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.

“Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History” by Bill Schutt


I don’t remember exactly why seeing Bill Schutt’s CANNIBALISM: A PERFECTLY NATURAL HISTORY on NetGalley made me think “ooh, I need to read that book” but I requested it. I got it. I added it to my To Be Read list. And I didn’t read it. But then… I decided to do a reading challenge for 2017 (and by “do a reading challenge” I do mean “attempt and probably fail a reading challenge”) and events went sort of like this…

I scanned the list of categories to assign books, because when you feel overwhelmed by something you chose to do you should always make it more complicated. I saw the category “A Book About Food.” I remembered that I had an ARC of Bill Schutt’s book on cannibalism. I stopped looking for other books on food.

It was a good match.

And it became a perfect match after I read the book.

Truth be told, I liked this book so much family and friends got tired of me telling them about it. I have no regrets about continuing to tell them about it, even as and partly because they proved some of Schutt’s points about cannibalism being a taboo that still brings out strong opinions – like my pregnant sister being very defensive over the idea that breastfeeding might be a form of cannibalism.

But talking about books is what makes them worth reading, in my humble opinion. And I refused to be swayed from that.

One of the odder things about the book, however, is that I found the first half, the half about cannibalism in the animal kingdom far more interesting than the part of the book about human and human related cannibalism. I think that may be because the human part focused so heavily on BSE (Mad Cow Disease) and the kuru that affected the Fore tribe of New Guinea. That was an awful lot of science for the non-science mind that I possess. Chromosomes and genetics and adapted virus are just… 

I like history so the explanations, more in depth than I’ve read before, of Christopher Columbus and how he maybe turned the larger part of the Caribbean and Central America into would-be cannibals because he found no gold to speak of and needed to make money on heathen cannibal slaves were perfect for my history mind.

And the story about how former President George H.W. Bush narrowly escaped being food… I did not know that!

What made the still science-y part of animal kingdom cannibalism readable and enjoyable to a lay person like me was Schutt’s jokes, self-deprecating humor, and editorial asides on everything. it made a book that could be required reading for a college biology course fun. And it made me kind of, whatever that says about me, obsessed with the topic. 

Not that I’m about to start cooking up my neighbors. I like the history of it, the clear and logical explanations for it as survival, and the way it was presented.

I am so glad I requested this book and I think it fits perfectly a a “Book About Food”!

(I received an advance copy of this book through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “A Cool and Lonely Courage: The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France” by Susan Ottaway

World War II is one of the most written about parts of human history. Acts of heroism, acts of madness, acts of sacrifice, acts of survival… it is all covered in every aspect of the written word, fiction and non-fiction. And yet Susan Ottaway has managed to find something, someone whose story has never really been told. And that is the basis for A Cool and Lonely Cocurage: The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France.

The sisters are Jacqueline and Eileen “Didi” Nearne, born to British parents and raised in France. When the Nazis invaded France, the sisters wanted to help the war effort however they could so they travelled to England, where they held citizenship. Jacqueline was the first to find true work for the war effort, joining the SOE and training as a agent who would be sent to France to work against German interests. Older than Didi, Jacqueline made deals to keep her sister out of France while she went to work as a courier and an organizer.

Didi wanted to go to France.

And she went, working as a wireless operator until she was eventually captured by the Gestapo and taken through a variety of work and concentration camps.

Ottaway tells the story of sisters, in its simplest form. The older sister wants to protect the younger sister. The younger sister looks up to the older sister. She tells the story of war, of an almost inexplicable desire to fight and to be a part of eventual victory. She tells the story of survival, of living through more than ever thought possible and yet never being the same again.

Ottaway’s book does contain a lot of facts, dates, and details. But the balance she gives with the story of humanity is perfect. Reading about the organizational structure of the SOE headquarters in London and a half dozen circuits scattered throughout France could be cumbersome but it is not. Not when the people come alive on the page and when their very lives are on the line.

This book is a must-read for any student of World War II history.

(I received a copy of A Cool and Lonely Courage through the Goodreads First Reads giveaway program and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “The Train to Crystal City” by Jan Jarboe Russell

25250241.jpgMore attention needs to to be paid to the part of American history that Jan Jarboe Russell details in her exquisitely researched and written THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY.

That Japanese, Japanese-Americans, Germans, German-Americans, Italians, and Italian-Americans were interned in camps in the United States during World War II is a generally known fact. And if you know a little bit more about it, you know that the conditions were harsh and that the government has more or less apologized for it. But Pearl Harbor had been attacked, so the Japanese on the West Coast were suspect. And Hitler was known to be trying to infiltrate America, so the Germans were suspect.

On the face of it, makes sense. The real world implications and cause and effect make sense.

Until they don’t.

Until you realize that little of it was fair, that FDR and Earl Warren and Francis Biddle – now seen as heroic paragons of American virtue and pride and civil rights – acted in ways so very much against those principles. They did it out of fear, which is ironic given that FDR is so very well-known for “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It was fear that led him to order everyone, based on little more than the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and the spelling of their names to be rounded up and put in camps in the harshest climates in America.

All of that sounds eerily familiar if you know anything about the early days of Nazism, before the extermination.

Jan Jarboe Russell focuses on Crystal City, a Texas camp that held up to 4,000 at one time. Crystal City was special because families lived there. There were houses and there were schools and hospitals and even a camp swimming pool. But the Japanese and German families could not leave because their fathers were considered enemies of America because they had been born in Germany and Japan. Some of them were dangerous. Most were not. But the American government wanted to rescue Americans caught in Japanese and German territory and the way to do that, as they saw it, was to exchange people. So they told the men that if their wives and children, American born children who counted as citizens of the USA, volunteered to come to the camps, they could live as a family. The volunteers could not leave. The volunteers were meant to be repatriated, whether they wanted it or now, back to Germany and Japan.

Focusing on the experiences of Sumi, a Japanese teenager in Crystal City, and Ingrid, a German teenager, the book uses them as examples of how the all-American children of immigrants went from hope and happiness to internment and fear. Sumi was returned to Japan after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ingrid was returned to Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. Their fathers wanted to go, they went because their fathers said so, their fathers saw no other option, and their fathers regretted it in the end.

The heroes of this story, this particular part of American history, are not FDR and the leaders who “won” World War II. The heroes are the people who kept their dignity when others tried very hard to take it from them. The heroes are the people who were told what to be, told that they failed at it, told what to do, and still came back to be good and do good.

All of this seems even more appropriate to read today, as so many people would have us fear and exclude all Muslims because a few have been bad. It makes me wonder if this is a part of history we really want to repeat?

(I received a copy of THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY through NetGalley and Scribner in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas” by Alison Weir

59.jpgI love Tudor history.

I love reading about the women who lived in the Tudor era.

I have read other books by Alison Weir about the Tudor era, so I was excited to be able to read The Lost Tudor Princess… and then I remembered the trouble with reading Alison Weir’s books about the Tudor era… they are long and they have a tendency to read sort of like Weir found old lists stuffed in faded books in dusty libraries and turned them into paragraphs. Which is probably a part of what happens when writing about someone this far removed from modern day history and not as well known as, say, Anne Boleyn.

However, pages upon pages of what kind of fabric Henry VIII sent to his niece for Christmas after Christmas and how much he paid for them is, while interesting, not the most exciting thing to read about. Especially not when Lady Margaret Douglas was a very interesting figure who did not necessarily live a life wholly consumed by clothes and jewels. She was involved in countless intrigues, some of which would seem to make Anne Boleyn pale in comparison. Weir does write about those… she just has a tendency to drift back into “and the curtains were purple” or other such things that, while describing life in Tudor England, seem vaguely out of place in what she wants to be the biography of a daughter, niece, cousin, sister, and mother-in-law to the kings and queens who ruled England and Scotland.

I tried to read this book for six weeks. I am giving up now because… maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the moment, but I just can’t do it. I’ll probably go back to it eventually, because it is a good, incredibly well-researched book. When I get over my fear of lists of fabrics…

I received a copy of The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas through NetGalley and Random House – Ballantine in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

Reviewed: “The Queen of Heartbreak Trail: The Life and Times of Harriet Smith Pullen, Pioneering Woman” by Eleanor Phillips Brackbill

49.jpgIt’s hard to find biographies of pioneer women so I requested Eleanor Phillips Brackbill’s biography of her great-grandmother, Harriet Smith Pullen, the moment I saw it.

It should be noted that the title is a bit deceiving in that about a third of the book is more a biography of her father and only about a third has anything to do with Heartbreak Trail, the path that led gold miners to the Klondike during the gold rush there.

That being said, it is a fascinating story that Brackbill tells, one based on A.J. Smith’s diaries, court documents involving Harriet and her husband, and interviews Harriet and her children did in later years.

Other reviews compare it to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie series but it’s much more… adult and unvarnished than those books. Harriet’s father pushed religion on everyone he met, rued the fact that Native Americans would be better of if only they were Christian, made his wife and eight children move again and again (often living in sod houses or shacks) because he decided actual laws were too hard to follow and he could start again and make his own rules. When Harriet grew up, by all accounts, she and her husband – a fur trader in the Pacific Northwest – treated the Quileute Indians horribly, to the point that the Indian agent in the area lobbied for them, the white settlers, to be removed from the land and expelled, I suppose, from the Olympic Peninsula. And this was at a time that the government was trying to force the Quileutes onto a reservation. Harriet and her husband had more problems than that and she went to Alaska at the start of the gold rush there, manipulating everything she could to make a new life in the fairly lawless land.

Harriet Smith Pullen was not perfect. She was not the paragon of law and order and civility. But she was a woman who really made herself the queen of her domain, whichever domain she chose in that moment, and that took courage, determination, and grit. Even if the results aren’t necessarily what we approve of today.

I’d rate the book higher but Brackbill lets the story lag in a few places, veering off into tangents that don’t relate in an obvious way to Harriet’s world and getting bogged down in details. That being said, perhaps the most compelling part of the story was the in-depth history of the Quileute Nation, something I knew about only because I, like so many others, read and loved TWILIGHT.

(I received a copy of THE QUEEN OF HEARTBREAK TRAIL through NetGalley and Rowman & Littlefield in exchange for an honest and original review.)

Reviewed: “The Winter People” by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter PeopleGhosts, history, hauntings, dark magic, and the living dead?

That’s what you get in Jennifer McMahon’s THE WINTER PEOPLE.

These sorts of books can be tricky, the supernatural sort that go back and forth between present day and long, long ago but McMahon handles it brilliantly. Each story could stand alone. Each story does stand alone. And, for once, the switching doesn’t irritate, it makes you want to read each part more. There is no skimming of Sara and Gertie’s story to get to Alice and Ruthie’s or vice versa. You will read both and you will read both closely.

You will wonder if McMahon can possibly tie both faintly fantastical stories together in a believable conclusion that satisfies on all counts.

She can. And she does.

It’s almost Halloween, and this is the perfect Halloween book, though it takes place in January…