The race war at the heart of American history, the pulsing, wicked ooze that wraps its tendrils around the story of our Republic, began early. Also, at the heart of our country’s foundation was a great spiritual revival, like a madness that sweeps in occasional waves across our lonely plains. Susan Stinson wrote beautifully about race and faith in her novel Spider in a Tree. One of the great advantages of fiction versus other, drier forms of history, is how the different elements that a historian like to discuss will intersect into the lives of the characters. Slavery, the sacred, the challenge of survival, and the insular, occasionally spiteful community of early America is all wrapped up in the life and lives of the family and house slaves of Jonathan Edwards, a powerful fire and brimstone preacher from American history. At once a man of God, and an owner of living men and women, balancing the aspiration to the holy with the difficult and often horrid reality of life among the hypocritical Puritans is well-wrought, and carries many complex ideas wrapped in beautiful, symbolic prose.
Historical fiction is a unique tool to do exactly that. It allows us to see the world through eyes that are not like ours, and to construct an argument for how to interpret history, and how to shape our own destiny off the past that possibly was this way. It is so closely aligned with realist fiction as to be inextricable from the general genre of the mainstream narrative. It is also a close bridge to the genre of fantasy and alternate history. Every work of historical fiction, after all, is a fantasy of how things were. It is a magical reinvention of a place and time and people through the power of story.
Great post. I greatly appreciate the points you bring up here.
I read historical fiction from time to time, usually stuff that scratches much the same itch I get from fantasy — Harold Lamb’s Cossack stories, e.g., are proto-sword-and-sorcery, but without the sorcery. And I remember back in the 1980s & 1990s there were a bunch of big, fat historical novels (Gary Jennings’ Aztec, Nicholas Guild’s The Assyrian, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, e.g.) that were big and bloody and filled with sex, kind of prefiguring the way Game of Thrones changed epic fantasy.
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Even such Ur-texts as The Illiad, The Odessey, and The Epic of Gilgamesh seem to be acts of historical invention in their own time. Telling the story of “where we came from” is one of the fundamental stories that drives narrative forms, because it seems to speak to where we ought to go, and who we ought to be. The past tense is a standard mode. Nearly all fiction is driven by a sense of the past, hopefully one that bridges to a future.
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An author that embodies this is a fantasy author, but he is as close to a historical fictionist as it is possible to be, while still being solidly a fantasist. Guy Gavriel Kay writes meticulously researched historical fantasies that use the tools of the fantasist to make beliefs and folktales and miraculous wonders physically present inside the history books, and to hide our own prejudgments about terms and cultures behind a veil of the unreal. Thus, no one is allowed to look down upon these historical figures as believers in foolishness when the shambling mound appears and the warhammer is sacrificed to appease the spirit of the old forest. The magical beliefs are physically present. And, when that forest of magic is pushed back over time, becoming a quotidian place more resonant of modern life, the reader physically feels the shift in known reality that emerged in human consciousness out of the beliefs of the old world passing away. (This was in The Last Light of the Sun, by the way, which was an excellent look at the Norman raids of England, and the rise of the culture of mounted knight.)
Period 1: 1491-1607 - Gilder Lehrman Period 1
One of my favorite writers of historical fiction often wrote specifically about his island nation among the volcanoes and the ice. Haldor Laxness won a Nobel Prize for his astonishing fictions, that take as a backdrop life among the shepherds and peasants of historical Iceland. Two books that stand out as potentially very interesting to readers and writers of genre fiction are Iceland’s Bell, a dark comedy and pastoral story about a wife-beating shepherd, a beautiful, elfin woman, and the pages of books that were stuffed in the shoes and the walls of the starving common folk. The sheperd’s peripatetic comic pastoral becomes this far-ranging journey across Europe in a period of time where the modern world isn’t even close to coming together, and could fall apart at any moment, and the identity of a people is being lost to poverty and indifference. Another amazing work by Laxness that contains multitudes is Independent People, that begins with the curse of a witch and ends with the curse of a witch, and in between a stoic shepherd pushes back against the brutal elements with his own sense of right and wrong, a morality that consumes his family and his future worse than the witch’s curse. These tales are structured like Icelandic epics mashed with modern novels. They carry a past and a future simultaneously, a history of Iceland and an argument about what the little island nation had better learn before its too late – what all of us had better learn about love and interdependence and a darkly comic cosmic indifference.