Playing Dress Up, The Problem of Historical Fiction
Historical Fiction occupies a strange place in this world of our. On the one hand, ever since I began working in this field two decades ago I’ve heard how much editors, authors, parents, librarians, teachers, and, in fact, kids like historical fiction. From Time Warp Trio and Magic Tree House all the way to most YA time travel story, historical fiction is popular — on the one hand fiction supplies the spoonful of sugar to make the history medicine go down, on the other the experience of trying out the mores, the language, even the language of another time and place is both fun and an interesting challenge. Perhaps, I just realized, historical fiction is a metaphor for being a young person — where you are constantly playing dress up, trying on the languages, the attitudes, the behaviors of older kids and adults. Being an adult is a kind of simultaneous historical fiction — the adult is in your time period, but his or her life is foreign. Some day a version of it will be yours, so you can play time travel in experimenting with aspects of that life.
Historical Fiction is popular, in fact more popular than history. And yet, at a couple of recent events (including that fine Kennedy Library conf.) I have heard teachers and librarians express resistance to it. On the one hand, perhaps since the Dear America flap, there is the concern that a book or books do not make clear what is real or what is not. On the other, I hear of kids themselves (mainly boys) who themselves are distressed, Is it Real, they ask. The boys do not want to be fooled, to be hornswaggled, to be sold a bill of goods.
So, the question, Is it Real? When someone asked me about this at the Kennedy Library conf. I said, there are two meanings of "real" within that one question. There is the reality of a time period, a life, historical moment. And there is a kind of human truth — an insight in motivation and character. Historical fiction aims to capture both. Now motivations and character are not universal, they are not timeless. But fiction does give an author a way to envision and describe internal life that the historical record may not have captured.
Having made that argument, I was thrilled to see Professor Jill Lepore’s essay in the March 24 New Yorker, here’s the link, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2008/03/24/080324crat_atlarge_lepore
I am not sure I agree with her in all the particulars, but I was pleased to see that she shared my sense of the dual truths of fiction and history.
So folks, please read her piece, and lets discuss it her, what do you say to the doubting teacher, the puzzled reader, Is it Real? And when does a book fall off the edge of the real, and how can you tell?