Friday, January 15, 2010

History As It Was, and History As It Is Remembered

(Here's another post from the other blog - June 11, 2009)
I'm reading a young adult book about the Civil War right now, and I came across something last night that brought up an issue I think writers of historical fiction may have to consider. The first-person narrator of the book noted that the newspapers were filled with news about the proclamation Abraham Lincoln had made freeing the slaves. This gave me one of those "Now, wait a minute..." moments because the date in the book was in the fall of 1862, just after the battle of Antietam, and I thought I remembered from my history classes in school that the Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863. I thought, "Surely this author CAN'T have made such a careless error???!!!"

This morning I decided to look it up. What I found was that Lincoln originally put forth the Proclamation as a sort of ultimatum - the states had until January 1, 1863 to rejoin the Union or all their slaves would be freed. The second order, issued on January 1, 1863, specified 10 Southern states in which the slaves would be freed. So the author was more right than my history classes. But my point is, what if I were too lazy to check the facts? I would have continued reading this book with a reduced suspension of disbelief, believing it was the author who had things wrong, not me.

That leads me to my issue for writers to consider. To what degree do we have to adapt to readers' understanding of history? Sometimes popular culture (and that includes education) has simplified things to make it easier to remember and to deal with the plethora of facts that make up not only American history, but world history. The Emancipation Proclamation WAS issued in the fall of 1862; however, it technically didn't take effect until none of the states met the ultimatum, which happened in 1863. So, instead of taking time to offer the more nuanced version of the events, my teachers told us the Proclamation came out in 1863. I memorized the fact for a test, and I'm sure I passed (I liked history class!). I felt pretty proud of myself since that bit of information has stayed with me for 30 years--until I found out what really happened.

Do I blame my teachers for giving me a dumbed-down version of the events leading to the Emancipation Proclamation? I don't know. It must be tough to try to cram 400+ years of human events into a year-long course, and that's just American history. Add to that difficulty the fact that most students, unlike me, aren't especially motivated to care about history, and I think I can begin to understand why teachers try to get whatever facts they can into kids' heads, even if those facts aren't fully accurate.

A writer, it seems to me, has a good opportunity to help educate children (and adults) about the full version of events. The advantage of historical fiction is that these "facts" are coated with the sugar of a plot and compelling characters, perhaps motivating the reader to care a little more about learning the history. My WIP provides an interesting example. Just about everyone has heard of the Trail of Tears, when the eastern Cherokee were forced by the U.S. government out of their homes in Georgia and made to travel in horrible conditions to what is now Oklahoma. That's only a part of the story, though. About 10-15 years earlier, the same scenario played out in Arkansas Territory. The Cherokee who had voluntarily moved to Arkansas were pushed out of their homes by the government and the greed of the white settlers. I don't think a lot of people realize that. Through the vehicle of a story about some of the white settlers and their Cherokee neighbors, I have the opportunity to bring those events back out of the obscurity of history and to remind people that they happened. That's part of what I enjoy about writing historical fiction, and it's definitely a part of why I enjoy reading historical fiction.

But...if it's not something that fits into the familiar history people have learned, and if they know they are reading fiction, how do I keep them from having the reaction I had in my reading last night? I can write an author's note, but people probably wouldn't read it until the end. I can try to link to events that are familiar and hope readers will get and buy into the connection. My favorite method is to make the characters and the setting ring true enough that the reader believes he/she can trust me to be right on the history too. This is where I think the author is failing in the book I'm reading right now. I had already had several other "Wait a minute..." moments earlier in the book, which set me up to be looking for them. That, I think, is the kiss of death for a writer of historical fiction.


Augustina Peach said...

(I thought fj warren's comments were interesting, so I'm moving them over, too)

fj-warren said...
It is difficult, isn't it?

I've found out so much more by having to do the research for books than I was ever taught at school. Then, when I write my stories, I'm told that 'it couldn't possibly have been that way because surely that wasn't what it was like back then?' You just can't win, can you? :)

Augustina Peach said...

June 12, 2009 9:16 AM
fj-warren said...
I used lots of old historical magazines, recounting tales told by great-granmothers to their grandchildren, and of the 'I was there' variety. My own great-great grandmother walked ten miles to catch the mail coach so that she could see a public hanging at Bodmin - and thoroughly enjoyed it!

Diaries written at that time are another source of information as well as the more off-the syllabus history books but, to be honest, if we love our subject who can hold us back from sticking our noses into all sorts of works of literature if they relate to our needs?

Augustina Peach said...

June 12, 2009 10:41 AM
Augustina Peach said...
That's a great story about your great-great grandmother!

June 14, 2009 7:58 PM
fj-warren said...
I have more! :)

My great-grandfather and great-grandmother took in their (single) son's love-child and brought her up as their own daughter in order that their son's reputation would remain unblemished! The child was left on the doorstep but it was a small community so the locals knew what had happened! However, the son's marital hopes would have been dashed if he had owned up to it, publicly, so his father took the blame for his son's actions!

Now I call that parenting beyond the call of duty because great-grandfather used to walk 12 miles to court his wife and never, ever looked at another woman from the first time he clapped eyes on her! Awww - sweet!