My relationship with historical fiction is a complicated one. I’ve gotten into intense debates on both child_lit and ccbcnet about its usefulness as a way for children to learn history, written about it in books and articles, and given speeches on it, one of which is available to read here.
Some years ago, deciding to put my money where my mouth is, I began focusing on historical fiction in my teaching by first having the kids read and critique a variety works before writing their own. What I’ve noticed that no matter how many times we talk about what is fiction and what is not, they still get very confused. And I know how easy it is even for us adults to take historical fiction (in books and film) as the truth.
My ongoing interest led me to Jane Sullivan’s article in The Age, “Making a fiction of history…” about the debate that has evidently insued by adult novelist Kate Grenville, “claming her Booker-shortlisted The Secret River is a new form of history writing.” As I read the article I wavered back and forth. On the one hand, I agree with Dr Inga Clendinnen, whose article, “The History Question — Who Owns the Past? ” is cited and who objects strongly and vociferously with Grenville’s fictionalizing of history. Admiring Clendinnen from an earlier work of hers, Reading the Holocaust, I have a lot of respect of her points, especially how we can not truly empathize with people back in time whose circumstances and even ways of thinking are completely and utterly different from ours.
On the other hand, I also think that writing history is as much an act of the imagination as is writing fiction. And while I still disagree strongly that the only way to really get kids interested in the past is through fiction (see my books if you want to know more on other ways to do so) and also think there is an awful lot of lousy historical fiction written for kids, there is also some pretty remarkable stuff too.
For example, I recently read M. T. Anderson’s THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING TRAITOR TO THE NATION. This is indeed an astonishing book. How Anderson managed to capture the tone and style of an 18th century American writer, developed the characters, the plot, the setting is nothing short of remarkable. While I wonder about audience (I see it as high school, but some seem to think younger children would enjoy it), I have no wonders about the book as an exemplary work of historical fiction. Of course, even as I am breathless in admiration, I still do hope that it isn’t used to teach history. Amazing as it is, it is still fiction.
Another recent work of historical fiction for children I much admire is Katherine Sturtevant’s A TRUE AND FAITHFUL NARRATIVE, but I’m going to write about it in a separate post.