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…


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!


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.


Reviewed: “Death on the Prairie” by Kathleen Ernst

25212068.jpgHoly toboggans!

That’s sort of the catch phrase for Kathleen Ernst’s DEATH ON THE PRAIRIE, you see. Chloe Ellefson – the main character – never says it but goodness does her boyfriend Roelke McKenna seem to think toboggans are right up there with the Holy Grail.

It’s not a bad summary of the story either.

Chloe is a recently returned expat historian/curator, and that occupation combined with the Laura Ingalls Wilder hook, well, hooked me, who considers herself a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She wants nothing more than to… commune with Laura? So she packs up a quilt (because that’s the theme of the story… quilting) and her never-left-Wisconsin dairy farmer sister and sets off to tour the Laura Ingalls Wilder museums and sites, partly on the off chance said quilt might have been made by or belonged to Laura herself. And, holy toboggans, do things fall apart fast!

For one thing, somebody dies, or almost dies, at every site. Pepin, Burr Oak, DeSmet, Kansas, Mansfield… Chloe seems like a sort of Typhoid Mary, only deadlier. She doesn’t kill anyone (not a spoiler) but, holy toboggans, does she take every death personally. So painfully personally. Because of the quilt. I suppose.

For another thing, Chloe is perhaps the worst “superfan” known to fans. The poor girl gets hit with one revelation after another, about Laura! Chloe, who thought she’d “feel” Laura on the Kansas prairie because she knew her so well, did not know that the Ingalls’ lived in Iowa. She did not know that Laura was actually only two when the family lived in Kansas. She did not even know that Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder eventually settled in Missouri. And these bits of information Chloe collects on her trip shake her more than the deaths.

On a brief tangent, I have trouble understanding why Ernst felt the need to make Chloe so very uninformed about her passion. It was rage-inducing. They could have still tracked the history of the quilt to all the sites, though I suppose that would have made for a drier narrative if Chloe was constantly telling the reader things rather than Chloe and the reader being told together.

Maybe this wasn’t the book for me since I knew those things…

I digress. Holy toboggans, could I digress on this but I won’t.

Perhaps I would understand Chloe and her naivete better if I had read the first five books in this mystery series. I admit that. And it is why I stamped down my rage and finished the book. It worked out too, because the ending makes sense. It’s not the happiest, though I suspect because there are more Chloe Ellefson Mysteries to come, but it is right for what happens in the story.

And, I didn’t think I’d say this when I almost threw my Kindle across the room, there is a better than 50-50 chance that I will check out more of Chloe Ellefson.

(I received a copy of DEATH ON THE PRAIRIE through NetGalley in exchange for an honest and original review.)

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: “Pioneer Girl” by Bich Minh Nguyen

The first books I ever remember having read to me were the “Little House on the Prairie” series. The first chapter books I read on my own were the “Little House on the Prairie” series. I watched every episode of the television show and still know the plots of many of them, though they have little relation to the books I’ve read to the point of being dog-eared.

The point is, when I saw the cover of Bich Minh Nguyen’s PIONEER GIRL, I was hooked.

I wanted to be Laura growing up. Why wouldn’t I want to read about a girl who wanted to be Laura even though I’m a grownup?

The parallel that Nguyen uses with Lee, the main character, and real life Laura is genius. Lee is a first-generation American, born to Vietnamese immigrants after the Vietnam War. Lee is essentially a pioneer so it comes across as absolutely natural that she would identify with pioneer girl Laura. And that’s what this novel is about – searching for identity in the midst of preserving the identity of one’s family and one’s culture.

Lee’s mother demands a lot of her daughter and her son, and they both react differently and theyPioneer Girl both have trouble seeing the real motive behind her actions. Lee and Sam want to shed their Vietnamese nature and become something they see as fully American and essentially run-of-the-mill. Lee stretches truths, flat out lies, and blatantly hides from her mother even after she earns a PhD in literature. But at the same time, she is a dutiful enough daughter that she comes home to work in the family restaurant and isn’t naive enough to realize that a part of her deception stems from wanting to protect her mother from the harsh realities of American life, in part because her mother suffered so much in Vietnam and worked so hard to create a perfect world for her children.

This isn’t much different than Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her parents made decisions for her and made it clear she was meant to do certain things in life. She protected them by pretending she understood it, liked it, and was happy to do it. That wasn’t always true. And when she married a man ten years her senior, she left the family almost as soon as she could. That was rare then, really, so she, like Lee in modern day, was a pioneer girl and ends as a pioneer woman.

Nguyen has created an amazing cast of supporting characters for Lee’s; mother, brother, grandfather, best white friends, ex-lovers, new lovers. But Lee is supported too by her connection to the past, whether or not the pin her grandfather got in his Saigon cafe was from Rose Wilder Lane or not, and by Laura, Rose, Almanzo and the rest of the Ingalls family. Nguyen has written Lee into the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library – home of the Rose Wilder Lane papers, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, and various libraries in San Francisco. I’ve never been to any of those places, but they were described so well that I felt like I was.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about PIONEER GIRL is that I’m going to read the “Little House on the Prairie” series again. And it will be lovely.

(I received a copy of PIONEER GIRL through NetGalley and Penguin in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Book Tagging #1

I’ve done book tags here on this blog before. You know, the ones where you ask X number of blogs you follow to do the same tags? Well, my lovely friend Alix emailed me a themed book tag that she worked up and filled out so I’m posting my answers to her tag here.

Read it, if you like, and leave comments about what I answered and what I should have answered and what I should read to answer better. Better yet, please do copy this onto your own blog and answer the tags yourself. (Leave a link in the comments so I can see how you compare to me!).

It’s fun, I promise!

Playing With Your Emotions

Book that makes you happy: The Agnes Browne Trilogy by Brendan O’Carroll

I’m interpreting ‘happy’ to mean laughing, smiling happy… not just satisfying. And these three books made me happy. Even though they deal with serious issues of death and illness, Agnes Browne still makes me laugh. She’s a traditional Irish lady with an often accidentally dirty sense of humor. The books make me happy even more because my grandparents borrowed them from me and loved them and my grandmother even told her cancer doctor about the scene where Agnes and her friend Marion debate whether or not they’ve ever had “organisms” while in bed with their husbands!

Book that makes you sad: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

You know those books that make you cry so hard you can’t see the pages? This is that book and so much more. It’s more sad because it’s so real, even though it’s fiction. You just know that thousands upon thousands of people went through what Stephen and all the other soldiers in the story actually went through in the trenches of World War I.

Book that makes you angry: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I wanted to love this book and for 900 pages I did. Then there were another 40 or so pages and I hated it. Lisbeth deserved so much more than the crap-tacular ending she got in the first book in the series. Blomkvist was pretty much a pompous idiot but he treated her alright. But after building Lisbeth to be a dark, tortured soul who relies on no own but herself, having her skip happily into the sunset was just wrong.

Book that makes you nostalgic: Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

My fifth grade teacher read this to us and I can officially call it the second series I was addicted too. I made my sister and my cousin read the book and watch the movie, after my teacher showed us the movie. They didn’t like it as much as me but… I still reread the books.

Book that makes you scared: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Yes, these books are futuristic, post-apocalyptic fiction but… it could be real! Think about it. Monster storms washing away coastlines. Check. Famines and droughts across wide swatches of the earth. Check. Super rich people trying desperately to consolidate power and keep anyone in the 99% from getting any power. Check. Warring hotspots all over the world. Check. Threats of nuclear war. Check! Long story short… so scary.

Book that makes you surprised: The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

I entered a Goodreads giveaway for this book having only seen anything about it in passing. I just wanted to win a free book. And I did. I am still surprised by how much I love a book about an old man in the Pacific Northwest who wants nothing more than to do right by the people he cares about.

Book that makes you disappointed: Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer

This book spends 500 pages building up to a battle of pure good vs. pure evil. The battle never happens. Why? Because Stephenie Meyer couldn’t kill someone she might want to use in a story later. She should have left the battle out entirely. Because a long, drawn out conversation and everyone happily running off to have sex does not a happy, satisfying end make.

Book that makes you distressed: A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

Not a lot of happy, uplifting stuff happened during World War II. Facts are facts. It isn’t that stuff that we hear about. But Russell’s book is about that. It’s about a group of people fighting with everything they have to do know more than simply survive. And they should get to. But it’s real because they don’t all get to. The deaths in the book are poetic and beautiful as much as they are heartbreaking and distressing… even the fifth time through the book.

Book that makes you confused: most books by Stephen King and Dean Koontz

My mind just does not work like their minds do. It’s a shame because if I could write like them I’d be rolling money. I’ve finished two King books… Under the Dome and 11/22/63… and am still confused by 11/22/63. The other King books I’ve started… I quit them all because I got too confused.

Book that makes you grateful: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Little House on the Prairie: I love to read because of Little House. I remember being little and sitting on the couch with my mom while she read the Little House books to me. Those books made me want to learn to read. So I did. Haven’t looked back since.

Twilight: Make fun of Twilight all you will but there are awesome people who love those books, people who I would not know if I wasn’t entirely and hopelessly addicted to Twilight and the fandom it’s created.