applies here as much as anywhere. Write the historical fiction (because I want to read it) but keep the history true. Don’t change history to fit your characters, change your characters to fit history. Don’t write that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon 1989 because you want your millennial computer geek to have created a program for Apollo 11 with Mark Zuckerberg. It happened in 1969. Write about someone who created a program in 1969 and leave Mark Zuckerberg out of it.*

The sum of it is that historical fiction should be true to history. Invent characters and places, sure. But – for example…

  • don’t write a novel about the Civil War and leave out the gruesome details of slavery because it is not politically correct today – those details are history
  • don’t have World War II end when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 – it did not end then, anything else is alternative history and
  • (most importantly) don’t pick what you want to be true about your character and twist history to fit it – work harder on your character instead

And now I will step off my soapbox and go find a historical fiction novel to read. Anybody got any suggestions?

*I know of no books that combine Neil Armstrong and Mark Zuckerberg. I just made that up for the sake of examples.

“A Want of Kindness” by Joanne Limburg

33271065If I have a weakness when it comes to books, a fail-safe fallback genre, it is historical fiction. Specifically historical fiction based on queens and kings. Specifically based on queens and kings of England. Show me a queen on a cover or in a blurb and I will read that book.

It is not, therefore, at all surprising that I was excited to read Joanne Limburg’s A WANT OF KINDNESS.

To make it even more appealing, her story is centered on Queen Anne of England. Queen Anne, if you don’t know, is not like either Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Queen Mary, or the wives of Henry VIII who were queens who did not rule. Queen for only five years, her reign was neither glamorous nor marked by controversy nor long enough to qualify for Hollywood films. She was the second oldest daughter of King James II and she succeeded the William III, who had ruled jointly with her sister, Mary. She was the last monarch from the House of Stuart, as she died childless. Childless despite at least seventeen pregnancies and only one child, a son, surviving as far as age 11. She was married from 1677 until her husband’s death in 1708. So her story is one of tragedy, on the whole, and yet the beauty of a reportedly loving marriage despite so much tragedy.

This, perhaps not surprisingly, does not make the sort of thing Hollywood believes it can make money on. And, to be honest, it probably can’t.

It’s really too bad.

I first learned about Queen Anne in my college English history class, and even the professor talked about seventeen pregnancies and no children. And then we moved quickly on, because Queen Victoria was coming after some Georges. I have thought about her sometimes since, wanting to know more but never wanting it badly enough to search out a biography. I’m a terrible history buff sometimes!

But this book, this fictionalized account of Queen Anne’s life from her childhood to her ascension, is really quite incredible. Possibly because, despite not having the glitz, glamour, intrigue, and longevity of the more famous queens, she lived in an incredible time. She was at the center of religious upheaval. She had seen her father, her uncle, and her grandfather struggle in their reigns. She witnessed wars with France and Spain and the Netherlands.

So Limburg’s fictionalized account Anne’s life is not what can usually be read about queens and kings. The intrigue is not romantic. She never had affairs, though it could be argued from her letters – actual things Anne wrote that Limburg uses to illustrate the story – that she had something bordering on romantic love for Sarah Churchill. She tried to do good, for herself and her family, for her country, and for all. And she succeeded, most of the time, even if it never really seems like it. And the reason it never really seems like it is because she never gets her happy ending. Never gets the things she wants more than any other.

Queen Anne deserves more recognition as an important part of British history. She truly is one of the most tragic, yet interesting rulers of England I have read about. And Limburg’s portrayal makes her all the more fascinating and charismatic.

If you have a weakness for this genre, and don’t mind a distinct lack of bursting corsets and illicit rendezvous in shadowy corners, this book is a definite Must Read.

(I received a copy of A WANT OF KINDNESS through NetGalley and Pegasus Books in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“The Young Widower’s Handbook” by Tom McAllister

The first chapter of Tom McAllister’s THE YOUNG WIDOWER’S HANDBOOK is quite possibly one of the most beautiful, romantic things I have ever read. It left me breathless. And not in the euphemistic, overdramatic sort of way. I was actually breathless.

It’s hard to review books like this, books that make you feel so much more than you ever expected to feel. Nothing seems to quite say enough good things about something that was so much more than simply good.

But we have to try so…

THE YOUNG WIDOWER’S HANDBOOKS is the story of Hunter Cady’s journey from slightly aimless young man to devoted husband to grieving widower to slightly more aimless slightly older man.

That summary seems cold and even harsh but it is a proper summary. Hunter wasn’t quite sure where he fit in the world until he met Kait. Kait loved him and he found his place. And then Kait died and Hunter was lost again.

Slightly more romantic summary, yes? Tragic too.

But McAllister tells the story with power and emotional and an intensity that can’t adequately be described secondhand. It’s one of the books where you read it, someone asks how it was and the only good answer is “oh god, you have to read it too!”

Which feels 100% like a cheat on this my book review blog but… what can you do? Oh, I know! Read the book!

This will be my final attempt at telling you about this story…

Kait Cady dies before she turns 30. Left adrift without the one person who made him feel alive, Hunter cannot bring himself let her go in the ways that everyone else thinks he should let her go. So, with her life insurance check in the bank, he takes her ashes on a cross-country trip that they’d meant to take one day. It’s all an attempt to hold onto her, to keep her in his life. That it can never work makes the story all the more heartbreaking and beautiful. That he learns, over the weeks of the trip, that maybe everything wasn’t perfect in their marriage, in their lives makes the story all the more heartbreaking, beautiful, and real. That none of this changes how much he loved her makes the story perfect.

(I received a copy of THE YOUNG WIDOWER’S HANDBOOK through NetGalley and Algonquin books in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.)

“You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)” by Felicia Day

I loved this book for some very important reasons:

1. Not to brag (and really, I’m not!) but Felicia Day and I are almost the same age so her discovery of the wonders of the internet, of being able to not be weird because there are like-minded people on the internet, of getting lost in the worlds of the internet kind of basically mirrors my own. I mean, I’m not internet-famous, Hollywood-famous and no one is going to read my memoirs (yet! we’ll go with that, ha!). I’m not a gamer. I know some of the things she references because of just paying attention on the internet.

2. My vice is fandoms of the YA book series variety and, honestly, I have met some of the best friends I will ever have through finding a shared love of Twilight (yes, Twilight… shush, haters). I’ve never met them in person but I’ve been talking to them for years (and years is far longer than I’ve talked basically anyone I knew in school). And that’s okay.

3. I’m introverted enough to need someone to occasionally say that all this is okay. To say “me too!” And that is basically what I found myself saying over and over as I read Felicia Day’s book. “Me too!” It felt darn good!

I don’t usually read memoirs because I don’t… get them. Not unless you’re like eighty and solved world hunger or something. But people my age or younger, writing books about their lives? I generally say “you do you, I’m gonna read that book over there instead” because… I don’t know, maybe it makes me feel unaccomplished. Maybe it’s jealousy. Who can say? The point is, I was very pleasantly surprised by this. It was almost like she was as startled to be writing the book as I was to be reading it. That’s a good thing.

And, in the best sense of irony, I bought and read this book because one of those best of friends I met on fanfiction.net and Twitter through a shared love of Twilight who told me I would like this book. And I loved it! So thanks, everybody!

“Mad Miss Mimic” by Sarah Henstra

I freakin’ love this book! And I am so sad it only took me two days to read it! I’m going to read it again, no doubt about it.

But onto the details first…

Sarah Henstra’s MAD MISS MIMIC is about one Leonora Sommerville who lives in Hastings House with her sister and her doctor brother-in-law in Victorian era London. Leo, as she prefers to be called is seventeen and her older sister is desperately trying to marry her off despite the facts that she suffers from selective mutism, stuttering, and outbursts of mimicry. Naturally, Dr. and Mrs. Dewhurst decide the bad doctor’s business partner, the future Lord Rosbury, is the perfect match for the unmarried sister – he needs a pretty wife who won’t say much, after all.

This does not work out, for anyone.

As you might expect.

Dr. Dewhurst is perfecting the art of morphine, on the poor of London who suffer terribly at his hands, while keeping his wife dosed up on laudanum. The future Lord Rosbury is arguing for a ban on opium after getting very rich already on importing opium into England. Leo figures she really ought to get married to someone who doesn’t mind her speech problems, of which her sister is absolutely horrible about, so she resigns herself to a life as Lady Rosbury.

But then…

Somebody keeps blowing things up in London and killing people, all related to the potential opium ban. And Leo begins to suspect that Dr. Dewhurst and her future husband isn’t all it seems on the surface. So, with the help of Tom – the lockpick, pickpocket, mechanical genius who is working against the partnership already, she begins to investigate.

And the twist there? Tom loves Leo and Leo loves Tom.

All the wrong social circles, though, of course.

But there is drama, there is suspense, there is medicine, there is mystery, there is history, there is romance, there is angst, there is love… and everybody should read this book!

(I received a copy of MAD MISS MIMIC through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Even In Darkness” by Barbara Stark-Nemon

I’m a sucker for World War II fiction. There really isn’t any other way to put it. That being said, I was very excited to get into Barbara Stark-Nemon’s EVEN IN DARKNESS. The story she writes is one of those tricky historical fiction ones that are based on actual events, in this case her great-aunt Klare’s experiences during World War I, World War II, and the years in between.

This balance, I’ve learned from reading a lot of these books, can be delicate because the author must keep true to historical fact, keep true to the characters who were real and who were important, and keep a narrative going that makes everyone want to keep reading.

Stark-Nemon does that well in this story.

The places her great-aunt existed, including Thereseinstadt, are described in ways that I have read them described before but not with the intense detail that might leave the narrative lacking. The focus is kept solely, for the most part, on Klare Kohler and what she sees as she goes from an eighteen year old girl with the world at her fingertips to a survivor of Nazi death camps and beyond.

Honestly, the thing I wanted more from the story was a longer, more detailed note at the end. Stark-Nemon referenced her family and how they survived but she didn’t mention Ansel Beckmann, the Catholic priest who figured so heavily in the story and who I am not sure was even real, or details on Bernhardt Steinmann and Melisande Durr, who were heroes in the story. I want to know more about them. So, basically, I want a non-fiction accounting of this story too.

And that, it seems, makes it an excellent book.

“Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue

I didn’t realize I managed to read Imbolo Mbue’s BEHOLD THE DREAMERS just three days but, apparently, I did. Thanks for keeping track, Goodreads addiction of mine!

I think I didn’t realize because I got lost so fast and so hard in this fantastic story of what America means to those who are born here and to those who come here. It seemed like I spent weeks in the fictional lives of Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian illegal immigrant, and Clark Edwards, a high powered Wall Street man, as they traverse the uncertain world just before the and just after the 2008 economic recession. And it seemed wholly appropriate to start the book, left too long on my to-read list, just after recent events made news.

I think I appreciated Mbue’s novel more because I read it when I did. I didn’t mean to read a politically, socially relevant to current events story. I meant to read a book by a POC for the reading challenge I’m doing. I accomplished both and I could not be more pleased with it.

Mbue is an immigrant to America from Limbe, Cameroon – the hometown she gives Jende and Neni Jonga – who now lives in New York City. This makes the story that much richer, because she tells a story of her people, a story she knows. And I feel more educated for it. My favorite kind of fictional book is the one that teaches me something and this book taught me a lot.

It isn’t always an easy read. I found myself wanting to shout at Jende for how he treats his wife, Neni. I wanted to hate Clark Edwards because I do not like the power of Wall Street. But… when I sat back and thought about it, none of that made sense. Jende’s chauvinistic, domineering, my-way-or-the-highway persona is… real. Not being a Cameroonian immigrant, I completely trust Mbue on this. The way he treats Neni, as though he is lord of all things, and the way he is subservient to Clark Edwards to an extreme, as though he truly believes Clark is his better, is no doubt indicative of how immigrants straddle two worlds when they come to America. And Clark, though he is one of the main power players at Lehman Brothers, has motivations for working constantly and not seeing his family enough and his motivations are his family. He’s doing what he knows how to do, straddling two worlds as he tries to be two men. I have to imagine, not being a rich New Yorker, that his is not an uncommon, yet human struggle among families there.

I am so glad I read this book and I encourage everyone to read it too. It’s so important and so good.

And now I want to try Cameroonian food too, after Mbue’s mouth-wateringly vivid descriptions!

(I received a copy of BEHOLD THE DREAMERS through NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)