I was delighted to see Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn win this year’s Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction. Since historical fiction is of particular interest to me and since I was wowed by the book from the get go, I found J. Bell’s argument that it is not historical fiction most interesting. He concludes:
I see The Storm in the Barn as a fable that’s set in the Dust Bowl, just as Edward Eager’s Half Magic is a fantasy set in the 1920s. Both books are informed by their historical settings, but that doesn’t work the other way around: they don’t offer a reliable view into history.
I can’t agree. I felt the anguish and pain communicated in Phelan’s work was not unlike that in Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, the Newbery verse novel, also about the Dust Bowl. In Phelan’s case, he took historical material, vividly presenting the historic suffering, and then played with a fantasy resolution for the immediate situation confronting that community. I think Phelan does give a sense of what individuals and communities were dealing with at that time just as Hesse does in her book. The specific resolution is poignant since clearly there was no such thing in real life — something I an confident child readers would understand.
On the other hand, while Edgar Eager does indeed set his tale in the early years of the 20th century, I don’t see that as particularly significant as far as the story goes. And the going-back-in-time-adventure to that of Camelot seemed to me to be Eager playing with the child protagonists’ reading material, using some widely familiar tropes of readers at the era in which he was writing (1950s) to put the four siblings in perilous situations from which they need to extract themselves (as was the case with his inspiration, E. Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet). I remember reading this book over and over as a child and later aloud to my classes as a young teacher — never did I consider the historical aspects of the adventures as they were not central to the theme of the book (arguably “be careful about what you wish for”).
As for me, a fable points to a specific moralistic message and I don’t get that with Phelan’s story. That is, I don’t see it as a cautionary tale, pointing out things we today could do to avoid what happened in the thirties. Rather I see it very much as historic, giving us a sense of the feeling of that time for one child, one family, one community.
It seems to me that there is a very long continuum as to what is historical fiction. At one end is the book I’m working on, about a child on the Amistad. In order to make it more accessible to child readers I went from telling the story as nonfiction to fiction; however, it is mostly based on the facts of the time and event. It is in first person with emotions and scenes that I made up. So it is pretty close, as close as I could make it, based on fact throughout. At the other end of the continuum there are works like Eager’s where the history is background and serving the tale not vice versa. And in the middle, veering more to one end or the other, are works like The Storm in the Barn, groundbreaking ones that open the way for more innovative presentations of historical times and places.