Historical Fiction Brings the Past to Life

Birth of the Historical Novel

One of the earliest examples of historical fiction is China’s 800,000-word Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Written in the 14th century and packed with a thousand characters in 120 chapters, the novel is seventy percent historical fact, with accurate descriptions of social conditions, and thirty percent fiction, encompassing legend, folklore and myth.

The first historical novel in the West was Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), the first of some 30 books-including Rob Roy (1817) and Ivanhoe (1819)-that romanticized and popularized Scottish and English history. He is considered the first historical novelist, the first to view history as a distinct cultural setting with characters locked in social conflict.

Following the French Revolution and Napoleon, when ordinary people entered history and became a vast literate public whose lives provided the subject matter for literature, historical novels reached a peak of popularity throughout Europe in the 19th century.

Honore de Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine (1837), Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities (1859), Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862), Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865), and Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) and The Three Musketeers (1884) are all classics of high literary quality.

Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales

Inspired by Scott, James Fenimore Cooper was the father of historical fiction in America. His Leatherstocking Tales comprised five historical novels-The Pioneers (1823), Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841)-that dramatized the conflict between the frontier and advancing civilization.

The Pioneers, the first bestseller in the United States, introduced Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo, a frontiersman known as Leatherstocking, the Pathfinder, the Trapper, Deerslayer, or La Longue Carabine. In The Last of the Mohicans, Natty becomes Hawkeye, who is befriended by Chingachgook and Uncas, idealized, noble Indians.

“Chingachgook, Uncas and Leatherstocking are Cooper’s supreme achievement, one of the glories of American literature,” wrote historian Allan Nevins. “Leatherstocking is… one of the great prize men of world fiction… The cumulative effect of the Leatherstocking Tales is tremendous,… the nearest approach yet to an American epic.”

Cooper, who restrained his fertile imagination with history as a body of facts and yet was no slave to facts, was hailed by Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick (1851), a renowned historical novel based on two real events, as “our national novelist,” and Balzac stated that the character of Leatherstocking will live “as long as literature lasts.”

Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine

Honore de Balzac, the “French Dickens,” was the inheritor of Scott’s style of the historical novel in France. His magnum opus, La Comédie Humaine (1829-48), was an interlinked chain of 100 novels and stories unveiling a panorama of life from 1815-1848, after the fall of Napoleon, who once famously said: “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”

Balzac’s vision of society-in which class, money and ambition are the major factors-was embraced by Hugo, Tolstoy and Dumas, and liberals and conservatives alike. Friedrich Engels, a founder of Marxist theory, wrote that he learned more from Balzac “than all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together.”

However, Henry James, the father of the realistic psychological novel, complained: “The artist of the Comédie Humaine is half-smothered by the historian.” In fact, this American considered historical novels “fatally cheap.” But he also admitted that the “novel, far from being make-believe, competes with life since it records the stuff of history.”

The Triumph of Historical Fiction

Notable modern historical novels include Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), James Clavell’s Asian Saga (1962-93), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975). Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle (1978) and other books exceed 100 million in worldwide sales.

The Broadway production of the lavish musical Ragtime, based on the bestselling novel, ran for two years, closing in 2000 after 834 performances and a dozen Tony Award nominations. Focusing on a suburban family, a Harlem musician and Eastern European immigrants, the show also included such American historical figures as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford.

And since 1985, Hugo’s Les Misérables-which follows the lives of thirty fictional characters, from prostitutes to workers to student revolutionaries, as they struggle for redemption through revolution-has achieved global acclaim as the world’s second-longest-running musical seen by 60 million people in 21 languages in 43 nations.

Synthesizing Fact and Fiction

Historical novels aim to transport readers back in time to experience characters and events-sometimes ordinary folks in extraordinary times or famous figures at any time. But their authors always confront similar problems in the writing, such as determining how much fact and how much fiction to include, and how to synthesize fact and fiction.

Tolstoy said that War and Peace, one of the great works of world literature, was more than a novel, but “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.”

Mario Vargas Llosa explained that when writing his first historical novel, The War of the End of the World (1981), he felt “free to change, deform and invent situations, using the historical background only as a point of departure to create fiction, that is, literary invention.” A character in one of his stories adds, “I wonder if we ever know what you call History with a capital H. Or if there’s as much make-believe in history as in novels.”

When creating The Feast of the Goat (2000), which portrays the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic from two angles a generation apart, in 1961 and 1996, the Peruvian writer said he “respected the basic facts. I have not exaggerated,” but also conceded: “It’s a novel, not a history book, so I took many, many liberties.”

Historical Fiction and History

One difference between fiction and nonfiction, storytelling and reporting is that the novelist has his characters act out the story, helping readers imagine how they felt, while the historian just relates what happened. An author must also decide whether a story is character-driven, which may retard its pace, or plot-driven, as history may hasten time.

The distinguishing feature between novels and history is that in fiction the reader can venture inside the hearts and minds of the characters. In history, this can only be done if the characters tell the reader in writing (letters, journals, diaries) what they are thinking. Also, fictional characters in novels normally don’t intervene in major historical events.

Fiction offers an account of the romantic life of the characters, while history usually does not. And like movies, novels make sense of the world by tying up a story with an ending, or denouement, in a way the real world does not. The outcome of the story in historical fiction is uncertain until this climax, creating drama only rarely found in history books.

Research and Historical Fiction

Writers of historical fiction must undertake a comprehensive study of the history of the era they portray. Without thorough research, historical novels become escapist romances, which make no pretense of historical accuracy, using a setting in an imagined past only to present improbable adventures and implausible characters found mostly in pure fantasy.

In more than a few novels, such as Alexandre Dumas’s Queen Margot (1845), the accuracy of the historical research has been questioned. “I have raped history,” the author confessed, “but this has produced some beautiful offspring.” And postmodern novelists like Thomas Pynchon, author of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Mason & Dixon (1997), deliberately mix fictional characters not only with actual history-but invented history.

Some historical novels are without fictional characters, like Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934) and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome (1990-2007) series. And some have even had a major impact on history itself: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the bestselling novel of the 19th century, helped bring on the Civil War.

Off-Stage History

In many novels, historical events often take place off-stage. In Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1984), the Civil War remains in the background, without any battle scenes or references to the terrible carnage, while the first family and the cabinet spring to life. Vidal also portrays “Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator” as a common man, and not a saint.

It is part of his Narratives of Empire series of seven historical novels-Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1997), Washington, D.C. (1967) and The Golden Age (2000)-interweaving the private lives of fictional families with the public actions of the famous, chronicling the course of the American Empire from dawn to doom.

Time scales vary in historical novels. While many writers focus on a major event or series of events, James Michener, who had a large research staff, wrote more than 40 books-Hawaii (1959), The Source (1965), Centennial (1974), Chesapeake (1978), The Covenant (1982), Poland (1983), Texas (1985), Alaska (1988) and Caribbean (1989) -featuring generations of characters in tales spanning hundreds or thousands of years.

The Family Saga

A subgenre of historical fiction that examines the exploits of a family or several allied families over a period of time is the family saga, which may also render historical events, social changes, and the ebb and flow of family fortunes from multiple perspectives. The typical saga may record generations of family history in a series of novels as well.

Successful examples of popular family sagas of literary note include: The Sagas of Icelanders (930-1030), Dream of the Red Chamber (1868), Buddenbrooks (1901) by Thomas Mann, The Forsyte Saga (1906-21) by John Galsworthy, Brideshead Revisited (1945) by Evelyn Waugh, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) by James Baldwin,…

The Kent Family Chronicles (1974-79), the North and South trilogy (1982-87) and Crown Family Saga (1993-98) by John Jakes, Roots (1976) by Alex Haley, The Immigrants (1977) by Howard Fast, The Thorn Birds (1977) by Colleen McCullough, The House of the Spirits (1982) by Isabelle Allende and One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the universally praised tour de force by Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia.

Epic Historical Films

Many historical novels have been produced as extravagant epic or biographical movies, which are expensive to make because they entail authentic antique costumes, elaborate musical scores, panoramic settings, long action sequences on a grand scale, huge casts of characters, and filming on location. Such spectacles are often called costume dramas.

Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Leopard (1963), Dr. Zhivago (1965), Reds (1981), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Last Emperor (1987), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Scarlet Letter (1995), Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), Gladiator (2000), Alexander (2004), King Arthur (2004) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005) are all epic films that humanize history and bring the past to life.

They leave audiences feeling they have learned the “lessons of history,” but want to learn more. However, in Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon (1999), an historical thriller in which a detective aims to solve a brutal murder, one character fatalistically concludes: “It’s easily forgotten that history is not what you read in books. It’s a personal thing, and people are vengeful creatures, which is why history will never teach us anything.”

Historical Fiction and Writing – The Rose Trilogy: The Thorn, The Judgment, The Mercy

In some historical fiction, the reader can identify specific individuals, events and dates as the backdrop of a story. Others tell stories about a people and time in general, rather than a specific event or person. Considered the queen of Amish romantic historical fiction, Beverly Lewis scored again with The Rose Trilogy: The Thorn, The Judgment and The Mercy. One could not help but compare / contrast our lives with that of the Amish. To review this trilogy, I have chosen to do just that compare / contrast “The Plain Life and the Fancy Life.” As writing students progress essays expand beyond five paragraphs.

The Rose Trilogy: The Thorn, The Judgment, The Mercy

By Beverly Lewis

Beverly Lewis introduces us to the Amish of the Pennsylvania Dutch region, the People, through this trilogy and over 80 books. While the story of Rose Ann Kauffman begins in 1985, we can easily find ourselves in similar situations. God’s people of all times have found themselves faced with the challenge of living in the world, but not of the world. Amish talk of this struggle as the contrast of “the Plain Life with the Fancy Life.” Looking at three areas we will examine this challenge: separation from the world, courtship in this world and discipline in the church.

Rose Ann Kauffman or Rose lived with her parents in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Her grandparents lived in one of the “Dawdi (grandparent) Houses” on the property. Over ten years earlier, her mother had suffered an injury when her buggy tipped over and she fell in a ravine. Though constantly in pain, she refused to let her husband take her to a specialist. Later, as part of the story, she did decide to go and regained some health and no longer had pain. They had chosen, as a People, to live very simply. Church leader, the bishop of the district, allowed the Kauffman family to have indoor bathrooms because of Emma’s injury. Generally, modern conveniences such as motor vehicles, electricity, running water, telephones and televisions in a home have no place in the “Plain Life.” Further, the People dressed and kept their hair in a way in keeping with their lifestyle. While they did not own motor vehicles, at times they hired drivers of motor vehicles to get to places such as a hospital and rehab center. My question: “Are these things evil in themselves or is it what they may do to a person? If these activities represent sin, in and of themselves, why the exceptions? One answer to this question: The modern “conveniences” represent an attempt to draw people, especially the young, away from their way of life and ultimately destroy their entire community.

For an example closer to the “English” lives, as Amish call us, I graduated from high school in 1967. During high school and college I went to churches who taught against going to movies. One of the reasons given involved not wanting to support the movie industry. I now know that they can track sales and know which kind of movies sell. At some point I would not even watch a movie on television, though I would watch television shows. That made no sense, but I wanted to obey the “rules.” Over the years, things have changed and now preachers use movies as illustrations in sermons. Content should guide us in what we watch. We must consider if the content steers us away from the Lord; if so we should discontinue it. As seen in the story of Rose, the People and “English” evangelicals meet the challenge of “separation from the world” with gradual change. I John 2:15 “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

Amish practice of courtship stems from their idea of separation from the world. In this trilogy, young people of courting age attended Sunday evening “Singings.” Family members would get the young ladies to the “Singing” and afterwards the young people would pair up and young men would offer to take a young lady home. Young men of courting age must acquire a special “courting buggy” which was open to avoid improper behavior. During cold, Pennsylvania winters, the young men would have heated bricks and blankets to help keep their gals warm as they drove around the countryside “courting” or getting to know each other. One aspect of the whole process that seemed especially interesting involved the secrecy. While parents knew that their young lady spent time with someone after the “Singing” and presumably someone from one of the respected families of their community, the custom required secrecy. While the young couple may agree to marry, they do not announce it until a couple of weeks before “Wedding Season” at the beginning of November each year. Our protagonist, Rose, would have benefited from the guidance of her parents.

Apparently, Amish young people discuss whether to kiss on the lips before their wedding or to save it for that special day. “English” or evangelical young people have similar conversations. Parents of both groups want their children to marry believing people. Probably, most Amish demand more exclusiveness in this area. In one of the books, Rose’s grandparents questioned the wisdom of young people being out late at night. In a way, this surprised me because I expected that generation to be more entrenched in the custom. Rose’s older sister had married an “English” man and left the community for five years. Her departure from the People began to bother her only when her husband thought nothing of exposing their young daughter to worldly influences. Hen (short for Hannah) took Mattie Sue to spend some time with her parents and began to dress and act Amish. Brandon did not like this change. It pleased me that the Bishop and Hen’s father allowed her to stay there for a short time, but they encouraged her to do what she needed to restore her marriage. Certainly, we would see a bigger difference contrasting how non-believing people in our society would address these issues.

Finally, I address the issue of discipline in the church. In this trilogy, the first title, The Thorn probably refers to the foster son of Bishop Aaron. From the beginning he rebelled showing no interest in submitting to his foster parents or to the People. Nick and Christian, Aaron and Barbara’s biological son, never got along. At one point, Christian took Nick out and began to cut off his pony tail, a scuffle ensued and Christian died at the bottom of a ravine. Nick took him back to the house and then ran away. Not getting all of the information, everyone blamed Nick. Several Bishops in the area, placed Bishop Aaron on suspension; they relieved him of all his ministerial duties and he could only function as a member of the People. The Judgment develops the story of this act of church discipline. Finally, in The Mercy, a number of twists represent God’s mercy to His people.

In the epilogue and word from the author, Beverly Lewis mentions the heritage of the Amish as related to the Anabaptists of old and Mennonites of our day. In my experience one Baptist distinctive is the autonomy of the local church. While a local body could request help from nearby churches, no hierarchy exists like illustrated in this story. Members of the district in question did not agree with the decision of the other bishops. In the end, the bishops lifted the suspension as the truth came out.

This compelling story reveals how much alike and how different God’s people are. Of course if we would compare God’s people with the world, the differences would abound. Just looking at the areas of separation from the world, courting in the world and discipline in the church give us a good idea of these differences and similarities. May God grant us wisdom to be in the world, but not of the world!

A Book Review: Using Historical Fiction for Writing Prompts – The Bronze Bow

Young, budding writers learn much from using historical fiction as writing prompts and incorporating many subjects forming a unit study. To demonstrate we will use The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare who lived form 1908-1994. This book won the 1962 Newbery Medal.

Literature and Vocabulary: Students need to learn that historical fiction has a story that arose from the author’s imagination in an historical setting. For The Bronze Bow, we need to know that a small town in Palestine near Capernaum during the life of Christ forms the SETTING for the time and place of the story.

CHARACTERS in The Bronze Bow include: Daniel, his sister Leah; Joel and his twin sister Thacia, Joel and Thacia’s father, an important Rabbi; Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15), Rosh, Samson; Marcus, the young Roman soldier and Jesus. According to the Bible, we know that Jesus lived and the story refers to that Jesus. Simon the Zealot, a disciple, followed Jesus in the Scriptures and in the story. Most of the other names occur often in Scriptures or in general historical writings, but Speare probably just used them because they fit the setting.

TITLE and THEME comes from, Psalm 18:33-35, “He makes my feet like the feet of deer, and sets me on my high places. He teaches my hands to make war, So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. You have also given me the shield of Your salvation; Your right hand has held me up, Your gentleness has made me great.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary ZEALOT, a noun, means, “a person who has strong feelings about something (such as religion or politics) and who wants other people to have those feelings.”

Further, according to Easton’s Bible Dictionary a zealot is, “A sect of Jews which originated with Judas the Gaulonite (Acts 5:37). They refused to pay tribute to the Romans, on the ground that this was a violation of the principle that God was the only king of Israel. They rebelled against the Romans, but were soon scattered, and became a lawless band of mere brigands.”

Other subjects one can address with this book include math (talk about distances between the village and Capernaum); Occupational Education / History (explore about the occupations of the time – blacksmith, rabbi); Science / Health (explore healing practices of the time), Art / Music (make a model of the area; explore the music of the Jews of that time) and Physical Education (walk 3 miles to see how long it would take to get from the village to Capernaum).

The Bronze Bow

by Elizabeth George Speare

Elizabeth George Speare opens The Bronze Bow with our main character on the mountain with Rosh, a zealot. When the Romans killed Daniel’s parents years earlier, he determined to join a band of Zealots under the leadership of Rosh. This young man followed Rosh believing that when the time was right, they would defeat the Romans. Throughout the book we see how Daniel progresses in his understanding of how the Jews would be free of the Romans. During the story, we follow Daniel, as a follower of Rosh, the Zealot in the mountain; as a resource for Rosh, in the village and Daniel, as a follower of Christ, in the village.

Daniel meets Joel and Thacia while they explore the dangerous mountain area before their family moves to Capernaum. He warns them to stay away from this area. Joel remembers that Daniel had left his blacksmith apprenticeship in disgrace. Daniel firmly believes in Rosh’s mission to restore Israel to self-government without the Romans who had killed Daniel’s parents. Also, Joel promises Rosh that when the time came he would avail himself to Rosh for the mission. After they had gone, Rosh sent Daniel on his first solo job to capture a slave who in the end would only respond to Daniel. Many did not like that Rosh stole and captured to enable them to mount the attack at the Rosh considered the right time.

We then learn that Daniel’s grandmother dies and that he must return to the village to care for his sister, Leah. She never leaves her home and cannot tolerate visitors. Daniel can now freely return because the blacksmith with whom he had apprenticed had died. Simon, the Zealot, also a blacksmith, wanted to follow Jesus so he gave his shop and home to Daniel. That allowed Daniel to work and care for Leah. Daniel and Joel both have jobs to do for Rosh while still living in their respective homes. Thacia and the young men meet together and make a pact using the verse from Psalm as their motto, “So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze” even though they did not fully understand it. Surprisingly, Thacia and Leah become friends. Much sacrifice ensues as Daniel continues to believe that under Rosh’s leadership the Israelites will expel the Romans.

Daniel, Thacia and Joel find many opportunities to listen to Jesus speak. At first it is hard for them to understand what he teaches. Finally, Daniel, Leah, Joel and Thacia, understand and recognize that the kingdom of which Jesus spoke was spiritual, not physical. Jesus heals Leah physically and all of them spiritually. Rosh did not have the answer, but Jesus did.

Elizabeth George Speare does an excellent job of putting the reader into the story and setting. We see how Daniel and others progress from hatred to revenge and finally to reconciliation. Jesus changes lives.