Not that long ago way back in the mountains, Ronnie Carver showed up asking to court young Cora Bell.
Granny Hinson fixed her good eye on him for a minute and then asked, “Who’s your people?”
“Carvers, Ma’am,” he said.
“Them over on Saw Back Ridge or the others down at Mud Creek?”
“Saw Back, Ma’am. My Granddaddy was Pete …”
“You can git, now.” Her voice cracked like someone snapped a dry branch. “You won’t be taking my granddaughter nowhere.”
Cora Bell stepped out on the porch as Ronnie walked back down the dirt road. “How come you turned him away, Granny?”
The old woman spoke as she eyed him down the road. “I knowed his people a long time. They’re mostly no count – and mean to their womenfolk.”
“Meanin’ no disrespect, Granny, but I think Ronnie is a sweet boy.’
“Of course, you do child, and he might be for now, but an apple don’t fall far from the tree.”
Granny wasn’t a fool. She understood we are all connected to our pasts in ways that shape our presents. In fact, this kind of awareness is as old as Achilles bellowing his pedigree at the gates of Troy and as recent as the 1619 Project. Understanding our stories helps us to embrace the good and transcend the bad in order that we – and our communities – make progress. But as recent times have shown, many of us don’t know our stories very well. In some cases, we discover what we believed about our histories are far from the truth. It would be nice if we could become professional historians and figure them out, but for most of us, that’s out of reach. Fortunately, there is another way.
Writers of historical fiction are here to help. Alex Haley helped generations descended from slaves find their story in Roots. Just as importantly, he helped the rest of us come to terms with the horrors of slavery at a critical point in the Civil Rights movement. Taylor Caldwell’s Captains and Kings chronicled the Irish emigration experience. She also cast a prescient critical eye on the role power and wealth play behind the political scenes as is painfully evident in these Citizens United days. Roxana Robinson’s Dawson’s Fall lays bare the blatant racism in the South after the Civil War. But she also points out the acidic presence of its unacknowledged forms among otherwise good folk. These historical novelists and others like them are bridgebuilders. They play an important role in helping people connect with their own stories through the stories they write. Along the way, they also acquaint us with the issues of that day and their relevance to ours. In the process, they also mediate a great deal of historical knowledge without burning a list of names and dates on the retinas of our eyeballs.
Historical Fiction Can Tell Interesting Stories
Historical fiction works for three good reasons. The first is that it focuses on a compelling story. People love a good story with great characters and a well-crafted storyline. They will wade through an enormous amount of history if the writer tells a good tale as seen in James Clavell’s Shogun, Colleen McCollough’s First Man in Rome, or Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth. Cut the story out, and these books become as palpable as a history lecture in a morgue.
Historical Fiction Can Teach Real History
The second reason is the authenticity of the cultural and historical details the writer provides. Historical fiction relies on the same tools used by historians. Research involves reading the source documents and works of specialists. These writers also study the culture they’re writing about and its artifacts. This attention to historical detail show ups in scenes like Bernard Cornwell’s description of fighting in a shield wall in The Last Kingdom. In addition, the characters are crafted to reflect the messy conflicting points of view present in real history. Unlike happily ever after endings in romance novels, historical novels may wrap up a storyline, but they don’t wrap up the historical events and the issues within them. A regular reader of historical fiction quietly revels in learning these details and conundrums while enjoying the story.
Historical Fiction Can Transform Our Attitudes
The third reason is that historical fiction allows contemporary issues to be examined from a safe distance. In this fragile moment we inhabit, many of the hot-button issues are almost impossible to think about in a thoughtful manner. Mention immigrants, and immediately you’re in a hotbed of infinite debate that includes jobs, border security and private prisons. A work of historical fiction allows readers to examine the human experiences as in Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko but at a historical distance that allows thoughtful discussions. As with Roots, these issues seen from afar give the reader space to think about them and edge toward an informed opinion about them that can change our present.
Historical novelists cannot replace actual historians, but they can play an important role in transmitting history. The power of well-told stories to inform and connect us to our pasts have the ability to get us to think about where we are today and the choices before us. Leastways, that what Granny Hinson thinks and I’m of a mind to agree.
Caldwell, Taylor. Captains and Kings. Fawcett, 1972.
Clavell, James. Shogun. Delta. 2009.
Cornwell, Bernard. The Last Kingdom. HarperCollins, 2015.
Follet, Ken. The Pillars of the Earth. Macmillan, 1989.
Hannah-Jones, Nikole. The 1619 Project. New York Times, 2019.
Lee, Min Jin. Pachinko. Grand Central Publishing, 2017.
McCollough, Colleen. The First Man in Rome. William Morrow, 1990.